Saturday, April 21, 2012

wanker moments: hommage a Eschaton

Recently, the Eschaton blog warmed my heart by publishing alist of the ten top wankers of the past decade – the ten years during whichDuncan Black had run the blog. I took an unhealthy interest in guessing the honorees, partly because I, too, suffered on both the intellectual and personal level during the Bush era. Personally, I plummeted into poverty on the strength of a novel I could not get published, and a series of increasingly insane freelance jobs for newspapers and mags that imposed harsh deadlines on my product and soft constraints on my pay – paychecks would appear an easy six months after they were promised. Meanwhile, I was increasingly plugged in, as all Internetians were, to the daily doings of the American culture. They were delivered to my wondering eyes in realtime. They were, from top to bottom, rotten, cretinous, and homicidal. I took part in the moronic inferno by blogging. Like Eschaton, I have accumulated plus ten years of blogging posts – I’ve preserved in the amber of my indignation the festering wounds of the conventional wisdom, and every day I felt less like an American and more like Jeremiah – the prophet, not the bullfrog.

Eschaton’s list is solid. We who read him knew that Friedman would be the winner, which took a little bit of suspense away from each day’s announcement. And now that the  excitement has passed, I’ve been thinking that perhaps we need an accompanying ten wanking moments – ten moments in which, as Leon Bloy observed of the clichés of the bourgeoisie, the announcement of the conventional wisdom “corresponded to some divine reality, had the power to make worlds tremble and unchain catastrophes without mercy.” That is to say, less heatedly, that these flashes of conventional wisdom an pundit observation revealed both a truth and a world of lies. This is what wanking is.

So, here are two of the ten moments I want to remember. I’ll do the Eschaton thing and publish bits over the next couple of weeks.

1. Elisabeth Bumiller, the NYT’s political correspondent, attended Bush’s famousMarch 6, 2003 press conference in which the questions had the oddly wooden air of the questions that used tobe asked of Soviet premiers by Pravda. This was Bush’s second press conference since stealing the presidency, in 2001. It was the press conference that preceded by two and a half weeks the invasion and occupation of Iraq by American troops. Osama bin Laden had not been found. The Taliban leadership was safe in Pakistan. In the rest of the world, people were asking pretty good questions about the cause of this invasion, why the weapons of mass destruction issue seemed to be so vague, and why the White House was coyly promoting and then denying a connection between Iraq and 9/11 that didn’t exist. During the conference, Bush even said, “this is scripted” -  which brought forth embarrassed laughter from the assembled talking heads. Later, responding to the disbelieving howls of critics that the press conference looked less like a grilling than like a special Olympics all set up for a tiny challenged president to show his prowess in putting a noun together with a verb (not a question was asked, for instance, about Osama bin Laden), Bumiller commentedupon the matter in a conference on the press:  “I think we were very deferential because ... it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time." Yes, it is such a serious serious time. One doesn’t want to be excluded from the victory party just around the corner! Bumiller has had a long and enriching career as a suckup to the powerful and overvalued, even taking time off from not “arguing” with the president to write Colin Powell’s authorized hagiography.  If you want a definitive sense of what the culture of wankery is all about, do yourself a favor and read the entire transcript, published by FAIR, of the conference in which Bumiller explained how you cannot say a president who tells a lie is telling a lie.

“Bumiller: You can’t just say the president is lying. You don’t just say that in the . . . you just say—

Ghiglione: Well, why can’t you?

[laughter from the audience]

Bumiller: You can in an editorial, but I’m sorry, you can’t in a news column. Mr. Bush is lying? You can say Mr. Bush is, you can say. . . .

[Murmuring and laughter continue from audience.]

Bumiller [to audience]: And stop the fussing! You can say Mr. Bush’s statement was not factually accurate. You can’t say the president is lying—that’s a judgment call.” 

2.  The Iraq war was brief, until  it was endless. The brief part was a huge triumph. We beat Saddam Hussein, who thoughfully did not turn his massive stock of weapons of mass production upon the invaders because, well, he didn’t have a massive stock of weapons of mass destruction. To even write weapons of mass destruction gives me an double Os headache, as we were invading Iraq to stop Hussein from having them while selling beaucoup bombers to Saudi Arabia. In fact, the weapons of mass destruction is an artifact as wonderful as terrorism – we give ourselves carte blanche to possess the one and practice the other, but use the rhetoric of both to pretty much do what we want. It is the foreign policy equivalent of wankery. Still, to return to our topic: on May 1, 2003, America orgasmed. Or so we would have to believe, looking back at the coverage of President Bush, who went AWOL during the pesky Vietnam years when it came to flying fighter planes to protect Corpus Christi from the Communist menace, but who magically lost his fear of flying on this magic day and was landed on a battleship, thoughtfully supplied with a Mission Accomplished banner, to start the whole orgasm business. Nobody orgasmed harder than Chris Matthews. Bumiller’s remarks show the fundamental servility encoded in the ubersmug attitude of the Timesman, but servility is never enough. Sycophancy, or more simply, ass licking, is also called for. Our man Matthews was there to supply it. The transcript is long, and the below 18 crowd shouldn’t read it – I believe that it is illegal to thrust pornography this graphic upon the sensibility of the youngsters.

MATTHEWS: What's the importance of the president's amazing display of leadership tonight?
MATTHEWS: What do you make of the actual visual that people will see on TV and probably, as you know, as well as I, will remember a lot longer than words spoken tonight? And that's the president looking very much like a jet, you know, a high-flying jet star. A guy who is a jet pilot. Has been in the past when he was younger, obviously. What does that image mean to the American people, a guy who can actually get into a supersonic plane and actually fly in an unpressurized cabin like an actual jet pilot?
MATTHEWS: Do you think this role, and I want to talk politically [...], the president deserves everything he's doing tonight in terms of his leadership. He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics. Do you think he is defining the office of the presidency, at least for this time, as basically that of commander in chief? That [...] if you're going to run against him, you'd better be ready to take [that] away from him.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Bob Dornan, you were a congressman all those years. Here's a president who's really nonverbal. He's like Eisenhower. He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes West. I remember him standing at that fence with Colin Powell. Was [that] the best picture in the 2000 campaign?
MATTHEWS: Ann Coulter, you're the first to speak tonight on the buzz. The president's performance tonight, redolent of the best of Reagan -- what do you think?
COULTER: It's stunning. It's amazing. I think it's huge. I mean, he's landing on a boat at 150 miles per hour. It's tremendous. It's hard to imagine any Democrat being able to do that. And it doesn't matter if Democrats try to ridicule it. It's stunning, and it speaks for itself.
MATTHEWS: Pat Caddell, the president's performance tonight on television, his arrival on ship?
CADDELL: Well, first of all, Chris, the -- I think that -- you know, I was -- when I first heard about it, I was kind of annoyed. It sounded like the kind of PR stunt that Bill Clinton would pull. But and then I saw it. And you know, there's a real -- there's a real affection between him and the troops.
MATTHEWS: The president there -- look at this guy! We're watching him. He looks like he flew the plane. He only flew it as a passenger, but he's flown --
CADDELL: He looks like a fighter pilot.
MATTHEWS: He looks for real. What is it about the commander in chief role, the hat that he does wear, that makes him -- I mean, he seems like -- he didn't fight in a war, but he looks like he does.
CADDELL: Yes. It's a -- I don't know. You know, it's an internal thing. I don't know if you can put it into words. [...] You can see it with him and the troops, the ease with which he talks to them. I was amazed by that, frankly, because as I said, I was originally appalled, particularly when I heard he was going in an F-18. But -- on there -- but the -- but you know, that was --
MATTHEWS: Look at this guy!
CADDELL: -- was hard not to be moved by their reaction to him and his reaction to them and --
MATTHEWS: You know, Ann --
CADDELL: -- you know, they -- it's a quality. It's an innate quality. It's a real quality.
MATTHEWS: I know. I think you're right.
Later that day, on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Matthews said:
MATTHEWS: We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like [former President Bill] Clinton or even like [former Democratic presidential candidates Michael] Dukakis or [Walter] Mondale, all those guys, [George] McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple. We're not like the Brits. We don't want an indoor prime minister type, or the Danes or the Dutch or the Italians, or a [Russian Federation President Vladimir] Putin. Can you imagine Putin getting elected here? We want a guy as president.
Can you imagine Putin getting elected here? Well, in 2003, I couldn’t even imagine Bush getting elected here, since, as a matter of fact, he wasn’t. But I was one of the few few few critics. Interestingly, Matthews, showing his deep knowledge  of politics, predicted  that the Mission Accomplished footage would be shown over and over in 2004 by the Bush Re-election committee. Of course, when it was shown, in 2004 – if it was at all – it was shown by the Democrats, since it demonstrated how irresponsible and off his rocker the Mission Accomplished “guy” was. It is important to remember, as a sidenote, that no prediction made by a wanker will ever come true, or ever damage his or her career. That is, even about the subject they supposedly are expert in, politics, they are almost invariably wrong.    

Oh, and for the hell of the thing ---- on May 1, 2003, I paid little attention to Mission Accomplished. But this was the kind of thing I was writing about that time - from May 12, 2003:

The mandate of heaven is a cruel and capricious spirit. Take Smilin' Jay Garner. About a month ago, Iraqis everywhere awoke after a night of bad dreams and thought, collectively, gee we'd like this non-Arab speaking weapons salesman to be the absolute Jefe of our brand spankin' new country! We don't want electricity, garbage pickup, safety from robbery, or those stinkin' museums and libraries -- we want a well protected ministry of oil! we want every exile group, as long as it is led by Ahmad Chalabi, to be supplied with American arms! And we want to give them their choice of residence in the wealthy side of Baghdad! And we want hands off Garner to preside over it all! These messages, ectoplasmically and extrasensorally delivered to the very heartland of Iraq -- Washington D.C. -- were not ignored. Smilin' Jay made a triumphant tour of the country. To reassure the Iraqi people, Smilin' Jay even tried to institute a continuity of style with the previous regime: just like Saddam, he disappeared into the presidential palace and was seen rarely thereafter in public.

But alas. The Iraqi people woke up, liberated and democratic, a week ago after a night of pleasant dreams (oh, the tax cuts that danced like sugar plumbs in their heads!) and decided no, Smilin' Jay wasn't the embodiment of Iraqi history. That honor goes, instead, to Kissinger Associates l. Paul Bremer III!

His Thirdness, being blessed by Henry Kissinger, is preparing us for a delicious treat: the high squeals of Christopher Hitchens, who has to maintain his cred by dissing Kissinger - otherwise, he's just another rightwinger in the rat pack - while tergiversating madly to rationalize our pyrate rule in Iraq. This should be good.

The Washington Post recorded L. Paul's historic maiden speech in Iraq. Here's what he said:

"It's a wonderful challenge to help the Iraqi people basically reclaim their country from a despotic regime," Bremer said in a tarmac interview minutes after his plane landed in Basra.
He spent a short while in the southern city before flying to Baghdad, where the civilian reconstruction agency is headquartered.

Asked whether he was, in effect, directing a U.S. plan to colonize Iraq, Bremer said: "The coalition did not come to colonize Iraq. We came to overthrow a despotic regime. That we have done. Now our job is to turn and help the Iraqi people regain control of their own destiny."

A wonderful challenge? Isn't this the neutral language of the over-coached CEO, plotting the downsizing of his company? Whatever else you say about the pirates of yore, at least there was some steel in their yeahs and nays. Here's an anecdote about Blackbeard:

"One night, drinking in his cabin with Hands, the pilot, and another man, Blackbeard, without any provocation, privately draws out a small pair of pistols, and cocks them under the table. Which being perceived by the man, he withdrew and went upon deck, leaving Hands, the pilot, and the Captain together. When the pistols were ready, he blew out the candle and crossing his hands, discharged them at his company. Hands, the master, was shot through the knee and lamed for life; the other pistol did no execution. Being asked the meaning of this, he only answered by damning them, That if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was."

Surely L. Paul should consider Teach's way of disposing of extra associates. It would at least add a colorful anecdote to our colorless pillaging expedition.

Friday, April 20, 2012

a history of rat races

The search for the origin is, to borrow the title of a Gerald Genette book, a  voyage to Cratylie, that is, to the mythical moment in which the powers over things and thoughts first emerged from chaos and commenced their scheming. Of course, we’ve come a long way from Cratylus, baby – or so all the scientists say. Still, what is more fun, and what gives one more a sense of peaking into some secret corner of the public consciousness, than tracking down the origin of great catchphrases? To do this properly is not simply a matter of dredging up some obscure reference from the world’s archives, although I am sure that is how they do it at the OED, and quite right too. But to make the voyage interesting, one has to go beyond the obscured fact. The mystery here concerns something with a total social meaning – with all that implies of the acids of psychosis, the collective ecstasy, the secret runs of dopamine in the individual’s Piranesian brain  that were  encoded in the word choice. It is the panorama of world history in the form of a fully formed phrase that we want. A phrase that comes prethought. The mere discoverer of facts here may insist all he wants to on the dated instance, plucked out of some corpus, and all respect to his nose and industry -  but his etymology will always fall short of the glory of the phrase's repetition and the unconscious connotative power that spreads it over the principalities and powers.

And so it is, not unexpectedly, with “rat race”. I admit that I’ve daydreamed about the voyage of this phrase through the time and space of the twentieth century, so American, so epic. Or perhaps lyric?  No, epic, in as much as the phrase summons up and muses over the great shift from agriculture and industry to service and circulation that is associated with American capitalism by the bonds of holy Hollywood – and whose spasmodic end we are, perhaps, witnessing now. It is a word etched in cinemascope rather than handheld video recorder.

The “rat race” is part of Karl Kraus’s ‘technoromantic adventure’ of the twentieth century. Kraus was referring, in 1919, to the juxtaposition of the propaganda for world war I, with its antiquated rhetoric of chivalry and honor, and the reality of the battlefield, with its cutting edge poison gas and its warriors masked like monsters out of the middle ages. Life in the developed economies, writers knew by 1950, was a rat race – it was what those developed economies produced, just as the undeveloped ones produced disease, an overemphasis on the agricultural sector, and the ferocious recycling of the developed economies’ waste materials – its odd old plastic bottles, its thrown away treated woods, its strips of corrugated aluminum.

Okay, so much for the mood music. There are two paths that lead, according to the most reliable experts, to the ‘rat race.” And there is also a third, according to myself. Happily, there is something synergistic about these paths, something that makes the origin and diffusion of the phrase ‘rat race’ highly symbolic of the cultural specialties for which the U.S.A. is known.

 The first birth of ‘rat race’ was, appropriately, in the popular culture of music. In the 1930s, there is a record of a dance in Louisville, Kentucky called the “rat race”; the observer who noted the term in the journal of American speech called it a “low dance”. According to John Kleber’s Encyclopedia of Louisville, the dance was peculiarly associated with Kentucky’s only big city. “Some say the Rat Race got its start in the Portland area. Although the origin of the name is obscure, old-timersnote that rats were once so numerous in Portland that people had to invent innovative ways to exterminate them. At night one could see the rats running everywhere, as the residents formed what they called a Rat Chase.”

Kleber claims that the dance was a “sort of slide and glide” step seen more often in barrooms than ballrooms. At this point, note, the human is chasing the rat – the human remains the subject, the rat the object.

The next appearance of rat race is in a military context. The OED gives a quotation from a 1931 story in the New York Times: “They did the snake dance, or rat race as it is sometimes called, and they ended with their four-direction bombing attack” Apparently, just as the sliding and gliding male in the dance kept pursuing the ever retreating and gliding female, one  fighter plane would dog and tailgate another fighter plane, trying to drive it off course or rattle the pilot. American Speech, in 1941, records it as a “mounted review in armor force” – presumably, a defile of tanks. The “race” here is distinguished from a straight race, in which the runners keep to their tracks – instead, the race involves interfering with the other racers. By 1944, the “rat race” was, informally, the race to occupy Germany. Note, here, that the human chasing the rat has disappeared: all are rats, all are racing as rats. The lowest animal, vermin, is made equivalent to the soldier in a ritual that begins with humiliation and ends with an inverted prestige – the rat lords it over the human in a world in which murder is a duty and sparing life is a fault. The technoromantic adventure is rats business.  

The course of the phrase as I have depicted it so far is supported by the best authorities in the phrase and fable field, as well as Louisville antiquarians and WWII groupies. Underneath the surface shift from human to rat and from dance to death, one spots the grander outlines of two of the great 20th century American industries, entertainment and war, as they cross one with the other and form an enduring complex with multiple effects – from the rise of the FX blockbuster to the great burst of highway building (done as a defense initiative) that started in the 1950s, from war video games to the use of defense industries and military camps to develop the economically backwards American South in the pre-Civil Rights era.

But I think I can also discern a third source for the phrase. At least, I’ve always had an instinct that the phrase has connotations that certainly resonate with this other, characteristically American source, which takes us back to the 1890s when, at Clark University, and then at the University of Chicago, and at the Worcester Hospital for the Insane, certain psychologists –most notably Adolf Meyer, a Swiss immigrant to the U.S. who worked at the Worcester Hospital and Henry Donaldson, a neurologist at the University of Chicago – began to promote the gospel of the albino rat. It was Meyer who began to breed the rats (imagine the scene! The cages in the basement under the flickering electric light, the creaking of the floor above as the mad shuffled about, and our inventor with his family of vermin), and the albino was perfected by Donaldson in the twenties with the Wister rat, which became the standardized lab rat. After  the 1920s, no large American university lacked its wing housing cage after cage of rats. Meanwhile, at Clark, a psychologist names E.C. Sanford and his students, Lucas Kline and Willard Small, were customers of Meyer’s. In Kline’s memoir he recalled talking to Sanford about the natural history of rats, such as he knew it from his childhood in Virginia: “… runways I had observed… made by large feral rats to their nests under the porch of an aold cabin on my father’s farm in Virginia. These runways were from three to six inches below the surface of the ground and when exposed during excavation resembled a veritable maze.”

The maze idea was taken up by Willard Small, who wrote the first great American rat paper, Mental Processes in Rats, in 1900 (and by what lexical drift did the name Willard emerge in the seventies in a popular horror movie about armies of rats?) and introduced the maze – in the center of which the psychologist placed a reward, food. In 1900, behavioralism had not yet erased scandalous mentalese and mental processes from out of the life of rats and humans. Small’s inferences of mental processes fell into oblivion, but his maze, and other laboratory equipment (the problem box, the activity wheel) spread from one underground of cages to another. In 1910, it surfaced in the popular press in an article about animal behavior under expriment by John Watson, the pioneer of behavioralist psychology:

“By such experiments we have established the fact that when animals learn to open doors, run mazes, etc. by their own unaided efforts, they achieve the first success in nearly all cases by some happy accident. If a rat is hungry and is confined in a large cage with a small box containing food which it can get access to only by raising a latchi, it begins its task by the display of a repertoire of instinctive acts, common to every member of the rat race. It runs around and over the box, gnawing the wires, pushing into every mesh of the wire with its nose, clawing, etc. This random instinctive exercise of energy results early in the knowledge of the fact that the door of the box is  the only movable portion. The rat’s activity becomes centered here. Since the latch is attached to the small door, the chance has rapidly become better that some movement of the rat, such as butting or clawing, may raise the latch from the socket. In a period of time which may vary from to minutes to twenty, or even longer, this happy accident will occur, the door will then fall open, and the rat get the foot. Will the animal on the second trial run immediately to the latch and raise it?”

On such questions corporate, military and organizational behavior rose and fell, at least in the command and control America that followed World War II.  Although the running of the rats did not involve racing them, I find this cockeyed etymological meander too satisfying not to want it to be true. Watson, of course, only mentions the rat race as an indication of the race of rats, while rats running do not try to block each other from the food in the maze. But here one does spot, at least the turn from the human chasing the rat to the human becoming one – from old barbarous rat-catching to species-being, Gattungswesen, as Ludwig Feuerbach might have put it. And the problem boxes, mazes and cages by a thousand transformations reappeared as offices, compensation systems, psychological personality quizzes and the interstate highway system.    

In 1932, E.C. Tolman wrote: “I believe that everything important in psychology (except perhaps such matters as the building up of a super-ego, that is, everything save such matters as involve society and words) can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determiners of rat behavior at a choice-point in a maze.”

Who can doubt that such truths were inscribed deeply in the American subconscious? The problem is the super-ego; but erect mazes that lead the animal by easy steps to from the choice-point to the reward or punishment you’ve left for him, and you set your mind at rest. . It is all a question of building the mazes – the tv maze, the car maze, the job maze, the education maze – and pushing the American beast through them.

It is this third path to the phrase that fascinates me, the beast that I am, standing at a choice point and peering near-sightedly down dark passages, stirred obscurely by the thought of my positive reinforcement (to be gobbled up rapidly, spilling crumbs) at some impossible center.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How the new got detached from the future

In “Accélération du temps, crise du futur, crise de la politique” (2011), Carmen Leccardi spelled out the paradox that infests the supposed age of acceleration in which we, a certain we, live: while logistics and information in the global market now travel at speeds that approach that dream of Capital as outlined by Marx (where circulation time is reduced to zero), the future as a collectively envisioned social time becomes ever less imaginable, except under the sign of fear. In the 19th and 20th centuries, of course, the future weighed heavily on the popular consciousness, and influenced every social movement and every political utterance. But the collapse of  any serious alternative to the world market, which has been coeterminous with the ‘accelerated’ rate at which we (the middling we, the symbol pushers, the agents of circulation, the educated, the numbed child) receive and process information, has undermined the credibility of the notion that the future could offer some vast change for the better. What has happened is that one of the great termporal forms of modernity – the new – has detached itself both from the past and the future.  The new is the same old same old, held in the thrall of the simultaneous – the realtime we all serve. The alternative is simply catastrophe; the future looms over the new as the catastrophe that we lack the confidence to understand or confront. 

“More precisely, the acceleration of temporal rhythms brings about a constellation of secondary effects, all prejudicial to the development of political thought and action. It is enough to thing, for example, of the contraction of temporal horizons and the predominance of the short term; of the veritable hegemony of the dealine, elaborated as a principle of action; of the discredit of perspectives based on the idea of one time for all (the idea of irreversibility); of the diffusion of a culture with a provisional character; of the growing difficulty of the construction of projects. In their collectivity, these factors have a negative incidence on the relation with politics.”
Within this timescape (one in which speed dominates to the degree that it is able to be  detached from any greater destination) , Leccardi draws a number of conclusions about politics. One of the most important, I think, is the inversion of the time politics of the left and the right.
The last paradox that the transformation of the temporality of politics produces in the context of the high-speed society is probably the most important. For the first time,in our epoch, the privileged tie cultivated by both the conservative and progressive coalitions with social mutation and its speed has reversed itself. Thus, if it is true that the former coalition has traditionally always been associated with the tendency to ‘slow down’ the mutation and the second with speeding it up, today the positions seem to be reversed. The progressive front supports deceleration – in putting its emphasis on local production, on the political control of the economy, and on the protection of the environment – while the conservative front defends an acceleration of mutations (for example, in defending the rapidity of the markets, in exalting new technologies, and in minimizing the environmental pollution of a certain model of development). The privileged relation between deceleration and the new forms of progressivism could constitute, I think, a good terrain for reflecting about the horizons of politics in the epoch of social acceleration.”
Leccardi’s analysis here is a bit askew, since it is detached from the dynamic of class interests that govern these ‘coalitions.’ That the left has always wanted politics to control economics is evident from even a glance at modern political history; it has long been the conservative claim that the state should not interfere with the private enterprise. Of course, underneath that claim was a practice that enrolled the state systematically on the side of Capital and against labor. But it is true that Marx’s heady encomium of the bourgeois revolution, dissolving the stationary and retarded pockets of rural idiocy and local backwardness everywhere and, on its way to  forming the world market, becoming a vehicle for the world wide revolution of the proletariat, evokes a less optimistic response by the left today, which sees no unity at all, of any kind, arising out of the formal likeness of the circumstances in which the proletariat labor in all global locales. That form of simultaneity – the temporal correlate of solidarity – lies smashed under the media form of simultaneity, the deadline time of our current social mutation. Given that smashup, the progressive coalition does well to question whether deceleration could form an alternative to the mad rush of the Davos swine from one crisis to another, in each of them finding overwhelming reason to sacrifice every advance in social welfare formed by the coalition of the state and the wage class over the past sixty years.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

false consciousness - recycled

A post I am recycling from 2007

We all know that false consciousness can be manufactured by the yard, like ribbon. We have merely to pick up a newspaper or see a movie to confirm this belief. In fact, the most popular story about false consciousness, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’ New Clothes, uses thread as the emblem of false consciousness – for in its essence, false consciousness is that nothing at all for which someone gets paid. And haven’t we seen them sewing the invisible thread? What was Tarp, what was the Iraq war, but the work of the tailors? Who wove justifications through which it was quite easy to see – it was quite easy to see that Iraq, a country that had been crippled by ten years of sanctions, couldn’t even properly attack its breakaway Northern half, much less threaten a power that spends more on the military each year than the rest of the world spends in five years. Just as it was quite easy to see that the middle and working class, hit by a business cycle that had been put in motion by the financial sector, were going to pay the people, pay them richly, who had caused the disaster, all in the name of an essential function that they had not performed in years, and have no plans to perform in the future: moving capital into venues productive of the social good.
 11,000 14,000
The problem is that false consciousness implies true consciousness, but who manufactures it? Or are we to assume that it isn’t manufactured at all? The Anderson tale indicates this problem as well, but only on a more subtle level.  In the second paragraph of the story we read:

“In the great city where he [the Emperor] lived, life was always gay. Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

The term “swindlers” is the tell. True consciousness has already been woven into the cloth of the story – we, the reader and the author, have a wonderful way of seeing the tailors for swindlers, and the empty looms for empty looms. Thus, when the little boy proclaims that the emperor is naked, he is saying something that we already knew.

“Small Zaches”, has never achieved the popularity of Anderson’s tale. It is not one of the E.T.A. Hoffman stories that has entered the vocabulary of all mankind, or at least the part of it that occasionally goes to the opera. But it tackles a more difficult matter than Andersen’s story: what if we tell the story of false consciousness by putting the ‘tell’ in doubt?
The plot of the story concerns a dwarf. The dwarf is Small Zaches. He is a snarling, barely civilized creature. He does possess an unusual gift, however. He projects upon the people around him the impression that he is another thing altogether – named Zinnobar. Zinnobar is not simply a projection – rather, it is a projection collector. If a man at the table with Small Zaches reads a beautiful poem, the poem is attributed by those at the table to the dwarf, not the poet. Meanwhile, the dwarf’s habits- say, of sticking his face into his plate and licking up the food on it -  will be attributed to the poet. The shifts produce the humor in the tale: Zinnober is introduced to the Furst, but merely mumbles and growls at him while smearing food over himself. The Furst congratulates the little monster on a memo he has received. A courtier comes forward and claims that he has written the memo – and we know he has, because the authorial p.o.v. makes us know that he has.But the Furst gets angry at the courtier not only for his false claim to authorship, but for eating like a pig, smearing food on himself, and dropping a piece of melted butter on the Furst’s uniform.  Like children, we laugh at this – or at least I laugh at this – because I know that the true version of events is the one told to me by the author. He, at least – this anonymous, organizing voice – has a true consciousness of the events that are unfolding in the tale.

Yet this same author calmly describes magical metamorphoses in other parts of the tale, with the same sense that this material happened as it is described. Meanwhile, in one of those strokes of mad genius to which Hoffmann is heir, even his hero, Balthazar, who sees through Zinnober to the Small Zaches inside, has moments of doubt – while Zinnober’s most ardent defender, the advocate of enlightenment, and the man whose daughter wants to marry him, Professor  Mosch Terpin, experiences moments when his eyes deceive him – that is, moments when he sees clearly: “ It is true that it often seems inconceivable even to me that a girl like Candida could be so foolishly fond (vernarrt sein) of the little man. Otherwise, women mostly are looking for a handsome exterior, than for particular intellectual gifts, and when I look at the special little man for a while, it begins to seem to me as if he were not at all pretty, but even a humpy… st …. St…be still, the walls have ears. He is the favorite of the Furst, always climbing higher. Higher, and he is my future son-in-law.”

But it is Balthasar, who makes the most uncanny confession. Balthasar is one of our anchoring characters, whose perspective, vis a vis the truth about the special little man, is the author’s own. He hates the special small man precisely because Candida loves him (and it is here that Balthasar and the author part ways, so to speak – Balthasar’s  love for Candida, it is made abundantly clear, is itself based on a fundamental delusion in which he confuses his sexual excitement about her for some merit she herself possesses – when we can see she is vain and rather empty). But there he is, sitting in the forest (which represents the anti-entlightenment by its very existence – and yet also represents the place where projection is neutralized) at the beginning of chapter four,  making a confession:

No, he cried out as he sprang from his perch and with glowing glances looked into the distance, “no, all hope has not yet vanished! – it is only too certain that some dark secret, some evil magic has broken into my life, but I will break this magic, even if it kills me! – as I finally fled, overcome by the feeling that my breast would explode unless I confessed my love to gracious, sweet Candida, didn’t I read in her look, feel by the press of her hand, my blessedness? But when that damned mishmash was seen, it was to him that all the love flowed. On you, execrable misbirth, hung Candida’s eyes, and longing sighs flew from her breast, when the clumsy boy came near her or touched her hand. … Isn’t it fantastic, that everyone mocks and laughs at the completely helpless, misshapen little man, and then again, when the small man slips in between, cry him up as the most intelligent, learned, even handsome Studioso among us?   – What am I saying? Doesn’t it come over me in the same way, as if Zinnobar were clever and pretty? Only in Candida’s presence  does the magic have no power over me: then is and remains Mr. Zinnober a dumb, dreadful mandrake!”

Who does not feel these terrible moments of surrender to the sly devil’s voice of the consensus omnium? And must projection drive out projection and so on, without end?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

On the prison industry

In the Utopia of Userers, Chesterton, that curious mixture of Catholic anti-semite reactionary and anti-capitalist critic, launched an all out assault on the “small-minded cynicism of our
plutocracy, its secrecy, its gambling spirit, its contempt of conscience…”

But even Chesterton could not have dreamt of the extension of the Utopia to prison itself. Only in the U.S., where we have joined together peanut butter and chocolate, and coca cola and rum, would it occur to anybody to join together the two great tastes of libertarianism and the Gulag. But so it happened! Here’s the story from the very downloadable Justice Policy Institute report, Gaming the System:

“A prime example of the influence underscoring the private prison industry is the development of
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA cofounder, Tom Beasley, then-chairman of the
Tennessee Republican Party, had served on a committee tasked with choosing a new state corrections officer.28 Beasley‟s research uncovered a system plagued by overcrowding, tight budgets and high turnover, convincing him that with a few simple applications of business practices the corrections system could be transformed from an inefficient bureaucracy to a profitable business.29 Joined by two friends, Doctor Crants, a lawyer and MBA Harvard graduate and Don Hutto, who at the time was the president of the American Correctional Association, CCA entered the market by attempting to take over the entire Tennessee prison system.30 The combination of Beasley‟s political connections, Crants‟ business savvy, and Hutto‟s correctional credentials allowed for easy access to the necessary contacts and investors to launch America‟s first private prison company.”

This is the conservative version of American capitalism in its most naked – extolling the benefits of the private sphere whilst depending utterly on the flow of tax dollars to fatten the salaries of its investors and upper management. As an added conceptual plus, liberty, here, is used to deprive more and more people of liberty. So, in an era in which, according to police statistics, the crime rate in America has dropped to a level not seen since the early sixties, we are using the prison system to essentially replace the social welfare system. In 1960, there were, in all, 333,000 people in jail, approximately. In 2010, there were 2,266,800, plus another 4,933,667 on parole. More than any other country. But…
You can see the problem. CCA has a wonderful gig now, but how about growth opportunities? 

According toGaming the System:

“Since 2000, private prisons have increased their share of the ‚market‛ substantially: the number of people held in private federal facilities increased approximately 120 percent, while the number
held in private state facilities increased approximately 33 percent. During this same period, the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent. Meanwhile, spending on corrections has increased 72 percent since 1997, to $74 billion in 2007.3 The two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, combined
had over  $2.9 billion in revenue in 2010.”

As Chesterton wrote: “This Capitalist is an ingenious person, and has many polished characteristics; but I think the most singular thing about him is his staggering lack of shame. Neither the hour of death nor the day of reckoning, neither the tent of exile nor the house of mourning, neither chivalry nor patriotism, neither womanhood nor widowhood, is safe at this supreme moment from his dirty little expedient of dieting the slave. As similar bullies, when they collect the slum rents, put a foot in the open door, these are always ready to push in a muddy wedge wherever there is a slit in a sundered household or a crack in a broken heart.” This may seem like mere invective to you, who are a patsy – to  GEO and CCA, it represents a business plan. This is from the Sun Sentinal, concerning the recent Florida scam:

“According to [The National Institute on Money in State Politics], the private prison industry has gave nearly $1 million in campaign contributions during the 2010 election cycle, the most the industry has given over the last decade, with the donations largely coming from five companies: GeoGroup, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Global Tel* Link, Armor Correctional Health Services, and LCS Corrections Services, Inc.
The full Senate this week will take up a plan to privatize 29 prisons in South Florida, which Senate budget chairman JD Alexander has predicted could save the state up to $45 million. The move is opposed by correctional workers though, who have turned out in large numbers at committee hearings to protest the proposal.
An identical proposal was approved by the Legislature last year, but shot down by the courts on technical grounds because the plan was written into the budget, rather than debated and passed in separate legislation.
Florida is home to the nation’s third-largest penal system, a fact likely not lost on the state’s lawmakers when they finalized the state’s $69.7 billion budget last May. Taking aim at $4 billion in government spending, last year’s budget included a plan to privatize prisons in the southern third of the state that would have nearly quadrupled the number of Florida prisons run by private firms.”
The figures are, as always, astonishing. One of the advantages of democracy, it turns out, is that it can be bought for rock bottom prices. You can easily whip up an ideological mood and buy a baker’s dozen of legislators for less money than Jamie Dimon spent to remodel his office at JP Morgan Chase. The big money in a declining empire has, traditionally,  been in pilfering the Imperial centers, as the peasants are exhausted, the tribute is killing them, and the great plantations are creating less and less. So it is with the States. The abdication of public responsibility in tandem with an aggressive peculation that clothes itself in the virtues of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has created a very happy shift towards the one percent, where innumerable capillaries direct money from the state directly into the pockets of the corporation. The prison corporations are pursuing much the same method that has made, say, Bain Corporation such heady bucks: the latter  would clear out a company and, using bankruptcy law and the orders of a compliant court, thrust pension expenses on the government to achieve the  magical mystery ROI and then move on, leaving a downsized ruin behind it. There’s similar money to be made privatizing everything government and creating a lower level life style for everyone outside the gated community. Since 3.1 percent of all adults in America are either in jail or on parole, we are talking of a very strong market, here, the equivalent of the junk bond market – call it the market in junk people. We can imprison this scum, deny them the right to vote,  and variously cheat them through the traditional legalized money lending practices without a single respectable person protesting. But, problematically, it is hard to wring money out of them. That’s why imprisoning them is such a wonderful trick – valueless in themselves, each of those bodies is backed up by bucks as soon as you bumrush them through the courts and behind bars.

At one time, there might even have existed one or two politicos or public figures to whine about this state of affairs. But that time ended in 1968, and since then the gated community and the private prison have gone hand in hand, dividing up the American landscape. We can be sure that this year, as in 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992, 1988, 1984, 1980, and on and on, not a single question will be asked about the astonishing amount of adults circulated through the incarceration  industry; and if it were asked, we can be sure that Romney I and Romney II, our parity product presidential candidates, would answer with pretty much the same tough on crime boilerplate; and we can also be sure that neither one will lose a single supporter for not noticing the Gulag.

But if we cannot have the power to chose, we can at least luxuriate in the impotence of knowing.  Which is why you, reader, should definitely hasten to the report, Gaming the System, for a fun half hour of Sunday reading. Then forget it. Nothing is going to happen to make the situation better; everything is set up to make it much worse.


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