Tag Archives: #socialdeficit

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.


A hole in the head: The fetishism of a failed state

20. III 2017

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 (Jean Baudrillard)

Trepanation is an ancient procedure, second oldest after circumcision, in which a hole is drilled into the skull. People have been doing it for thousands of years in order to relieve headaches, seizures and various mental disorders, or as a ritualistic practice in which the shamans, the kings and the priests were trepanned in order to access new levels of consciousness. There is no scientific evidence that trepanning has any tangible benefits. Its proponents believe in a natural equilibrium between the brain and the rest of the universe that can be described poetically in pre-modern terms as “letting light in” or “letting devils out”. [1]One of the most highly publicized examples of trepanation in modern times dates back to the early 1970s. After years of experimentation with a range of hallucinogenics (and guided by deeply seeded cranial claustrophobia), in search of a new/permanent high, 27-year old Amanda Feilding performed self-trepanation by drilling a hole in her forehead with an electrical drill with a flat bottom and a foot pedal, while her partner filmed the entire event with an 8mm camera. She described the effect of trepanation at the time as a radical change in her consciousness comparing it to the tide coming in.

Almost half a century later, another quest for a new equilibrium is being staged. For several decades now, with the help of neoliberalism and globalization, Western oligarchs have enjoyed unprecedented positive externalities for their wealth accumulation. However, those positive externalities came at considerable social costs. As oligarchic wealth swelled, so did the social deficits they created; their compounding grew until their cumulative effect became so substantial that it began to undermine the normal functioning of the system. With time, the system’s legitimation became the main problem and with it the issue of the excess population — the growing volume of the population made redundant by neoliberalism’s global triumph whose size is now exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet. This has gained new urgency in the last decade as it became clear that democratic process has become incompatible with the oligarchic program, while force, tried many times before, is found to be a highly inefficient and expensive way of maintaining stability.

In the same way a hole in the head was an organic, non-chemically induced high for the 60s generation, the quest for a new social equilibrium is a permanent oligarchic high. State and ideology were no longer sufficient to satiate the appetite for wealth accumulation (or a need for its preservation). A new natural order was needed and, for that to happen, one had to remove the remaining barriers, break some bones and spill some blood. As the ideologically driven oligarchic high began to taper off, after reaching its peak during the last decades of globalized neoliberalism, a quest to find new levels of social consciousness gained new urgency. Ironically, the breakdown of communism – the ultimate triumph of neoliberal ideology – offered clues for how to proceed and how to define a search for a new equilibrium.

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

To a western mind, brought up on protestant ethics of hard work, such a transformation was difficult to grasp. Russian oligarchs represent a hybrid of communist apparatchiks, government bureaucrats, and strictly small-time criminals, sub-mediocrity in every aspect of their existence – nothing remarkable about them. Yet, they became an embodiment of an ultimate America dream. People who lived all their lives in isolation, had no knowledge or even exposure to business know-how, had no place or opportunities to learn about it, and lived close to what in America would be considered poverty level, emerged as super-rich. With time, it became clear that this puzzling transformation was not about the people, but about the actual conditions created by the collapse. This realization resonated hard with the aspiring American oligarchs, temporarily embarrassed billionaires, nouveau riche, and those who are always ready to operate on the margins of law, now struggling to ride Donald Trump’s coattails. Very early on, it became apparent that failed states create conditions of unimaginable business opportunities, a realization which became the primary driving force behind the fetish of the smaller government perpetuated by the American right.

Engineering failed states everywhere, and thus creating a global disequilibrium that would create chaos and force or accelerate a change became a signature strategy of American global politics in its late neoliberal phase. It reflected the interests of global oligarchies, a political trajectory that, using Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology, could be described as democratic fascism — a 20% of the world keeps the remaining 80% in submission – an old wine in new bottles already tried out with different ratios and failing because of the flawed math. This project got new wind in the 1990s and continued to accelerate ever since capturing the post-communist Soviet block and spreading to the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa, while in the West it showed up domestically in waves manifesting itself through various forms of identity politics and irrupting tensions between the global oligarchy and the right-wing populist implementations of the neo-feudal vision of the world.

This seemingly strange idea of forcing a change by destruction was first outlined in the works of the 19th century French thinkers (e.g. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi), 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.

It is not difficult to recognize shades of this pattern in the political life of the developed world of the last year. The tide is coming in. For over two decades, the quest for a new order from chaos and dis-equilibrium – letting light in & devils out — has been operating full force away from home. Everybody has a hole in the head or is about to get one drilled, UK being the latest example, while France apparently eager to follow (Dutch got cold feet recently and decided not to rush with it). The time has come now for the next and possibly final step in an ongoing global transformation process for America to perform this bizarre experiment on itself. The unmistakable similarity between the mixture of the self-anesthetizing euphoria coupled with the cranial draft of the first two months of Trump’s presidency, and that experienced during a DIY trepanation seems to suggest that this process is well underway.

Even after all these years, Amanda Feilding, now Countess of Wemyss and March, wife of the landowning 13th Earl (he, too, has a hole in his head), and a friend of the Royal Family, has not abandoned her belief in the ancient practice of trepanning — drilling a hole in the skull — or her hope that it will one day gain the acceptance and legitimacy it deserves. She must be enjoying the spectacle.

[1] The higher state of mind sought by trepanation is that of childhood: When a baby is born, the top of the skull is soft and flexible. As a baby ages, the skull bones close which inhibits the full pulsation of the heartbeat, believed to be responsible for a wide range of problems and anxieties that come with the adult life.