Tag Archives: #populism

The Few Body Problem & the Metaphysics of Stupidity

13. III 2022

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. (Max Planck)

A vibrating string represents the collective motion of a system of (practically) an infinite number of atoms. Its properties and behavior are very different from those of its constituents. When the collective sets in, the system loses knowledge of its building blocks and obeys an altogether different set of rules: A string made of nickel atoms behaves (acoustically) the same way as a plastic string composed of complicated organic molecules. In terms of complexity, the collective is a nonlinear function of the size. A one-body problem is easy to handle. A two-body is more complicated, but in most cases tractable. Three-body is very difficult, while the few-body problem is impossible. However, an infinite-body problem is easy. Loss of granularity washes away as the number of degrees of freedom increases. The wave equation describing a vibrating string is significantly simpler than the Schrödinger equation for a single atom; their discoveries are separated by two centuries.

Collective IQ < Average IQ

When it comes to intelligence, a similar pattern unfolds — size is its enemy. As the group grows, at some point, it inevitably begins to get stupider. It is not difficult to fool a single person. All you need is some persuasive skills and a little intelligence. Fooling two people can be complicated – they can compare their thoughts and come up with non-overlapping objections and increase resistance to persuasion by filtering out the nonsense more effectively. Fooling a few, say five, people is practically impossible, even if they are of average intelligence. They retain their individuality (and independent thinking) while their cooperation still remains strong. Manipulating large masses, however, can be very easy (as witnessed by numerous historical examples and confirmed by the experience of the last five years). Large groups would believe what even its stupidest members would reject on their own.

As the group grows beyond a certain size, the task of deceiving them becomes progressively easier. Individual wisdom and constructive cooperation changes and gives way to collective thinking where individuality is lost. In large groups, the collective IQ resides significantly below the average IQ – no matter how intelligent individuals are, their collective intelligence will be low. Although this inequality is an empirical observation, it is never violated in practice.

Size inspires special behavior: When a group become large, it has no resemblance to and no logic of individual behavior. Masses can always be manipulated with stories that would never work on individuals. It becomes increasingly more difficult to rebel against the consensus – the loss of individuality that results after such capitulation of the mind leads to loss of resistance to persuasion. You can disagree with collective stupidity, but your resistance is inconsequential.

Subjectlessness of humanity

Only individuals can be wise; institutions are well designed, at best. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Financial markets are often miscast as an example of an intelligent collective. Although they are treated as such, markets are not an entity in the true sense of that word, but a self-optimizing medium. All market participants have the same well-defined objectives, which streamline and unify their actions and push them to act in the same direction by doing everything possible in order to maximize profit. This leads to the propagation of ideas by the smartest players to everyone else and orients everyone towards the “smart consensus”, what is considered ex-ante as an optimal action.

Corporations are collectives. However, in their (misguided) attempts to emulate some of the market’s behavior, like meritocracy, transparency, and accountability, and transpose them to the context where they don’t belong, they create obstacles and impediments to their efficient functioning and permanent sources of corporate dysfunctionality. There is a long history of their continuous struggle against underlying the trappings which come with that predicament.

Casting businessmen (successful or unsuccessful) as political leaders is a bad idea, a very bad one, actually. Seeing society as a corporation and running it as such, cannot lead to good outcomes.

Humanity is even further removed from a market-like medium than corporations. It consists of people with heterogeneous (most often conflicting) objectives. Their goals cannot be quantified and are far from unifiable.  When applied to humanity, the classic model of learning from harm collapses before this fact. In the words of Peter Sloterdijk: Humanity is a priori learning impaired because it is not a subject. It has no self, no intellectual coherence, no reliable organ of wakefulness, no self-reflection capable of learning, no identity — building common memory. Humanity cannot be wiser than a single human being. It has no body of its own with which to learn the hard way – no hand to learn first-hand – but rather a foreign body, its place of residence, the earth, which does not become wise, but transforms into a desert[1].

Humanity is to humans what a vibrating string is to atoms — its intelligence is inferior to even the sub-average intelligence of all humans.

The intelligence problem and the power of 16-percenters

Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that. (George Carlin)

Things don’t look encouraging when observed at higher resolution. This is a graph of the IQ distribution. The average IQ is around 100 with 68% of population residing inside the two standard deviations range, between 85 and 115, which means that about 16% are of deep sub-average intelligence. These numbers are fairly robust across different countries in the developed world.

This distribution becomes particularly alarming when applied to a large relatively non-oppressive country. In the context of modern liberal societies, the synergy of stupidity, size, and democracy reinforces the malignant potential of the stupidity of the collective.

Transcription of these numbers to America implies that about 53 million (16%) people (entire population of France) are of sub-average intelligence, out of which 7 million (entire Bulgaria) is seriously impaired. These people are empowered to express their opinion and impose their will in the ballot box.

By mobilizing the left side of the distribution behind a single political movement – a maneuver that represents a collectivization of mediocrity — makes them even stupider by lowering their collective IQ further, and persuading them to believe in pretty much anything. When their discontent is streamlined and wrapped into a single narrative, in an electoral democratic system, these 16-percenters can become a decisive factor[2]. Empowered by their malignant stupidity, such people are capable of committing the most extreme atrocities as they have been throughout human history.

Humanity cannot outgrow its own death drive

Intelligence is not a theoretical quantity, but represents a behavioral quality of creatures in an open environment. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Humans are generally intelligent, but this individual intelligence fails to get collectivized. This has only become worse with progress and the general trend of increasing acceleration and addiction to speed. The long term has become so long that it now exceeds our capacity for statistical prediction, but the short-term has accelerated so much that snap decisions are the only decisions ever made. The stakes have become higher – short-term survival is no longer guaranteed, which leads to a shift of focus.

In the face of the urgency of short-term survival, long-term foresight collapses. This defines the tradeoff — the lower the odds of survival, the weaker the desires and capacities for grasping the long-term. As the group size increases and individuality fades away, collectivization inevitably leads to abdication of responsibilities. This leads to collective myopia, which attracts its membership and supports the group’s desire to grow. As a consequence, we no longer engage in intergenerational projects — passing the baton to the next generation is the best we can do (as a collective).  

This removal of the long-term perspective, its subversion, leaves power dominated by short-term forces, which under the capricious conditions of the market forces requires adaptive, liquid or transient strategies as a basic skill set. At a systemic level, change is taking the form of positive feedback. In conditions of general info acceleration and hypercomplexity, as conscious and rational will become unable to adjust to the trends, the trends themselves become self-reinforcing (up to the point of collapse)[3].

For years now, the Right-wing populism of the capitalist West has been tapping into the left side of the IQ distribution. This has proven to be a very successful strategy for their project. Unsurprisingly, in the most spectacular staging of abdication of collective responsibility, thus cultivated populist movement became the epicenter of insane resistance to simple measures of containment of the COVID pandemic.

At the core of the incoherent response to the pandemic – the spectacular failure of adjusting to the most straightforward problem of self-defense of the collective body – resides collective abdication of responsibility. This was a simple test of common sense, accepting the most basic measures any single human would normally have no problems accepting, but which collectively encountered resistance on a large scale (bordering on hysterical) causing, at the end, massive casualties, financial and economic damages, and unnecessary complications and extension of the pandemic. The resistance to alignment with simple and logical adjustment to an existential threat is just another illustration of the erosion of basic survival instincts caused by decades of deliberate and programmatic anti-science project and glorification of mediocrity.

In the world of infinite acceleration, humanity is spontaneously converging towards a state of maximum cognitive incompetence, a collective Dunning-Kruger effect. According to the latest statistics, there are about 41 million Q-anon believers in the United States.

However, this does not mean that capitalist democracies carry exclusive blame for the degradation of intellect and the rising rate of malignant stupidity. Rather, it is a combination of human nature and the law of large numbers. As much as Soviet-style communism pretended to have sought to divert the inevitable self-destructiveness of capitalism, it merely reinvented different and more efficient ways of self-destruction. A similar story goes with fascism. Communism’s record of ecological misconduct, which has penetrated deep into the territory of criminal, is just one of many examples of its self-destructive overdrive. Its pretended ideological attempts to be something else from what it really was were just failed diversions that merely accelerated the inevitable.

Welcome to Asbest

Russia is the largest country in the world by size. Nazis dreamed of conquering it as the Lebensraum for the new super-race. They failed, but so did the Russians. Instead of converting their resource-rich land into a prosperous superpower, despite Russia’s considerable cultural heritage, they have been struggling for centuries and still resemble in many ways a third-world country with staggering levels of large-scale corruption, chronic scarcity, high levels of poverty, and rampant inequality. After the failure of the Soviet experiment, Russia became a different type of Lebensraum for malignant stupidity of griftopian turbocapitalism and a laboratory of myopic ecological experimentation.

On the east side of the Ural mountain range, about 1000 miles east of Moscow and 2000 miles north of Kabul, resides the town of Asbest, the three forming a nearly perfect rectangled triangle. Asbest (the Russian word for asbestos) is one of hundreds of mono towns of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, established according to the tenets of planned economy. As its name suggests, Asbest is the center of asbestos mining, with the largest open pit asbestos mine in the world, 1000 ft deep and the size of half of Manhattan.

As 59 countries have outlawed usage of asbestos and phased out any production due to its carcinogenic effects on humans, Asbest has become the world’s largest producer of the substance, which, by global ecological standards, is considered a criminal enterprise. About 70% of Asbest’s budget comes from the asbestos industry.

At the town’s entrance, drivers are greeted by what looks like a béton-brut installation in place of a welcoming billboard – a concrete structure, suggestive of a stylized arrow pointing downwards, with a coat of arms, representing asbestos fibers through a ring of fire at the top, and the text, below, broken in two lines: Asbest, my town and my fate! It is not clear if this was supposed to be ironic or not, but it certainly has an ominous vibe and strong overtones of dark humor. There are numerous motivational billboards in the town itself with text emphasizing the compulsory optimism of yesteryear, the most striking one stating: Asbestos is our future!

Asbest, my town and my fate

Breaking rocks and extracting the chrysotile from the mining pit is usually done with dynamite. This creates enormous clouds of asbestos dust, which covers everything in the town, from cars, rooftops, window, and parks, to fruits and vegetables people grow in their gardens.

Compared to the rest of the Sverdlovsk Oblast, Asbest has 30-40% higher incidence of cancer, a fact that remains carefully hidden from the public. Most of workers in asbestos processing plant have persistent coughs, a symptom of exposure to what they call the white needles, and strange skin ailments. Its population is slowly depleting with high mortality — the town has been losing about 1% of its population every year since the 1990s. And as if afraid to miss inserting yet another piece of irony here, local authorities have erected a monument to residents who have died (presumably from asbestos exposure) made of an asbestos block with the inscribed text: Live and Remember.

After the collapse of communism, without skipping a beat, the town of Asbest transitioned seamlessly from the clutches of ideological incompetence of the Soviet era to the unconditional greed of post-communist kleptocracy. Unlike other mono towns (where about 25 million people, 16% of the Russian population, still live), which became dying cities, Asbest did not die instantaneously. Rather, it repositioned for a slow death.

Instead of regulating human nature, capitalism as well as both communism and fascism only continue to reaffirm, time and again, what humans are truly capable of and enabled the full realization of that potential. And we haven’t seen the last of it, not yet. Free or oppressed, unable to avoid the degradation of collective intellect and preserve the wisdom of the few, humanity will always find ways to hurt itself.

Like post-communist Russia, Western democracy has been caught in a hypnotic ritualistic trance of the spectacle of its own cultural creation and self-consumption, the two fatal modes of modernity Jean Baudrillard identified as: Carnival & Cannibal. The self-imposed ignorance and collective myopia have reached the point where the West has elevated its own annihilation to a supreme aesthetic act. Against that backdrop Asbest is our future has acquired a universal metaphoric ring as a mantra of the directionless escape of mankind where the endgame appears unavoidable — a slow death in a hyperoptimized dystopian trap. This is the realization of Arthur Schnitzler’s vision of the human race as an illness of some higher organism, within which it has found a purpose and meaning, but which it also sought to destroy, in the same way virus strives to annihilate the ailing human organism and in that process destroys itself.


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Infinite Mobilization, Polity (2020)

[2] These numbers, although larger or comparable to the USA, are less alarming when it comes to Russia, China or India. In the former two, high coercive powers of the state prevent large-scale stupidity to metastasize, while in India, where more than 50% of the country is under no one’s control, it is the fragmentation and absence of coherence along the lines of language, religion, culture, education, and social hierarchies, that prevent the collective to set in.

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Polity (2006)

The Year of the Abject: Making Sense of Nonsense

31. XII 2021

Within the boundaries of what one defines as subject (a part of oneself) and object (something that exists independently of oneself), there reside pieces that were once categorized as a part of oneself or one’s identity that have since been rejected – the abject. (Julia Kristeva)

Unless we are consciously drawn to it, we, for the most part, are not fully aware of our saliva. It is part of our body, an utterly neutral liquid, which we produce and swallow continuously as long as we are awake. However, this is true only as long as it remains in our bodies. Imagine periodically spiting into a glass and attempting to drink it once it fills up. The very thought of this causes utter disgust. As soon as our bodily fluids have become alienated from us, they become abject.

Abject represents the taboo element of the self; it rejects and disturbs social reason and the communal consensus that underpins social order. The Indian caste of eunuchs represent a castrated remainder of a fully functional biological body, cast out, distanced, but not completely. In modern capitalism, the excluded segment of the population — those who fell through the cracks and can no longer be reintegrated into normal functioning of society – is the neoliberal equivalent of Indian eunuchs. Their proximity reinforces an anxiety that their destiny could become everyone’s prospect; their presence is a reminder how narrow the gap is between a comfortable middle class life and precarity.

We have an ambivalent relationship with the abject — we are both drawn to and repelled by it. The ambivalence and inherent dialectics of the concept is encapsulated in the very word, which can function both as an adjective/noun as well as a verb.

The verb to abject comes from the Latin abicere, which means to throw away or to cast out. The action of abjection refers to an impulse or operation to reject that which disturbs or threatens the stability of the self and is inassimilable. As an adjective, abject has two meanings: 1) Extremely unpleasant and degrading (living in abject poverty), and 2) Completely without pride or dignity (an abject apology). [1]

The abject functions both as a repulsive and as an attractive fixed point of subjectivity. The concept is at the same time constructive (in the formation of identity and one’s relationship to the world) and destructive (in what it does to the subject): Abjection, the operation to abject, is fundamental to the maintenance of subjectivity and society, while the condition to be abject is subversive of both formations. The key to this duality is that the abject is not fully exogenous.

The body of the excluded

The volume of humans that are made redundant by the global triumph of capitalism has grown so much that it exceeds the managerial capacity of the planet. They cannot be re-assimilated into the “normal” life pattern and reprocessed back into the category of “useful” members of society. (Zygmunt Bauman)

By its very nature, capitalism generates abject social bodies as a part of an excess population. Unlike criminals, social outcasts, homeless, illegal immigrants or general categories of aliens, who are transported beyond the boundaries of the enclosure of prosperity, the redundant white underclass has escaped the transportation and remains on the inside where economic balance and social equilibrium are sought. However, the longer the redundant population stays inside and rubs shoulders with the useful rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous. Assignment to waste becomes everyone’s potential prospect[2].

The white underclass represents the abject social body which cannot be completely objectivized but whose presence threatens the existing symbolic order. They cannot be fully reassimilated into normal life patterns and reprocessed back into the category of useful members of society — they lack the skills required for reintegration — but they cannot be discarded either; they carry a sense of entitlement as a constitutive element of the cultural and historical heritage that defines today’s America.

The abject lean on subject’s stability — their presence threatens the implicit culturally established boundaries of what is considered normal, causing the subject to feel vulnerable because its boundaries are under threat. The white underclass cannot be ingested or incorporated into the system — they are like bodily fluids that have departed the (social) body — appalling, but, at the same time, a part of the (social) body-image that carries a prospect of everyone’s destiny. The very thought of their reintegration, has becomes revolting, while, at the same time, they cannot be fully objectivized either.

The abject gambit

The abject hovers at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable, but is itself unassimilable which means that we have to contemplate its otherness in its proximity to us but without it being able to be incorporated. It is the other that comes from within (so it is part of ourselves) that we have to reject and expel in order to protect our boundaries[3].

The abject is a great mobilizing mechanism. While the state of being abject is threatening to the self and others, the operation of abjecting involves rituals of purity that bring about social stability. Abjection seeks to stabilize, while the abject inherently disrupts[4].

When the mass of the excluded increases to a size impossible to ignore, they trigger rituals of abjection, which work themselves into identity politics.The repulsion and efforts to distance from the excludedthe abjection – which reinforces the self-awareness of the social standing of regular folks, are in conflict with the attraction by the powers the abject population enjoys and exudes. They are the power bottoms in this relationship as they define the location, robustness and porousness of the boundaries of the enclosure. Fascination with the abject’s power pulls the viewers in, while they remain at arm’s length because of the threats the abject exert.

This makes the excluded a tool that drives the wedge between different social groups and prepares the population for political usage of the abject as leverage.

Objectifying minorities has been institutionalized in America since its inception — from slavery and Jim Crow to ghetto and hyperghetto, prisons, wars, opioids, and other tools of soft and hard marginalization. However, with the rise of the white underclass in the second half of the 20th century, American ideology has become highly nuanced around the questions of exclusion.

To a large extent, the Right wing has stuck to its white supremacists roots of yesteryear (either in a closeted form or explicitly) while centrists, both Left and Right, have shown greater initiative in modernizing the process. However, when it came to exclusion of the white underclass, the problem proved to be more difficult. Complicated by globalization, technology, the decline of American manufacturing, weaning off conventional energy sources and the general decay of demand for labor, low-skill jobs have been disappearing irreversibly, and the ranks of white underclass grew unstoppably together with their discontent.

Social outcasts and minorities are relatively easy to objectivize. Permanently excluded – criminals, drug addicts, homeless – they have already been cast out. The residual, white precariat, which has always been perceived as a building block of this country’s social fiber, remains still on the inside, but unable to get reintegrated within the context of modern developments.

In a white dominated/ruled society the marginalization of the excluded white subproletariat has been a political hard sell. They grew in size and have acquired a sense of entitlement minorities never could. Their sudden political awareness, no matter how fragile, has become an expression of pleasurable transgressive desires. As a new center of social subjectivity, theydraw their power from this position, which serves as an inspiration for their own identity politics.

The emergence of 21st century Right-wing populism represents the biggest innovation on that terrain. Right-wingers now recognize the abject as a source of political leverage and, instead of exclusion, their program revolves around subjectivizing them. Voluntarily casting oneself as abject — identification with the white subproletariat – has become a quest for authenticity, aimed at acquiring a stigma in order to become a credible voice of the marginalized. This is the core of the modern populist abject gambit.

Poetic catharsis: Politics in the kingdom of unreason

Poetic catharsis is an impure process that protects from the abject only by dint of being immersed in it. (Julia Kristeva)

In past autocratic systems, leaders had their own eccentricities and aberrations (e.g. Stalin’s paranoia, Kim Jong-Il’s sadistic personality disorder or vindictive narcissism of countless number of dictators and autocrats), but societies, collectively, didn’t suffer from them — there was a variety of afflictions that coexisted without any coordination with their leader –people were depressed, anxious, indifferent, etc. while their leaders remained an idiosyncratic singularity. In contrast, in contemporary populism the leader is styled as an embodiment of collective afflictions – he becomes a performance artist who functions as a concentrated version of collective social traumas, grievances, and anxieties. He appropriates the collective paranoia towards the deep state, the sovereign citizens fetish, the second amendment fixation, tax evasion obsession… Self-abjection of the Western political Right is pseudo-authenticity at all cost: Racism, misogyny, denialism, antivaxerism, conspiracy fantasies, and other flat-earth derivatives channel widespread collective anxieties through their leader.

Perceived as a medium of grievance and spokesmen for collective traumas, politicians of the populist Right have been absolved of any accountability. Their biggest strength and their superpower is the absolute absence of any shame and embarrassment, even when faced with undeniable proof of their incompetence, lies, criminality and lack of an ethical backbone, no matter how obvious and damaging their culpability might be. They have been set free to establish new benchmarks of shamelessness, a unique political skill that always keeps them one step ahead of their political opponents, which has opened an entirely new political terrain never accessible before.

The Populist politics now function as poetic catharsis: Through mimicry with their constituents political leaders no longer lead but surrender, resulting in a fragile and shifty consensus that is reinforced with their each action. Their activity consists of looking for themes that create resonance points capable of producing the loudest reverberations. Politics becomes hyper-optimized — there is not a single spec of life that is not used as leverage – but, in that process, it loses its robustness, becomes thinly spread and fractures under tinniest of shocks.

The emergence of the rapidly growing white underclass and its irreversible marginalization in the last decades is beginning to get recognized as the fatal flaw of the American experiment, an outcome that is in conflict with its founding axioms and an evolving national trauma threatening to void it. Things have gone terribly wrong in the last 50 years — the accidental wounding of the American white malehood by the inner workings of neoliberalism has been the unintended consequence of capitalist progress[5] with which the system has not been prepared to deal with in any form.

The Right wing populism of the last decade has become the last desperate attempt to save this failing experiment regardless of costs. Defeated in the ballot box, the battle to save wounded white malehood has assumed a less conventional form. In its desperation it has escalated to a suicide mission whose contours were unambiguously underlined in the first week of the past year.

As much as the political center may want to distance itself from the white underclass and its populist political representation, the significance of that moment forces them to pause and rethink one more time whether they are really prepared to win this battle and write the obituary for the American experiment.

CODA

If 2017 was the year when unreason was set free, then 2021 is the year of its proliferation – it is everywhere and nowhere. There are no more individual GOP members or voices anymore, only the opaque background of unreason against which they perform a choreographed dance of non-overlapping sequential appearances on the center stage of political spectacle hoping for a moment of public attention to make the absurd palatable and promote abnormal as the facts of life.

The Right-wing political kabuki functions like a medieval mechanism of an astronomical clock on a church of unreason. The puppet-apostles of that church have a fixed position on a slow rotating carousel, parading through the window of shared reality in a mechanized procession, always one at a time, like luggage pieces on the conveyer belt of baggage claim from a flight which arrived without passengers, occasionally voicing their presence through monologues of nonsense, hoping that someone would notice them.

The mechanism of the rotating Apostles inside the Prague Astronomical Clock of the Orloj church

[1] Rina Ayra, Abjection and Representation: An Exploration of Abjection in the Visual Arts, Film and Literature, Palgrave Macmillan; 2014th edition (2014)

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted LivesModernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[3] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (1982).

[4] Rina Ayra ibid.

[5] Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, Columbia University Press (2019)

The Economics of Repulsion

7. XI 2021

In traditional capitalism, the supply of commodities is finite and their exploitation leads to depletion of the supply. By mining coal, diamonds or drilling oil, access to these commodities becomes increasingly more difficult, which requires deeper mines, oil drills, and more sophisticated technology, all of which increases production costs. For a fixed demand, this reduction in supply results in a rise of perceived value and higher price.

In cognitive capitalism, where information is the main commodity, the imbalance resides on the opposite side. Its economics is governed by diminishing demand. Human attention is biologically limited – there is a finite amount of information our brains can absorb and store at any given time. Supply of information, on the other hand, is unlimited and comes practically at no cost – ideas can come out of nowhere (or as a result of the general intellect) and, in principle, cannot be exhausted.

Since everyone is competing for the same fraction of our (limited) attention, sooner or later cognitive capitalism becomes a zero-sum game. For a brain already overloaded with information to pay attention to something new, it has to neglect something else. Every spec of information, every new idea, therefore, has an inherent ephemeral quality and carries a potential of becoming worthless.

In order to insert itself into the tight space of the already saturated attention space, new information has to be able to shock. It does not necessarily have to be relevant or carry semiotic value; it only needs to be sufficiently loud to overpower other voices. And, in competitive markets, such loud information wins and gradually dominates. Cognitive capitalism, thus, inevitably leads to semiotic inflation — more information buys less meaning – and ultimately to hyperinflation when information carries no meaning whatsoever.

Metabolic disorder and addiction to shocks

As an ideology that disseminates market values to every segment of life, neoliberalism has naturally aligned with the new logic of social media and the diminishing demand of the attention economy. Once one allows the market to impose its values and criteria, society becomes subordinated to it and has to be managed as its auxiliary. As an adaptive system, neoliberalism has adjusted to the new chapter of cognitive capitalism by transforming society and conditioning political subjects to its new laws.

Neoliberalism makes citizens into consumers. As consumers, today’s voters have no real interest in politics or in actively shaping the community; they react only passively to it. Politicians and parties follow this logic of consumption too. They have to deliver. In that process, they become nothing more than suppliers; their task is to satisfy voters who are their customers.

Society of the spectacle and the attention economy, when put together, result in new politics defined by the explosion of affects, revenge, and peddling in highly improbable. Through interaction between technology and politics, society gradually becomes addicted to shocks — they need to be administered continuously and without interruption.

Immunoreaction and informational fatigue syndrome

Shock is a kind of immunoreaction. A strong immune system stifles communication – it impairs its fluidity – the lower the level of immunity, the faster information circulates. A high level of immunity slows down the information flow. Immune-suppression, on the other hand, allows massive quantities of information to penetrate our souls without immune defense.[1]

Political foreplay, in the initial stage, consists of preparing its constituents for the new landscape by weakening their cognitive immune system. Once political subjects are properly conditioned, politics is administered through barraging them with a constant flow of nonsense in order to wear down their immune system and create a metabolic disorder[2] (akin to an eating disorder). Their minds are constantly stimulated – the underlying information becomes a semiotic equivalent of junk food — the less meaningful the information and the more toxic and addictive its effects are, the more marketable it is.

According to Walter Benjamin, the primary mode of a spectator’s response to cinema was one of a shock: Shock replaced contemplation that came as cinema replaced painting. However, we are no longer shocked by images. Even the most disturbing images have been made consumable[3].

Shocks now have to contain another quality that relies on different kind of imagery and the target audience needs to be conditioned to receive them.Media outlets are increasingly playing on repulsion rather than on seduction — response to pleasure is too diverse while response to repulsion is the same. Anxiety gradually replaces excitement while persistent exposure to the semiotic excess of informational barrage leads to what B.C. Han calls informational fatigue syndrome (IFS), which progressively weakens our analytic capacities and monopolizes our attention. 

In our reaction to ambiguously disturbing images emerges a new category representing the repulsion we cannot resist.

Repulsion as political leverage and emergence of the emotionalized electorate

In its essence, Right-wing populist politics in Europe is not dissimilar to its American counterpart – it revolves around conservative budget spending, pseudo-Christian values, certain types of cultural iconography, and self-centered xenophobia. However, their mode of articulation cannot be more different. European right-wingers and their politics, as much as one finds them disagreeable, their delivery is coherent – they speak in meaningful sentences, their thoughts have a logically consistent flow, and address the problems of shared reality, which one might agree with or contest and argue on rational premises.

In the USA, however, shared reality no longer supports the tenets of whatever the conservatism has become, which stand in trivial conflict with facts and is rendered demonstrably false and indefensible, invalidated by the long history of failure and bankruptcy. Defense of the right-wing narratives in the USA requires the creation of an alternative universe where not only are the shared reality and observable facts ignored, but the underlying laws of economics, sociology, biology, physics, the probability, and even mathematics have to be suspended. The end effect of this environment is removal of all systems of reference where the mental instability of a single person in power easily mutates into a large-scale collective affliction with defenders and advocates of that politics turning into performance artists in a state of simulated self-induced mental illness.

In cognitive markets, where shocks amplify informational impact, the more repulsive the messengers, the easier their message penetrates the barriers erected by the compromised public immune system. Self-debasement becomes the statement of authenticity and repulsion a desirable quality.

Two examples of this mechanism at work:

Right-wing broadcasters and political consultants, which have elevated their appearances to the level of performance art, tend to wear their shirts one size smaller and buttoned up all the way to the top, so that it causes an authentic discomfort and irritation giving them a slightly deranged and agitated look, an emotion which gets transmitted to their emotionalized audience.

And speaking of undersized garments, the infamous sighting of Christy’s camel toe represents a singular example. Once seen, never forgotten, this historic picture — a visual equivalent of eating durian — cannot be accidental, despite its spontaneous appearance. Such extreme deficit of self-awareness simply does not exist (not to mention the discomfort wearing of these pants must have caused). It is not a fortuitously captured moment of leisure of the former New Jersey Governor, but a product of meticulous calculation of the teams of specialized PR consultants.

These, and other similar, images are carefully crafted so that they continue to shock, irritate, and disgust because these are addictive emotions; they provide a lifeline to the outrage conglomerate. In this way, any possible resistance of the opposition is automatically thwarted and their collaboration ensured from the outset. They have been taken hostage by this vortex of addictive repulsion. Opposition media outlets are placed in a conflicting position where their bottom-line disincentivizes resistance. As much as they would like to oppose the new ideology of repulsion, they cannot afford to wound, let alone deal a defeating blow to it – nobody would pay attention to them anymore, which would ultimately wipe out their revenues and put them out of business. This mechanism sustains otherwise lifeless and non-sustainable narratives.

The objective of politics is to never break the chain of emotions set in motion by a shock. Their synchronization has become the new way of governing and the community of emotions replaces the community of interests resulting in communism of affects[4].


[1] B. C. Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, The MIT Press (2017)

[2] B. C. Han, ibid.

[3] B. C. Han, ibid.

[4] Paul Virilio, The Administration of Fear, Semiotext(e) intervention series (2012)

Goebbels in America: The Microsolidarity of Identitarian Autohypnosis

19. IX 2021

Three quarters of a century after his death, Goebbels is back in vogue. After the 2020 shipwreck, Republicans are fighting for their lives. Desperate and pissed off, they are coming out as a full-blown Nazi party, taking Goebbels’ playbook as a gospel, pure and undiluted, as if no other books have ever been written. There are no more pretenses — anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny are alive and well in America today with open support for white supremacy in all its modes and hasty legislation of outdated segregationist policies. MAGA-pride events, the culturally adjusted burlesque versions of Nazi conventions, have replaced country fairs and have become magnets for angry, aggressive, and comically stupid folks. New blood is being mobilized to carry out Brown-shirt activities and half-assed attempts to model their own martyrs (Ashli Babbitt as a modern day Horst Wessel) after Nazi folk heroes.

Without a program or agenda, and armed with strategy of fully randomized focus targeting, everything is in the mix (hoping that something will stick): The Constitution, first (and second) amendment, race (critical and uncritical), education, prayer in schools, American history (and anti-history), slavery, 1619, white replacement, immigration, misogyny, abortion, climate change, wealth distribution, student loans, taxes, recounts, voter suppression, insurrection, swastikas, sedition, civil war, Republican math, Florida man, flat earth, space travel, Taliban, Hunter Biden, media, influencers, Moonies, masks, vaccines, Fauci, Ivermectin, Jews with (and without) lasers, cousins in Trinidad, and, of course, Jesus.

By its design, the new, 21st century gumbo of neo-Nazi propaganda has become the key identifier of growing masses of excluded, grotesquely ignorant folks whose anger and self-pity, caused by their precarity, trumps rationality, logic, science, and their own economic interests, safety and well-being. The high marketability of the Nazi-style response to populist rage is the new frontier for the transparently dishonest media outlets who, in search of attention, publicity, and ratings are willing to cross the boundaries of century-old social and political taboos and get on the other side in order to get ahead of the competition or just stay in the game.

A logical question emerges at this point: Why do we have to go back to these issues again? After all, these are outdated ideologies with a well-documented chronology of their inadequacy and chronic failure (social, economic, political, moral). Is fascism turning out to be the strange attractor of modernity and is its periodic recurrence unavoidable?

Despite its extreme nature and excesses, what happened in Germany in the 1930s was a logical inevitability of the Western civilization and its intellectual tradition. Evil is an intellectual need of the mind, which meditates about good. Intellectuals made evil logically necessary upon funding the idea about a better world. It is, therefore, no wonder that the origins of WWII reside in one of the most developed countries with the strongest cultural tradition in the Western world of that time.

After WWII was over, while the victors indulged in the narcissistic righteousness of its aftermath, Germany emerged richer with insights, which had remained unregistered by the allies. Through an unprecedented defeat, they [Germans] have been brought to the unwanted but valid insight that national identities and ethnic missions are in principle nothing more than violent and violence-producing collective autohypnosis. Consequently, they have developed a relationship to the missions of history that resembles that of a sober alcoholic to their former drug[1].

And while modern Germany has retreated from the manic historicity and forever abandoned the idea of being a chosen nation, the victors saw, and continue to see, WWII as just another round in a tournament for international supremacy in which one competitor (Germany) had been eliminated. They (the victors) never abandoned the dreams of their own supremacy — their individual or collective visions of the future have been nothing but projections and fantasies of their domination extending to their logical extremes[2].

America seems to have gone the furthest in that direction. Economically prosperous, but, at the same time, neck-deep in excrement, largely due to its own self-neglect and gross mismanagement of its fortunes, it remains narcissistically in love with itself (for all the wrong reasons). Paradoxically, this is especially true for those segments of the American population that have been the victims of said neglect. In the last years these folks have been in a state of a post-coital narcissistic orgy and have become a petri dish for the same collective auto-hypnotic identity politics and self-discovery that Germany went through a century ago.

By the end of the first decade of the new century, the gap that separates every disgruntled member of the excluded white sub-proletariat in America from the clutches of white supremacist rage has shrunk so much that it takes only a moment of inattention for any member of that community to falsely interpret their personal misery, deserved defeat, and bitterness as the sad faith of America, which, if we are to be honest, with such whining, pitiful and comically ignorant constituents, never really deserved anything better.

They failed in the game, which they invented, maintained, and defended at all cost, and now, they want another shot at it, but with altered rules, ones that would guarantee their advantage. This is the core of the microsolidarity and fractal belonging of the current identity politics. It is also fascism at its purest.

And as the saying goes: All comedies of history happen twice; the first time they are bloody, and the second time ridiculous. When the final receipts were written, the 1900s turned out to be a bad century for Germany. It was also a turning point for America as the leading cultural and economic global force. Now that baton has been passed, it is America’s turn. So, here we are.


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Infinite Mobilization, Polity Press (2020)

[2] ibid.

Texas

5. IX 2021

Identity code has a generally excluding effect capable of mobilizing negative energies and social forces towards those who do not share the same origin, territory or culture. Fascism is the fundamental obsession with identity, origin and belonging. It is a knee-jerk reaction to physical and social displacement. Fascism is generally absorbent, which reflects a fear of small numbers — it likes size because identity robustness had been eroded by the defection and depletion of ranks. It absorbs everyone willing to join in and expresses hostility to outsiders.

While there are many varieties of fascism, they all have one thing in common: Misogyny resides at the origin of each and every one of them – there hasn’t been a fascist movement without it. It’s never been too difficult to mobilize enough male solidarity when it comes to organized misogyny. By questioning the external norms that relate to the position of men and women in society, man has and had nothing to gain and everything to lose: he would lose not only social and economic advantages, but something far more precious, a sense of his own superiority which bolsters his ego both in his public and private life[1].

The fundamental cohesive force of fascism always begins with a male bonding ritual of masculinization of cultural self-perception. In Italy, for example, early 20th century fascism represented the turning point from feminine self-perception to masculine assertiveness: Erasing feminine quality of its Mediterranean sensitivity – everything that makes life there pleasant and seductive — and affirming a different self-image based on acceleration and male potency (national pride, military aggressivity, industrial growth, etc). German fascism, on the other hand, was not a programmatic cultural defeminization, but rather an establishment of systematic downgrade of femininity to reproductive function as a part of the new nation-serving hierarchization. Its essence was a utilitarian placement of women as birth factories, their subordination to the interests of the National Socialist political agenda (run by men), to serve the numbers.

When seen in the context of the most recent developments, the new intensity of the American misogyny appears less of an anachronistic anomaly and more as a logical consequence of the current political struggles. The debates (and the present escalation) of the Abortion law – the topic that had been put to rest in the remainder of the world a long time ago – is resurfacing now, at this particular moment, not in the light of its renewed relevance or urgency, but as an opening act for the new chapter of fascism. It is showing here in a more convoluted way than it had 100 years ago because the social and cultural displacement of the 21st century Western man has triggered new modes of identity politics.

Modern day misogyny is the ultimate male fantasy of the Western conservatives structured around a nostalgia for the times of lower entropy, a return to the past as a site of coherence, and a relapse to the patriarchal setting when man held their “naturally deserved” upper hand and (a male) God ruled the world. Through misogyny this man articulates the desire to reclaim what he considers his “natural right” to control women and, in that way, take control of his own destiny.

Conservative man’s vision of woman is not objective, but an uneasy combination of what he wishes her to be and what he fears her to be[2]. The masculinization program and return to patriarchal values (the most coveted axiom of any right-wing politics) and assault on women’s rights and their position in society, if they are to be successful, would have to be deeper, gradual, and systematic. This means undoing the women’s emancipation. The tactical approach of conservative politics is that the masculinization program requires a proper framing and subtle maneuvering — women must not be antagonized; they are many and they vote. In their view, the most effective approach is to strike at the root of a woman’s influence.

No one has more influence on a person during their formative age than their mother. As such, she is a constant threat to both the state and to men in general. The decision of life and death has to be taken away from women. Their influence and importance in the life of their children have to be diminished, if not de facto, then, at least, symbolically. Right to life! This is ultimately the question about who has jurisdiction over the life of an individual, their mother/family or the state (ruled by men, of course). With the help of proper framing, this becomes the theme that defines the core of conservative identity politics, an issue slowly hijacked by (predominantly white) men who feel righteous and entitled, and present themselves as defenders of human life while women take a back seat.


[1] Eva Figes, Patriarchal Attitudes, Persea Books (1986)

[2] ibid.

What More Needs to Happen before Something Happens?

22. VIII 2021

Our everyday life is peppered with illegal activities – its normal functioning would be practically impossible without discretionary transgressions of the law. We jaywalk every day, regularly drive above the speed limit, and use cellphones while driving. And who hasn’t littered at some point in their life? For a long time, smoking marijuana or taking drugs have been considered rights of passage for many, while sharing you password or downloading music, movies or books is done continuously without even an afterthought. In certain states in America, non-procreative sex is still illegal and in some countries like Iran it carries a death sentence. Nevertheless, people systematically, and sometimes exclusively, engage in those practices as a matter of sexual preferences or lifestyle choices.

This aspect of casual transgression is well understood by both the citizens and the authorities. However, actions of authorities are almost never aimed at their systematic suppression. Police functioning is most effective when everyone is breaking the law. The purpose of the law and law enforcement is to make you a potential criminal and for the police to have an option to declare you an actual criminal at any given time[1].

Once this is done, once you have been declared a criminal, the court does not initiate a trial and possible sentencing, but instead pressures you to plead guilty and accept your criminality. This is more effective in the long run – once you have confessed to your criminality (in order to serve a lesser sentence or go free with a slap on the wrist), there would be no way of complaining or objecting to the consequences. In this way, you move closer to an easily governable docile subject. This is governmentality at its purest.

However, the situation is markedly different when non-individual entities are concerned. When an entire congregation or political party breaks the law systematically, this becomes a sign of possible civil disobedience and unrest, which requires urgency of intervention, especially if their followings are of negligible size. In that case, any attempt to prosecute those people can be diverted into a political struggle and, as such, become a defense against abuses of power.

Genealogy of a Political Hysteria

The seeds of the Jan-6 clown coup, and with it, the radical reshaping of the Republican party, most likely started as a consequence of the previous Oval Office occupant’s failed attempts to extort some kind of blanket immunity from prosecution by his successor. The repeated failure to successfully ensure such a package led to escalation in the negotiations and threats, most likely never intended to be realized, but, as the new President elect called his predecessor’s bluff, things went beyond the point of no return. As matter got out of hand in this game of miscalculated leverage, and assumed an unintended dimension with grave legal implications, some key figures of the previous administration became implicated and compromised.

Clearly, the whole Jan-6 thing wasn’t conceived to be anything but a threat. No one in his right mind would think that a few hundred people breaking into the Capitol would amount to keeping the losing candidate in office. Keeping the Congressmen as hostages and asking that the Election results be reversed? Or what? The mob executes them? The noose? Only a total moron (and there were plenty of them in DC on that day) could believe that this could amount to anything. All of that was intended to be nothing more than a threat to push the Republicans in Congress to vote against certification in order to drag things further so that the new administration, in order to keep things under control and finish the whole charade, finally settles for a sweeping pardon. Nothing else.

Well, that didn’t work as planned, so here we are. For those involved, the consequences have become non-trivial. The latest transformation of the Republican Party into a pseudo-criminal collective is a result of dealing with those consequences.

Since almost every Republican still sees the support of Trump’s base as a must-have on their political path, the implicated leaders have compelled others, either by dirt or by promises of endorsement, to join in and create a shift from individual to collective criminality. With that maneuver, the underlying allegations of the Republican top would be converted into a collective liability of the entire party, which would transform the defense of the idiot-coup into a political struggle.

Clearly, this cannot be, in any possible context, a sustainable platform of a political organization. It is a losing proposition in an environment where political victory is won within 1% majority. It is really a desperate attempt to diffuse the culpability of their leadership and prevent consequences to take place.

The cold civil war

The democratic process was originally conceived as a way to peacefully resolve economic disputes between people who share common values, either cultural, religious, or in terms of lifestyles or visions of the future. As such, democracy requires commonality; inequality undermines it. When, however, inequality reaches the critical point, when interests diverge so much that consensus is no longer attainable, the bonding tissue that keeps society together begins to tear and democracy becomes compromised. In the absence of commonality, disputes can no longer have peaceful resolve. Instead, the resolution occurs through negotiation or war[2].

Despite being abundantly and unambiguously clear what happened on and after Jan-6, the response has been annoyingly gradual. The effect of subsequent diversion of blame from individual to collective was to increase the already existing division and elevate the tensions, which have been accumulating over the past years. The escalation caused by the Republicans’ coming out as the white supremacist party has transformed those tensions into a cold civil war.

The legal and political disputes related to the Jan-6 events are now happening against a highly combustive social background where the underlying social tensions have already crossed the point of no return. The most acute problem, therefore, is how to avoid the cold civil war from heating up.

The current situation has become explosive — it is configured like a booby trap. And, when facing the problem of its deactivation, one does not just come in and cut the wires — one wrong move and the device will explode. Deactivation must proceed slowly and sequentially, first by figuring out who is connected with whom and only then can the cutting really begin.


[1] This argument, I believe, is due to Slavoj Zizek.

[2] Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy, Cambridge University Press (2011)

Bare life

29. V 2021

In Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, the party who emerges as master does not fear death. The desire for freedom, recognition, and sovereignty raises the master above concern for bare life. It is fear of dying that induces the future slave to subordinate himself to the Other. Preferring servitude to the threat of death, the slave clings to bare life. (B. C. Han)

What on the surface appears as a consolidation in the ranks of the post-Q-anon Republican Party, from Hawley’s clenched fist and Lyin’ Ted’s escapades, the psychotic trailer-park vitriol of Boebert and Taylor-Greene to the full immersion of Stefanik, the disoriented and stunningly myopic maneuver devoid of any logic and common sense, is not an ideological realignment, but the fight for bare life – a desperate attempt to secure a financial bloodline necessary for their short-term survival.

When seen in a broader context, the collective pledge of unconditional servitude to the rejected and discarded former leader represents the liminal stage in the forced transformation of the American conservatism, which has been following a well-defined and rigid pattern of ritual in its quest for structure, long lost after decades of its own cannibalization. This transformation process has reached the point where its inner contradictions have become so abundant that the party representing conservative ideology can no longer exist as a part of the democratic process.

For the Republican Party, this is the unconditional moment – a situation that requires the creation of a new set of values and standards, a new picture of the world and one’s sense of self in it. They are confronted with the restrictions and pathological narrowness of their existence, a condition that demands the Party to abandon the security of its limitedness, and enter a new realm of self-awareness. For them, there is no turning back; the whole system of values must change.

Republicans’ desperate gasp for air is an attempt to answer the existential question forced upon their party: How to respond to a confrontation with the reality of failure — an absolute failure, which one cannot fail to recognize? Answering this question requires entering terra incognita where they come to terms with their underlying incapacities, a transformation process that demands separation from the existing structure.

The power of ritual

Ritual is a social act of subjective transformation, which allows the transformed subject to see the context with different eyes and from a new perspective afforded by the experience of ritual. It usually takes place at an inflection point where the status quo approaches a dead end and functions as a mechanism that converts the obligatory into the desirable.

The essence of ritual is a play between structure and anti-structure. Irrespective of the context, it is always staged in three acts. The first act consists of separation – this is when the subject is taken out of their context. The second step is the 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[1].

An example of this formal structure, with all three stages is the ritual of the American college experience. After a sheltered (and structured) 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 (separation), 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 (anti-structure) with access to alcohol, drugs, sexual experimentation, and a 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. In most cases, the American college experience has a progressive (centrifugal) liminal period, which emerges as a source of potential alternative structures waiting to be embraced after which a successful integration into adult life can take place.

In the last 4 years, conservative politics has entered the liminal stage, its existence marked by the play between structure and anti-structure. Nothing is ordinary — everything is tremendous. Semiotic excess — lies, nonsense, conspiracy theories, and propaganda — has had the main purpose of perpetuating the ritual, sustaining liminality, and suspending the rules. Palpable falsehoods became new articles of faith, new social identity drew the boundary between us and them and became 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). This is an ongoing ritual within a ritual consisting of competitive symbolic self-immolation in the arena of public spectacle, which irreversibly closes the doors for their return to pre-liminal life.

If 2016 was a moment of separation, and subsequent years were liminal, in the current context of political ritual, post-liminal right wing integration is evolving towards the Weberian everydayinization of the out-of-ordinary situations.

The road to re-contextualization

For all the good that it has created, money, in its omnipresence as the ultimate metric of value, has had a deleterious effect on society, culture and politics.

Democracies today are captured and dominated by big interest groups and their money. They still formally function as democracies — we are free to speak and free to struggle — but elections are competitive and their outcomes are not known in advance; they remain constrained by the boundaries set by financial interests of the wealthiest segments of the society. This has become more pronounced as the costs of running (for political office) are getting more and more expensive, further reinforcing the power of big money. It is practically impossible for a candidate to emerge without money – he/she must either be independently wealthy or have the people with money who back them. At the end, politics has become a game of seduction where everyone is funded by someone and they have to conform with the wishes and views of their potential and actual donors. 

Money has flattened everything – it has made every drama, every villain, and every existential or ethical dilemma linear and one-dimensional. Behind every act of evil, there is always a financial position. A madman who is plotting to nuke a large American metropolis in a doomsday suspense drama is no longer a deranged psychopath, driven by madness of revenge against humanity or dreams of establishing ex-nihilo a new world order, but a rational investor who has a short position in commodities, which would be driven in the money by the underlying catastrophe of his design.

The GOP’s current political ritual of collective lobotomy is not the result of a regressive uprising of autocratic mad villains, but a consequence of the flattening of politics by money. Their apparent suicidal tactics are in reality just posturing meant to serve as a surrogate for commitment. The ritualized loyalty oath to their rejected and defenestrated ex-leader is nothing else but a money-raising scheme. It is a plea of an increasingly marginalized ideology, deemed futureless, running out of the willing oligarchic support, transitioning from an actual political party to a suicide pact which embraces the TV-evangelist business model centered on monetizing on peoples’ misery and stripping the gullible bottom of disenfranchised rubes of their last penny.

This is the current American conservative utopia and the path to their re-contextualization. Republicans are fighting for their bare life. Beyond concerns for their short-term survival, their only vision of the future is a society as an atonal pseudo-totalitarian operetta without a key or meter, the kingdom of arbitrariness where words have no fixed meaning and actions no consequences, a fool’s paradise in which Ivy-league cohabitates happily with trailer-trash and everyone is allowed to dwell in his/her own stupidity.


[1] 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)

Skumring

25 IV 2021

The way out of a room is not through the door. Just don’t want out. And you’re free. (Charles Manson)

Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol

In 1897, the French playwright and police employee, Oscar Metenier, bought a theater at the end of the impasse Chaptal, a cul-de-sac in Paris’ Pigalle district, in which to produce his controversial naturalist plays. The smallest theater in Paris, it was also the most atypical. Two large angels hung above the orchestra and the theater’s neogothic wood paneling; and the boxes, with their iron railings, looked like confessionals (the building had, in fact, once been a chapel)[1].

Under the influence of their main writer, Andre de Lorde, who collaborated on several plays with his therapist and experimental psychologist, insanity became the main theme of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. This was happening at a time when insanity was just beginning to be scientifically studied and individual cases catalogued.

While fear of ‘the other’ appeared in countless variations, what carried the Grand-Guignol to its highest level were the boundaries and thresholds it crossed: Loss of consciousness, loss of control, panic — themes with which the theater’s audience could easily identify[2]. They reacted with terrified faces, but never once choosing to leave.

Revenge as entertainment

The theatre produced plays about a class of people who were not considered appropriate subjects in other venues: prostitutes, criminals, street urchins and others at the lower end of Paris social echelon. This was also the original target audience. Horror plays often alternated with comedies, a lineup referred to as hot and cold showers. The actors often broke the fourth wall and directly addressed the audience in order to make them an accomplice to an act of violence, to highlight moments of realization, and to remind them that this act is happening very close to them, thus heightening the horror of being a witness[3].

The repertoire consisted of many different unrelated stories, but the common theme of revenge appeared in almost all of them. These are some examples of Grand Guignol horror shows[4]:

Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous: Two hags in an insane asylum use scissors to blind a pretty, young fellow inmate out of jealousy.

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations: When a doctor finds his wife’s lover in his operating room, he performs a graphic brain surgery, rendering the adulterer a hallucinating semi-zombie. Now insane, the lover/patient hammers a chisel into the doctor’s brain.

Le Baiser dans la Nuit: A young woman visits the man whose face she horribly disfigured with acid, and he obtains his revenge.

Revenge was an emotion generally frowned upon by the proper bourgeoisie of the time, considered unseemly and unworthy of their status. Although it was associated with lower social strata, the initial target audience, revenge gradually became the guilty pleasure of selected members of the elite who frequented the Grand Guignol plays.

Unlike other forms of aggression that require no provocation, revenge is an action provoked by a wrong. While punishment looks to improve the transgressor’s behavior or to deter future bad behavior, revenge seeks to have the transgressor suffer.

Revenge has deep social roots. The threat of revenge could have actually helped our ancestors to build stable social bonds by promising swift retribution if rules or boundaries were transgressed. Those who are vengeful were much less likely to be victimized or attacked.

Revenge carries strong hierarchical overtones. Not everyone is entitled to exact revenge. Right to revenge is a privilege that comes with status. Elaborate medieval spectacles of punishment and execution always contained a certain portion of retribution, which was not correctional and was incommensurate with the gravity of the offense. Even if there are no individual victims, breaking the law demands retribution because it is an attack on sovereign personally, since the law represents his will. This is the zero-point penalty. The ritual made the body of the condemned man the place where the vengeance of the sovereign was applied, the anchoring point for manifestation of power, an opportunity of offering the dissymmetry of forces. In punishment there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince – it constitutes the most important penal liquidation of the crime[5].

When put in a proper social context, revenge can find a strong resonance with certain segments of society, especially those who believe to have been wronged or excluded in one way or another. Revenge is the other side of victimhood. It defines the early contours of dialogues with the past and conquests of traumas, and reflects a quest for stability by folks who have been victims of various injustices. Since the past is fundamentally unjust, the call for revenge alludes to some form of dispensation of justice and implies entitlement and privilege with a promise of a chance of healing. This quest for justice and its collective resonance is often perceived as an aura of enlightenment by any political movement based on revenge.

Something is rotten in the state of status quo

These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up. (Charles Manson)

In the years following World War II Grand Guignol audiences gradually waned as the actual reality of the two wars and their aftermath eclipsed the theater’s fictional horrors[6]. By the time the Theater closed its doors in 1962, Charles Manson was 28, serving time in the McNeal Island US Penitentiary in Washington State. After a short release from there, he found his way back to the Terminal Island Correctional Institute in San Pedro, CA where he had already done time in the 1950s. As his release from Terminal Island was approaching in early 1967, Manson had already spent more than half of the 32 years of his life in prisons and other correctional institutions. Telling the authorities that prison had become his home, he requested permission to stay.

After being discharged in 1967, Manson began attracting a group of followers, mostly young women, from around California, later known as the Manson Family. The Family developed into a doomsday cult when he became fixated on the idea of an imminent apocalyptic race war between America’s Blacks and the larger white population. A white supremacist at heart, Manson’s acid fantasy revolved around Helter Skelter, a quasi-apocalyptic scenario whereby Black people would rise up and kill all whites, except, of course, Manson and his “Family”. And, to add to that another layer of the ridiculous, not being intelligent enough to survive on their own, the Blacks would need a white man to lead them, and would, of all people, chose Manson as their “master”.

In early August 1969, Manson encouraged his followers to trigger Helter Skelter by committing murders in Los Angeles and making it appear to be racially motivated. Their rampage ended the 60s, which marked not only their calendar ending, but also the end of an era of rebellion against conformism and the status quo. It closed a chapter in American history and wrapped up a decade of social uprising.

It is not so much what Manson did, although he did it in a way that couldn’t be ignored, but how he did it, the resonance he struck and reverberations his acts triggered. As if wondering what everyone was surprised about, Manson’s parting message, I am what you made me, was the unsettlingreminder of circular causality between the complacency of middle-class America and the inherent violence necessary for maintaining that lifestyle, its long echo refuses to go away even after five decades.

Manson was an outcast denied the comfort of American middle class complacency. He created his own surrogate reality through speech acts and pushed it to his followers. He exploited the Stepford wife model to repurpose the helpless, dissatisfied, and disillusioned young middle-class women bored with the status quo, into his willing robot killers. It was a civilizational relapse, a slap in the face to both the conformism of the 50s as well as all the liberation movements of the 60s that opposed it. Despite the backdrop of hippy rhetoric, free love, independence and emancipation, “his women” had been willingly downgraded back to obedient, docile subjects of suburban housewives of the 50s, only this time, with a mission. He had found the keys to the portal that unlocked the toxic social ferment whose existence had to be denied at all costs by the system.

The emergence of Manson and his cult was an autoimmune reaction of the system, the blowback that couldn’t be processed or digested. It appeared at the peak of ideological obsession with the status quo. Manson was a social malady that couldn’t be fought. He did not want anything from the rest of the society; he didn’t need anything that society could deny him. Yet, he exposed the Achilles’s heel of the system. His only agenda and the driving force, was revenge against the system, against women, pop culture, Blacks, Hollywood, and the entertainment industry, spiked with a dash of white supremacy and the entitlement that fills the void created by the absence of other values.

All of the cult’s participants in the murders received death sentences. This included Manson himself, although he personally did not do the killing and was not present at the site when they occurred. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life as California abolished the death penalty.

Wendy Brown

My father is the jailhouse. My father is your system. … I am only what you made me. I am only a reflection of you. … You want to kill me? Ha! I am already dead – have been all my life. I’ve spent twenty-three years in tombs that you have built. (Charles Manson, 1978)

Manson was one of the first superstars of the nascent society of spectacle. Fascination with him and his cult started shortly after their arrest, and hasn’t really stopped even during his time in prison. Manson had numerous marriage proposals and was, at the age of 79 (two years before his death), engaged to marry a 26-year-old Illinois woman. Tex Watson, the only male member of the killer squad, who, like the rest of the surviving members, remains incarcerated to this day, got married and had four kids. Susan Atkins was married twice (her second husband was a Harvard-graduate lawyer, 15 years here junior). Manson and his followers have all been repeatedly denied parole, anywhere between 17 and 23 times and those who have survived, will most definitely never leave the confines of a prison.

50 years later, doomsday cults are back in vogue again and we learned that the same modes of collective mobilization, on a much larger scale, could be achieved without the persuasive powers of psychedelics. In 2016, Grand Guignol has been shut for over 50 years and Manson, behind bars for 45 years, has become an almost forgotten chapter of America history. However, his paradigmatic significance as a vindictive narcissist cult leader was anything but dead. The spirit of Manson’s Grandguinelesque version of macabre horror was very much alive, only hibernating, ready to be deployed again.

Ressentiment and the modes of rebellion

At the center of all forms of uprising and public revolt resides Ressentiment /rə,säntə’män/,  a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement[7]. There are three shades of revolt that govern different modes of response to Ressentiment. They differ by the intensity of revenge involved.

Absence of revenge: Judeo-Christian morality was born as a response of the weak, those who suffered in a value system affirming strength, power, and action. The weak were resentful not of their own weakness, but of the strong, whom they blamed for their suffering. As a result, they invented a new value system in which strength would be reproached as evil and weakness forted as good[8].

Moderate revenge: The French revolution and Communist uprising in Russia were bloody, but revenge was nominally blended with an emancipatory program and agenda. However, with time, revenge took over and prevented the evolution of the rebellion into anything other than self-destruction. These examples suggest that revenge is ultimately lethal even in small doses.

Excessive revenge: When ressentiment is born of dethronement, from lost entitlement, rather than from weakness, there is no new value system. Suffering and humiliation, ressentiment unsublimated, become permanent politics of revenge. In the present version of right-wing uprising, this is manifested through concentrated attacking those blamed for dethroned white maleness – feminists, multiculturalists, globalists, who both unseat and disdain them. There are high levels of affect instead of a developed moral system[9].

Unlike Black rage, which has been articulated through the Judeo-Christian mode, 21st century white rage represents collective vindictive narcissism. It is a reaction of the historically dominant as they feel that dominance ebbing.  

Vindictive Narcissism

Exclusion leads to resentment and accumulations of grievances, which brews into revenge. Outsourcing those grievances to the cult and its leader defines the collective and the sense of identity and belonging. Cults are predicated on convincing their members that everyone has been lying to them. Followers are enticed by the illusion of new truths and territories. With the help of psychedelics or flattering rhetoric and identity politics, and with some persuasive power, cult leaders create their own reality through speech acts and push those visions to their followers.

At the core of each cult resides revenge as the common link. It is through revenge that cult leaders resonate with their members. The people most hell-bent on revenge are both low in forgiveness and high in narcissistic traits. Both the narcissist’s inflated social confidence and the narcissist’s sense of entitlement could produce a desire to retaliate against wrong-doers and could reduce constraints on acting on this desire[10].

In his book The Narcissist You Know, Joseph Burgo actually identifies The Vindictive Narcissist as a distinct psychological type/category. Narcissist’s vengefulness stems from his unconscious shame and his need to defend himself against that shame being revealed, leaving him thin-skinned and vulnerable to anything that looks vaguely like an attack. When he feels attacked, he reacts without restraint and limits[11].

Success is a relative category. A businessman whose career starts with a $400mn handout from his father and follows up with seven bankruptcies is not really an example of success. While being objectively rich, someone with such initial conditions and that roster of  failures is a colossal loser, pretty much by any metric[12]. Getting into the White House only to finish his one-term presidency as, what is unanimously considered, the worst president in the American history (by a wide margin) is also not something one could be proud of. That knowledge and awareness must hurt.

For Trump, everything has always been about revenge – he is the epitome of a vindictive narcissist. That is his curse, but, at this political moment, also his magic, his secret sauce, and the point of resonance with his base. Exacting revenge has become the sole purpose and philosophy of both the leader and his following. It is the backbone of their shared social identity.

Having a leader who harbors feelings of revenge, not necessarily rooted in the same way as his followers, creates a special emotional bond and resonance between the two[13].

Trump’s transgressions and acts of revenge, no matter how petty or pointless, have had an orgasmic effect on his base. They became an articulation of their revenge against the wound of nothingness and a symbolic act of destruction of the imagined agent of that wound. The policies he proposed were irrelevant as long as he opposed those that were in place, which they hold responsible for their precarity. His abuses of power are vital to this desire. He has the power they lack – they live their revenge through him.  

Politics as a suicide cult

No sense makes sense (Charles Manson)

Revenge as a way of creating change is socially toxic. It carries the seeds of self-sabotage. It is non-convertible and sterile, unable to transform itself into a creative force. The vindictive cult followers are trapped in the quicksand of fermented rage and resentment. They are asphyxiated by their leader, but, at the same time, as a group, they cannot survive without the virtual supplement that he provides. The residual of the Republican Party, “Trump’s Family”, is a bunch of bewildered and desperate shipwreck survivors, Manson’s girls without Manson in search of their raison d’être.

Fascination with chaos and ex-nihilo creation reveals a common pattern across different cases of vindictive narcissist cults. Through a concerted creation of chaos, doomsday cult leaders effectively voice their plea for a second chance, albeit without any alternative plans. Their entire lives were spent on the edge of precipice, narrowly escaping catastrophe. They believe that, due to their higher tolerance to chaos, they would fair better than the others after the great reset.

Manson’s ridiculous acid fantasy of revenge, Helter Skelter — the racial war in which the Blacks would win, but unable to rule themselves, would elect none other than him — is just the other side of his impotence in finding his place in the social universe. As an outcast, he saw himself in the same position as African Americans, the other systemically excluded social group. However, the little white racist in him couldn’t avoid seeing himself as their superior and “natural” leader. When put together with his choreography of the gruesome spectacle of the 1969 Hollywood murders, this dimwitted fantasy underscores the Grandguinolesque dialectics of comedy and horror.

These modes of collective self-hypnosis are the site where all revenge-based cults converge — Fascism, Bolshevism, Jacobin revolution, terrorism, Trump’s and Manson’s included. Their logic and dynamics translate seamlessly to contemporary Right-Wing populism, just on a larger scale. The spectacle of the last presidency, as a form where the comedy of ridiculous narratives, clownish self-sabotage, and outright stupidity are blended with irresponsible criminal incompetence and the gruesome horror of their consequences, is the Grand Guignol Theater of the new century.

According to Wendy Brown, the current predicament is a result of the unintended consequences of the neoliberal project. The accidental wounding of the white male supremacy has yielded an apocalyptic politics, which in its final mutation has evolved into a suicide cult. If white men cannot own the planet, there won’t be any planet. This, at the end is the apocalyptic mode of white revolt and its politics that is willing to destroy the world rather than endure a future without white male rule[14].

This degeneration of the Right-Wing political movement (into a suicide cult) has an unmistakable Helter Skelter vibe. The crescendo of deliberately open and grotesquely excessive violence against the American Blacks could serve no other purpose except to act as a trigger of a racially intonated civil conflict, out of which the white supremacist cult hopes to emerge on top as a representative of the outnumbered, but ultimately, in their eyes, superior race in what they are experiencing as a reenactment of the Manson’s acid fantasy.


[1] http://www.grandguignol.com

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage (1979)

[6] Charles Nonon, theater’s final director, summarized it best: “We could never equal Buchenwald. Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.”

[7] Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, Columbia University Press (2019)

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] Joseph Burgo, The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age, Touchstone (2015)

[11] ibid.

[12] To put things in perspective, at the time of this handout, the S&P was around $100, and now it is at $4000, and if one had done nothing but left those $400mn as a passive stock market investment, that would have amounted to around $16bn today. Instead, the recipient of that handout today is struggling to remain solvent for the eight time.

[13] Wendy Brown, ibid.

[14] ibid.

Adventures in Rage Kapitalism

29. XII 2020

Between 1996 and 1997, during the de-Sovietization of Eastern Europe, Albania was convulsed by the dramatic rise and collapse of several huge financial pyramid schemes. At the peak, the nominal value of the pyramid schemes’ liabilities amounted to almost half of the country’s GDP. About two thirds of the Albanian population invested in them.

Last summer, ten years after my first reading, I took a second shot at Peter Sloterdijk’s, Rage and Time[1]. While the first take was illuminating, the second round was nothing short of transformational — a pure bliss and an altogether new experience. The framework, which it laid down a decade ago, when put in the current context, has acquired visionary relevance. The book has aged marvelously. Like the best wine, it developed complexity and nuance, which I failed to detect originally.

Rage and Time was published in its original version in Germany in 2006 and appeared in the English translation four years later, in 2010. It was written while the economy in the developed world was booming and neoliberal hegemony remained uncontested, before any hint of the global financial crisis was on the horizon. As such, the book had been deprived of the new landscape of rage and the most interesting decade of its evolution. Nevertheless, it became a true testimony of the future. Solterdijk’s work laid a precise fundamental groundwork for what was to come soon after its publication. Post-2008 developments flow seamlessly as a natural extrapolation of the ideas expressed in the book, making it practically effortless to imagine what would have been the content of additional chapters had the book been written in 2020. This period is possibly the most explicit celebration of the book’s framework and a stunning “out of sample” confirmation of its main theses.

Sloterdijk’s argument begins with the observation that political parties and movements define a non-monetary banking system where they function like rage banks and operate as collection points of affects; they facilitate transactions with the rage of others in the same way monetary banks operate with the money of their customers. They provide a liaison between rage capacities and a desire for dignity. Their contract is based on a promise to their clients to disburse a return in the form of increased self-respect and a more powerful grasp of the future, provided the clients refrain from independent utilization of their rage. By doing this, they relieve their clients of the difficulty of having to take their own initiative, while nevertheless promising thymotic gains[2].

With these transmission mechanisms of rage in place, political developments in America and Europe nowadays can be interpreted as conceptually the same phenomenon that took place in financial systems of emerging post-socialist Europe some 25 years ago.

At the core of these developments reside continuous attempts to manage the crisis of legitimation of a system that has run its course with pyramid schemes of rage: Populist movements, which have emerged as a consequence of this crisis, have enticed people to deposit every last molecule of their grievances in rage banks run by the current Right Wing political parties. Their game plan is to appropriate those deposits and declare bankruptcy, in pretty much the same ways as regular banks did in 1990s Albania.  And who’s better suited for this job than a certified conman with an uncontested record of fraud and serial bankruptcies?

Surrogate capitalism

The main characteristic of pyramid schemes, what distinguishes them from traditional capitalism, is that they have a finite duration and irreversible collapse. Capitalism, which has booms and busts, crashes, and recessions, recovers because it has an elastic modus of fleeing ahead that includes creative behavior; it is capable of controlling tendencies that signal collapse[3]. A pyramid scheme, on the other hand has no inner mechanisms and patterns of behavior; it is a hollow project financed only by a continuous inflow of (gullible) newcomers who are willing to pay for an opportunity to take risk against empty promises. While those at the top could pocket sizable profits, the bottom echelons lose with certainty. It is the absence of transparency and information about individuals’ places in the hierarchy of the pyramid scheme that determines its extent and duration.

The underlying mechanism and logic of cash flows of a general pyramid scheme can be understood using a simple three-level example with Captain, Crew, and Passengers. Everyone has to recruit two new members, and each member chips in with $100, which is then distributed upwards. At the end, the Captain goes with $400, the Crew breaks even, and the Passengers lose their investment, a total of $400[4].

For a pyramid scheme to continue to work, it’s expansion must not stop – once it stops, it is over, all the funds have already been distributed and no new are coming in. Because of that, the scheme is a catastrophic process of finite duration — its collapse must occur because the number of new recruits, which are essential for its financing, is required to grow exponentially and very quickly the number of newly recruitable players is exhausted — all newcomers who can be recruited are already on board.

The inevitable collapse occurs either suddenly or it needs to be brought about consciously because the number of momentarily recruitable players necessarily becomes zero after only a few rounds, which is why even with good camouflage it is hardly possible to extend a game longer than a few years.

Albanian capitalist apprenticeship as a template of American right-wing politics

There is an unmistakable similarity between the Albanian transient apprenticeship in capitalism during the 1990s and the Right Wing populist attempts to crash the American political market in the 21st century. Sloterdijk’s detailed account of conditions that led to the Albanian crash transcribes almost verbatim to present-day America once conventional money is replaced with rage as political currency.

Albania has always held a singular position in Europe. Its history is an undeserved tragedy of Albanian people who had been innocent victims of circumstances created by geopolitical forces over which they had no influence. The country epitomizes physical, political, and cultural exclusion, with a heavy stigma of isolation and backwardness, similar to today’s North Korea.

Decades of systematic and absolute isolation have caused a gradual atrophy of general exchange mechanisms necessary for normal functioning of society[5]. And the more these mechanisms became necessary and urgently needed to keep up with the rest of the world, the more intense oppression had become, leading ultimately to their total disappearance and Albanian disconnect from the rest of the world. Albania was a failed state long before that concept existed. While the only thing at their disposal was time and patience, the world moved on leaving them light years behind and practically impossible to catch up. As Albania gradually learned to live without the world and the world without Albania, after more than half a century of total disconnect, reintegration became unachievable.

The excess population in America, the growing body of excluded white underclass, shares a similar destiny as Albanian folks — both have been the victims of systematic and irreversible exclusions and both have had their own Hillbilly Elegies:Like Albanians, who remained largely prisoners of their own past, the American white underclass felt equally cut off from luck, wealth, and privilege and its distribution for too long.

Their uprisings share a similar pattern as well. Like the newly minted Albanian capitalists of the 1990s, who were fed by grandiose phrases about their past, their American counterparts felt it was their turn to take part in the satisfying injustices of the affluent world. Both fell, naturally and expectedly, into the trap of their precarity and impatience. In the same way Albanians fell for the massive pyramid scheme in the 1990s, 20 years later, the American white underclass had fallen victim to the rage pyramid scheme of Right Wing populism following the same logic of the old-fashioned misconceptions and empty promises of capitalist alchemy.

Pyramid schemes have a strange effect on our minds: When easy money is readily available, we don’t ask for rationale, we take it; everyone sees themselves as perpetrators and not the victims.

Bundling rage deposits of the American excluded underclass into old and new (stillborn) right-wing narratives did it’s magic by saturating the public discourse with low-brow paranoia of deep state, assault on the 2nd amendment, right to life, and the fear of government control, while delivering the inflated thymotic premium in the form of worthless pseudo-nationalist pride as a surrogate for the old-fashioned white (male) supremacy. Although this was not a new development, it’s tempo, set by the last four years, was.

By normalizing corruption, Trump, with a lifetime of experience in fraud and embezzlement, demonstrated how to cash in more efficiently on the rage investments of impatient, gullible, and vulnerable constituents, by pretending to rais the stakes and by deepening the commitment of the Republican base, he drained the last atom of their rage, and after harvesting and monetizing it, declared bankruptcy. In that respect, he achieved in four years more than the GOP did in the prior 40 years.

And things went predictably wrong for all depositors, as they did for Albanian “investors” 25 years ago. Rage deposits were used to deliver lower taxes for the rich, while defaulting on all other promises to bring back manufacturing, healthcare, coal industry, immigration reform, the wall, healthcare debacle… Trump emerged as Bernie Madoff of rage capitalism and the movement became the rage version of the Albanian capitalist experiment.

By now, it is clear that the scheme is over; the pyramid has collapsed. COVID was Trump’s (and the GOP’s) Stalingrad. It outlined the contours of the bursting of the rage asset bubble and the crumbling of the Right Wing pyramid scheme. The result has been a replay of the Balkan opera buffa, which, if it hadn’t had tragic consequences, involving real people and human misery, would have been extraordinarily funny: Caged children irreversibly separated from their parents, massive economic devastation together with the rise of precarity, and the criminally incompetent mishandling of the pandemic with hundreds of thousands of unnecessary victims.

When reality becomes a parody of itself

Unlike Albanian “capitalists” who, after getting financially wiped out, got over it and figured out the obvious that a pyramid scheme is just a pyramid scheme, American comrades (self-proclaimed entrepreneurs, risk takers and believers in the “free-market” supremacy) seem to be immune to the same learning process. Their social metabolism works differently. The myth that there’s a first prize for everyone is still the basic axiom of American cultural ideology. The deep-rooted belief of the underprivileged that they are not victims, just temporarily embarrassed millionaires, is still the fundamental determinant of the American social identity.

After being robbed by one pyramid scheme, they rush straight into another, as if nothing happened — same type of scam, organized often by the same person who robbed them the first time (or by his cousin); it doesn’t matter, there are always rubes to be recruited. There seems to be a culturally conditioned chronic delusion about the wealth alchemy that pushes the entire nation to aspire to become instant millionaires, which prevents them from resisting a scam, even when it is transparent and clearly defined as such[6].

The last decade stands as the final stage of the transformation of the American psyche, from Protestant ethics of hard work to compulsive risk takers and lottery winners, a residual of the gold rush mentality that has mysteriously survived centuries of reality checks. This is the something for nothing mindset that has been going since the discovery of the New Continent. It received strong reinforcement and entered an accelerated phase by the Silicon Valley paradigm. The attempts to contain the psychological fallout of that episode have defined the social tensions of the new century.

Like the biological immune system of Native Americans, who early settlers decimated with diseases, which for the newcomers were not lethal, but proved so for the natives, the contemporary American social immune system remains permanently compromised.

The holy grail of this ideological affliction is the belief in the sovereignty of luck: 1) There is a first prize for everyone and 2) Who wins is right and who loses should not complain[7]. If a person commits a crime and gets away with it, instead of condemnation, society responds with: “Good for him”. This transposes ex-ante any transgression as another failed attempt to realize what is rightfully yours, and thus blurs the boundary between right and wrong. There is no room for ethical judgment – hurting people or doing social damage, is not assessed in a broader context of ethics and general system of values, but is, at most, taken as an error in calculation.

The unwavering emotional investments in the ideology of meritocracy and, at the same time, inability to understand subtle differences between capitalism and pyramid scheme prevents them from being able to resist and defend themselves against fraud. Capitalism is prepared to put up with every form of irrationality as long as conditions for its technical rationality are preserved. And because of that, American self-declared libertarians and defenders of the “free-market” capitalist value system, as much as they believe in the power of rationality, fail it repeatedly. There is a little Albanian capitalist with a learning disability under each MAGA hat, all 74 million of them.


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time, Columbia University Press (2010)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] In a four-period pyramid scheme passengers can be divided in to 1st class (4) and economy class (8). The latter lose all their money (total $800), while former break even, crew divides $200 and captains takes $600. With a more realistic branching number, where each participant has to recruit ten new members, we realize that pyramid schemes can have only a handful of levels. A twelve level pyramid scheme with this branching already exceeds the entire human population.

[5] For more than half a century, Albania was completely sealed – nothing could come in and nothing could get out. They had no political allies or sympathizers. There was no cultural exchange with the rest of the world and no flow of information. That was the vision of their political leadership, imposed on the entire population with considerable force. Albania was a poor country doomed to endure its isolation alone relying solely on its meager resources. The net result was an incredible poverty, both economic and cultural.

[6] The latest example of the post-election scam is just another data point. After realization that there are more than 70 million rubes ready to participate and invest in an already bankrupt project, the number that stunned even its creators, the new scheme started while the ballots were still being counted. Trump already raised several hundred millions after his defeat in terms of donations for “legal” costs, “Patriot League” and “Elite Club” memberships from the people who just didn’t want to see the small print informing them of a true trajectory of their donations.

[7] Ibid.

Rage Kapital

12. XII 2020

Thymos is that area of the soul where feelings of pride, indignation, and shame are located. It is the middle realm between reason and desire, the unreflective striving towards what is noble — the courage to be. (Paul Lee)

How do individual grievances become streamlined into a collective expression of dissidence, political opposition, and aggregate supply of discontent? This socio-affective landscape functions very much like a traditional banking system in which rage replaces money and becomes the main political currency. In Peter Sloterdijk’s highly original approach to the role of rage and thymos in political history, the starting point is the mapping between political systems of dissidence and financial markets. He adopts the framework of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory[1], which allows a straightforward generalization, and extension of banking to the social and political context:

Economics defines a bank as a collection point for capital. The deposits of customers, which are fruitless monetary treasures when deposited, are transformed immediately into capital. They are invested in profit-oriented forms of business, which allows clients to partake in successful investments while protecting them whenever possible against disappointments. The banking system transforms the temporal profile of money through the transition from treasury (a mode of storage as a static configuration of accumulated presence aimed at the preservation of value) to its capital form (a dynamic mode of being, subject to constant externalization, constantly occupied with using itself, but never in full possession of itself)[2].

How rage becomes transactional

Political parties and movements define a non-monetary banking system where rage banks operate as collection points of affects; they facilitate transactions with the rage of others in the same way monetary banks operate with the money of their customers. They provide liaison between rage capacities and a desire for dignity. Their contract is based on a promise to their clients to disburse a return in the form of increased self-respect and a more powerful grasp of the future, provided the clients refrain from independent utilization of their rage. By doing this, they relieve their clients of the difficulty of having to take their own initiative, while nevertheless promising thymotic gains[3].

Rage banks

In the 20th century, such rage banks/political movements were (with one notable exception) invariably on the left. In the 21st century, however, rage has moved completely to the right or, more precisely, to the far right, which has taken upon itself the main rage-banking role. This has come about as a consequence of two factors: The left’s abdication of its traditional role and its compromised position after the collapse of the Soviet experiment, and the reign and subsequent decline of neoliberalism and its current legitimation crisis. These two processes have not been completely independent — their evolution has had a strong causal interplay after the new initial conditions had been set in 1968.

Neoliberalism and the disappearance of the Left

The migration of sponsorship of rage from the Left to the Right is a consequence of the spontaneous self-destruction of the neoliberal social system. Paraphrasing Zizek’s summary of this transition, the causality chain begins with neoliberalism as an ideology which disseminates market values to every segment of life. However, once one allows the market to impose its values and criteria, society has to be managed as an auxiliary to the market. The welfare state has to be dismantled and the economy deregulated. Identified with social statism, the Left finds itself without either a program, project or perspective. It is gradually absorbed (and dominated) by the center and is tolerated only when it can persuade labor movements to accept the need for liberalizing reforms. As a consequence, the main task of the Left is to convince lower classes to articulate their fury without disturbing the status quo and voting themselves into economic ruin. Hijacked by the center, the Left becomes an Uncle Tom of the labor movement. It is only the Left in name – a name that it merely continues to discredit[4].

Rage assets and rage economics

The American white underclass never forgave the Center/Left coalition, which in combination with the general trend of emancipation, allowed/enabled black people to climb the class ladder and disrupt what they (the white underclass) perceived as the “natural” hierarchy. This sowed the racist seed for what would become the culture war, in reality a class war in a displaced mode, tipping the scales from the Left to the Right, and outlining the contours of that transition.

After decades of labor’s disappointment with the faux Left and the Center, the Tea Party emerged as a genuine right-wing rage bank in the days following the peak of the global financial crisis in 2008. Conservative opinion outlets like Fox defined the cognitive coordinates of the right-wing narrative and became the epicenter of the outrage industry with Roger Ailes as the James Pierpont Morgan of rage banking.

Bundling grievances of the white underclass into rage assets has been the core of contemporary right-wing political alchemy – an analogue to the financialization of the economy. The first draft of this project was outlined in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. After the Republican party was pronounced clinically dead in the post-Nixon years, Lee Atwater drafted the blueprint of its comeback with the right-to-life issue, which mobilized emotions that united evangelicals, rural Christians and the general white underclass under the same umbrella with financial elites and the wealthy. The continued persistence and functionality of this counterintuitive ideological stunt, this unique American experience that goes against all odds of logic and economics, has never ceased to astonish.

American white underclass has deposited its grievances into rage banks which converted them into rage assets: Right-to-life and general misogyny (both representing an actual maneuver to reduce the social influence of women), 2nd amendment hysteria, small government fetish, tax affliction and the obsession with dismantling the welfare state, Deep State paranoia, Birtherism, and the production of  a wide spectrum of deniers (from Flatearthers and  anti-maskers to vaccine-, evolution-, holocaust-, climate change, and election-deniers).

The main suppliers of rage remained the white underclass, excess population, and those, generally, left behind, while Libertarian think thanks, the NRA, evangelicals, special interest groups and right-wing liminal players acted as purveyors of discontent, rage asset managers, and strategic investors in rage markets.

Disinformation and conspiracy theory centers like Rush Limbaugh, Talk Radio, Breitbart, Info Wars, OAN, NewsMax, and Qanon became the centers of treasure against which rage assets have been printed and used as capital. They became the main innovators of structured rage finance and suppliers of rage volatility, rising as the shadow rage banking system while social media became platforms for day trading in rage transactions and a way to whip up emotions and create additional rage volatility. Fox and (on the local level) Sinclair remained the main nodes of this action, acting like credit unions or the Fannie Mae of rage.

Nationalism as the white collar crime of rage banking

The depth of Sloterdijk’s insight and the power of his framework become manifest when it comes to discussions of the emergence and effects of nationalism on the eve of WWI.  During the late 19th century and until the beginning of the war, capitalism as a source of economic misery and political repression was the primary origin of the supply of discontent and raw rage. In that configuration, political alliances and parties of the left became collection points of dissidence, which organized the thymos of the disadvantaged[5]

As capitalism spread through the developed world and internationalized, the anticapitalist impulse could maintain the level of its enemy only if it reached the same supranational level as the enemy in terms of organization and operation. This insight led to the internationalist pathos, which persisted for all authentic parties of the left uninterrupted until 1914[6].

All this came to a halt in August 1914 when it became clear that the collective grievances of the international proletariat had to be unwound and the underlying rage redirected toward national interests of individual warring countries. There were no longer any parties with any other mandate except for the national one. This sentiment and attitude was the obituary for transnational solidarity[7].

This was the major rage bank crisis. The rage deposits of the masses of internationally operating banking houses were now at the disposal of national political leaderships.

The emerging nationalism effectively represented a large-scale devaluation of rage assets and an embezzlement of rage banks. By withdrawing decades worth of accumulated quantities of rage and dissidence from the frontline against the capitalist order and making it available for the war between imperial nations, the leaders of the moderate workers movement committed a white-collar crime of unparalleled extent[8].

Arousing thymos of the abject: 21st century populism

Nationalism is the worship of the smell of our collective shit (Charles Simic)

In the 20th century, WWI was the catalyst of the large-scale devaluation of rage investments of the oppressed and excluded. Similarly, modern 21st century nationalism is, more than anything, an insurrection against the consolidation and internationalization of global aggregate rage. It is an ill-conceived, discoordinated struggle for the appropriation and misuse of the global underclass’s rage.

The core of the conflict of the Right Wing populism resides in the debasement and degeneration of American conservatism. The main idea behind the alignment of the two opposite ends of the social spectrum (the privileged and the excluded) with fundamentally incompatible interests under one umbrella consists of redirecting rage into cultural instead of class struggle.

As the world (and capitalism as the center of discontent production) has been getting increasingly more global, in an effort to cash in on the accumulation of global grievances and latent dissidence, populism, with largely nationalist platforms and pseudo-protectionist agenda, has felt the need to internationalize its movement.

However, while Right Wing populism was pacifying the growing white underclass and keeping the movement of the excluded small, it, at the same time, was laying the groundwork for the formation of the conditions that would unite and reaffirm the interests of the oligarchs of the world. This was its primary task. The Right Wing was simultaneously running both a revolution and a counterrevolution.

The ridiculous idea of internationalizing nationalism, which screams of self-contradiction, was meant to result in the incorporation of a world rage bank, like the International of the labor movement some 100 years ago.  

Subordinated to national interests, and as a partial compromise to their global oligarchies as ideological sponsors, anti-global grievances have been converted into nationalist rage directed against immigrants, porous borders, and disrupted class hierarchies.

Given their inherent priorities, Right-Wing populist movements, in reality, have always harbored preparations for a betrayal of rage investments without a world war – they represent the beginning of a political pyramid scheme. The inner conflict of this dual mandate reached intolerable levels in the last decade creating a sociopolitical configuration, which demanded its resolution.

The internationalization of nationalism came out naturally as an inherently racist proposal. Considering simultaneously the heterogeneity and essential exclusivity of each individual nationalism that was awakened in developed (and some developing) economies, the only axis along which the project could take place is white racism. Ultimately, globalization has forced the resolution of the irreconcilable inner contradiction of bundling the underprivileged with the ultra-wealthy in a singular way – racism.

On a purely transactional level, the idea behind the meaningless (21st century) populist project has been the appropriation of rage capital betrayed by the left, which abandoned the real grievances of the white (male) precariat created by capitalist self-destruction and further reinforced by globalization, leading to structural job destruction due to the outsourcing and scaling down of manufacturing, the transition to more efficient energy sources, etc. This betrayed discontent was transposed into racist and misogynist rage assets leading to an establishment of new organs of collective grievance.

From the outset, the Right Wing platform of the capitalization of the rage of the oppressed, excluded, and forgotten has been loaded with self-sabotage. Bankrupt at inception, it could only be conceived as a part in a pyramid scheme of rage, not sustainable, able to last only as long as new members could be recruited.

Communism abhorred nationalism as the kryptonite of its cause, the toxic substance that paralyzed their defense abilities against capitalism. However, when the tables turned and communism imploded under its own weight and the baggage of its internal malfunctioning, the very same actors, those who remained in power and in leadership positions after the system’s rebranding from a pseudo-egalitarian dystopia to a state sponsored organized crime syndicate, became rabid nationalists. They quickly realized the mobilizing potential of identity politics and its essential role in the get-rich-quickly scheme.

This was yet another realization of the general rule: When the system exhausts itself, it turns to identity politics.

Some thirty years later, capitalism in the developed world is facing the same problems and challenges. Paraphrasing Sloterdijk’s account of the post-revolution era of Bolshevik’s reign and extrapolating it to the 21st century America, the paradox of freedom and equality for all had never been exaggerated more convincingly than during the accelerated phase of the attempted takeover by Right Wing populism: The alpha dogs of that deception achieved their plan to accumulate (almost) all of the power in their hands.

In the same way Soviet Communists had done so during the early post-revolution years a century ago, current turbo-capitalism continues to argue that in order to “save” the system of values and lifestyle of millions of Americans, one had to accept that a few thousand people would have to be sacrificed. Throughout 2020, we were continuously reminded how hundreds of thousands have been sacrificed so that a few hundreds, and ultimately a few dozen, could stay in power and enjoy or even extend their privilege.


[1] Dirk Baecker, Womit handeln Banken?: Eine Untersuchung zur Risikoverarbeitung in der Wirtschaft, Suhrkamp (1991)

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time, Columbia University Press (2010). Although the book was published in its original, German, edition in 2006, it was difficult to shake of the feeling that the author didn’t really know what was about to happen in the subsequent decade.

[3] ibid.

[4] Slavoj Zizek, A Permanent Economic Emergency, New Left Review, 64, July/Aug 2010

[5] P. Sloterdijk, ibid..

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.