Tag Archives: #socialchange

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.

Summer of cognitive instability: From Hendrix to Trump

27. VIII 2017

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

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

1977 — summer of Sam, disco, and Studio 54

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

1997 — Asian crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.