“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitchens RIP

Hitchens once jokingly explained that terrorism, in American Govspeak, is an incoherent term that means anything from combatant to “swarthy opponent of American foreign policy.”

That was in the eighties, when Hitchens had a grasp of the linguistic cunning that makes for the politics of reaction. In the 00s, when Hitchens became famous, that grasp had slipped. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Hitchens ruined his prose when he, too, decided that terrorism is defined by “swarthy opponent of American foreign policy,” for in that decision he both rubbished his own ability to understand the nexus of power and definition that makes for propaganda, and he became one of the fruitier of the right’s propagandists, an atheist Bob Novak. Slate, at the moment, is in official mourning for Hitchens, who was a columnist there after he jumped ship from the Nation. This is rather like John Wilkes Booth donning mourning for Abe Lincoln. Slate’s infinitely meretricious reporting-plus-punditry presented just the sort of gaseous, inside the Beltway conventional wisdom (which, in an audacious P.R. move, the editors dubbed contrarianism) that killed Hitchens’ prose. His “Fighting Words” column was written in the same style that an owl digests its prey – everything is quickly swallowed, and then the bones are spit out. Thus, Hitchens would survey some vast subject that he was manifestly uninformed about – Iraq, for instance – and he would then emit a number of parenthesis long bellows, vaguely connected by his personal experience, which was all Lawrence of Arabia without Arabia, the man of action without the action. The symbol of the contradiction was  Hitchens being waterboarded for the celebrity mag, Vanity Fair. As a young writer, Hitchens would surely have enjoyed the reduction of the issue of torture to a photo op next to the story about Angelinia Jolie's wonderful bosom; but of course, in the D.C. where Hitchens was most at home, the sensibility that understands the difference between photo op and action has long vanished.
That D.C. found its voice in Hitchens.  Some of his most stirring columns were, in fact, in defense of chicken hawkery among those who, with great sacrifice, guide the foreign policy of the great American empire. One of them, Paul Wolfowitz, who, after being wheeled from one job he was incompetent at – in the State Department – to another job he was incompetent at – at the World Bank – was removed from his sinecure after insisting the institution pay for his mistress too, was lamented in truly pitiful tones by Hitchens, who by this time had imbibed the views of Doctor Strangelove about the need for elite males to have on had a steady supply of nubile females. But Wolfowitz was only one of the indefensibles that Hitchens buddied up to in his last years, a roll call that includes Kurdish gangsters, lowbrowed Cheneyites from the Hoover institute, and, of course, Ahmed Chalabi, the perfect 00s freedom fighter, with a biography that combined instances of Enron-like fraud with instances of peculating U.S. Government funds to an extent that would have been considered bold by Halliburtan.

Perhaps it was the contradiction between holding himself up as a moral entrepreneur – for Hitchens’ later political columns were rank with his own virtues – and keeping such evidently immoral company that did in the writer in Hitchens. There were traces of that writer even in the book on Clinton: but the writer definitely died after 9/11. Hitchens survived him and flourished in the moronic inferno of Bush’s America. He succumbs on the day that America withdraws its troops from Iraq. Surely he would have endorsed his hero, John McCain’s description of that withdrawal as a dark day for American foreign policy – it will make it that much harder to march to Teheran.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Merit and dreams

(from here)

I looked, last night, for a passage in Cioran where, as he discusses what he sees as the decline of Europe into bourgeois comfort (he is writing in the fifties), he makes a passing remark that we are all equal in our dreams. I couldn’t find the exact words, but as I remember the passage, he is speaking literally: while our waking lives may be structured by numerous and overwhelming inequalities, there is neither wealth, fame, nor competition in dreaming: we dream alone. And in this sense, radical egalitarianism is not a political credo so much as a natural historical fact about human beings. A good third of our lives, our lives when asleep, are equal.

Cioran does not go any further with this idea; but it seems to me that it deserves more than to die in that undiscoverable passage, another philosophical “crack” that one forgets. Rather, I think it gives us an angle on the strange career of egalitarianism in our time.

I would develop the idea by matching it with a passage from another great essayist, Roberto Calasso. In an essay on Karl Kraus’ war on public opinion, Calasso puts  his finger on another radically equalizing moment in modernity: that of public opinion.

Calasso links the rise of public opinion to the Enlightenment, in line with a recent trend among historians who have found a use for the notion of the public sphere to explain certain traits about the 18th and 19th century in Europe and the U.S. Calasso, however, is after a tension between the Enlightenment utopia of the tabula rasa, able to “endure the total abrasion of meaning produced by an all consuming nominalism”, and the emergence of public opinion. If the Republic of the tabula rasa led to a constant reign of virtuous terror, the epistemological search for the tabula rasa led to a contradiction. For in fact, Calasso claims, the public mind is neither blank nor inhabited by Descartes innate ideas – rather it is inhabited by opinions. And of opinions, the opinion is: “One opinion is as good as another: The abyss yawns in this commonplace as in every other.”

That particular abyss has been plumbed extensively by the great pessimists – Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Leon Bloy, Kraus - and Calasso himself, who all share the theme first announced in Plato’s dialogues, which is that opinion is a bad epistemological object. However, I have never been convinced by this argument and its arriere pensée, which is a contempt for the people. My impulse, on the contrary, is to take hold of another piece of the great Platonic whale – the idea that doxa, in the chain of being, is halfway between the real – the ideas – and the unreal – their images, or the physical world. That doxa exist only halfway puts them on the same plane as dreams. In this way, public opinions are part of the great public dreamlife. Now, one might object that opinions aren’t the same as dreams, and I’d agree to an extent. The difference is made by waking. However, one should not overestimate waking. In a formal sense, waking is a break with dreaming, but it is so only to the extent that consciousness succeeds in substituting its strong sense of externality for the insulation of dreams. In fact, of course, we carry that insulation about with us in our ordinary life, a depthless pocket that we become uneasily aware of when we drop something in it – the typo, the address we forgot, bad luck and fuckups, a whole day’s worth of silent muttering and inattentions.

It is against this psychological and existential background that one should examine the last instantiation of the Enlightenment utopia, meritocracy. The version current in America is tht disparities of wealth and income should correspond to disparities in merit. Some students did the homework and got As, some didn’t and got Fs.

This, it should be said, is a curiously childish way of seeing the world, and could only have been developed in that Asperger’s paradise of a discipline, economics. To return to Plato again, what this idea does is shift the focus entirely from the thing done to the external reward for doing it. In so doing, the thing done is curiously emptied of all merit on its own, all glory. The perfect meritocracy would be one in which the thing done requires a highly developed amount of skill, and is absolutely pointless. Thus, it should be correspondingly awarded with showers of external reward. This is an exact representation of the current financial services sector, at least in its higher reaches.

But if we reverse the values and forces in play, here, we might find room for both merit and egalitarianism. Or at least that was the dream entertained by the most solitary of men in the forest of Saint Germane in 1753. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

water pistol Juntas

When looking at the story of capitalism and the rise of the European powers, it is striking to see forms of organization appear on the periphery before they migrate to the center. For instance, the work discipline of the factory in 19th century England seems to replicate forms of work discipline created for the sugar 'factories' in the West Indies of the 17th century. In 19th century England, the work discipline was imposed on 'free labor', and in Jamaica, it was imposed on slaves. Yet, if we look away from the changes implied by this transformation of the working agent, we see a continuity of form, or at least the production of an organizational form that can be transposed.  And, unlike serf labor in Central Europe, for instance, this slave labor is relatively free of the codes that define its rights and hedge in the transmission of property and title by the owners.

A similar movement from the periphery to the center seems to be happening in the counter-revolution that is now occuring in all developed countries. What happened to the LDCs in the 80s - the less developed countries - is now being served up to the Developed Countries. It is an interesting mix of fiction and terror.

The eighties are the 'lost decade' in Latin America because they are the decade in which the program of the Washington Consensus, as it came to be know, were imposed on Latin American counties. The weapon by which they were lashed into this madness was debt - combined of course with the military regimes that had been put in place in the sixties and seventies as part of the U.S.'s cold war strategy. And the result of the WC was a major drop in the living standards of the majority of the population, and an end, almost, to growth. While the 50s and the 60s saw tremendous growth in Latin America, and an uneven but perceptible distribution of more wealth to the wage and working class, in the 80s this stopped dead. What emerged in the nineties were 'good countries', like Mexico, that devoted the government to obeying the banks, notably IMF. The IMF model, however, suffered a severe blow when Argentina refused to go along with the usual medicine in 2000, and the U.S. grip on the region began to loosen.

Well, the Washington consensus has migrated, at last, to the developed world. The whole world is now being held up by bankers holding waterpistols to our head. And this threat without a real weapon - for no developed state really needs to obey the bankers, who after all have no police force to arrest it (unlike the Latin American states, where the U.S. could whip up a junta in a heartbeat) - is, to the general amazement of the non-numb among us, being obeyed to the last tittle and jot. 

In the 80s, the police were, in effect, the developed nations. However, beginning, perhaps, with Bush in 2000, the Developed Nations have given birth to the smokeless coup. This coup does not involved armed might - it involves merely taken unelected institutions, such as a court of a central bank, and making them the center of a completely undemocratic seizure of political power, on behalf of the wealthiest people on earth. There aren't, we should remind ourselves, too many wealthy people. And yet the police of every Developed country on earth have been toiling away for wealthy people and locking up demonstrators, cracking down on any demonstration of discontent, and raiding any leaks of information inconvenient to the establishment. The resistence to all of this has been tame beyond reckoning. The self-policing extends all the way up through the discourse - nobody who writes for a major paper or magazine, or who broadcasts, ever couches the new Washington Consensus junta society in terms that would offend your average civics class teacher. 

What would such terms be? Well, for instance, we would start saying: who is all this money owed to? And: can't we simply upset those bankers by taking away their money, one two three, without a by your leave. If sovereign debt is such a problem, we could easily raise the money to pay it by slapping, say, one hundred percent taxes on all bond transactions, and we can use that money to buy the bonds. And absurd solution to an absurd political situation - not an economic one. The question of debt is a question of class. The political class and the financial elite are one, united, and they drive our politics in ways that advantage the financial elite, who use money loaned them, by the governments, to loan money back to the governments. Oh, not directly - rather, by propping up the financial service sector's enterprises, we prop up the places where the bodn dealers work and trade.  

The debt issue is, then, one of those fictions that bear such weight because they serve the interest of a certain power. It isn't that the establishment doesn't believe in its fiction - much as the Aztec priest definitely believed that it was necessary to cut out the heart of a prisoner to appease the gods and continue the course of the world, the elite believe it is necessary to cut out the heart of the middle class to appease the abstract God of Debt, to whom we owe so much. My solution is the radical one of the Lord's prayer - in which we have prettified and made metaphoric the common sense suggestion that we forgive debt every day. Debt. Which is as material as the feeling of the edge of a coin. Forgiving debt is the heart of civilization. And - in this age of the internet, where all that is money has become bytes - it is divinely easy to do it. It is always the sovereign who actually enforces laws to force debters to pay creditors. When the power of the sovereign is calmly and cooly taken from the hands of the people and invested in the hands of ex employees of Goldman Sachs, they switch sides - from being the borrowers for the people, they become the creditors for the banks. 

This is, obviously, going to be a lost decade for the Developed countries. But I'm hopeful that the new Junta order will be, at best, short lived. The arithmatic that counts is not how much debt is owed, but the ratio of the creditor population to the debtor population. I'd keep my eye on the latter, for, given the logic of the counterrevolution we are seeing, the time is approaching when the the banker's water pistol will be jerked out of his hand and turned upon him. And, magically, in that moment it will become a real pistol, with a heft and insistance that will change the power relationship all, all at once.