Tag Archives: #Technology

Asynchronous Wars & the Technology of Killing

1.VII 2022

If enemy’s body can no longer be liquidated with direct hits, then the attacker is forced to make his continued existence impossible by his direct immersion in an unlivable milieu for a sufficiently long time. (Peter Sloterdijk)

Our bodies consist of organs and technology acts as a prosthetic, allowing us to go where we otherwise could not have imagined. Shoes, autos, planes, telescopes, microscopes, hammers, axes, guns, Viagra, and other tools and weapons are all extensions of our organs that allow for new experiences and more efficient management of time for the purpose of travel, vision, work or killing. Technology changes the flow of time, shortens distances, makes the unimaginable doable, impossible efficient. It defines the way reality reveals itself to us.

However, despite the enormous advantages technology brings, it does not come free of charge. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck. Invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash; nuclear power plant of nuclear meltdown[1]. One cannot innovate without creating some damage. The 20th century has been celebrated as a period with the highest concentration of innovations in history with the most far-reaching consequences. It was also the time of the greatest expressions of large-scale violence and killing, most of them with a direct link to those innovations.

When seen from an angle of technology of killing and techniques of death, the 20th century will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy’s environment[2]. This shift completely changed the concept of war; it altered its logic and gave it new grammar. Wars could now be waged between opponents of vastly different strength, which in turn means that wars could be triggered at any point of time, or on any terrain, without significant armed forces or war machinery and with modest financing. In the last hundred years, the implementation of this new strategy of targeting enemy’s environment went through three phases. These three phases capture a gradual buildup of layers of abstraction in the evolution of the warfare, which, contrary to their appearance, reveal a regressive pattern of relapse to its barbaric mode of pre-thymotic pillage.

PHASE ONE: From destruction of bodies to destruction of the environment

The 20th century’s dawn falls on 22-April-1915 at the battle of Ypres, when a special German gas regiment launched their first operation against the allied troops using chlorine gas as a weapon. This was the first time poisonous gas had been used on a large scale. It was at this moment that war shifted from destruction of soldiers’ bodies to destruction of their landscape. When compared to the advancement from cold weapons to firearms, from swords to guns, which was a transition from blood on one’s hands to blood on the battlefield, the use of poisonous gas was a transition from bloody to bloodless warfare. As a consequence, acts of destruction became more efficient but, at the same time, appeared less barbaric, detached, and remote.

This mode of taking life quickly and silently found its place in times of peace. Executions by electric chair, in which a sentenced prisoner’s brain was fried by high voltage, was replaced by what was perceived as a more humane way of life extinction by internal asphyxiation triggered by inhalation of cyanide which blocked oxygen transport through blood.

The idea of efficient and “humane” killing underwent a perverse mutation during WWII when it was systematized for the purpose of the large-scale annihilation of ideologically dehumanized subjects. The mass killings in gas chambers evolved from the projects conducted by pest control units where efficiency was the primary goal. German chemist Fritz Haber, who served as the National Commissioner for Pest Control between the two world wars, the same person behind the invention of the gas used at Ypres, was responsible for developing Zyklon for the purpose of vermin extermination, which was later used (in its modified form as Zyklon B) in extermination camps. However, one of the most important objectives of extermination camps extended beyond mere efficiency; it was intended to protect soldiers of the firing squad from the trauma of killing other human beings.

PHASE TWO: Latency and destruction at the subatomic level

The search for an ever more efficient and potent means of destruction did not stop with gas warfare and extermination camps. It reached its apex towards the end of the WWII. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only a demonstration of the potency of the new weapon[l4] , but also an introduction of another layer of distancing between attackers and physical destruction. It highlighted a new dimension of landscape destruction beyond mere pulverization through effects of latency at higher resolution, making the landscape uninhabitable for years to come. The released radiation, which lingered on for years, was not just polluting the air, but also contaminating the microscopic level of the landscape, the waves and particles (much smaller than the air molecules) and continued to kill people slowly long after those who dropped the bomb could connect those deaths to their actions or were even alive.

Banalization of guilt

We are wired to kill, but we are also wired to feel bad about it. And as the killing and devastation become more massive, the associated guilt grows deeper with it. How to increase efficiency of killing while desensitizing the killers became a complicated optimization problem of utmost urgency. Technology provided simultaneously a solution to both sides of this issue and has continued to play a dual role in that context. Technology displaces things from what they originally are. Each thing that presents itself technologically loses its distinctive independence and form. A soldier is seen as an instrument of war (and a worker as an instrument of production), a human resource to be arranged, rearranged, and disposed of.

Pushing a button while sitting in a cockpit 30 thousand feet above the target or in a control room in a barracks outside of the gas chamber, without facing the victims, introduces a layer of abstraction into the process of killing and increases the physical and temporal distance between attackers and their target. To kill becomes a technocratic decision, which begins to resemble a “job” rather than a direct confrontation with a human adversary and, as such, removes the innate moral conflict associated with killing.

As the 20th century progressed and the aftertaste of WWII continued to linger, the world became more resolute in its desire to distance itself from its barbaric legacy. Wars, without which humans are incapable of living, had to be reframed and reformatted, and additional layers of abstraction introduced. They would continue to be waged – that was inevitable — but they had to become less direct and less violent, at least in appearance.

Truth and consequences of the new technological revolution: A digressive foreplay in three acts

The first chapter of globalization was defined by Magellan. Perhaps, the most groundbreaking realization of the project of circumventing the globe was not only a possibility of the journey, but that a return was possible as well. The arrival of 18 survivors, the remainder of the decimated crew of 270, no matter how small, demonstrated unambiguously that the other side of the Earth also had atmosphere, so one could breathe and survive the journey (this was far from obvious at the time) and that the seas were connected with their oceans, winds, and climate. Travel and return with a bounty of spices defined a new mode of capital multiplication aimed at satisfying the insatiable demand dictated by the refined palate of that period.

1: Rule without a ruler

Towards the end of the 20th century, the second chapter of globalization began its final metamorphosis, which outlined the contours of the new era. Information technology revolutionized our perception of space and time, the most radical in its scope and magnitude since Galileo. Time now flows differently and space is compactified, no longer a space of trajectories, but a global Network. Different geographies are transformed into its nodes, all points equidistant to each other and, in terms of informational transfer and communication, instantaneously accessible from any part of the Network. Through technology, the world became smaller, but within that world, things no longer had a fixed place; they were displaced and delocalized. Permanently and irreversibly.

By its construction, The Network has remained extraterritorial & ex-judicial  — not only unregulated, but with no one having capacity to regulate it. Without a global system of law and regulation, outmaneuvering legal obstacles defined the new paradigm of profit making. Crime became an essential part of every business leading gradually to the criminalization of the globe and the globalization of the crime where all states gradually began to gravitate towards failed states. 

The disappearance of borders resulted in the systematic deterritorialization of local geographies afflicted with identity erasure and eruptions of regressive politics. A socio-economic transformation of uprootedness and a reformation of the attitude towards habitat preservation was the most fundamental change in the early 21st century. Habitat became exchangeable and portable. Technology as prosthesis gave way to transplantation.

2: The new elite

The late 20th century marks a hasty coming out of a new class of ultra-rich. Rather than serving collective interests of society, like investing in economic progress, education, welfare or environment, the oligarchic activities of this new class have focused on the extraction of resources and the impoverishment of their own habitats. This has gone into overdrive in the Wild East, the emerging post-socialist Europe and Asia. As the old state structures of the region were falling apart, they were replaced by criminal surrogates designed to operate under new conditions, which the state apparatus itself created for their own advantages. In that process, the new emerging state became both referee and player in the game of oligarchic repositioning, a practice, which became a standard modus operandi of the third world but has gradually taken root in developed economies as well, with the United States leading the way in that direction.

The conversion of public trust into private wealth and money became routine. Greed was no longer (magically) converted into a public virtue – the old capitalism’s fairytale was dead and gone. The Keynesian bond that ties the profit of the rich to the wellbeing of the poor was severed during this process of oligarchic redistribution. It has cut the fate of the economic elites from that of the masses. Porous borders, created by globalization, allowed the undisturbed circulation and permanent displacement of, generally, illegitimately acquired wealth and money across different jurisdictions.

This became an environment especially favorable for the large scale and state-sponsored kleptocracies of the Wild East and third world, who drew substantial wealth from pillaging their own habitats, which they then invested and consumed abroad, where it remained sheltered from scrutiny.

Russia has gone the furthest in that direction. Given its territorial size (an area roughly equal to that of the United States and China combined), it is a relatively small economy ($1.7tr), smaller than Texas ($1.9tr). It is a very resource-rich territory with enormous, but unrealized, potential, a condition that has been maintained for more than a century. As a result of its post-communist transformation into a criminalized oligarchy, 1/3 of Russian GDP (about $500 billions) has ended in the hands of about 100 oligarchs. A significant fraction of that capital is largely exported outside of Russia and integrated into global finance and investments. To benchmark the magnitude of the $500-billion GDP loss that was taken from the Russian state, one should recall that during the 2008 global financial crisis, the US economy lost 4.3% of its GDP while during the great depression, 1929-1933, that loss was about 30%.

3: Global provision

Confident that they would outlive the social system that was making them rich, these actors of plutonomic capitalism no longer had to worry about national economic growth because their transnational fortunes grew without it. This was further catalyzed by the symbiotic forces creating strong tailwinds for further capital outflows from developed economies to the West, where they found increasingly favorable conditions for their wealth to prosper. The exit of the super-rich from their respective countries became possible and easy – they could take their money (most of it already outside) and move to another location, like Switzerland, the UK, or any country that gives them domicile and favorable tax treatment.

This is the logic of cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind – the global provision[3] of rescuing oneself and family by exiting with their wealth untouched – a unique option provided by globalization, which incentivizes the rich to move into endgame mode. While this has been mostly a game  played in the third world, the West is catching up rapidly.

PHASE THREE: The legitimization of pillage

You take my life/ When you take the means whereby I live (Shylock in Merchant of Venice)

The basic kinetic pattern of the age of globalization is capital departing from its location on a voyage around the Earth and returning with a surplus on its ledgers[4]. This pattern gets a new treatment with the late century technology. In contrast with the first phase of globalization, in the new era of global kleptocracy, capital no longer needs to circumvent the globe to multiply. Thanks to embedded global provision, it can be removed from the country of its origin to a zone where scrutiny of its acquisition can be avoided and where, through elaborate money laundering schemes, it can be integrated into the global financial system and its multiplication optimized through private wealth investments, foreign financial advisors, and money managers, or by sitting in warehouses of international duty-free zones as untaxed collateral.

However, this has not been a riskless maneuver, but merely a tradeoff between convenience and exposure. Despite all the riches new technology has created, it has exposed the global griftopian capital to predation by political adversaries. By its very nature, globalization has created the Achilles heel of thus acquired and displaced capital, which, as its size grows, becomes both more vulnerable and more attractive as a bounty.

This vulnerability defines a new phase of warfare: the freezing and seizing of assets by political adversaries, which, when combined with sanctions, becomes effectively a destruction of one’s economic habitat. So, the question is: How to create conditions for and declare an open season on foreign assets?

The absence of global law allows enormous arbitrariness in creating situations that are condemnable, and considerable flexibility around shaping a global consensus of condemnation. This presents a blueprint for the legitimization of the large-scale global pillage.

Creating conditions for war and asset freezes requires manufacturing an appropriate narrative that shapes subsequent actions. Those narrative presents a virtual layer, which ultimately legitimizes asset seizure by engineering political and/or humanitarian crises or augmenting and exploiting the existing ones. Places of massive oligarchic capital outflows present easy prey in that context. They function essentially as electoral dictatorships and have always had shaky records of humanitarian conditions, but during the initial phase of their capital’s transplantation and its multiplication abroad, these problems had always been temporarily overlooked.  

Provoked and fueled from the outside, the adversary is initially placed in a position where they cannot avoid making a series of suboptimal decisions, generally creating a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. In its initial phase, that usually starts with a crackdown on opposition and follows by seizing control of the media — an explosion in a chemical weapons factory is always convincing — and usually the bombing of hospitals, nurseries and innocent civilians, the rape of women, dead children, refugees etc. All these factors, which present massive red flags for the Western global conglomerate, are used to shape international consensus around the de-legitimation of the regime in the target country.

The first act of this play usually ends with a cathartic moment of either ritual execution of the strongman leader by domestic opposition his apprehension and a trial by international tribunals from whose jurisdiction the West has been excluded by design. This part signals that the stage has been set and that the plunder can begin.

We all remember Hussein, Gadhafi, or Noriega, who were taken out in this way because of (nonexistent) WMD, human rights violations, meddling into political affairs of the West or just for not paying the racket.

Russia is only the most recent example, which synthesizes all aspects of the underlying mechanism. A criminal utopia of with significant aspirations for global influence, it has become an unprecedented rogue player in the eyes of the developed West and a potentially dangerous competitor in energy production who interferes in domestic affairs, with a huge bounty already exported outside of its borders, ready to be taken away. The size and extent of their looted capital enabled Russian oligarchs to buy considerable political influence abroad. And as their capital grew, so did the appetite and ability to defend it by purchasing further political favors and influence. It was only a matter of time until the harvest would be declared. By freezing and seizing their assets and their partial excommunication from the international financial network, the West has practically forced Russia into a virtual default, impairing its ability to raise debt and wage war effectively, causing a gradual change in sentiment, the withdrawal of investments, and the loss of market share. It was a carefully crafted plan to get them stuck in a long war that they could not win and simultaneously destroying them economically and eliminating them as a global player for decades to come.

This was yet another instance where conflict could have been avoided were it not for the different preferences between the main decision-maker(s) and the rest of their country, a classic principal-agent problem whereby low-level criminal minds of the Russia’s leadership (former KGB operatives and communist apparatchiks) could not see beyond their own self-interests, defined through the obsession with benefits of savage capitalism and unconstrained capacity for looting, and align with the long-term wellbeing of the country.

The triangulation of a conflict

The new technology of death is no longer the physical and immediate destruction of the landscape of the adversary but turning off the life-supply faucet and its gradual and erosive decay due to economic deprivation, marginalization, and exodus of human capital. The war no longer involves just two adversaries, but requires a third party, the Victim, which completes the scene. The Victim, which can be either an internal opposition or external actor (e.g. another state),absorbs physical and human devastation. They are used as a human sacrifice at the altar of global capital, and the war, in its initial stage, is conducted as a precisely staged pagan ritual according to the strict rules that never change.

Reduced to a minimum between the two adversaries, violence and suffering is outsourced to the Victim. It is used only to trigger the initial step of the conflict aimed at shaping the global consensus of condemnation – because the civilized  world detests violence – and define the position of the Network against the perpetrator.

As war gets transformed from an art of unbearable sensations to economy of suspended rights, it becomes even less barbaric and more detached and remote, but at the same time, more to the point. The act of pillage is implemented without direct military confrontation — physical destruction of the Victim during the initial stage is merely its overture.

The seizing of assets is followed by sending them to the opposition or the victim state, who in turn use those funds to either buy arms from the West or hire their contractors and military consultants to train their troops and rebuild the infrastructure. Conflicts are no longer about people or about territory, but (like ancient wars of our barbaric past) about the benefits of pillage and its legitimation on the landscape of the global network. At the end, wars end up serving to boost demand in developed world.

When it comes to war, rational decision makers weigh potential gains and losses from it in the context of their objectives, beliefs, environmental considerations and existing constraints.  For war to occur, at least one of the two parties involved must see a net potential gain from war in given circumstances[5]. With current distribution of risk and return in international conflicts, for the developed West gains easily outweigh other considerations and war for them becomes a rational, and sometimes even an attractive, option.

In this game, the United States and the West become the Bermudan triangle on the global capital’s journey.

Barbarism as a universal reference frame

All the Western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority. (James Baldwin)

The term “barbarism” is the password that opens up the archives of the twentieth century[6]. Postmodernity has set a cultural aesthetic ideal in which barbarism is denied and everyone acts as if it did not exist. This ideal excludes everything from its purview that is essentially unacceptable by the enlightened mind. However, a persistent obsessive effort at the exclusion of barbarism reinforces the awareness of its omnipresence and leads ultimately to its acceptance and surrender to barbarism, which defines a universal reference frame.

Despite all progress, cultural developments, education, enlightenment, and general efforts of distancing from its barbaric past, the world remains violent, but through technology, violence has become less direct, less visible, and more abstract. Contemporary public attention is short and fades in a matter of weeks after which the conflict, no matter how large its scale is, disappears into the netherworld of obscurity where people continue to suffer and die, but their suffering remains hidden away from the public eye. And the civilized world enjoys the delusion of itself as a less barbaric place. However, this is the world where local aggressors pay tribute to the global ones, where small rackets are taxed by big rackets and where the most barbaric rules prevail.

[1] Paul Virilio

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the air, Semiotext(e) (2009)

[3] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?: Essays on a failing system, Verso (2017)

[4] Peter Sloterdijk, What happened in the 20th Century, Polity (2018)

[5] Matthew O. Jackson and Massimo Morelli, The Reasons for Wars, in the Handbook on the Political Economy of War, edited by Chris Coyne, Elgar Publishing (2011)

[6] Peter Sloterdijk, You must change your life, Polity Press (2013)

The Few Body Problem & the Metaphysics of Stupidity

13. III 2022

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

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

Collective IQ < Average IQ

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

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

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

Subjectlessness of humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

The intelligence problem and the power of 16-percenters

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

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

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

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

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

Humanity cannot outgrow its own death drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Asbest

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

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

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

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

Asbest, my town and my fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economics of Repulsion

7. XI 2021

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

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

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

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

Metabolic disorder and addiction to shocks

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

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

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

Immunoreaction and informational fatigue syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

Repulsion as political leverage and emergence of the emotionalized electorate

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

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

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

Two examples of this mechanism at work:

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

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

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

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

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

[2] B. C. Han, ibid.

[3] B. C. Han, ibid.

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

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

Complexity curse: From low productivity to social fragmentation

3. IX 2018

Sooner or later, everything turns into shit (2nd law of thermodynamics)

Economic productivity is one of the most important indicator of the wellbeing of a society and a fundamental determinant of its standard of living. It determines how prosperity is metabolized and how quality of life improves with time. Productivity is defined as the quantity of output produced by one unit of an input within one unit of time. An increase in physical productivity causes a corresponding increase in the value of labor, which raises wages. This is why having an education or on-the-job training is sought after by employers; it increases the productivity of workers and makes them more valuable assets to the firm.

Here is an example of how it works in practice. An employer offers you $15 to dig a 25 square-foot hole in his backyard. Suppose that you have insufficient capital goods (your bare hands or a spoon), and it takes you three hours to dig a hole to his specifications. Your labor output is worth $5 per hour. If you had a shovel instead, it may have only taken you 30 minutes to dig the hole; your labor output just rose to $30 per hour. With a big enough crane, you may have been able to dig it in five minutes with a labor productivity of $180 per hour. It is clear how the quality of life of a crane owner, which is a direct consequence of his high productivity, differs from the rest of the crowd.

Economic productivity is the source of libidinal forces, the alpha and omega of economic potency, and the ability to better the human conditions. It regulates social entropy, defines the arrow of time, shapes our expectations of the future, and provides mechanisms that sustain our capacity to desire. Abundant productivity enables future generations to live better than the previous ones. Low productivity, in contrast, means both short- and long-term hardship and erosion of the quality of life.

For almost half a century, productivity growth in developed world has been showing a troubling secular trend. In the last decade, developed economies all have entered a stagnation trap from which they seem to be unable to find a way out. This is illustrated in the chart, which shows the history of productivity growth in the US. The bold red lines indicate long-term averages across different regimes. Except for a relatively short period of two successive transient bubbles (internet and housing), there is a clear decline of the average from 3%, in the post-war decades, to 1% in the last ten years.

Productivity Anotated

US productivity growth (5Y moving average)

The decline in productivity growth has profound social implications. A 3% productivity growth, as seen in the two post-war decades, means that the standard of living doubles for every new generation[1]. In contrast, a productivity growth of 1% requires three generations to double the standard of living. However, if we take into account the rise of living costs, in an economy with 1% productivity growth each subsequent generation will have less of everything than its predecessor. It is particularly interesting that productivity growth has been descending to a near all-time low in the last five years, to below 1%, just as it was declared that the economy was recovering from the post-2008 recession. This point in itself deserves special attention.

The death spiral of productivity growth is an example of Tainter’s law, a general pattern whereby investing in complexity inevitably generates decreasing marginal returns for the systems that uses it. Insisting on the same methods, even when they have ceased to work, sets a civilization on track for collapse[2].

This is the essence of Tainter’s argument[3]. A civilization forms when some benefit accrues from greater complexity[4]. Benefits of complexity are realized through cooperation – the proverbial “whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. However, in the initial stage, although benefits of increasing complexity rise, during their evolution, complex systems spontaneously generate endogenous mechanisms of self-sabotage.

Tainters Law

Tainter’s Law

The primary source of self-obstruction is the new protagonist that emerges on the scene: the coordinator[5]. He is the guardian of the new paradigm, which champions complexity as the main and, ultimately, only strategy. The marginal benefits of complexity eventually begin to decline. Beyond a certain point, their intensification produces less additional benefit, putting its beneficiaries to more and more stress. But, as the community/organization now only knows how to use a single strategy, a superstructure is in place that cannot be gracefully abandoned. In the last phase, as benefits of additional complexity taper off, vast resources need to be invested in entirely unproductive ways, such as desperate attempts at regime legitimization: The competitive monument building, or the lavish parades held for each new, short-lived emperor. Eventually, the burden of civilization becomes greater than any benefit it provides and the society collapses[6].

Destruction of cooperation and self-sabotage in corporate organizations

Yves Morieux, offers an illustration of how the last phase of complexity is realized in the current context of developed corporate structures[7]. Behind persistent declining trend in productivity are the three basic tenets of corporate management that act as the main pillars of self-sabotage: Performance, Transparency, and Accountability.

Transparency implies audits and compliance — where does my role start and end. Accountability creates conditions for failure (in a compliant way): Who is accountable? Instead of creating conditions to succeed, we obsess on knowing who is to blame in case of failure. Performance: People put energy and effort in what can be measured, i.e. their individual performance, but not in cooperation.

However, cooperation is how you allocate your effort. Cooperation means taking a risk by giving up the ultimate protection, your own performance, to enhance the performance of those to whom you are being compared, for the sake of cooperation, in order to achieve the optimal result[8]. People are continuously being discouraged and disincentivized to cooperate. If when they cooperate, people were worse off, why would they cooperate? The three basic tenets of corporate management are doing injustice to effectiveness. The more complex the system becomes, the more structures we add that emphasize the three tenets. They trigger a counterproductive multiplication of interfaces that not only add people (non-productive ones), but also create obstacles. The more complicated the system, the more difficult to see what is happening. So we need meetings, reports, conference calls, etc.: people spend 40-80% of time wasting their time[9]. This is the politics of deliberate sub-optimality.

MBA nation or cannibalization of the social landscape

The false premise, which has become the defining characteristics of American politics and, to some extent, the culture as well, has been that a society is essentially the same object as a corporation, just a bigger one, that skills you learn in an MBA program are the same skills you need to manage a society, and that successful corporate managers are, by default, also good national leaders. However, this is not the only social damage of this fallacy. When applying the lessons from corporate culture to society, one inevitably also imports the underlying mistakes of that culture. And so, in the same way a rising complexity creates its own mechanisms of self-sabotage, the essence of the neoliberal approach to social organization is inhibiting the mechanisms of social cooperation. Social atomization, the cult of individuality, the creation of homo economicus as a model citizen, competition as the only and ultimate criterion for everything, the obliteration of welfare, the destruction of empathy, and the entire conservative system of values, all of these structures are instruments of social fragmentation and annihilation of the tissue that makes society different from a collection of individuals. All this leads to barbarization of the social landscape with the degree of polarization that has reached the point where political consensus is no longer possible and democracy no longer works. Politics has become a problem instead of a solution. The net result? The quality of life is already deteriorating and this trend will be reinforced with each subsequent generation as the whole continues to shrink smaller than the sum of its parts.

Under the crush of social entropy, with its ever-increasing complexity as the only strategy, we are facing the same destiny as many civilizations have in the past. The future has already become impossible and without the clear picture of the future, the present cannot take off. Like the boy in Kafka’s story, A Country Doctor, our social and economic system already inhibits the world of undead. Rising complexity is the fatal wound depriving it from the capacity to die. Only when that wound heals, will the system be able to collapse.


[1] If one generation is about 20 years, then (1.03)20 ≈ 2

[2] Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman: Smart Simplicity: Six règles pour gérer la complexité sans devenir compliqué, Manitoba (2016)

[3] Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press (1990)

[4] The term complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of emergence greater than the sum of its parts.

[5] Akshay Ahuja in Dark Mountain Project (19, March 2012)

[6] Akshay Ahuja, ibid.

[7] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[8] Yves Moreieux, ibid.

[9] Yves Moreieux, ibid.



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.

The poverty of technology and the technology of poverty

14. IV 2018

Charles-Avery two dogs

It was one of those rainy and damp days, I was finding my way out of the F-train subway on Bergen St. in Brooklyn. On the mezzanine level, in the corner of the stairwell, I noticed a young man, couldn’t have been much older than 30. Rain was slowly cascading into the subway, small puddles forming everywhere forcing him into an uncomfortable squat instead of a sitting position. His appearance was modest; he looked tired and lonely, but not destitute. There were none of the signs of physical neglect usually seen in homeless people – he looked like someone who had access to a bed and sanitary facilities. There was a money tray with a few coins in front of him indicating that he had been there for some time. The man seemed relaxed and disinterested in making eye contact with passersby. He appeared preoccupied with what was happening on his iPhone, most likely Instagram or the traffic on the social networks.

Panhandlers with smartphones are unusual sight – it is not just the price of the accessory that is at odds with their social status, but the entire protocol: the price of connectivity, how they pays their bills, which assumes a checking account; purchases of apps, which requires possession of a credit card suggesting some king of credit history… Things just don’t add up. However, as much as the two were an odd combination, it was difficult to dismiss the thought that, on some level, they shared the same causal connector, and they stand as two representations of the same underlying cause of social degradation. While poverty is a consequence of the system’s inherent urge to cannibalize itself, tech, on the other hand, has become the other face of resistance to change.

The panhandler and the smartphone together unify the worlds of thrift store shoppers and the high tech of Silicon Valley. The following chart brings us closer to the origin of this unstrange connection. It shows three price histories representing roughly three different social segments of the stock market. Dollar Tree is a chain of discount variety stores in the US. It sells an assortment of everyday general merchandise; it is a lower end version of Walmart, with most goods priced at or below $1. It is the place where poor folks buy their stuff. Since 2001 (the perception of) the value of Dollar Tree has increased by 11 times, while during the same time Apple, which needs no introduction, has had a 140-fold rise. For comparison, S&P or other benchmark stock indices have grown “only” 2 times.

The coordination between two histories is not a story of correlations in the sense normally used in statistics, but of a different type of commonality, the most interesting point being not their mutual causation, but the timing they share. Between 2008 and 2009, S&P index –the “social median” of the stock market– lost 50% of its value. It took four years for it to recover. In contrast, Dollar Tree, the poor man’s outlet, starts its big takeoff in 2008 with the stock price practically quadrupling during the subsequent four years. This timing and trend are in synch with all other measures of rise in poverty[1]. This is also the moment when Apple’s explosive rise begins.


The poverty of digital nations: Silicon Valley meets thrift shop

While the middle of the affluent sector of society (S&P world) advanced in “moderate” steps, the wings on both sides have outpaced it by a wide margin. Two seemingly different entities on opposite sides of the social spectrum – the beneficiaries of growing poverty and of the technological boom — register a common inflection point around the time of the deepest financial and social crises in modern history.

Dollar Tree’s success in the last ten years has been a function of demand created by an explosive supply of poverty; Apple’s rise has been an indirect beneficiary of its side effects. As social reality was disintegrating, the void it created was filled by its virtual surrogate with Apple acting as the main subcontractor in the process of digitalization of social relations. This ties the panhandler and the iPhone together as a result of centrifugal forces of social fragmentation and the disappearance of the middle into the extremes.

The poverty of technology: Rent economy cannibalizes itself

As the economy transitions from material to immaterial, innovations become its main focus. If one can come up with a technological innovation that enables him or her to manufacture a product for 10 cents and sell it for over $200 on a sustained basis, all subsequent profits will be reinvested in that direction. In markets with strict intellectual property laws prices are no longer commensurate with production costs, but contain a scarcity premium. In this way, innovation becomes a source of Rent.

Rent is the most irresistible source of income. At the same, time it is economically and socially intolerable. If someone somewhere is paid without doing any work, then someone somewhere works without getting paid. Rent economy is a voluntary slavery. Employment becomes the right to be exploited and unemployment is denial of that right. However, when there is no need for labor, and freedom is a constitutional right of every citizen, there are slaves without masters roaming around without anything to do. They become the excess of population.

Irresistible resistance to change

In the past, technology always generated new demand and forced people to reinvent their skills to accommodate for the new needs. This is no longer the case. Modern technology destroys more jobs than it creates. As such, it has become the main destabilizing force. Its basic commodity is immaterial – it costs nothing to produce an idea. If labor is the main cost of production, relocating the production centers to regions with the cheapest labor becomes the dominant mode of profit maximization. In this way, low production costs abroad create precariat at home.

Profit chasing leads to geographic displacement and social and cultural dislocations. Through their deterritorialization the elites lose their social footing. Their riches decouple from the well-being of society. The Keynesian bond, which used to tie the profits of the rich to the wages of the poor is severed, cutting the fate of economic elites loose from that of the masses. The possibility, provided by a global capital market, of rescuing themselves and their families by exiting together with their possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich not to be interested in the social impact of their actions[2].

This is not sustainable in the long run. Once the exploitation becomes global and all alternatives are exhausted, the system has to collapse. The main question is: Who can act as an agent of change? Who represents the new social archetype of post-capitalism — a descendent of the medieval knight in feudalism or bourgeoisie in industrial capitalism?

Paul Mason has argued that a composite picture of that type would correspond to a Universal Educated Person. Their skill set is a fusion of managerial and intellectual abilities. Such a person needs to be a bearer of the new social relations inside the old, interested in engaging in political discourse with the intention of triggering change on the social level, and appear in large numbers. Currently, the “T-shirted bourgeoisie”, although fitting the description of a universal educated person with the right skills, does not want to reconfigure the system – rather, they favor a monopolistic structure and extraction of Rent[3], without much regard for the long-term consequences. Instead of being guardians of the future and sustainability, Silicon Valley billionaires prefer to invest in doomsday bunkers and property in New Zealand.

The technology of poverty and society of tiredness

When production is immaterial, everyone already owns the means of production. This is the main difference with respect to industrial age when material production defined the tensions between capital and labor. In cognitive capitalism, we are talking about, what B. C. Han calls the Achievement society, where everyone is entrepreneur of themselves, the exploiter and the exploited, the master and the slave, at the same time. Everyone is trapped in the auto-exploitation out of which there is no escape through resistance or uprising, but through internalizing his or her discontent through withdrawal and depression[4]. Zygmunt Bauman sees this as a social death spiral: The uncertainty of the Achievement society is a powerful individualizing force. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic value. Contemporary fears, anxieties and grievances are made to be suffered alone[5].

The society of achievement is generating tiredness and exhaustion. This is a solitary and divisive tiredness with separating effect[6]. Digitalization of social relations is a response to this state of affairs. It fills the vacuum created by achievement society by providing a virtual supplement that makes isolation bearable by satisfying our ontological resistance to isolation. Social digitalization creates contours of a community; it transposes, to use Peter Handke’s terminology, I-tiredness into We-tiredness[7] while, at the same time, reinforcing isolation by creating a phantasmatic layer and illusion of self-sufficiency. Infinite plasticity of the digital society – ability to be shaped at our will — is intrusive and invasive: One can be anything one desires by creating an avatar and digital persona of any shape, form, and ability. This is virtual doping: It makes possible to achieve without achieving[8].

Social digitalization makes it possible to conceive of a community that requires neither belonging nor relation. The existence of a community, albeit virtual, results in an immanent religion of tiredness, one that needs no kinship. This is where smartphones come in. Here is Frankfurt School and B. C. Han, one more time:

Every technology or technique of domination brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects naturalize and stabilize domination. Devotion means submission to obedience. Smartphones represent devotion – indeed, they are the devotional objects of the Digital. They work like a rosary, which, because of its ready availability, represents a handheld device too. Both (the smartphones and rosary) serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control. The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue of the Digital. “Like” is the digital “Amen”[9].


[1]Since 2008, the number of people on food stamps has almost doubled – there is currently around 50 million people on food stamps in the US. During the same period, the fraction of the population living below poverty level has increased from 12% to 15%. These are just continuation of the long term secular trends underscoring the social fragmentation of the late 20th century. For the bottom 90% of Americans, living standards have not changed since 1970s. In contrast, for the top 1% they have risen 5 times and for the top 0.01% by 10 times in the last 50 years.

[2] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso (2016)

[3] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016)

[4] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft Burnoutgesellschaft Hoch-Zeit, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2016)

[5] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[6] Peter Handke, Versuch über die Müdigkeit (in Die drei Versuche), Suhrkamp (1998)

[7] Peter Handke, ibid.

[8] B. C. Han, Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken, Fischer (2015)

[9] B. C. Han, ibid.


American corrida and the reconstitution of the state

24. III 2018

No one really ever liked the state, but the great majority permitted its powers to grow ever greater because they saw the state as the mediator of reform. But if it cannot play this function, then why suffer the state? But if we don’t have a strong state, who will provide daily security? (I. Wallerstein)

Social and economic cycles used to move together. This was many years ago. For over 40 years now, the two have fallen out of synch. After each recession, recovery had to be won by making social concessions — this was always considered acceptable expecting the economic advantages to feed back into society. With time, economic progress has decoupled from the well-being of society. Social deficits have grown so large that, unlike the economy, society can no longer recover. The last crisis has taken the form of an autoimmune reaction. We have reached the point of self-intoxication when inner contradictions of the system, which previously could be temporarily ignored, are taking over. The system has exhausted itself – it has collapsed under its own weight.

Overcoming the accumulated social deficit requires deeper social changes. At the root of this quest lies the breakdown of traditional social contract, which started more than four decades ago. In its original form it can no longer be used even as a rough outline.


As divergence between productivity and income has increased, so has the distributional asymmetry of profits resulting in growing inequality, which after decades have evolved into the main destabilizing force. The problem with inequality is not the skew in wealth distribution between those who have some and those who have more (or much more), but extreme fragmentation of society into a rapidly shrinking minority of those who have everything and an exploding majority of those who have nothing. A shrinking middle class in developed economies has grown increasingly vulnerable to poverty while, at the same time, poverty has become a risky and unstable state. This led to new forms of precarity, social marginality, and stratification at the expanding bottom.

As a consequence, the cultural divide has reached such high levels that disputes can no longer be resolved through democratic process. Western societies are at the juncture where they need to develop alternative modes of social organizing and define a new social contract.

Craig Calhoun gives possibly the best summary of the singularity of the present political configuration: Western societies are at the intersection of economic and political crises, which presents the most dangerous development that could emerge from this situation. Erosion of implicit bargain by which people accept damages to society or environment in the pursuit of progress results in recurrent political unrest. Faltering growth brings disappointment to those with rising expectation and elected leaders seek to diminish public freedoms and quash dissent.[1]

There is an urgent need to reconfigure the capitalist state in such a way that harmonizes with the needs of both the economy and the society. This is a painful and politically risky maneuver that requires undoing centuries of institutional baggage. Reconfiguration of the state is the main event of this political moment; everything else is just a distraction.

The main objective of current populist politics is to decouple the two crises by any means. In its current iteration the strategy consists of preventing the lethal mix to be realized, by creating a distraction (economic, social, media, political, as much controversy as necessary…), while the state is being rapidly dismantled. But this cannot be a stable solution, only a way of buying some time. It is just the beginning of a long process of social transformation likely to take center stage in the next decades.

State and social insecurity: From welfare to penal pornography

The transformation that the state has undergone in the last 40-50 years can be characterized at best as inadequate or incomplete, lagging behind, and not adapting to, much deeper technological and economic changes.

The substance of capitalism is the meeting of capital and labor. Capital must be able to buy labor and labor must be attractive enough to be saleable. In that context, the main task (and legitimation) of the capitalist state is to broker this exchange — to see that both of these conditions are met. It must subsidize capital and ensure that labor is worth purchasing (it is healthy, properly trained in the skills and behavioral habits, and is able to ensure the strains of the factory floor). Legitimation crisis of capitalist state lies in transition from society of producers to society of consumers – the prime source of capital accumulation has moved from industry to consumer markets. State subsidies now render capital able to sell commodities and consumers able to buy them. Credit was perceived as a magic contraption in that context. Capitalist state now must assure the continuous availability of credit and the continuous ability of consumers to obtain it. The welfare state is now underfunded because the principal source of capital accumulation has been relocated from exploitation of labor to exploitation of consumer[2].

As the state was withdrawing from the welfare arena, the existing forces were pushing it to the punitive mode of its functioning. The poverty of the social state against the backdrop of deregulation elicits and necessitates the grandeur of the penal state[3]. This is neoliberalism in action: Subordinate all human activities to the laws of the market.

The unwanted byproduct of economic Neo-Darwinism, unwind of the welfare state, and the rising precarity has been the excess population — the surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced[4]. There are more people who fall through the cracks than those who succeed — a growing segment of the population that can no longer be reintegrated into a normal functioning of society. These people are neither producers nor consumers.

The response of the state has been to segregate the nonproductive, non-consuming, social element either through their permanent exclusion (e.g. opioids, or other forms of social marginalization) or turn them into profit centers through incarceration (e.g. private prisons). The state has effectively switched from its welfare to the punitive mode of functioning signaling the emergence of carceral state as one of the defining characteristics of the late-stage neoliberalism.

However, no solution has emerged from these, essentially ideological, maneuvers, which have only exacerbated the problem of excess population: The volume of humans made redundant by capitalism’s global triumph grows unstoppably and comes close now to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet; there is a plausible prospect of capitalist modernity choking on its own waste products which it can neither reassimilate or annihilate, nor detoxify[5]. This has resurfaced as the main problem of neoliberalism that does not have a solution inside the existing paradigm.

The rising social antagonisms and tensions are rapidly becoming a cause of additional loss of social cohesion with precarity and hopelessness on one side against discomfort and entrenchment of the privileged on the other. Growing rage capital is being harvested by right wing populism. Growing discontent is used as the lever arm to reconfigure the sate to a more radical form of carceral, militarized entity with enhanced punitive mandate and further dismantle the vestiges of the welfare state. At the same time, under the pretext of economic and fiscal reform, there is a concerted effort to shake up the constitution and push the system towards a more efficient structure that fosters easier oligarchic repositioning.

The matador enters the rink

In the final stage of corrida, the tercio de muerte (part of death), the matador re-enters the ring alone with a small red cape (muleta) in one hand and a sword in the other. The faena (job) consists of the entire performance with the muleta, in which he uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes, both demonstrating his control over it and risking his life by getting especially close to it. Faena ends with a final series of passes in which the matador with a muleta attempts to maneuver the bull into a position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta or heart (estocada).

Inside the existing neoliberal paradigm, we have already reached the dead end when there is nothing else that could be done. The only thing that remains is to reinvent the status quo through distraction. This brings us to the present moment. Like traditional Spanish corrida, dismantling of the state has assumed a highly ritualized process. In the words of Sylvère Lotringer, it is ritual without the sacred, the tragic without the tragedy. While populist campaigns have masked themselves as de-oligarchification movements centered on their anti-global sentiment, the American version has acquired a distinct flavor. The most recent attempt at transformation is nothing else but an oligarchic repositioning, an attempt to avoid a change by diversion. Trump’s right-wing populism, in fact, is a rearrangement of the oligarchic modes of economic and social functioning.

This is precisely the transformation that took place in the post-communist world in the 1990s. Trump’s cabinet nominations, selection of his advisors and his appointees reflect a desire to engineer a collapse of the state institutions — create new initial conditions resembling a failed state – and rebuild new structures on its rubble. As such, 2016 represents a regressive move towards a more primitive oligarchic structure.

This is the final stage of the American corrida — after wearing the bull down, the matador has entered the arena in 2016. Presidential tweets, the penchant for scandal, controversies, pathological lies, being consistently on the wrong side of every dispute and argument, flirting with constitutional crisis, everything…. All this is the red cape (the matador’s muleta). His job, (the faena), is at the same time to distract public attention, test the system’s resilience, wear down the public and bring state institutions to their breaking point before delivering the final blow (estocada) to the constitution, democracy and the American state.

Contrary to the naïve and misguided belief that Good always triumphs over Evil, history is on no one’s side. The outcome is ultimately binary. Who will be taken out on a stretcher, the matador or the bull? And whom will be the crowd cheering for?

[1] Craig Calhoun, in Does Capitalism Have a Future? Ed. I Wallerstein et al., Oxford University Press (2013)

[2] Zygmund Bauman, Liquid Times, Living in the Age of Uncertainty, Polity (2007)

[3] Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor, Duke University Press (2009)

[4] Zygmund Bauman, Wasted Lives, Polity (2012)

[5] Zygmund Bauman, ibid.


Modern times: The scandal of sleep  

23. IX 2017


                                                                  Vertigo FlyWriter

Man has always sought to find new ways of time saving. The most important technological discoveries (horse, ships, cars, trains, plains, assembly line), although addressing efficiency of transportation and production, were really about efficient usage of time. The most recent technological innovations were the key to the question of how to fuse different times, productivity, leisure, consumption and family — Television, TV dinners, microwave, fast food, Las Vegas wedding, smart phones, the internet, and virtual reality all enhance possibilities of multitasking and, as such, affect directly the way we manage our time, so that one can both work and consume away from the workplace or the shopping mall. These inventions blurred the boundaries between work and private life and outlined a new age of biopolitics and bioderegulation with novel narrative frameworks.

From rational perspective life is simple. Work is a paid activity performed on behalf of a third person, to achieve goals we have not chosen for ourselves, according to the procedures and schedules laid down by the persons paying our wages*. Labor time is unfree time, imposed upon the individual (originally even by force) to the benefit of alien (tautological) end. Since the first days of industrial age, the compromise according to which workers allocate some of their time to work in order to enjoy their free time, is perfectly rational. Seen by the capital, on the other hand, free time is empty and useless time. Economic rationality demands that any constraint which presents an obstacle to capital accumulation be removed. The end result is austerity of free time – free time should be minimized or austerely rationed. As a result of rationality of both sides, the employer and the employee (capital and labor) stand in direct opposition to each other when it comes to time and this defines their basic antagonism whose unfolding is seeing a new chapter in the tech era.

The most powerful technological forces have profoundly changed our experience of time and transformed the way we spend it. They have established a new normative model in the culture of the entrepreneurship of the self, which has become standard in the western world, where there is pressure to be constantly present and engaged. Not being switched on means falling behind, being out of step and thus losing a competitive edge. “In that paradigm, sleeping is for losers.”

Bioderegulation and the scandal of sleep: The Brave New World recomposed

Unlike other irreducible activities, which have been successfully commoditized, sleep has stood as the last frontier resisting the colonization by engine of profitability. “The troubling reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it. Sleep sticks out as an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization, whose credo is that there are no unalterable givens of nature.’’ [1]

As Jonathan Crary points out, this discontent with sleep, and its resistance to colonization, is condensed in the concept of the sleep mode of electronic devices, which defines a state of low-power readiness implying really not sleep as an extended disengagement, but a deferred or diminished condition of operationality. It supersedes an off/on logic because nothing should ever be fundamentally off.

“Sleep cannot be eliminated, but it can be wrecked”, and efforts to accomplish this wreckage are fully in place. Scientific research on sleep is an unusually active playground, attracting considerable attention and funding. One example is the study of white crowned sparrows which during their migration along the West coast show unusual capacity for staying awake for as long as seven days[1]. This ability makes them a particularly interesting subject for the army — despite considerable technological progress, the need for human solders will never go away and a benefit of engineering a sleepless solder, who could engage in combat for unspecified duration of time while maintaining alertness, is obvious.

As with other inventions that spread from military to civilian life—for instance penicillin, microwaves, nylon—the next logical step would be to produce sleepless workers and sleepless consumers. And while this transformation from crown sparrow to sleepless soldiers to sleepless workers and consumers might not have immediate dystopian repercussions, it outlines a trend which enhances the idea of human disposability. After all upgrading someone to a more efficient version is an implicit recognition that their earlier version was less valuable. The images of a society where these trends are fully developed, however, are deeply unsettling.

We live surprise results of the old plans

This is just another illustration of general dialectics of progress — one cannot innovate without creating some damage – expressed most eloquently in the writings of Paul Virilio, theorist of accidents and the grand maître of cultural theory. In his own words: “Progress and disaster are the two sides of the same coin. Invention of a ship is invention of a shipwreck, invention of a plane is invention of a plane crash, invention of nuclear energy is invention of a nuclear meltdown. And, the more powerful the invention, the more dramatic are its consequences. So, it is inevitable to reach a point when progress and knowledge become unbearable. ”[2]

It is difficult to find a flaw in Virilio’s concise explanation of causality. Its power lies in the fact that it can be applied to almost any context. When it comes to the tyranny of work, it exposes the ultimate dialectics of rationality and its logical transformation path (from sublime to excremental). Rationality, when set free and unchecked, demands removal of any obstacle to profit maximization. Coupled with efficiency, which is raised to the level of exact science, and pushed to the extremes, it mutates into systematic devastation of everything that does not submit to the profit of the strongest. In the final stage of transformation of the post-Fordist (attention) economy workers no longer behave rationally. Instead of working for living, they live for work – their work no longer serves to subsidize the enjoyment of their free time, but they use their free time to become more productive workers.

In other words — and this is the corollary Virilio draws — excess rationality leads to irrational outcomes and a culture that is based on rationality must experience a deep crisis when it becomes irrational.

Diachronic extension of the progress/disaster counterpoint places our present at an uncomfortable historical point: If the 20th century was the century of great inventions, then the 21st century has to be the century of disasters [2]. This is the predicament of the new century — we are living surprise results of the old plans.

This historical inflection point of the present reality is eloquently illustrated by the contrast between the futuristic dystopian fiction of the early 20th century and the current new wave of dystopian non-fiction. For 20th century futurists, dystopia was placed in a distant future (the shipwreck is the futurist invention of the ship [2]). In contrast, the new wave of dystopian literature is not a fiction. The topic is no longer the visions of a distant future, but rather a dystopian present without a future: We are shipwrecked in the endless deteriorating present.

And inability to produce a convincing image of the future causes an implosion of the present. So, behind the current economic crisis lies a crisis of time. Time no longer flows freely. It has come to a stop. If this trend continues, it is not difficult to imagine a future where sleep will have to be bought like bottled water.


* Andre Görz

[1] Jonathan Crary, 24/7 — Terminal Capitalism and the End of Sleep, London: Verso 2014, pp 10-11.

[2] Paul Virilio, The original accident, London: Polity 2007, pp 21-33.