Tag Archives: #power

Violence & Power

19. VII 2020

The cat uses force to catch the mouse, to seize it, hold it in its claws and ultimately kill it. But while it is playing with it another factor is present. It lets the mouse go, allows it to run about a little and even turns its back; and, during this time, the mouse is no longer subjected to force. But it is still within the power of the cat and can be caught again. The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing however to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy it – all this together, space, hope, watchfulness and destructive intent, can be called the actual body of power, or, more simply, power itself. (Elias Canetti)

Violence and power stand in opposition to each other. Power is revealed when violence is withdrawn (the destructive clock stops when the cat releases the mouse). Inherent in power is certain extension in space and time (releasing the mouse, giving it space and time to develop illusion of freedom and hope). In contrast, violence takes place at a particular point.

American history resides in the interstices between violence and power. That has always been its preferred habitat. From inception, its history has been marked by an unprecedented reliance on violence, from the systematic genocide and practical eradication of Native Americans to Slavery — a prime foundation of the country’s industry, finance, commerce and general prosperity — and its successive mutations, Jim Crow, cities of destruction, hyperghetto, resulting in explosion of the networks of incarceration with the most extensive carceral system on the planet.

The persistent coexistence of violence and power, and the longevity of that configuration, is difficult to understand in a broader context of the dialectics of power. When taken in a political context, violence represents stupid power. It is an extremely inefficient way of rule, unsustainable when applied alone. Violence automatically causes an opposing will, which weakens its effect and demands escalation in order to offset that will. This causes violence to exhaust itself in the long run, and as its power erodes, its rule results either in capitulation or in the tragic end of annihilation. Between the beginning and the end of its rule, there is a tipping point beyond which violence, as it collapses under its own weight, either disappears or crushes everyone else.

How did American violence survive for so long without self-destructing? The systematic resort to violence as a way of maintaining a grip on power for four centuries remains one of the major paradoxes of modernity primarily due to its longevity and continued escalation.

The anatomy of violence and the masquerade of power

In domestic affairs, violence functions as the last resort of power against criminals and rebels – against individuals who refuse to be overpowered by the consensus of the majority. Even in actual warfare, like during the Vietnam war, we have seen how superiority in the means of violence can become helpless if confronted with an ill-equipped but well-organized opponent who is much more powerful. The accumulation of means of annihilation does not make superpowers mightier – military might is often the counterpart of internal weakness. (Hannah Arendt)

Violence is a transient phenomenon; it may contribute to the creation of power, but power is not based on it. One can use violence to seize power, but cannot maintain it with violence. In order to survive, violence must continuously reinvent itself. Following the process of mutation of violence through American history brings some clarity to the paradox of its longevity. There are three main ingredients, which define the landscape: The use of culture as a lever arm, economic forces, and particular patterns of mutation of state as the main source of lawlessness and violence.

1) Culture as a lever arm

Benedict Anderson’s observation that nations are imagined communities[1] (the emphasis is on “imagined”) frames the problem and alludes at its non-linearity. This notion indicates that the idea that complete strangers might share identity with us as a group or nation is not obvious from our direct experience. The fact that multiethnic and multicultural communities are trans-experiential, requires an abstract layer, like ideology, for example, that provides justification for their existence. A wide acceptance of these ideologies, thus, allows the mobilization of social movements and mass media, which may acquire power over people because they are ready to accept ideas that make some plausible sense of their world.

According to B. C. Han’s account of the power-violence dynamics, as opposed to violence, which does not allow for either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, power relation contains the possibility of resistance. Freedom, no matter how illusory it might be, is the essential precondition for the exercise of power (cat has to release the mouse in order for power to begin to configure itself). The illusion of freedom must never stop in order for the power relations to continue existing[2].

These considerations outline the importance of interplay between violence and the transient windows of illusory freedom, which creates pockets of power underlined by the cat & mouse dynamics: The space which the cat dominates, the moments of hope it allows the mouse, while continuing however to watch it closely all the time and never relaxing its interest and intention to destroy it, all these elements have been in play at each new node of violence in American history.

Since the abolition of slavery, every new concession to the freedom of Black Americans has created a new temporary space of power by implying a new mode of violence in place of the old one as a reminder. Every subsequent institutional change of repression just made violence more systematic and less transparent. As apparent superficial freedom was changing, from slavery to Jim Crow, to ghetto & hyperghetto, to the expansion of the prison system, and police brutality, violence did not taper; it only reinforced the grip on power.

Every shift in the underlying systematic violence has had its ritual part aimed at creating a temporary space of power: lynching, manhunts, and other manifestations of (white) male bonding, institutionalized and reinforced later through the carceral state. The entire white supremacy act, both in its original incarnation and its subsequent mutations, has been just ritualized violence with an unambiguous aim to reiterate and cast into peoples’ subconscious a symbolic message associated with each black face: “Your nature is to be a slave”(cat & mouse play, again!), for the sole purpose of transforming that violence into power, while the vulgar-materialistic evangelical narrative was structured around interpreting this order of things as a heavenly dictum aimed at mobilizing forces that provide its legitimacy.

2) Economic factors

All this has been playing against powerful economic factors. The backbone of the system’s attachment to Slavery and its modernized versions resides in capital’s insatiable need for free labor. This highlights the second dimension of violence.

According to Michael Mann’s model of ethnic conflicts[3], all cases of oppression against certain segments of society involve material interests. Usually, members of one segment/class/ethnicity come to believe they have a collective economic interest against an out-group. Often, ethnicity trumps class. Class sentiments are displaced onto ethnic group relations. The oppressed group identifies the other as an imperial exploiting class, considering itself an exploited proletariat. Exploiter on the other hand sees its imperial rule as bringing civilization and progress to inferior ethnic group/class. The defense of this imperium against revolutionary threats from below is what is called imperial revisionism.

3) State as the center of dissemination of lawlessness

In the past, culture had a dual role, to shape consensus and act as an agent of change. In the last 50 years, gradually, but perceptibly, culture has abandoned its missionary course; it has become the mechanism for creation of a parcelized space of power and a tool of division and maintenance of the status quo.

The modern state has redefined itself inside the gap between cultural and economic powers, where the two became inextricably intertwined providing the background for the imperial revisionism as the framework for expanding the space of power. The main trend of technocratic governments in developed democracies, and in America in particular, has been gradually giving up ideological consensus and replacing it with cultural division as the main lever arm. Without big ideological causes, the only way to actively mobilize people (and their passions) is through fear. In this way, culture wars became class wars in displaced mode. Neoliberalism and populism are just two different modes of implementation of this agenda.

According to Charles Tilly, the state in many ways functions like organized crime and uses its monopoly position as a racket. The very activity of producing and controlling violence favors monopoly, because competition within that realm generally raises costs, instead of lowering them. The production of violence enjoys large economies of scale. Governments are generally in the business of selling protection with state having a monopoly on violence. They legitimize its use in order to maintain and reinforce consensus and, thus, maintain their power. Subordinated government tends to maximize monopoly profits as well as turning protection rents to the economic interests of the dominant class[4].

Based on an extrapolation of Tilly’s argument, in response to each installment of innovation in violence during the last 400 years, time and again, the state had adapted to the new context accordingly, giving rise to new institutions of oppression.

By criminalizing the Other, power could be deployed as a way of protecting or maintaining the fractured consensus, which, in effect, refers to selling protection to the privileged segment of society, while drawing the revenues to maintain and/or expand its repressive apparatus. In that process, state tends to invent new problems, which it proposes to resolve, and in time becomes itself a source of lawlessness and violence[5]. This is the logic behind institutional racism, the criminalization of poverty, the war on drugs, the exploding carceral network, and other institutions of programmatic repression in America, all this against the background of a systematic, ideologically driven, elimination of empathy and pathological individualization as the main cultural dimension.

Production of political subjects or Banality of Evil

To be human remains a decision (Carl Schmitt)

As the state manufactures excuses to escalate violence and extend its life support, it enables violence to masquerade as power and sustain itself longer. Implementation of this approach to power requires the production and cultivation of a special kind of mindset: Philistine, self-righteous, ignorant, aggressive male, devoid of ethical constraints and accountability, which conforms unconditionally to ideological tasks, whatever they may be. These are mediocrities, not fanatics or sociopaths, who, rather than thinking for themselves, rely on clichés; they are driven primarily by their petty interests (promotion, careers, money,…) and believe in success as the chief standard of a “good society” to which everything else is subordinated. Such people, especially them, are capable of committing the most extreme acts of evil. Their actions are motivated by extraordinary complacency. These extraordinarily unexceptional men become champions of extraordinary evil, the condition identified by Hannah Arendt as Banality of Evil.

Creating conditions for this mode of social interaction has been the main ideological tool of American politics. Social atomization eliminates cohesion and unified expression, except in terms of violence or hostility towards the Other who have been identified as such through one of the modes of exclusion, like racism or social Darwinism, as not worthy of the same rights. The same mechanism — absence of organizational power — that allowed a relatively small number of slave-owners to handle a large number of slaves, or labor camp guards vs. inmates, is now in full display. When such a weakened social community is attacked and people are unable to organize themselves around their interests and political rights, they cannot find a common voice or underpinning, except in aggressiveness towards other groups.

Foundations of this order began to shake in the last decade with the escalation of systematic violence. The cumulative result of rampant inequality, systemic exclusion, and endemic precarity was ultimately the devastation of the political space inherent in the existence of the medium of power and, as access to power became more exclusive, consensus began to form independently of the state, which grew more isolated and without real power to rule. The context that provided power for decades continued to shrink and began to collapse onto itself as contours of superior non-coercive, smart, power emerged. This is when things started to unravel.

The system of violence, which masqueraded as power for four centuries, revealed its cracks in the last decade and, in 2020, reached the tipping point when the space of traditional power began to implode. Political/social matter and antimatter began to collide triggering the annihilation process. Centuries of the masquerade of power were exposed for what they always have been: violence, i.e. stupid power.

Hannah Arendt

If one of us is chained, none of us are free (Solomon Burke)

In a sociopolitical context, power is predicated on commonality and cohesion, but without necessarily having one central actor. Power creates a medium against which collective action can arise. This medium is the ground state of power. Violence, on the other hand, is a lonely act. It is not supported by the affirmation of the others – it is One against All[6].

However, power has another dimension besides shared space and commonality. During the accelerated transformation of the American political body in the last four years, the 45th president’s abject figure has emerged as the origin of the new political subjectivity. His only consistency, to be always, without exception, on the wrong side of any and every argument and decision, has inadvertently galvanized the process of political reconfiguration. He has made the present so appalling that unconditional change, wherever it takes us (as long as it is without him), has become a preferred direction embraced by traditionally opposing ends of the political spectrum, leading to the formation and buildup of massive like-minded crowds, unified in their common desire. He has become the center of mass of political anti-matter, which repels the rest and defines the direction of “against” and, thus, emerges as a reference point of political action.

Power is above all an affirmation of self[7]. This is Arendt’s most powerful insight. It is not an absolute consensus, but a mirror image of violence as expressed with “One against All”: Power is “All against One”, where “One” is the object to be opposed, the repulsive core of social antimatter, an anchor of subjectivity and the origin through which coordinates of subjectivity are drawn. The collective that is configured around this origin becomes the seed of spatialization of power.

Power is greatest where the holder of power encounters no resistance whatsoever. Power and violence, therefore, meet in the limit of their absolute: There is no resistance not only in the case of infinite violence, but also in the case of infinite power[8]. At some point, the distinction between the two becomes blurred and transition from one to another seamless.

 

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Revised Edition, Verso (2006)

[2] B. C. Han, Was ist Macht?, Philip Reclam jun. GmbH & Co. KG, Stuttgart (2005)

[3] Michael Mann, Dark side of Democracy, Cambridge University Press (2005)

[4] Charles Tilly, War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, in Bringing the State Back, ed. By P. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer, and T. Skocpol, Cambridge University Press (1985)

[5] ibid.

[6] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, Harcourt Brace Javanovich; First edition (1970)

[7] ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, ibid.

Adventures in integral reality: Amusement parks for angry citizens

31. VIII 2019

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

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

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

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

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

The politics of Simulacra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real and the imaginary: From fusion to confusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semiotic insolvency and the great flood of arbitrariness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

The ecstasy and the agony of power (carousing with Baudrillard, pt. 1)

2. VI 2019

Without ever leaving, we are already no longer there (Nikolai Gogol)

More than two years have passed since the political septic shock of 2016, but its metastatic aftershocks continue with unrestrained intensity. I often wonder, if Jean Baudrillard were around to see the unfolding of his script, what would he think. And I can’t make up my mind whether he would be pleased, amused or just plain bored by how predictable everything turned out to be.

From collapse to prolapse: Capitalism in a coma

The past decade, falling somewhere between strange and outright bizarre, is best described as capitalism in a state of clinically induced coma (after its capitulation to the years of self-intoxication and the near-death experience in 2008). But instead of helping the system heal, this state of suspension only made things worse. The longer the protective coma remained in place, the bigger capitalism’s excesses grew and the more stress it put on its already compromised immune system. The most robust and, at the same time, the most troubling post-2008 realization has been the system’s inability to heal. Underneath this sobering conclusion resides the accumulation of profound social deficits of various kinds.

In the same way it creates conditions for its own demise, capitalism spontaneously creates demand for social change. This is a structural problem of capitalism, its second nature, best summarized by Robert Nisbet: Because of the easy convertibility of all qualitative values and status relationships into fluid relationships of contract, based on money, modern capitalism has had a leveling and fragmenting effect upon context of status and membership[1]. These erosive effects, while always present to a certain degree, have been pushed into overdrive over the last decades. Decay of established structures and persistent social stratification, when pushed too far, begin to distort social relations. When a population loses the sense of social and moral participation in society, and its disenfranchised segment reaches a critical size, these factors lead to spontaneous mutation of free capitalism into authoritarian rule. Democracy becomes a perversion of itself and this transformation so natural and seamless that it remains utterly unnoticed.

These are dynamics that had been identified as the stylized facts of capitalism more than a century ago. According to Hilaire Belloc, whose book Servile State appeared in 1912, Capitalism is either a system of social and moral allegiances, resting securely in institutions and voluntary associations, or it is a sand heap of disconnected particles of humanity. If it is, or is allowed to become, the latter, there is nothing that can prevent the rise of centralized omnicompetent political process. Lacking sense of participation in economic society, men will seek it. Today, the crisis of democracy and the search for authority is going strong in large part as a reaction to the vacuum of power that dominated last five decades.

The agony of power

Power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly. Power itself must be abolished and not solely because of a refusal to be dominated, but also in the refusal to dominate[2].

Neoliberalism appropriated democracy and denounced force as an inefficient way of governing. By outlining new ways of conducting individuals, which satisfies aspiration to freedom in every sphere of human activity, it introduced the idea of governing through, not against, freedom. While 1968 was a reaction to the acute crisis of dominant forms of power at the time, 2016 is the response to the second crisis of power, a quest for power in a powerless world — it is a return of the 1968 in reverse, its mirror image and its unwind.

In contrast to the neoliberal West, in the emerging post-socialist East, force has never been relinquished, its value and utility was recognized and cultivated instead. In the eyes of a large segment of the Western population, democracy was perceived as weak and flabby and the post-socialist (and generally authoritarian) East respected and admired for preserving the power. As neoliberalism is getting unwound, the omnipresent contempt for centrism’s all-out permissiveness has become synonymous with the embrace of power and (implicit) denouncement of freedom. The quick-sand landscape — “No one seems to be in charge”– is perceived to be at the root of the problem and the quest for the strong man, someone who will take the ownership of power, becomes an expression of the mode of change.

And that is exactly how it is being played out. We have now made the full circle and, as the saying goes, there is no circus without a circle: Half a century after 1968, the world is again fascinated with power. The announcement of social change has arrived, unsurprisingly, as the quest for authoritarian rule. 2016 — the big bang of the right wing populism — was a septic shock to the system with compromised immunity. And what started as a shock has quickly turned into a large-scale ritual where the order of things has been fully suspended.

However, unlike market crashes and economic downturns, social change itself doesn’t arrive with a bang. It is a gradual adaptation of the mind to persistence and normalization of systematic transgressions. Social change appears only when the results of such process are incorporated, however confusedly or reluctantly, in the life organizations of individuals and thus come to exert a demonstrable influence upon the purposive and meaningful nature of their consciousness[3].

While this process is well underway, it is not settling in without resistance; no victory has been declared yet. This is the most complicating aspect of the current political mutation. The autoimmune reaction is resisting its own correction – the attack of the immune system onto its host is rejecting the efforts to stop its own self-destruction, and the more it is resisting, the weaker the immune system is becoming.

The theatre of cruelty: The politics of social change

When the present and future are deep-frozen, all excrement rises from the past. As it functions now, history can only be an exercise in recycling and waste management. Failed ideologies, obsolescent utopias, out-moded concepts and fossilized ideas persist in our polluted mentality[4].

What kind of social change is ahead and what sets the template for change at the current political moment? Or, as Baudrillard would put it: Who will rid us of the sedimentation of centuries of stupidity? There are two distinct paths that lead to social change: emancipatory and regressive. The regressive road (currently very much in vogue) is the disappearance-by-proliferation approach – it consists in recycling of the historical waste and adding more stupidity until it becomes invisible. Thus, although the last decade is an utterly new chapter in our history, the political response is an all too familiar mish-mash of worn out, long ago tried and discarded ideas.

The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theatre of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage. The system acts as the exterminator, yet no one is paying attention[5].

At some point history stopped being real. Today, it plays against a very different backdrop than ever before. It appears too immediate — the events that should constitute history have no time to develop outside of the media[6]. What now accounts for history is a result of careful staging of a play, rather than a spontaneous play of events.

Organizing political movements has become like producing a theater play, but no longer as an imitation of the actual reality, but the creation of a new one, with political leaders as puppet masters in (kind of) a ritualistic puppet theatre. This also is taken from the repository of historical excrement. Any documentary about NSDAP gatherings in 1930s Germany would confirm the validity of this parallel. Despite its improv appearance, the staging has a rigid backbone and follows strict rules. To paraphrase the musings of the SS Standardführer, Heinrich Steinbrecher[7], the first principle in this play is to make theater out of everything. This was the standard practice of the SS and it comes straight out of Hitler’s playbook — things he used to do so successfully, his rise to power based primarily, if not exclusively, on the theatrics of his speeches. Second: carefully choose the genre in which each particular piece will be played. Critique, investigations, attempts at oversight, or accusations of the leadership produce as an antique tragedy. Disputes with political opponents, competitors or dismissal of appointees who you disagree with – i.e. political skirmishes and assassinations, in general — as a marionette farce. Third: Occupy the center stage — insert yourself into political discourse at each point of time and into every issue, no matter how mundane, trivial, and insignificant. Fourth: Plan and supervise everything carefully.

When this play is staged against the backdrop of capitalist hardship and social marginalization of the populist constituents, political events and gatherings turn into performance of the theater of cruelty. The main objective of this early 20th century theatrical form, pioneered by Antonin Artaud, is to unleash subconscious responses in audiences and performers that were normally inaccessible. Audiences find in it not an area for escape from the world, but the realization of their worst nightmares and deepest fears. The play aims to provoke conditions that would face the release of primitive instincts that are hidden beneath the civilized social veneer masking all human behavior. This is achieved by recreating strong and dark imagery and rejecting rational interpretations. Irrational impulses, stimulated by suffering and pain, are employed to increase a sense of danger, violence and disorientation in the audience. The concept of cruelty is not sadistic, but is an access to what is honest and true, and the cruelty required a rigor and determination that was necessary if performers and audiences were to confront and experience the dark terrifying corners that lay at the heart of each human being.

So, in this age of reproduction of self-deception, are we approaching the end of history when nothing new happens any more outside of the recycling of the old narratives from the historical waste bin? In all likelihood, no. At least not in a conventional sense. However, as we seek to find absolution in the past and history reduces to waste management, its flow will change. Irreversibly. The narrowing down of history to current events transforms history into the real time of the news. The event, which is measured neither by its own causes nor its consequences but creates its own stage and its own dramatic effect no longer exists[8].

There will be no end to anything, all these things will continue to unfold slowly, tediously, recurrently, like nails and hair which continue to grow after death[9].

[1] Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, ICS Press (1990)

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power,

[3] Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community, ICS Press (1990)

[4] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Stanford University Press (1994)

[5] Jean Baudrillard and Sylvère Lotringer (Editor), The conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e) (2005)

[6] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End

[7] Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire: A Sotie, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[8] Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

[9] Jean Baudrillard, ibid.

Populism as space travel

9. VI 2018

Populism consists of the simultaneous embrace and denial of shit.

The history of populism is a repository of failed missions — a true destination of the populist journey is really a problem of imagination. For the most part of his literary opus, post-modern Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin has been trying to imagine social settings which represent life consistent with alternative and unconventional rules. One such example is offered in his novel “The Norm”, where the Soviet style populism, packed as the vulgar materialistic interpretation of “pseudo-egalitarian” dystopia has settled in and been allowed to blossom to its final consequences. The book was written in the 1980s, when the system’s imminent end was not palpable, and the writer described its long-term trajectory, the very journey of the Soviet “deep space mission”.

“The Norm” is the name for a piece of food that every Soviet citizen considers important, even prestigious to possess, taste, chew, and eat, notwithstanding the fact that it smells bad, almost like excrement. The book is a series of vignettes linked by a moment in each when a character unwraps his or her ration of a substance called “the norm.” It stinks and tastes awful. Children especially hate it, but they, like everyone else, swallow their daily dose. It’s shit, of course, actual human excrement—a pungent symbol of the requisite humiliations of the Soviet system and, perhaps, of life in any oppressive collectivity. Ours included. [1]

There is no rule that says rules cannot be broken

It remains one of the great ironies of the post-1968 West that massive waves of liberation on all fronts ultimately only paved the way for hegemony. This resulted in a drastic reshaping of the possible modes of contestation of different forms of power. How does one rebel against the all-permissive system that shows absolute hegemonic dominance where saying no is meaningless and inconsequential and where resistance is futile? Oppression can be overturned by revolution, but hegemony cannot – it has to be toppled from within. For a rapidly growing majority of those pushed outside of the (shrinking) enclosure of prosperity whose future is collapsing under the crunch of status quo, there is no hope for change. For them, life on this “planet” is no longer possible. The only mode of resistance is rebellion against the established rules.

The world has already seen this type resistance on the global geopolitical scene as a total collective refusal to play by the rules of the neo-liberal world order. The regimes which have refused to follow the established conventions are not new, from Castro and Khomeini, to Iraq, North Africa, Afghanistan and North Korea. The novelty brought in by the rise of the right-wing populism in the West is that it comes from the part of the world that has been the staunchest defender of those rules and is now championing their dismantling.

The war on rules is a decision to exorcise oneself from the existing order of things – it is a declaration of war on oneself, a suicide mission of sorts. It is an exile to another “planet”. Any political or religious leader willing to undertake this mission on behalf of the excluded, is likely to forge a special pact between himself and his constituents. The implicit sacrificial obligation of this commitment, by its very nature, makes that person immune to any defection, or ideological or material corruption, and secures an unconditional, cult-like devotion and support from his following. Even if facts and reality point to his flaws, corruptibility or dishonesty, his commitment alone will ensure a practically unlimited political credit line.

Populism, like space travel, is sustained by the hope that life on another planet is possible. Populist leaders and their followers are faced with the same dilemmas as space travelers. They all carry the willingness to leave the world as we know it and embark on a potentially fatal journey, even if the probability of success is infinitesimal. And that willingness is the most radical act of rule breaking and an absolute weapon against the system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death.

As long as the leaders stick to their promises, people will cut them slack. Populism’s main agenda is continuous breaking of the rules. The more politically damning their actions, the stronger their commitment appears. The more blatant disrespect for the established conventions and rules they show, no matter how futile and meaningless those empty gestures might be, the firmer the bond between populist leaders and their followers. What is normally perceived as a political suicide becomes the main engine of popularity.

Shit as a universal reference frame

The integrity of our lives, as we know them, is sustained by an extraordinarily fine-tuned set of rules and parameters. Disturbing the rules even slightly leads to qualitative changes. If our body’s temperature changes by one degree, we get sick, if it rises by more than four degrees, we are very likely to die. Inventing new rules means inventing new forms of life[2].

This link between rules and life is the aspect populist leaders, predominantly the right-wing kind, and their followers show no capacity for understanding – their most distinguishing trademark is a deafening cognitive dissonance. But what kind of life can we expect on the populist planet? On Mars, for example, the gravitational constant is three times lower than on Earth and water there boils at 10 degrees Celsius, so no coffee, and no hardboiled eggs for starters. Everyone is at least eight feet tall, their bone density different, blood flow probably seriously compromised, and who knows how that affects the brain.

Embracing new rules, like embarking on a deep space mission, requires a voluntary participation ritual. Sorokin’s book, The Norm, describes precisely such ritualized participation. However, as outlandish as it sounds, the book’s extrapolation is not far-removed from our reality. Rules that govern our lives also regulate the flow of shit, its path and direction, how it disappears and how it resurfaces in different forms[3]. We use shit to fertilize soil and grow plants; animals eat those plants and we eat both animals and plants. However, there is a clear protocol in these circular flows. They are important. Changing the rules even slightly profoundly affects our lives.

Like space travel[4], populism approaches shit rationally by throwing it (with everything else) into the big optimizer. The difference between Sorokin’s dystopia and our world is condensed in minor changes in the rules of shit-flow, by cutting the “middleman”. Such approach is hardly a surprise, given the decades of reign of the ideology where the requirement of economic optimization is elevated to a general political principle whereby the system of economic production is also a system of anthropological production[5] — an extension of market rationality to existence in its entirety. The recycling bin of this ideology is the actual birth place of the right-wing populism — a political maneuver championed by the mid-level segment of the oligarchic structure, posing as self-proclaimed defenders of the excluded and purveyors of ideological snake oil for the poor. Their platform is founded on the long ago rejected “free-market” dogmas, which nobody (including them) takes seriously anymore, alive only thanks to the life support provided by the new identity politics.

[1] Ben Ehrenreich, Vladimir Sorokin’s Absurdist Excess, The Nation (4-Feb-2016)

[2] Heterotopias are reminders of this link, as Michel Foucault outlined in his 1967 essay, Des espaces autres, Hétérotopies. They represent real sites that can be found within the culture where social rules and interactions are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted, e.g. boarding schools, in their nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men; heterotopias of deviation like rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons; brothels, puritan societies established by the English settlers in America, or Jesuit colonies founded in South America in which “human perfection” was effectively achieved. Life in these communities is significantly different from that on the outside, but the underlying rules governing them are only slight variations of ours.

[3] This is a deep ideological terrain – different cultures are distinguished by the way they dispose of their shit (the comparative architecture of German and French toilettes is probably the most eloquent summary of the differences between the two cultures).

[4] When it comes to manned deep space missions, bringing food supplies from Earth would take up valuable space aboard the spacecraft as well as increase fuel consumption, which is why scientists are searching for a more economical solution by growing or generating food en route. Astronauts on their way to Mars may be required to eat their own waste in the form of a recycled paste. The innovation is being touted as a possible nutritional solution for long-term manned space missions.

[5] P. Dardot and C. Laval, La nouvelle raison du monde, La Découverte (2010)

Scandal and power: Pornographication of politics and social life

23. V 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] B. C. Han

Digital panopticon and the triumph of the unfree will

22. IV 2018

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.

Perfect crimes & misdemeanors: The politics of inflated balloons

21. III 2018

If I throw a ball to someone at the other end of the room, that person will be able to catch it by anticipating its approximate path. The key aspect of the underlying heuristics is that a small error in the catchers’ judgment will have a small impact on the point at which the ball lands, to which they will be able to adjust as the ball approaches.

This would be impossible if I were to replace the ball with a balloon, blow it up, hold it out, and release it. As the balloon sputters and darts around the room in a chaotic path, its trajectory will be impossible to anticipate. Although both objects, the ball and the balloon, follow Newton’s laws of motion, their behaviors are quite different.

In chaotic systems (inflated balloons), as time goes forward, everything is moving away from everything else. This ever-widening divide means that if you are trying to predict the future behavior of a chaotic system, errors in initial measurements become overwhelming as time progresses — if there is any error at all in our initial measurements, our long-term predictions will be absurdly wrong.

When one puts an inflated balloon in a presidential seat, and his political strategy boils down to using chaos as a catalyst to push the existing political and ideological systems to their breaking point, consequences of that misguided approach cannot be foreseen and, as such, cannot amount to a socially positive outcome.

This seemingly strange idea of forcing a change by destruction is neither new nor original. It was first outlined in the works of the 19th century French thinkers — Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi offers a good example — and developed further by the post-modernists and finally crystallized by Jean Baudrillard: Total revolution is a strategy geared to escalate the system and push it to its breaking point. Then, giving up on every pretense of rationality, it starts revolving and achieves in the process a circularity of its own. The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theater of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage. Life is being exchanged for nothing, for a handful of glittering toys, work absorbs time like a sponge and leaves no traces. The system itself becomes the exterminator.

Chaos is destruction of the future — only what is simultaneous counts. Political chaos cannibalizes itself — it reflects a disregard for the long-term effects of the present actions — last week’s developments become irrelevant and inconsequential in light of yesterday’s headlines. Society loses sight of its future and, without a clear vision of the future, the present cannot take off.

The future is based on responsibility and responsibility presupposes obligation. As such, it reflects an act of making a promise or showing trust. Such acts hold and stabilize the future. In contrast, chaos promotes non-bindingness, arbitrariness and the short term[1]. The absolute precedence and priority of the present is the hallmark of the current political landscape. It is scattering time into mere sequence of disposable presents. The future is degrading into an optimized present.

Chaos is simultaneity and irresponsibility at the same time. It is the perfect crime perpetuated on time[2].

 

[1] B. C. Han, Im Schwarm: Ansichten des Digitalen, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2013)

[2] Paul Virilio

Identity crises and four modes of misogyny

24. XII 2017

When it came to political revolution against an autocracy only a privileged minority had something to gain by resisting the forces of change, but in changing the relationship of men to women every man, rich or poor, stands to lose by a change.[1]

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 and/or cultural code. One of Franco Berardi’s persistent themes has been the idea that deterritorialization results in a disconnect of people from their identity code. Movements of reterritorialization are always manifested through rituals of aggressive re-identification (e.g. violence, racism, war,…). Fascism is the fundamental obsession with identity, origin and belonging (and recognizability). It is generally inclusive, which reflects a fear of small numbers — it likes size because identity robustness had been eroded by the defection and erosion of ranks. Fascism absorbs everyone willing to join in and expresses hostility to outsiders – burning bridges reinforces commitment to the identity[2].

Every response to identity crisis, every identitarian fantasy and obsession is accompanied with a distinct mode of misogyny. There are four main modes of misogyny that relate to the underlying types of identity loss: Traditional patriarchal, Italian fascist, National socialist, and American.

Patriarchal setting: Linear misogyny

There is a relatively narrow spectrum here. All patriarchal structures have a certain degree of hostility towards women; they only differ by mode and intensity. The hostility is particularly palpable in monotheistic religions, which carry strong overtones of repressed (male) homosexuality. In that particular aspect, radical Islam goes further than other religions which show more restraint and apparent tolerance. The quarrels between Islam and Western conservative Christian societies when it comes to the position of women is only about the mode and extent of repression: How much freedom should women have and how explicit the boundaries should be; should women not be allowed to work at all or should they only be paid less than men for their work[3].

This is the world where there is no place for a woman outside of her reproductive role. However, men are expected to couple with women – they must perform their reproductive community service – which they do, often against their desires. Muslim women are removed from men’s sight by being forced to cover their faces and bodies – men don’t want to be reminded of their existence. Hassidic Jewish communities, on the other hand, have a somewhat subtler approach. Their women are all forced to wear identical wigs and clothes, to have the same appearance. They become “invisible” by being indistinguishable. Any sign of distinction or sexuality is inhibited. Physical contact is purely for reproductive purpose, stripped of sexual connotation as much as possible and minimized direct contact. The hostility is supported by sustained subliminal narrative of their impurity, the fear of menstruation and need for special cleansing rituals in those days.

Defeminization of society: Italian fascism

Although women are intrinsically linked to man’s mobility, their deserving role in that department has been lost with time thanks to persistent development of elaborate institutions of women’s repression. Velocity and acceleration became synonymous with the modern tools of male potency. Franco Berardi gives an insider’s perspective on how this trend created fertile ground for both fascism and misogyny in Italy: One cannot understand Italian fascism if one does not start from the need for defeminization of cultural self-perception. Italians have always regarded themselves from a feminine perspective. The greatness of Italian culture is its femininity, Mediterranean sweetness, taste for life, tenderness, and slowness[4].

Towards mid-19th century, Italian national culture became ashamed of its peaceful femininity and began inoculating itself with testosterone. Fascism in Italy represents the turning point from feminine self-perception to masculine assertiveness. It is defined by a need for erasing feminine self-perception together with its Mediterranean sensitivity, and affirming a different self-image based on acceleration. National pride, military aggressivity, industrial growth, etc. was all fake and artificial; this is why Italian fascism is often perceived as a farce. The result was a ridiculous display of machismo perfectly embodied by such clowns as Mussolini and Berlusconi[5].

Subordination to higher cause: National Socialism

Unlike Italian fascism (or Islamofascism for that matter), which is inclusive, National Socialism is based on the denial of humanity to the Other — it has clearly defined boundaries and highly restrictive admission rules, accessible only to the chosen. Like any other identitarian movement, it likes size (and large numbers), but it has a different plan for achieving those goals, by growing from within. This is where women come in.

German fascism 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, to serve the numbers.

This produced a nationwide program for the advancement of national health and racial purity, and general physical and mental fitness, the eroticization of masculinity personified by soldiers, and women’s subordinate role in that context. While these attributes had never gone out of vogue completely, their systematization had never reached the same proportions as in Germany during the 1930s.

Although this program was short lived and with tragic consequences, remnants of the institutions of women’s repression and exclusion lingered on for the remainder of the 20th century. Until well into the 1990’s all shops, including food, operated on stubbornly inflexible schedules incompatible with the idea of working mothers, all closing by 6pm on weekdays, and 2pm on Saturdays (closed on Sundays). All this in a Germany that was rebuilding at an accelerated pace and notoriously lacking a labor force, needing to import a large contingent of foreign workers to fill that gap. It took enormous effort and a long time to “modernize” and adapt it to contemporary standards where working women and fully functional families became compatible with each other.

Decomplexified femininity and nostalgia for idiot housewives: American misogyny

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. (Eva Figes)

American-style misogyny and the underlying identity crisis behind it is effectively a composite of the three previous examples, enhanced with additional layers of an ideological mindfuck, required to tackle complexities that developed during the late stages of neoliberalism. While 21st century America has incorporated new advances in communications and media techniques into all aspects of social and political life, in many ways it is still struggling to shake off backwards-patriarchal attitudes and its inability to fully embrace the social emancipation consistent with modernity.

In the decades of all-inclusive and all-permissive (ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural) neoliberalism the masculine core of American culture, its male assertiveness, aggressivity, and impulsiveness, had been diluted. The essence of America was emasculated, its survival threatened.

White American males have always been in charge. They made the rules and they called the shots in the workplace, in the home and at the ballot box. They’ve owned the world for so long and have been getting increasingly uncomfortable as their grip on power had been eroding. Now the unthinkable is happening: They are becoming the minority. For the first time more minority babies were born than white babies (it is damn numbers again)! And a black president has served two terms, his Secretary of State was a woman, the most educated segment of the society are black women, and every other daytime talk show or news anchor is gay. This is what conservatives are really upset about. Suddenly this country is way off the main path; the whole system needs to be restored and some reset buttons need to be pushed.

The problem requires a systematic approach. Restoring order means the resolute masculinization of society (of course). This should start by arming men with weapons – the more lethal, the more masculine they are – establishing male supremacy values (this has worked since the Stone Age, and it should continue to work in the 21st century as well) and establishing a fear of god — this helps the male cause because god is a dude (white, of course).

As a part of the masculinization program and return of patriarchal values, assault on women’s rights and their position in society must be thorough and systematic – women’s emancipation has to be undone. However, this part requires a subtle approach and proper framing — women must not be antagonized; they are many and they vote. The most effective way is to strike at the root of a woman’s influence.

No one has more influence on a person during his/her 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. With the help of proper framing, this becomes the theme that defines the core of the right wing identity, an issue slowly hijacked by (predominantly white) men. They have the view, they feel righteous and they present themselves as defenders of human life while women take a back seat.

Decomplexified femininity

Feminism is here to stay, so it has to be incorporated into the new model of woman. Femininity needs to be redefined and decomplexified. The latest right wing assault on women’s emancipation process was the introduction of the MILFs of the new rank[6] into political life. There are two essential groups. Sarah Palin, NRA women Dana Loesch, Michelle Buchman, Omarosa… are typical representatives of the first kind. These women impassion America, they bring a new Eros to politics. They embody “post-feminist” femininity without a complex, uniting the features of mother, teacher (glasses, hair in a bun), public person, and, implicitly, sex object, and, with a dash of their oversexed vulgarity, reinforce the existing cultural boundaries. The message is that they “have it all” — and that, to add insult to injury, these are Republican women who, in some metric, had realized the left-liberal dream.

The second kind, the lower echelon, like Jane Porter, Roy Moore’s wife, Sarah Hucka-San, Katrina Pearson, have a slightly different appeal: Their trailer park pedigree and manifest lack of interest for any semblance of intellectual integrity and sophistication are paraded and advertised as an integral part of the entire value system. These are the women who perfectly fit the backwards patriarchal model, with a dash of modernity. Their little secret is that their popularity comes predominantly from white men. All others – minorities, women, democrats, non-white men — hate them. Only white men like them. These women represent something those men miss dearly: The traditional idiot housewife.[7]

As the ranks of the successful and prosperous are shirking in the face of rampant inequality, the number of those that are left behind and can no longer be reintegrated into the society swells. The numbers are there, they just have to be bundled together under one umbrella. The two opposite sides, super rich and poor, have to be united despite conflicting interests. And so, the need for the eroticization of stupidity grows, as the existing ideology becomes increasingly more difficult to sell. Without a functioning liberal class, the anger among the working and the middle class is being expressed in ideologies that detest democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy. The right wing populist narrative gains traction and with new constituents gradually finds its way to the ballot box. White trash becomes fully engaged in their dual role as booth the victims and their own executioners.

Rage capital is ready for picking. It is harvest time.

[1] John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, Penguin Classics (2007)

[2] Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, Verso (2015)

[3] A particularly sharp treatment of the subject dealing with proximity of the conservative Christian and radical Islamic worldviews can be found in Michel Houllebecq, Submission, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)

[4] Franco Berardi, After the Future, AK Press (2011)

[5] Franco Berardi, ibid.

[6] Jacques-Alain Miller, Sarah Palin: Operation “Castration”, in Lacan dot com (2008)

[7] Jacques-Alain Miller, ibid.

Organs without bodies: Symbolic reattachment & hystericization of American politics

20.VI 2017

Phallus is not an organ that expresses the vital force of my being, but an insignia that I put on in the same way king puts on his crown. Phallus is an organ without body, which gets attached to my body, but never becomes its organic part, forever sticking out as its incoherent excessive prosthesis. [S. Žižek]

If a king holds a scepter in his hands (no matter how small they might be) and wears the crown, his words are taken as royal. Such insignia are external, not part of who he really is. He wears them to exercise power. As such, they define the gap between what he actually is and the function he exercises[1]. But, what remains of the real person if the symbolic title is taken away? This question becomes the center of the neurosis of power. Imagine a corrupt judge: I know very well that the person in front of me is a corrupted weakling, but I nonetheless treat him respectfully, since he wears the insignia of a judge — when he speaks, it is the law itself that speaks through him. However, when he takes off his toga and steps out of the courtroom, he is nobody.

Symbolic castration is the gap between a real/actual person and his symbolic title. The gap is irreducible — the symbolic persona always dominates the real one. This is the fundamental dichotomy of symbolic castration. It is synonymous with power as it gives power to the person who is castrated, but that transaction comes with castration as its price. The actual subject cannot ever fully identify with the symbolic mask or title (phallus never loses its autonomy) and his questioning of the symbolic title becomes the center of hysteria[2].

Donald Trump’s presidency is the hystericization of American politics. He represents a case of an attempted symbolic reattachment — a reverse of symbolic castration — a desire to reduce the irreducible, which gives his presidency an aura of a logical paradox. Trump’s determination to undermine his symbolic self has become especially clear in the last two months: The presidential tweets are screaming of self-sabotage, and the display of conflicts of interests is just too obvious and explicitly self-incriminating to be unintentional. The nonlinearity of his relationship with facts and his propensity to lie have reached alarming proportions; it is unlike anything we have seen in the public life of western democracies. The antagonism of the press and media, which seems to be continuing with unrestrained intensity, has created massive negative externalities for the entire administration. The absence of any foresight in his conduct is stunning: It does not take much thought to realize that this could have never produced any positive effects for his presidency. Same goes for his compulsive divisiveness of the populace, and deliberate undermining of his allies, his staff, and supporters, which has isolated him to the point that no one wants to work with or for him. There is no one who takes him seriously any more — he is the laughing stock of the entire world and a butt of every joke. He seems to take some pride in helping in the process of the collective ritual of public denigration of his presidency. One can sense something almost vindictive in his pursuit of the symbolic self.

Trump’s conduct is a suicide from the ambush. What in the one-dimensional space of his subjectivity appears as logically obscure suddenly becomes transparent once the real and the symbolic are identified and separated. His presidency represents a rebellion of the hysterical person against his symbolic persona, an attempt of Donald Trump the citizen to take out Donald Trump the president — an assassination of the symbolic self – a desire to re-attach phallus to the body.

Politics, economics, society, and collective reality are temporarily suspended as the public is caught in this spectacle of self-annihilation. No one knows how to react, because this play has never been played before. Such intrapersonal conflicts and battles normally take place in the privacy of the analyst’s office, away from the public eye. We are now watching its premier in real time.

As Immanuel Wallerstein remarked in his June commentary, Trump equates his presidential position with being the most powerful individual in the world. For him, the main priority is to stay in the office as long as possible (everything else is secondary). True. And, this will go on until real Donald Trump scores a victory by firing his symbolic self and when, at the end, there is only one of them standing — real Donald Trump.

Trump has converted our political and social reality into a reality show featuring his personal encounter with his symbolic persona as the main (and possibly the only) attraction. It is no wonder that people have felt violated from his first day in office. His presidency is a subversion of our experience of reality. His desire for self-annihilation will drag everyone into the vortex of the Vanishing Point. From there we will be able to imagine what the world looks like in our absence, and to see beyond the end and beyond the subject.

[1] S. Žižek, How to read Lacan, (2007) W. W. Norton & Co.

[2] ibid.

Event horizon and the physics of Donald Trump

8.VI 2017

Donald Trump is like a new celestial formation, a cognitive black hole, a strange attractor, and a quantum-mechanical paradox, all at the same time. He has a unique way of distorting the social space around him. Everyone who enters his event horizon begins to not make sense. There is something terminal about coming too close to Trump. The list of casualties who have crossed the point of no return, and became permanently trapped on the other side, is getting longer every day. Trump is a new phenomenon whose functioning falls into domains of exotic physical theories. Here are some theoretical requirements for understanding the strange cosmology of his universe.

Compared to classical physics which guides our intuition, the general theory of relativity is like playing billiards on a soft table (think: jello). Each stationary ball creates local distortions on the table’s surface (picture) – the area around each ball is curved due to the indentations it produces. When the white ball is kicked, it is the local curvature around each ball, which causes it to make a bend precisely when it wants to get directly at the stationary ball. From the point of view of the white ball, the curvature is primary and matter (stationary balls) serves only to herald its presence.

Paralax2

Nothing is where it appears to be: The curvature of the space is a source of an apparent displacement of objects; it causes moving bodies to make a bend precisely when they want to get directly at the object. caption

Imagine now that one of the stationary balls on the table becomes very heavy and shrinks in size. The dent around it becomes deeper and more pronounced, and the heavier and the more concentrated its mass, the deeper the dent. So, if the white ball passes slowly and comes closely, it will be “sucked” in. The fall into the singularity can be avoided only if the ball’s speed exceeds the escape velocity.

The presence of concentrated mass defines the event horizon. The event horizon of a black hole separates two permanently disconnected regions. It is the shell of “points of no return”, a boundary beyond which the gravitational pull becomes so great that it makes escape impossible. Nothing can escape the event horizon of the black hole – the escape velocity is greater than the speed of light – what happens inside cannot affect an outside observer.

black-hole-diagram

Once something is inside the event horizon, collapse into the black hole is inevitable

Donald Trump is a political black hole. He is a cognitive singularity, an intellectual triviality with complex consequences — a source of curvature of the social space that makes everything look displaced.

The strange matter of Trump’s universe

Information entering a black hole is lost forever

Whoever comes within Trump’s event horizon becomes afflicted with the same cognitive incapacity as Trump himself. There is a long list of transient (and a shorter list of persistent) surrogates, all of them disposable victims of cognitive asphyxiation: Kellyanne, both Steves, Giuliani, Christie, Newt, Ben Carson, Jeffrey Lord, and a long list of anonymous spokespersons. Not that these people were ever beacons of rationality, but they have broken new boundaries and set new records after entering the domain of Donald Trump. These creatures thrive in the space between real news and reality TV. They roam different mediascapes, mostly to boost the ratings of the mainstream networks — people tune in only to see the spectacle of public humiliation. And the list does not stop there. Now, even former bankers, Cohn and Mnuchin, who, one can argue, may be ethically challenged, but are nominally still highly rational, they are not making any sense either, even when it comes to counting money.

One-child-left-behind

But no one has experienced the gravitational crush of Trump’s black hole like Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, the Sisyphus of morons who performs the same futile task day after day, repeatedly trying (and failing) to convince the public that verifiable lies are truths and that palpable truths are lies. His press briefings have become a spectacle no one wants to miss, and a guilty pleasure of liberals and Trump haters. People tune in to be entertained, not to get informed. Over the course of time, the public has developed a certain emotional attachment to him, bordering on empathy, but not exactly; something along the lines you would feel about the bulldog your girlfriend gave you: He is fun to play with and you want to love him, but he makes a point of shitting in your living room, not occasionally, but every day. As it is becoming clear that under the existing criteria of this administration his gross incompetence will never be grounds for dismissal, there are active debates about the mode of his exit from the scene.

Divided subject is inconsistent with itself

Trump is the embodiment of the divided subject of American politics. On one side, he suspends the gravity of the Real and sets in motion the weightless state of a facts-free universe, while on the other, the singularity of his cognitive incapacity crushes everything that comes within his event horizon. He is the sugardaddy of alternative reality. He attracts people as a political novelty by offering a taste of the other side. He tempts them with fruit from the tree of ignorance. And the more fruit they eat, the more they need.

Trump’s base, which pretty much has been functioning as a doomsday cult, constitutes the core of the strange matter of his universe. These people have entered Trump’s event horizon from which escape is impossible. They are passengers on a boat approaching the waterfall – they notice nothing at the time when the boat crosses the boundary of no return, but the boat is doomed to go over the waterfall.

Coda

Trump is an event in a true sense of the word – he divides the time into before and after. It is difficult to remember our lives before Trump announced his candidacy. What did newspapers write about? What did news media report on? What was tweeting like? What kind of jokes did comedians tell? And what did people disagree about before they were unified in their hatred of Trump? Crowds and media hate him, but they cannot resist him. Life without him is becoming impossible to imagine. The whole nation will be depressed if he ever goes away.