Monthly Archives: May 2012
Continued from part 1. A note: it took KMO a few days to answer the last two questions because he found them much more perplexing upon reflection than he thought at first.
Skepoet: You and Doug Henwood have been calling out NPR lately. Why do you think it has so much cache among liberal and lefty types?
KMO: I love NPR. I’m a lifelong listener. I think it appeals to lefty Baby Boomers because that’s the target demographic. It’s clearly aimed at people with too much education, critical thinking facility and attention span to take more ‘mainstream’ news and current events programming seriously, and so it flatters its audience with the tacit message, “You’re so smart for not settling for low-brow sound bite journalism and fake debates between shrill talking heads.”
NPR, particularly it’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, annoys the living shit out of me because they respect all of the same taboos that the corporate media hold dear and actually serve to reinforce and legitimize those taboos by posing as a free and unbeholden actor. I think they function as what people more steeped in political language than I am like to call a ‘left gate-keeper.’
That said, let me reiterate; I love NPR. I listen to it all the time, although less so now that I live in New York City and have more alternatives to choose from.
S: You have been working with Occupy Cafe and you have recently moved to New York: what are you thoughts on the developments of Occupy?
KMO: You may have heard that Occupy Wall Street has moved from Zuccotti Park to Union Square. I’ve been by Union Square a couple of times to check out the vibe, and except for the inordinate police presence and a table holding up an OWS banner with a donation jar on it, I saw nothing to indicate that there was anything at all out of the ordinary going on there. I know there have been a few Occupy events at which people were arrested, but I think the mild winter weather has not been a blessing to Occupy. I think people need some recuperation, and I think that 70 degree days in February put psychological pressure on the Occupiers to get back in the game before their batteries were sufficiently re-charged.
As exciting as OWS was last year, I don’t really want to see what it will become now that it has solidified into a recognizable brand and a more-or-less fixed organization. I would rather see everybody change clothes, change dance partners, and let the spirit of protest manifest itself in a new form in 2012.
S: What would you like to the see the spirit of occupy become?
KMO: Last year, Occupy changed the parameters of the mainstream conversation. At first the corporate media ignored OWS, then they thrashed about, grasping at any possible means of discrediting or discounting it, and then the 1% / 99% lingo entered the mainstream conversation. Suddenly, the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in our society materialized in view and required acknowledgement and comment in the mainstream narrative. That is but one of a herd of elephants in the proverbial room. This year, I want more elephants to
The Drug War has become an invisible Juggernaut. It’s excesses and the resulting prison nation that have resulted from absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws are completely indefensible from any rational perspective. In the 80s and early 90s, Drug War propaganda was everywhere. Now, prohibition-themed public service announcements are
rare. The whole monstrous program barrels forward under its own steam, but discussion of its utility or whose ends it serves is completely absent from the mainstream narrative. I think this is starting to change, and the recent Summit of the Americas at which Latin American leaders insisted that we examine alternatives to the Drug War now has
president Obama explicitly defending prohibition and the prison industrial complex. By the time November rolls around, I want it to be glaringly obvious to anyone tuned into the mainstream narrative that Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party are the party of Empire, the party of prisons, the party of the surveillance state, and the party
of the financialized economy. Whether it is OWS or some other mechanism that effects these changes in perception doesn’t matter much to me. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy has done a lot more good on this front than has OWS.
S: The drug war is one of the few policies outside of the wars in the Mideast in which the majority of the population, outside of law enforcement, don’t support anymore. It costs the states incredible amounts of money, and it destabilize Latin American countries. Why do you think it continues?
S: Money for whom? That’s the real issue for me. It actually costs most parties involved more than they make in the long run, so the question becomes “who benefits.”
KMO: I think the key phrase there is, “in the long run.” The Drug War creates huge flows of money, the channeling of which provides short term benefit to entities like governments and corporations. This comes at an enormous short-term cost to millions of individual humans and an ultimately catastrophic cost to society, but the pressure to favor short
term gain over long term well-being is certainly not the exclusive province of the Drug War.
S: What are the best ways to frame the issue in the general public ?
KMO: That’s a really challenging question for a number of reasons. At one level, it seems that my own perspective is so deviant that what seems obvious for me is completely alien to “the common man,” whoever he is. So what are my intuitions worth when it comes to a successful re-framing of the Drug War? That viewpoint is laden with a blinding payload of self-flattery. I suspect that when the Greatest Generation dies off and the Baby Boomers are panicked over the fact that their retirement security has evaporated, we can frame the question as, “We can’t afford to fund your retirement AND the Drug War, so what’s it gonna be?” That, I think, will be a no-brainer for the Boomers.
Finally, the whole Drug War stands or falls with the prohibition of marijuana. The propaganda is all about cocaine and heroin, but without the prohibition on marijuana, there are not enough “drug criminals” out in the world to justify the gazillion dollar Drug War budget. Depending on how you massage the poll results, we’re pretty close to having half of the existing population, complete with members of the Greatest Generation who participated in lynchings, already favoring the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. I heard Ethan
Nadelmann give a talk at the Cato Institute in 1999. He said something that stuck with me for more than a decade. He said, “Support for the Drug War is a thousand miles high, a thousand miles long, and one inch thick.”
S: Do you think pointing out how insane the prison-congressional complex has gotten which actually privatized profits from prisons at extreme cost to the tax payer could be a way forward? Recently I saw that even at the most high estimates we have beat Stalin’s gulag in raw numbers of people in prison and almost all of it is drug related. One almost sees this as a political crime, like “speculation” was in the Soviet Union, rather than a purely administrative category.
KMO: The Drug War started in a fairly honest way. It was clear that the prohibition of certain drugs and the enforcement of those prohibitions were intended to single out blacks, Mexicans, and politically and culturally disobedient youth. The architects of the Drug War were fairly open about this motivation, and the majority population favored the suppression of these groups. Now, the official policy of the federal government is one of color-blindness or the embrace of ethnic diversity, and our current cultural narrative condemns racism. While the cultural narrative has changed, the existing apparatus of the Drug War, which systematically imprisons blacks and Latinos, remains in place. Even worse, in the decades since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has entered the mainstream. It’s prohibition, originally meant to criminalize ethnic minorities and rebellious youth, now criminalizes huge swathes of mainstream society. Because the racism at the heart of the Drug War cannot be admitted, the fact that the same Drug War now criminalizes the lifestyles of tens of millions of otherwise obedient whites cannot be acknowledged as an unintended consequence and corrected.
Those who profit from the Drug War (a set that includes just about everyone, if Catherine Austin Fitts is to be believed – perhaps link to her essay Narco Dollars for Dummies) cannot acknowledge the size and composition of the prison population without self-condemnation. No rational discussion of the topic can be permitted at this point, as
the avoidable and egregious harm produced by the Drug War is so glaring. It’s grounding in systemic racism and repression of political dissent is so obvious that it cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.
One reason why many whites still favor prohibition and mass incarceration is that most drug criminals are arrested in cities but housed in rural prisons. Prison jobs prop up many otherwise failing local rural economies. I saw a news story (which I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm) the other day (it was really a piece of corporate propaganda branded with the CBS News imprimatur) touting the benefits of a robotic prison guard. Corporate profits generated by mass incarceration can be increased by increasing the prison
population and decreasing labor costs. If labor costs can be lowered in the short term by replacing human prison guards with robotic systems, then the logic of the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value in the short term will dictate that this sort of automation be adopted even if it is obvious that doing so will undermine one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Drug War. This doesn’t give me much reason for hope however. Modern-day logging operations employ very few people because technology has allowed one heavy equipment operator to do the work of an army of men wielding saws and axes. Even so, people who live in the economically devastated husks of rural towns that used to thrive on the basis of logging industry jobs still revile environmentalists as enemies of economic vitality. People in these communities still favor logging industry jobs over forests even though the logging industry no longer provides jobs to a sizable percentage of the local population.
S: The issue of stacking districts with prison populations is an interesting problem. Even though in many of the states that do this felons cannot legally vote ever, the prison population is counted for appointing state representation. So it can be a form of “empty district building” and this increases rural, generally Republicans, representation against urban centers. This leads me to think that there structural problems of electoral reform, not just for the drug but for many elements of our society, will actually not be particularly responsive to public pressure.
S: What gives you hope right now?
KMO: I hate to give a nit-picky answer to a straightforward question, but as someone who voluntarily engages in philosophical discussions, I figure it’s par for your course.
Channeling Paul Kingsnorth, now. “Hope for what?”
Hope for the future of life on Earth? I know some people who think that human industrial activity will turn the Earth into a Venus-like world, unfit even to support microbial life. This fear clusters in my own consciousness with the fear that the CERN particle accelerator will destroy the universe or that the Bible is literary true and that Christian true believers will soon be raptured into heaven leaving the rest of us in the clutches of the Anti-Christ. I’m not saying that the danger of a run-away greenhouse process is as remote as the other two I mentioned, but I have as much trouble working myself into a state of genuine concern over it as I do taking seriously a Left Behind scenario.
Hope for the future of the human species? Ninety nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Perhaps humans will transcend our biology and project our consciousness out into the larger universe to take our place among the gods, but it’s also quite likely that we will go the way of most of the species that have arisen on this planet, and I’m fine with that. Even if industrial civilization has a short future, I do think that humans will be on the scene for hundreds of thousands of years yet. I’m not worried about
the survival of the human species.
Hope for the continuation of the status quo of global corporate capitalism? For the sake of the non-human life on Earth, I hope it does NOT continue.
Hope for a version of the technological singularity that preserves and advances those aspects of human intelligence that I value? There are people working on so-called Friendly AI, but given the fact that so much robotics research is driven by the military and that the leading forms of artificial pseudo-intelligence operate in the service of corporations and their overriding mandate to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing costs at the expense of future prosperity, which is to say denying the consequences of their actions, I think that the Vile Offspring of Charles Stross’s Accelerondo is the more likely outcome.
Hope that industrial civilization can execute a deliberate soft-landing and transition to a low-power existence without leaving the survivors in a state of collective PTSD? It’s certainly within our power if we decide that that is what we want to do. The real barrier to this is our conditioned expectations and the psychology of previous investment.
Paul Gilding gave an optimistic TED talk recently in which he basically affirmed the Doomer vision that I’ve been articulating in answer to your question, and then he ended by pointing out that 4 days after the USA entered World War II our ancestors halted all domestic automobile production and converted that manufacturing capacity to the
service of the war. We CAN turn on a dime, but we won’t until a serious crisis smacks us in the face. Gilding’s faith is that the crises are coming and that the turning on a dime will follow. He might be right, and I guess that’s where my own hope finds a bit of traction. I hope he’s right.
My fear is that the media apparatus for worldview management has grown so sophisticated and effective that the majority of people will regularly be stepping over corpses on their way to work and that they will continue to believe that everything is on track for a brighter tomorrow and that better times are just around the corner so long as we all keep the faith and keep plugging away at our assigned tasks.
Hope that we can arrest the slide into a high-tech totalitarian society? Occupy Wall Street, the mass demonstrations around the globe,the work of Anonymous and WikiLeaks all give me reasons to hope.
The hope that I hold closest to my heart is that my two sons will get the chance to live full-featured human lives that include education, romantic love, family life, and satisfying work. What gives me hope here is John Michael Greer’s argument that civilizations in a free-fall state of collapse still move so slowly in comparison to a human lifetime that, for the people living through the collapse, everything seems normal. Unfortunately, his arguments are all
historical, and I think that some aspects of our current situation are unprecedented.
S: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
KMO: Last week I gave a talk at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, and after I had described the seemingly-inevitable and traumatic transition from a growth-based civilization to a steady state or contracting civilization, one audience member asked me what the magic lotto ticket out of our situation was. I said that I didn’t see one that seemed likely. He said he knew what it was, and I invited him to stand up, take the mic, and share with the audience. He did so. His magic lotto ticket: aliens.
He claimed that non-human intelligence from outside of space and time stand ready to resolve our dilemma any day now and that we can make contact with them via psychedelics. I myself have made a sustained and good faith effort to contact and partner with non-human intelligences via entheogens (psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and San Pedro cactus). I’ve had provocative encounters, but nothing that has convinced me completely that I wasn’t encountering myself within the confines of my own skull and nothing that engenders faith in an immanent helping hand from beyond. I remain open to the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. It could well be that aliens or spirits have converged on the Earth to grieve for us and comfort us in
our passing. Or to gloat and feed on our suffering.
I do think that the eager Doomers of the world, the ones who see humans as a plague upon Mother Earth and who want Her to rid Herself of us, have adopted a willful blind spot concerning the progression of information technology, robotics, genetics and nano-materials. What’s more, I feel no sympathy or resonance with their condemnation of humanity. I reject and repudiate misanthropy. I value human imagination and intelligence, and I want to see it continue into the future.
I think that the Techno-utopians of the world have adopted a willed ignorance of hard resource limits in the short term. I agree that some elements of their grand vision, elements that Doomers reject as baseless fantasy, may well be achievable in the long term, but that doesn’t mean that they will come to fruition in time to avert what looks like a looming Malthusian Correction. Techno-utopians like to say that Malthus was wrong, and certainly Malthus failed to predict the Haber-Basch process, mechanized agriculture, and genetic engineering. Even so, by failing to incorporate these factors into his thinking, Malthus may have underestimated the magnitude of his predicted population contraction. It may be true that Malthus was wrong, but that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration.
I’ve related this basic narrative to several live audiences, and it’s always hard for me to end those talks, because I don’t have any rousing conclusion in which I offer reasonable optimism. Some people think that suffering builds character and that we’ll be better humans for having endured the coming hardship. I don’t think so. I think that damaged, victimized people are as likely to harden themselves to the suffering of others, spread the damage, and perpetuate the cycle of victimization as they are to achieve some kind of awakening.
Conclusions are hard, I think, because they are fake. Ends can’t justify means, because there are no ends. The drama continues even though every player will eventually leave the stage.
For each identification (the creation or cobbling together of identity) creates a figure that provides a material for its investment by the market. There is nothing more captive, so far as commercial investment is concerned, nothing more amenable to the invention of new figures of monetary homogeneity, than a community and its territory or territories. The semblance of non-equivalence is required so that equivalence itself can constitute a process. What inexhaustible potential for mercantile investments is this upsurge —taking the form of communities demanding recognition and so-called cultural singularities —of women, homosexuals, the disabled, Arabs! And these infinite combinations of predictive traits, what a godsend! Black homosexuals, disabled Serbs, Catholic pedophiles, moderate Muslims, married priests, ecologist yuppies, the submissive unemployed, prematurely aged youth! Each time, a social image authorizes new products, specialized magazines, improved shopping malls, “free” radio stations, targeted advertising networks, and finally, heady “public debates” at peak viewing times. Deluze put it perfectly: capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization. Capital demands a permanent creation of subjective and territorial identities in order for its principle of movement to homogenize its space of action; identities, moreover, that demand anything but the right to be exposed in the same way as others to the uniform prerogatives of the market.”
Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism
Black Africans first arrived in the lands that would later become the original Thirteen States around 1619, as indentured servants, although the Spanish had brought Black slaves with them to what would later become New Mexico and Arizona as early as 1539. At that time, they were in a similar position to the many poor English people who, in exchange for passage to America, had sold several years of their labor in advance. At first, there was no distinction made between indentured servants of European or African descent. Race-based discrimination as a societal “norm” did not come into being until around the 1680s, in part as a response to Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The conception of race simply did not exist in the ancient or medieval world; racial discrimination is a product of capitalist society. Throughout history, the slave-owner or feudal lord looked down on his slaves or serfs as inferiors, but this was due to their social position, to the class relationship between them, not because of the color of their skin. Malcolm X once said: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” We would add: “You can’t have racism without capitalism.”
The formation of a modern, international racial ideology that defines white as “good” and non-white as “bad” can be traced via historical documentation to the institution of modern chattel slavery (more specifically to the transition from indentured servitude to chattel slavery) and the formative period of capitalism. It develops for very material reasons during the course of the 16th and 17th Centuries. One can even trace the changing use of language in letters written in the colonies, i.e. the racism that came to define the American colonies did not predate the colonies. By racism is meant an international ideology of shared “racial” superiority and inferiority based on one’s skin color. This binary distinction, once developed, spreads like a disease from its American origin, framing the conception of race internationally, from the Caribbean to South Africa. - Workers International League, Black Struggle and the Socialist Revolution
The existence of a nation (you will pardon me this metaphor) is a daily referendum, just as the continuing existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life. -Ernst Renan.
“A nation is a large group of people characterized by three features. They are kept together by lies about their past, shared enemies in the present and stupid illusions about their future” – Zizek paraphrasing Ernst Renan
When left-liberals and actionists accuse those like me–who may have philosophical departures from Marx and could give two shits about things like revisionism–of being “conservative economists” because we admit that economic limits are real limits and wishing Keynesianism into being won’t be an answer, I laugh. When we get called techno-utopians for saying that 99.9% of the population would die under primitive conditions and the survivalists would not likely be the survivors because self-imposed austerity doesn’t trump capital production even with reduced natural resources, I get called a dirty Enlightenment thinker. I am not a raw “base determines” everything Stalinist, as I think capitalism is a culture as well as an economic mode of production: or more specifically, several cultural kluges that share a few assumptions, but when left-liberals at Alternet start offering alternatives to capitalism, I have to just blink.
Sara Robinson offers this gem at Alternet: Capitalism Has Failed: 5 Bold Ways to Build a New World
The first normal, and weirdly conservative notion, of “Small is beauty.” One saw this in the small is beautiful movement: it’s a privilege afforded only to the those who live in hyper-affluent and relatively empty countries like the US. Psychologically, it seems to function like the noble savage that comes up every once and awhile for the affluent and privileged to op ine to fill a whole in the psyches. Now I will avoid pointing out that the great leap forward and the Khmer Rouge were also infected with this particular virus, because that’s something “right-winger” would point out, and I am a man of the left: however, it is true, localvorism and the small town are inefficient, given to nepotism, and seems to be an inverse of the facts of reality for most people. Here’s Robinson’s claims for who this is accounted for:
“Making stuff locally in small batches increases resilience, and decentralizing the process means that many more people will have jobs. For example: A single factory farmer can manage thousands of acres. An organic farm might have half a dozen workers on just 20 acres.”
And it will require double the land exhaustion as mechanized planting and advanced agriculture. The resilience argument is decent, but also for employing more people: it would do so, but at lower wages as cost gains don’t scale up. Furthermore, as Robinson admits, most infrastructure even required for localvorism and other such lifestyle pursuits, don’t scale up.
So then she offers: Marx 2.0
A”s noted, this kind of constant growth simply isn’t sustainable on a finite planet. People will always trade — it’s an essential humaneness that can stay happy and healthy without being pushed to grow. Worker ownership doesn’t really address this problem, though relocalization, which roots businesses deeply in their own local markets, limiting their reach beyond those boundaries, may provide one natural brake on growth.
For many large and necessary enterprises (utilities; essential centralized manufacturing; big, capital-intensive tech industries; and so on) public ownership may be the only way to ensure that they grow no bigger than they need to be to fulfill their mission. If there are other solutions that will allow us to have complex enterprises minus the growth imperative, they’re still lurking out beyond the horizon.”
Now completely missing that the points of Marx were both value theory and the needs for efficient production: I agree with Robinson that there is an ecological limit to development. What I disagree with is that this is fixed by reversals in technologies or simply scaling down. Inefficient manufacturing and business methods use MORE energy and resources, not less. The answer of public ownership: social democracy a la Chavezistas? misses the key points of value-theory: that the problem is as much ideological as ownership. Conservative critiques that nationalizing these industries in the hands of the state only leads to a less efficient form of capitalism is more or less born out, but the state wasn’t the focal point of Marx. Furthermore, she may be offering a syndicalist transition answer, but this doesn’t deal with the problems of value either.
I fail to see how this is Marxism 2.0.
Then Robinson offers: Systems Theory which is a variant of cybernetic theory.
Robinson, like most American leftists, don’t realize that Soviets tried this in 1960s and failed as it was a botched alternative to market economics. Furthermore for other applications of this problem see Adam Curtis’s documentary: “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”
There are two more options but they are just re-metaphorizations of the first three: so what is offered as an alternative? Nothing really. Most of the alternatives either aren’t efficient or are just modifications of the commodity form already in capitalism. It’s time to be serious.
Language can only deal meaningfully with a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence. – George Steiner
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest. – attributed to Confucius
George Steiner’s speech on the central contradictions of Zionism and its relationship to the Prophet (future)/Priest (current) dialectic in the Hebrew consciousness. This is one of the most insightful and fair understandings of the “sad miracle” that is modern Israel. The arab spring is a bitter winter that indicates how sad the miracle has been and what the liberalization has been dependent. There is a dialectic about the movement of Zionism which itself threatens the idea of a Jewish state and even a Jewish people. It is not just that Israel is rooted, and is, a settler colonial state picks up on religious Zionist motives but exploits, but also is rooted in a real need for the traumized people. The dialectical irony is there: It is the core of what made up modern anti-Jewish sentiment that also is the theory which undergrids secular Jewish Zionism, and the religious notion of Zionism opposes the existence of the very nation which is no serves as the primary population growth into. In the diaspora, as Steiner says, the political humilation of others as torture of those outside of the community was unknown, and yet it is the basis on which Israel must be sustained: in order to survive. Steiner says that this brutality is the price of nationhood, and it is the schism that will cause a drain a between Jews in the diaspora and Israel itself.
This brings me to another colonial dialectic: the dialectic between Korea and Japan. Close to my life as I have Korean relatives and live in Korea, it is interesting how the invented tradition on both sides. Much of the modern notions of Korean traditions of Confucianism have Japanese imperial roots (this is particularly accelerated in North Korea, strangely), but I have not looked the way Korea changed Japan. The ways it has was fascinating. The master/servent dialectic can been seen in many places.
The last is the way in which the modernization of China has led to a confusion to between Post-Mao Marxist tradition, a state capitalist develoment, and a Confucian tradition which radiate from the core of development in Shanghai. Shanghai, the site of two communes which were buried (first by the nationalists, the second by the Maoists slowly the cultural revolution), so history here is not a simple movement towards “the future” but an way in which one cultures struggles to pull to the future from current notions of the past. This becomes really apparent in Shanghai.
To what Steiner says, “No city is so great that one should no run when it is unjust.” We are to be creatures of the air. In that we’ll on on my comrades, Ross and Ben talking on the situation in Chicago and on NATO.
Perhaps then my long sojourn in Asia is a beckoning to my own diaspora, but I also know, as a good dialectician, there is now nowhere to run the movement of political economies and dying ideas, which often are not just commodity fetishs, but the digging of mass graves and the eating of cultures.
Some self-reflection in light of the Yeon Deung Hoe Festival and my exhaustion over reification, plus my fiancee.
“Why don’t you blog more about this?” my girlfriend asks as another lantern rolls out of the plaza near Insadong neighborhood in Seoul.
“You mean commenting on flying Buddhas with weird television screens going down the center of a parade in Seoul?”
“My readers have come to expect an impersonal obtuseness and a reliance of strange readings of Hegel that makes one seem hip.”
“To say ‘seems hip’ means you’re not, love.”
This was the first bit that started this reflection after seeing the fifth or sixth traditional Korean drum dance at Hoehyang Hanmadang. I avoid writing that way because there is some small solace in an impenetrable writing style and an insistence on absolute consistency over time. But there is a limit to that sort of thing when you realize that many of your readers are reifying concepts in a way that makes you wonder if you are doing it too: if you wonder this, it is probably too late. So when I talk about liberals or the left or regression, I realize that language is obfuscating and alienating. It’s part of a “discourse community” that frankly most people could not give two flying fucks about.
It also artificially lowers my own interests which are about left politics, but also the philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, Buddhist and Confucian Studies, and poetry. While watching the lotus lantern parade, I kept thinking about objects, subjects, and the strange history of Korean and Japanese Buddhism. I kept them about how much I enjoyed a Subway sandwich after not eating them much for almost two years, and about how beautiful Korean started to sound to me, and how close Japanese sounds to it. I kept thinking about endless discussions about history and regression in which history is treated as a ontological force, like a good, which is both human and not. I kept thinking about all the reification of the idea of the left, which, like the reificaiton of religious concepts, becomes both emptier of cognitive and more full of intuitive content over time.
All these axioms can become exhausting, so I am trying to shift gears: To focus on my daily life and its context, the objects of philosophy and the limits to philosophy. More about religion and other cultural elements, and maybe less obscurity and more humor from my daily life.
You can thank a lantern of Buddha and my lovely fiancee for a reminder than even those of who spend time in highly abstract places need to be more rooted in daily life.
For that, I thank her, and move on to other notions: So coming up are more reflections on life here, more interviews in both politics and outside of it: An interview series on the Skeptic’s Movement and the Philosophy of science, a interview series on continental philosophy outside of Hegel, and an an interview series on various religious lefts as well as other things.
Also, a poem for you to enjoy, an excellent one by Gwendolyn Brooks, called “kitchenette building,” which despite it simplicity, one can feel the soft, almost dialectical build-up, of the tension between the humanizing of hope and the abstraction of dreams leading to despair. The simple rhythms build in a way that causes you to miss how much is pasting between the simpler shifts of pronouns and abstractions, which almost seem to dance between symbolic and non-symbolic uses.
Dr. Boer’s point about how useful Graeber’s book is well-taken, but I too thought the Debt jubilee ending was insufficient. I would ask Dr. Graeber to clarify he thought that would actually be an answer or a call for structural provocation.
Originally posted on STALIN'S MOUSTACHE:
While there is a plenty of material one can use from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, most of it appears on the edges, in insights scattered here and there. These include, in random order: a market is not necessarily tied to profit, indeed, most markets in history have not had profit as their prime function, if at all (which leads one to the logical position that capitalism and markets are by no means synonymous and may be opposed to one another); debunking Adam Smith’s quaint founding myth of the origins of ‘the economy’; labour under capitalism has hardly ever been ‘free’; the reason why the treasures of the Americas were mined at all was due to Chinese need for bullion (90% of the total output) – most ships simply sailed straight there; redistributive economics is based on the violence and war of warrior aristocracies; markets always arose as a side product of the state’s activities, rather than state and economy being separate spheres; his redesignation of the Near East as the Near West, indeed that the West begins somewhere around Iran and Iraq, since from a global perspective there was little that distinguished Muslim, Christian and Jewish parts of the world.
Most of these points you can find elsewhere, but Graeber’s genius is to weave them into an intriguing narrative. But the problems are greater than these insights. To begin with, he is an ardent advocate of the superior role of anthropology, especially in response to economists. This may take the form of some great accounts (the Tiv from Africa is one example, which I read as an instance of the imaginary resolution of a real contradiction), but it usually ends up in a kind of primitivist argument: the true insight into human nature and interactions is to be found in these anthropological investigations into tribal peoples from Africa, Greenland, Asia, the Americas and – Graeber’s own field of research – Madagascar. The upshot is an assumption he shares with Adam Smith et al: human nature is the same wherever we look. The trick is to identify how we tick. All of which leads to a trans-historical assumption, embodied in the inadequate suggestion that all human societies operate on the basis of interwoven patterns of baseline communism, reciprocity and hierarchy.
Further, for a long book that deals with a central economic, social and political issue, there is no systematic economic theory that underpins his argument. For instance, he accepts the common position that the prime economic motor in some periods of history was plunder. The catch here, as Marx drily observed, is that you need something to plunder. Another example: despite his extended discussions of slavery and its crucial role in relation to coinage, one searches in vain for any theory of class. He has many opportunities, such as the ‘military-slavery-coinage’ complex as a way of relieving debt pressure in ancient Greece (228-30). This cries out for a class analysis, but none is forthcoming. And for my purposes, ancient Mesopotamia plays a crucial role in his discussion, for it provides the earliest evidence of what he calls a credit-based economy with far-flung international ‘trade’. Not only does he rely almost solely on the problematic Keynesian approach of Michael Hudson, but he provides no treatment of the crucial economic factor here, agriculture, let alone any effort at making sense of ancient economies.
Professor Boer over at Stalin’s Moustache has been charitably pointing out the bright spots in Graeber’s Debt, although he indicates that he has some damning criticism to follow:
Indeed, one could judge how egalitarian a society really was by exactly this: whether those ostensibly in positions of authority are merely conduits for redistribution, or able to use their positions to accumulate riches. The latter seems most likely in aristocratic societies that add another element: war and plunder. After all, just about anyone who comes into a very large amount of wealth will ultimately give at least part of it away – often in grandiose and spectacular ways to large numbers of people. The more one’s wealth is obtained by plunder or extortion, the more spectacular and self-aggrandizing will be the forms in which it is given away. And what is true of warrior aristocracies is all the more true of ancient states, where rulers almost invariably represented themselves as protectors of the helpless, supporters of widows and orphans, and champions of the poor. The genealogy of the modern redistributive state – with its notorious tendency to foster identity politics – can be traced back not to any sort of “primitive communism” but ultimatelyto violence and war (Debt, p. 113).
So I noticed that Graeber points out what Bataille pointed out in the Accursed Share, it is often largess that redistributes, but often for achieve or maintain that largess, not out of primitive communism or a non-consumptive capacity. So unproductive wealth is shared more readily as it is gained more readily though primitive accumulation of capital. But I fail to see, as I suspect Dr. Boer fails to see as well, how this would be a particularly new insight? The genealogy of the welfare state is not a means to give into democratic impulses (or corruptions if one takes Nietszche at his word), but is part of the design of maintance. Identity politics means this easier to naturalize as an organic whole which is fundamentally a fetish. A physically real unreality. But this is already implied in Marx’s terminology, which is not to say that Marx articulated this as well, but does not contradict the general thrust of Das Kapital.
Yet it is easy to be, the Marxist watch-word, undialectical about this structure, as if the liberal revolutions did not have some element of truly liberatory mechanism: so Graeber sees the structure trans-historically and thus prefigurative to the form, but the management of the nation-state through the welfare state does have roots in the tension between a truly egalitarian notion of “the people” as a universal and “the people ” as a nation. In other words, Graeber tries to make this a fundamental characteristic of attempts at violence and war against “primitive communism” and which thus manifests in tact in the welfare state, bu this misses that both impulses existed within the liberal revolution, otherwise it would have never been seen as break with the past, which it must have been to unleash and accelerate both productive and consumptive capacities.
Graeber is often interesting despite his naturalizing of proto-capitalist production and thus his transhistoricizing of prefigurative politics. In fact, his is instructive because his misreadings because even his valid points, of which their are many, are often limited by trying make structures transhistorical.