Tag Archives: #violence

America at 400: 1619-2019

30. XII 2019

Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain[1].

America has always had a complicated relationship with its own history. The nation that was based on the ideas of enlightenment, and which gave us Declaration of Independence, The Emancipation Proclamation, May Day, International Women’s Day, Women’s Suffrage, Universal public K-12 education, The Marshall Plan, and Civil Rights Act, was also the birth place of some of the worst institutions of repression such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, systemic segregation, McCarthyism, internment camps, and mass incarceration. But this is not what makes America special; after all, there is hardly any developed country that does not carry historical baggage of some sort. Rather, it is the deliberate effort to make sure that the underlying tensions remain unresolved, which makes its position unique. America has turned its back on some of its best achievements, and never showed the courage (or desire) to completely distance itself from some of the worst practices of its past. The very same rights and freedoms that it continues to champion abroad, the US has systematically denied to a large segment of its population at home[2].

The American political landscape has always reflected this ambivalence. To this day, the underlying ideology and its reality remain trapped in the multiverse of causal entanglement whereby ideology creates social adversity, which requires ideological adjustments, which in turn reinforces the very same social adversity it was meant to contain.

Race as strange attractor: The Centaur-state and the four peculiar institutions

No one has captured the inner contradictions of America’s parallel history better than Loïc Wacquant. He sees the current social and political developments as part of a particular continuum outlined by the Four Peculiar Institutions against the backdrop of a reshaping of the capitalist state[3]. The essence of the dialectics of neoliberalism is condensed in its obsession with a smaller state (always, except when it comes to the riot police). The consequence of that obsession, according to Wacquant, is the building of a Centaur-state, liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom[4]. The superficial maneuver of imposing the functioning of free markets to life as whole, with a hands-off approach to the corporate sector and the upper echelon of society, is complemented by a state that is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class and status spectrum[5].

Wacquant’s deconstruction of the reconciliation of the inner contradictions of the Centaur-state puts the entire post-Reagan era of political carnivalization in perspective as the great neoliberal Aufhebung. The imposition of market discipline is not a smooth, self-propelling process: it meets with recalcitrance and triggers resistance; it translates into diffusing social instability and turbulence among the lower class; and it practically undermines the authority of the state. So it requires institutional contraptions that will anchor and support it, among them an enlarged and energetic penal institution[6]. Behind the clownish posturing of the new breed of political leaders resides a serious (and brutal) political reality and the more carnevalesque the politics becomes, the more repressive its penal system turns out to be.

This lays out the logic behind Americas intrinsic resistance to outgrowing its dark history and dealing with its legacy. This history begins in 1619, with the first slave ships docking the coast of Virginia. Its backbone is captured by the matrix of the Four Peculiar Institutions[7], which define the contours of the underlying carceral continuum. The most direct and intuitive perspective on the 400 years of America is offered by the second column of the Table: The root of it all is an insatiable demand for cheap labor; the history of America reflects this through the four transformational phases.

4Peculiar institutions

Four Peculiar Institutions

An unfree and fixed workforce was essential for the North American preindustrial economy. Slavery, as a relationship of domination, was used to fulfill a definite economic end: to appease the nearly insatiable appetite of the plantation for labor. The abolishment of slavery was more than anything a supply shock in labor. After slaves were formally free, a cheap and abundant workforce needed for the plantation economy had been eliminated. The true slaves deserted the South, attracted to looming opportunities in the North as the economy transitioned to its industrial phase, while the South experienced a decline (mechanization, urbanization …), which, when combined with cuts in immigration during WWI, resulted in an acute shortage of unskilled labor[8].

In response to these developments, capitalist industrialization and the plantation elite joined to demand political disenfranchisement and the systematic exclusion of former slaves from all major institutions. This was the period of Jim Crow rule. Backed by custom and elaborate legal structures, the economic opportunities were severely restricted (prohibited attendance of schools, churches, banished from the ballot box with a range of requirements, like residency, literacy tests, poll taxes or criminal offences).

The Ghetto was intended to have a prophylactic function. It was conceptualized as a separate Lebensraum for a group viewed as “physically and mentally unfit, unsanitary, entirely irresponsible, and undesirable neighbors”, while allowing, at the same time, to exploit their labor power (cheaply). In terms of its social functioning, the Ghetto was a logical sequel to slavery and Jim Crow.

The wedding of ghetto and prison: Hyperghetto

When the ghetto was rendered inoperative in the 1960s with economic restructuring and riots, which won blacks votes, the carceral institution offered itself as a substitute apparatus for the black community devoid of economic utility and political pull[9]. This was a way to prevent formation of a unified voice of discontent and convert the non-consuming segment of society into a profit center. According to Wacquant, African-Americans now live in the first prison society of history. The ghetto and the prison are now causally entangled — the two look the same and have the same function; they support and reinforce each other. The life in the ghetto almost necessarily leads to more criminal behavior. And in the prisons, which function effectively as graduate schools of crime, a “black culture” of outsiders is being reinforced by “professional” inmates, which eventually gets exported back to the street[10].

The ghetto and the prison are for all practical purposes indistinguishable, reinforcing each other to ensure the exclusion of African-Americans from general society, with governmental blessings. The prison should be viewed as a judicial ghetto and the ghetto as an extrajudicial prison. Taken together, these constitute part of a ‘carceral continuum’[11].

2019: Exit through the wormhole

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but mainly to ourselves. (Julian Barnes)

Capitalism creates crises, which it cannot wrest from. Recoveries from those crises are funded by social deficits, which grow bigger with each crisis. This became particularly severe during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. The Carceral state has been essential for the survival and sustainability of the neoliberal project and has had a triple role in that context: As a shock absorber and an insurance policy of capitalism against itself, as an engine of growth, and as a mechanism that reinforces its own toxicity. On one side, it offsets the unwanted side-effects of capitalism, while on the other, it creates new problems that reinforce the original ones.

The story of the Four Peculiar Institutions is not a chapter in American history; it is a book whose writing continues. It very much defines the present day (and future) of American politics, society and culture in general. It resides at the core of American culture and is the backbone of its history and economy.

Today more than ever before, America stands conflicted between two parallel histories and two atonal narratives, one starting in 1619 and the other in 1776. This ambivalence is deeply rooted in its constitution and it starts with the establishment of “progressive” America in 1776. Even before the US Declaration of Independence became an official document, the well-known statement from its second paragraph, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, was at striking discord with the social and political realities of the time as it appeared while slavery was in full swing[12]. The dual desire to define a new beginning without resolving the residual baggage of 1619 outlines the intentions not only to have two parallel histories, but more than that, to afford additional flexibility of the new Union. It remains one of the most striking examples of historical irony that the desire to save slavery was in the background of the American push for a new beginning in 1776. While the rest of the world was beginning to phase it out, slavery was still going strong on the “new continent”. America may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue[13]. As a consequence, the issue of race and institutions that followed had become the foundation of the country, as two parallel flows of history unfolded.

The two orthogonal narratives have persisted largely as a result of the ideology America chose to embrace. Endemic exclusion, and the attempted modes of its management, which in the USA assumed a particular institutional systematization, has been a residuum of intrinsic incompleteness of these ideological choices. The two parallel histories have coexisted for centuries unphased by each other, pulling the country in two different directions resulting in an irreconcilable cultural rift, which rose to unsustainable levels in this century.

However, as capitalism ran its course and the 400 years of its reign are facing unwind, these two histories have suddenly become cognizant of each other. The ghost of America’s past resonates with the present-day neo-segregationism located at the intersection of the two parallel (historical) narratives. A Current snapshot of America reflects the peak of the tensions caused by this ambiguity — it is the moment when the two begin to collide and desire to either reconcile with or annihilate each other. As the two historical processes (1619 and 1776) are beginning to intersect, the underlying socio-economic configuration is opening a wormhole that short-circuits the distance between them. This is the coming out of Dark America and its encounter with its progressive twin. What had been the centuries-long illegible process is becoming instantaneously legible in light of the intensity of this encounter. It is the moment of enormous clarity – the reconciliation of the underlying contradictions, which has been suspended for centuries and is now being resolved during their synthesis into a single narrative.

Wormhole

 

The 2016 wormhole

 

The divided self or the anti-psychiatry of the American experience

The resurrection of the 1619 timeline and the collision of two histories come hardly as a surprise in the light of the socio-political developments of the last five decades. The whole republican strategy since the 1970s has been a white supremacist dog whistle. And, since the population has been growing less white, their anxiety has grown accordingly and, with it, their susceptibility to right wing narratives, no matter how ridiculous they became or how much they played against material interest of their constituents. Ian Hany López offers the best summary of the last 50 years of that politics: Government coddles nonwhites with welfare and slap-on-the-wrist policing; meanwhile, government victimized whites by taxing their paychecks and refusing to protect them from marauding minorities[14]. It is no coincidence that since 1972, no Democratic candidate has ever won majority of the white vote. In turn, 90% of GOP supporters are white and so are 98% of its elected officials.

What continues to reinforce the antagonism of African Americans is not so much the fact that political discourse continues to be centered on blaming them for their social dislocation, but the absence of the Four Peculiar Institutions and parallel American history from that discussion — their role has been deliberately and intentionally downplayed or outright omitted from it. By blaming the victims, the existing political narratives, both centrist and right wing alike, are confusing cause and effect. Whatever blacks are being blamed for is not the cause of their precarity, it is a result of centuries of systematic adherence to particular politics and policies. The “missing” history, from 1619 to 1776, without which the last two-and-half centuries are illegible, provides the background for the synthesis of the four centuries of America.

The impossibility of a meaningful consensual discourse stems from the fact that we cannot experience other people’s experience — we can only experience their behavior, which might reveal something altogether different from what they are experiencing[15]. When observed from the outside certain behavioral patterns might appear as irrational and self-destructive with their rhetorical articulation being a valid expression of the inner distress and, therefore, meaningful only from within their own situational context.

When seen through the perspective of the longer (American) history, 1776 had been an attempt at a new beginning. Subsequent years and centuries represent normative period, the birth of new standards of normalcy as something that has come to hold the highest cultural value, what we teach our kids to become and what they pass along to their kids. But, what is the value of normalcy? During the 20th century alone, normal men had killed more than 120 million people and if left unchecked, they will kill more. After almost two and half centuries, we have come to realize that normalcy is overrated.

The only way to forget the traumas of history is to do away with normalcy and embrace madness in order to be healed and find salvation. According to R. D. Laing, one of the founders of anti-psychiatry, madness could become a transformative process — travelers could return from the journey with important insights, and may become wiser and more grounded persons as a result[16].

If the human race survives, future men will look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness. They will presumably be able to savor the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it. The laugh’s on us. They will see that what we call “schizophrenia” was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds[17].

[1] The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine, August 18 (2019), Ed. Jake Silverstein

[2] Loïc Wacquant, Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh, Punishment & Society 3, 95 (2001) & Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, Duke University Press Books (2009)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] The remainder of this section is, for the most part, the description of the functioning of the Four Peculiar Institutions entirely in Wacquant’s words and thoughts either as a direct quote (italicized text) or paraphrased (regular print).

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] The phrase “all men are created equal” has received criticism from elitists and traditional conservatives. Before final approval, Congress, having made a few alterations to some of the wording, also deleted nearly a fourth of the draft, including a passage criticizing the slave trade. At that time many members of Congress, including Jefferson, owned slaves, which clearly factored into their decision to delete the controversial “anti-slavery” passage. In 1776, abolitionist Thomas Day wrote: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

[13] By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy. (Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project)

[14] Ian Hany López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Oxford University Press (2015), and Race and Economic Jeopardy for All: A Framing Paper for Defeating Dog Whistle Politics,
http://www.ianhaneylopez.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/race_and_economic_jeopardy_framing_paper.pdf

[15] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, Harmondsworth: Penguin (1967)

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

Adventures in integral reality: Amusement parks for angry citizens

31. VIII 2019

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

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

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

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

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

The politics of Simulacra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real and the imaginary: From fusion to confusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semiotic insolvency and the great flood of arbitrariness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

Populism as space travel

9. VI 2018

Populism consists of the simultaneous embrace and denial of shit.

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

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

There is no rule that says rules cannot be broken

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

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

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

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

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

Shit as a universal reference frame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scandal and power: Pornographication of politics and social life

23. V 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] B. C. Han

Digital panopticon and the triumph of the unfree will

22. IV 2018

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.

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.