Tag Archives: #violence

Populism as space travel

9. VI 2018

Populism consists of the simultaneous embrace and denial of shit.

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

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

There is no rule that says rules cannot be broken

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

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

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

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

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

Shit as a universal reference frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Organs without bodies: Symbolic reattachment & hystericization of American politics

20.VI 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.

The great redistribution and the biopolitical penetration of the American brain

13.V 2017

Wealth is inherently empowering and motivating; poverty is neither [Jonathan A. Winters].

Rising inequality is not the result of economical rationality and neither is it only a function of erosion of empathy or moral fiber (although the latter is its sine qua non). It is rather a direct reflection of redistributive policies that have helped the richest get richer. On the other hand, poverty by itself neither motivates nor provides a core set of common interests for the poor the way wealth does for the rich. The presence of wealth focuses the political attention of the rich on wealth defense; its absence has no parallel effect on the poor[1].

Inequality has always been a topic in public discourse. However, after the 2008 financial crisis, the destruction of wealth on a massive scale awakened much larger segments of society to the reality that they were unable to finance the lifestyles they had previously enjoyed. Response to the crisis has been articulated through an unprecedented injection of “easy money”. But, this money was hoarded by capital and did not filter down to labor. Rather than serving the collective interest in financing general economic progress, “easy money” turned into the extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished societies. The case of airlines industry presents an illustrative example of this mechanism. Even as the price of fuel collapsed, little of that benefit was passed on to consumers or airlines’ employees: Air travel is as uncomfortable as ever, ticket prices have gone up and none of the profits resulted in higher wages of the airlines employees. Most of the “easy money” has been used to reinforce their monopolistic power.

Democracy requires commonality, inequality undermines it. The democratic process was originally conceived as a way to peacefully resolve economic disputes between people who share common values, either cultural, religious, or in terms of lifestyles or visions of the future. When inequality reaches the critical point, the bonding tissue that keeps society together begins to tear and democracy becomes compromised. In the absence of commonality disputes can no longer have peaceful resolve. Instead, the resolution occurs through negotiation or war. As electoral democracy alone can no longer safeguard the economic interests of the many people from American oligarchs, economic initiatives are no longer effective. A quest for social change takes center stage and a search for a new equilibrium is set in motion.

Social stability defines equilibrium. Social transformations, therefore, represent a change of equilibrium. They are always disruptive and have the appearance of discontinuous processes. Economic changes always take place against a particular social backdrop: When a social equilibrium is reached, society stabilizes allowing the economics to set in. The subsequent economic developments are typically linear – small departures always revert back to the equilibrium — restorative forces overpower those that destabilize the system.

2008 was a paradigm shift not only for economics but for the entire way of empirical approach to reality, which has laid the foundation of rationality and has dominated the Western thought. The crisis has set in motion a social change – the system has begun to search for a new equilibrium, announcing the end of 500 years of history. And, as history is getting unwound, the repositioning in the oligarchic space is taking the center stage. There is no left or right any more. The only meaningful distinction that reflect the type of oligarchic redistribution and its re-functioning is their emancipatory or regressive orientation.

The mindfuck

Where there is inequality of estates, there must be inequality of power. (James Harrington)

Oligarchy rests on the concentration of material power, democracy on the dispersion of non-material power. The American political economy is both an oligarchy and a democracy — a distinctive fusion of equality and inequality. Civil oligarchies represent the most significant political innovation, never seen in history before the creation of the modern state. As a characterization of the Western (predominantly American) political system, civil oligarchy is the result of a shotgun marriage of two contradictory concepts, brokered by an interesting play of numbers: The vast majority of citizens exert very little concerted material power in politics, but a small number of individuals each have at their disposal the resources it would take tens of thousands of their fellow citizens acting in sustained coordination to match[2]. The two groups stand in constant opposition — their conflict never disappears, but defines the driving force behind the underlying sociopolitical dynamics. It pushes all other themes out and becomes the main axiom of the political economy. This disparity of numbers forces a continuation of underlying antagonisms until one side declares victory. As a result, the political process loses its connection with democracy.

The reconciliation of oligarchy and democracy requires a Hegelian Aufhebung, a non-linear logical maneuver whereby the resolution of the inner contradiction is suspended until the concept is completed during synthesis — abolition of the Real to realize the Idea.

Oligarchs represent individuals endowed with enormous wealth which both empowers and exposes them to threats. In America, they constitute only a fraction of one percent of the population and have at their disposal material “voting” power that is hundreds, and in some cases tens of thousands, of times that of the average citizen. To understand the power multiplier, which reflects the underlying wealth differential, one should think of wealth as an instrument that enhances the persuasive power and influence of an individual. For example, being able to convince poor people to vote against their direct interests and in favor of the oligarchs, and to convert these things into laws and tax codes – the essence of the Republican Southern Strategy program as outlined by Lee Atwater — requires considerable resources and access to media, religious and secular institutions, lobbyist and a variety of political consultants that only money can bring. Mind-fuck is an essential ingredient for the functioning of civil oligarchies; without it, they could not persist.

The Material Power Index (MPI) is a way of quantifying the disparity of democratic participation. MPI assigns a base value of one to the average material power position of Americans across the bottom 90 percent of the population. The weakest American oligarchs have between 125 and 200 times the material power of an average citizen. Oligarchs at the very top of American society have an MPI just over 10,000, which happen to approximate the MPI of Roman senators relative to their society of slaves and farmers[3]. This has gone even more extreme after the 2010 Citizens United ruling. In this way oligarchs can legitimate their position with all of their power and influence, without resorting to force – which time and again has proven to be an expensive and fragile tool of stability.

It is not very difficult to see haw a handful of super rich oligarchs can tip the scales of any election. According to 2007 data, the 400 richest Americans have an MPI in excess of 10,000; these 400 top oligarchs have the “voting power” of four million people. Outside of this group, the average MPI of the 1/100th of a percent of the top earning taxpayers (who own about 2% of all American wealth), about 15,000 people, is around 1000. This means that 1/100th percent of the population had the “voting power” of 20 million. This is a significant fraction of the voting population (about 130 million in the 2016 US elections). Normally, elections are most often won within 1-2 million margin. Therefore, a victory can be achieved by attracting 100-200 top oligarchs.

Synthesis: Oligarchies as new cognitive coordinates

The essence of oligarchy within democracy rests on the near-veto power oligarchs retain on threats to concentrated wealth. The wealth protection instinct has been one of the strongest sociopolitical forces in human history. Although the attitude towards all kinds of inequality like slavery, racial and gender exclusions had been revised in the past, the same cannot be said for wealth inequality. The resistance against radical redistribution of wealth has been remarkably robust and resilient across a variety of political systems, from dictatorships, monarchies, peasant societies, to post-industrial formations and democracies[4].

As an approach to the problematics of comparative politics, oligarchy as the politics of wealth defense emerges as a better candidate for a unifying framework than the traditional framework based on assumptions that the dominant dimension of a country’s political actions is geographically conditioned. The oligarchic landscape defines new cognitive coordinates necessary for understanding current geopolitical developments. A variety of complex socio-political configurations and their transformations gain instant clarity and simple intuitive interpretation when seen from the point of view of oligarchic redistribution and repositioning.

The mechanism and logic behind this is relatively simple. Oligarchy should be understood as the politics of wealth defense. Outside of the context of wealth defense, different oligarchs can, and generally do, have vastly different agendas (e.g. democrats vs. republicans in the USA, pro-choice vs. pro-life, Tesla vs. Uber, or Bill Gates vs. the Koch brothers). However, they are all united in one common goal – their wealth preservation. This explains why one single common driver alone captures such a wide diversity of developments that sometimes, on the surface, appear to have no logical or rational connections.

[1]  Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy, Cambridge (2011)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

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

20. III 2017

The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theater of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage (Jean Baudrillard)

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

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

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

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

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

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

This seemingly strange idea of forcing a change by destruction was first outlined in the works of the 19th century French thinkers (e.g. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi), and developed further by the post-modernists and finally crystallized by Jean Baudrillard:

Total revolution is a strategy geared to escalate the system and push it to its breaking point. Then, giving up on every pretense of rationality, it starts revolving and achieves in the process a circularity of its own. The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theater of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage. Life is being exchanged for nothing, for a handful of glittering toys, work absorbs time like a sponge and leaves no traces. The system itself becomes the exterminator.

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

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

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

Trump in wonderland

8.III 2017

In many areas of life, incompetent people cannot recognize just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack. What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge. (David Dunning)

Things got a little different in 2017. Within less than a month in the office, Trump’s cabinet managed to accumulate spectacular cognitive deficit never before seen in the White House. This deficit, accompanied with a commensurate loss of credibility, is threatening to become a permanent trademark of his troubled presidency.

The biggest change introduced by Trump’s arrival has been the reversal of information flows in the communications between the White House and the press. Until now, the White House had always been the center of political information and, through press briefings or other communication channels, shared a fraction of that information with the press. What the press knew was a subset of what was known to the White House. Because of this asymmetry (to avoid answering unpleasant questions or possible self-incrimination), the White House would engage in deception. There was a stable symbolic pact between the government and the press; the press got something to work with, while the White House was occasionally allowed to get out of an uncomfortable situation. No one’s intelligence was insulted.

All this underwent a 180 degree reversal with Trump. First of all, and this is the root of the problem, Trump’s administration seems to be reluctant to accept the fact that they won the election — as if that was never really a part of the plan. Instead of governing, they continue to behave like the opposition, always arguing from the position of the victims of establishment and raising objections and outrage at how the system functions. They have remained reactive instead of proactive, systematically behind the curve.

Trump’s White House is populated predominantly with political amateurs, dilettantes and professional yes-men who, themselves, do not produce any substantial informational content. They are by and large either misinformed and making things up or getting their facts from the low-tier media such as Fox News, Breitbar, tabloids or reality shows, who themselves are known to habitually make things up (their business model often based on fabricating “facts”). As a consequence, the mainstream press has been much better informed than the White House, both in terms of the area covered and the depth and quality of information. Trump’s White House operates with a subset of the information available to the press and the press can run circles around its staff. Because of that, current White House spokespersons have had a great difficulty engaging with the press. They are incapable of creating a deception when they need it – the conceptual difference between a deception and a lie seems to elude them — so they lie instead, and when they are called on a lie, they lie more and blame facts, which further undermines their credibility until there is none left. As a result, after less than a month in office, Trump had to declare war on facts and pronounce the press the enemy of the people.

Masochistic self-destruction

Power cannibalizes itself — it carries the seeds of its own destruction (Jean Baudrillard)

In their infinite political naïveté, Trump and his cabinet do not understand that by waging a war on facts, media and dissent in general, they are actually writing their own obituary.

The current administration is deluded by the idea that their rise to power and their program in general have a strong historical, messianic mission of correcting the years of imbalances caused by neoliberalism, globalization, and cultural displacement. In their minds, weakening of their power, even temporarily, would be a betrayal of that mission, and so, any voice of opposition has to be inhibited and ultimately subdued.

The fatal flaw of this position is that by suppressing the opposition, and the information its existence and voice provide, the leadership is left essentially blind to whatever is happening in their back yard. Within a very short time, they will have no vocabulary to discuss socio-political conditions and develop an approximate description of social reality.

In the face of perpetual conflict with reality, Trump’s political machine will foster a continued state of cognitive dissonance and with the help of spectacle possibly provide a temporary life support for their existence through the suspension of disbelief. However, Trump’s administration’s non-linear relationship with facts and truths will gradually turn whatever remains of their constituents into a cult following. Like most other authoritarian ideologies, both Trump and his followers will remain non-adaptive not allowing any feedback to penetrate the boundaries of their fortress of ignorance, and when the end becomes inevitable, they will be unable to transform or adjust. The autopsy of the communist experience and other totalitarian forms of political rule offer numerous illustrations of this trajectory.

Aside from this, there is a practical question regarding the sanity of Trump’s approach: How does one get away with a lie as a policy tool in the world of total information? This might be easier to implement in a society like the old Soviet Union, which had never been given a chance to properly embrace modernity and where the population had been subdued by chronic scarcity, where bare necessities had been a luxury for decades, and where people were ready to make any compromise that would restore their dignity and bring their lives closer to normal. In the era of relative affluence and absolute information such a project cannot take root, even in the short run — it would require an extraordinary force to maintain its stability.

And this is where things begin to break down. Large-scale systemic oppression requires the mobilization of enormous resources to keep control of political subjects and effectively turns them into hostages. Attempts to oppress growing discontent require a heavy-handed rule which in turn reinforces the hostage syndrome and brings about further escalation of discontent with generally adverse economic side effects. At that point, legitimation becomes the system’s biggest problem and requires mobilization of all resources, primarily aimed at its glorification. But, by then the oppression is the only thing the system knows how to deliver. It is the only strategy, and a very expensive one. Finally, when existing resources are fully exhausted, the system has to collapse.

Send in the rubes: Technology and political snake oil

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth (Mike Tyson)

Although with the help of social media, artificial intelligence and technology in general, oppression can take on subtler forms, the standard of tolerance will change with it and oppression will always be recognized for what it is. The illusion that this battle can be won by “psychological operations”, a systematic form of mass propaganda that acts on peoples’ emotions — a half-baked idea of crowding out the info-highway with misinformation — is a reflection of both ultimate ignorance and arrogance that comes with it. It is an ill-conceived program initiated by data analytics companies and funded by the right wing plutocrats who specialize in election strategies, based on an erroneous assumption that, in the era of total information, the society outside the governing party’s sphere of influence and control will remain static and non-adaptive, and that the pattern-recognition models of their currently employed consulting companies, will remain only their (and nobody else’s) proprietary tool forever. The absurdity of such assumption is best illustrated by the fact that every major hedge fund has already caught up with this trend and either has a similar platform and capabilities or is in the process of getting one very soon. Words like artificial intelligence and machine learning are the most frequently used buzzwords during the incoming student orientations at all major American universities — these topics are the most rapidly developing areas of science and technology. It is not difficult to imagine what this landscape will look like in four years or beyond.

After all, when it comes to economics and social sciences, there is one thing we learned about our attempts to model their dynamics: All models are wrong; some of them are useful (at best). So, it is all about how we decide to use these models, what sample and assumptions we choose to calibrate them etc. And, sooner or later, we realize that all these models of social behavior do not offer any substantial new wisdom, but can make our tasks of data manipulation easier only if we give them correct instructions as an input. In other words, it is garbage-in-garbage-out at the end, no matter what (this is the best outcome). In that context, alternative facts, misinformation, alienation from reality, or other forms of self-indulgence (an emotional state Trump’s cabinet is particularly prone to) can only compromise effectiveness of any given technological platform.

Yes, these companies can help you win the elections, but they can never become an instrument that secures a smooth and peaceful governing — that erroneous extrapolation is the new political snake oil. People like Stephen Bannon are real rubes here. Their anti-elitist sentiment, combined with their messianic fantasy, which has been running in displaced mode as a war on facts and critical thinking in general, compromised their own resistance to nonsense – they start believing the nonsense they are peddling and ultimately become victims of the snake oil sale themselves.

The ultimate delusion, however, remains a belief that this battle can be won at all. Ignorance by design is the trap any hegemonic ideology faces. Monochromatic political systems are vulnerable to loss of robustness and long-term fragility. The authoritarian project is self-defeating — even a temporary victory on that front is a guarantee of a defeat in the long run. History offers countless examples, collapse of the communism being just the latest one. Diversity of opinions, multiparty systems, and what is generally referred to as freedom of speech (even when existing only pro forma) are always superior in this context. Tolerance for existence of alternative forms of interpretation of social reality as well as social organizing (from street gangs, organized crime, religious cults, and self-sustainable communes to fringe or mainstream political parties) carries enormous informational value. After all, wasn’t the spectacular defeat of the centrist ideology in 2016 (and the traction of the right wing populism in the West) a direct consequence of ignoring the voice of the people who were left behind by progress and globalization — the people whose existence had been systematically delegitimized by neoliberalism. The diversity of opinions of the socio-political landscape allows rule of force to be replaced by a more efficient rule through freedom or self-conduct, which, while not necessarily less oppressive than the totalitarian structures, could be an economically superior alternative resulting in more robust and stable systems.