Category Archives: endorsements and reviews
This above title is a bit misleading as, generally, I do not like commenting on books I have not read, but I have found Vukovich’s original claim that Maoist period and Western historiography on it were a shifting of orientalism seemed questionable to me given my knowledge of the cultural revolution, and the fundamental difference from the French Orientalists studies of the Ottomans and Arabs. That said, the comparison with the post-Deng period and the Market Neo-Liberal Leninism of the current PRC is sort of glossed in a way in contemporary scholarship in a way that ignores the economics gains during the cultural revolution period, particular the second period, or more moderate period, in the mid-1970s. This is not to act as an apologist for China, but to look at the situation at hand. In this Vokovich’s interview at New Books in East Asian History makes this case compellingly. So there is more “there” there than Mao apologetic or apologetic for the current PRC. The discussions of the atrocity figures being constantly estimated up and being proven questionable by most normal statistical standards, statistical methodologies that would never be used in the US or even India. His discussion of the way Asia (not just China, but also Korea) is depicted in Delillo is also quite convincing in a way that I never put a finger on prior.
Sadly, I haven’t seen a copy of the book here in Korea and importing it at it’s monograph cost seems prohibitively expensive. I am a poet and a lecturer, after all. If I see it in a English language collection here in Korea, you can expect a review here.
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.
I would like to see German Idealism: A Freud0-Marxist perspective, but this is still interesting:
I have talked to everyone from die-hard Eurasian (read: Russian) Nationalists, who seem to the think Putin is the walking manifestation of a meritocratic Russian nationalism that will one day rule of Europe and Asia. Frankly, given the massive capital flight out of Russia, this seems like dreaming for a second coming of Stalin. I suppose one knows the future by its wish fulfillment. As I write this there is almost monarchical pomp over Putin’s reassumption of power, and protests in the streets. RT, which I call Radio Free US, has some great programming, but it is a Putin-friendly arm of Russian state and it good not to forget that. Sadly, the same is true for most of the UK, and so the recent debacle involving Assuange’s show is met with the liberal critique of tepid variety:
US cables released by WikiLeaks in December 2010 paint a dismal picture of Putin’s Russia as a “virtual mafia state”. Has Assange read them? It seems extraordinary that Assange – described by RT as the world’s most famous whistleblower – should team up with an opaque regime where investigative journalists are shot dead (16 unsolved murders) and human rights activists kidnapped and executed, especially in Chechnya and other southern Muslim republics. Strange and obscene.
There is a long dishonourable tradition of western intellectuals who have been duped by Moscow. The list includes Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, HG Wells and André Gide. So Assange – whether for idealistic reasons, or simply out of necessity, given his legal bills and fight against extradition to Sweden – isn’t the first. But The World Tomorrow confirms he is no fearless revolutionary. Instead he is a useful idiot.
But like the the Eurasian nationalists and Putin apologists that Luke Harding cannot stomach, he ultimately sees things in same jilted hope for a Cold War area unipolar world. So why do so many leftists take the enemy of my enemy is my friend approach to politics? It’s hard to say, but it is a simpletons move. Still, this is what shows you who is serious in politics: the left is not neither is the right, because you see simple platitudes and not facts being marshalled for decision making. We live in a broadly liberal movement, but not liberal-left in the way American’s understand it. Chomsky is right to point out that if you Foreign Policy, The Financial Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal (prior to Murdock), you got honest news and detailed specifics because those who are in power need that in way those who merely dream of power don’t.
NPR is an example of this: It is liberal media in both senses: in the sense that it serves soft capitalist interests and that it placates the sensibilities of the center-to-center-left liberal. It is mid-brow/mid-cult capriciousness consumption plus decent news with a milder (but still dangerous) US-tinged corporate slant. In coverage of the French elections and the Greek elections, one could hear defenses of Sarkozy passed off as impartial: the American left always secretly wants to be the European center right–capitalism with a human face. Although if one actually knew the rhetoric of in Sarkozy in daily life, or if one took time to see how religious the rhetoric of David Cameron was, the vapidity of the American left is the European center-right meme would be apparent.
Still, an example of the good news “liberals” give to themselves: Take the Planet Money podcast In A Leaderless World, Who Wins?, which is based on Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini‘s notion that “even is America is not declining, we aren’t a hegemon anymore, and despite word to contrary, it is unlikely that Russia or China will be it either as both have serious issues that largely unaddressed, and I’ll quote here instead of paraphrase:
This is not a G-20 world. Over the past several months, the expanded group of leading economies has gone from a would-be concert of nations to a cacophony of competing voices as the urgency of the financial crisis has waned and the diversity of political and economic values within the group has asserted itself. Nor is there a viable G-2 — a U.S.-Chinese solution for pressing transnational problems — because Beijing has no interest in accepting the burdens that come with international leadership. Nor is there a G-3 alternative, a grouping of the United States, Europe, and Japan that might ride to the rescue.
Today, the United States lacks the resources to continue as the primary provider of global public goods. Europe is fully occupied for the moment with saving the eurozone. Japan is likewise tied down with complex political and economic problems at home. None of these powers’ governments has the time, resources, or domestic political capital needed for a new bout of international heavy lifting. Meanwhile, there are no credible answers to transnational challenges without the direct involvement of emerging powers such as Brazil, China, and India. Yet these countries are far too focused on domestic development to welcome the burdens that come with new responsibilities abroad.
We are now living in a G-Zero world, one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage — or the will — to drive a truly international agenda. The result will be intensified conflict on the international stage over vitally important issues, such as international macroeconomic coordination, financial regulatory reform, trade policy, and climate change. This new order has far-reaching implications for the global economy, as companies around the world sit on enormous stockpiles of cash, waiting for the current era of political and economic uncertainty to pass. Many of them can expect an extended wait.
In the interview, Bremmer talks about how the Chinese growth model must change, not be based on 21th century mercentilism, and raise net-GDP which makes it far more unstable than it appears now. He points the contradictions exposed in the Bo Xilai, which of course is painted in the liberal media as a story of ruthlessness (I saw this headline in HuffPo, NYTimes, etc) and fails to mention Bo’s popularity among the Chinese Left, the fact that Aei Wei and other luminaries praised him. But the liberal reformers (in both the positive and negative sense) have used this to push for change in China, against both the Dengish middle and the Maoists left, or at least that is what is passed along in the media in South Korea. Bremmer has a point: there is a fundamental problem to the paradoxes of PRC’s strange blend of New Confucianism, Legalism, and Maoism with mercentilism-esque State Capitalism. Although as the London Review of books point it, it also points out that there is a move to try re-centralize as Maoism is beginning to start on a public now see the benefits:
In Chongqing there was more emphasis than in some other places on redistribution, justice and equality, and because the province was already highly industrialised, state-owned enterprises were important to its model. Chongqing’s experiment with inexpensive rented housing, its experiment with land trading certificates, its strategy of encouraging enterprises to go global: all these, under the rubric ‘the state sector progresses, the private sector progresses,’ contributed to society’s debate. Chongqing may not have offered a perfect blueprint, and it’s hard to know whether Bo himself was corrupt, but its architects stressed the importance of equality and common prosperity, and tried to work towards them.
The Chongqing experiment, launched in 2007, coincided with the global financial crisis, which made a new generation feel less confident of the benefits of free-market ideology. The policies followed in Chongqing demonstrated a move away from neoliberalism at a time when the national leadership was finding it harder to continue with its neoliberal reforms. What the Chongqing incident now offers the authorities is an opportunity to resume its neoliberal programme. Just after Bo was sacked the State Council’s Development and Research Centre held a forum in Beijing at which the most prominent neoliberals in China, including the economists Wu Jinglian and Zhang Weiying, announced their programme: privatisation of state enterprises, privatisation of land and liberalisation of the financial sector. At almost the same time, on 18 March, the National Development and Reform Commission issued a report on ‘Important Points and Perspectives on the Deepening of Economic Structural Reform Priorities’. It contained plans for the privatisation of large sections of the railways, education, healthcare, communications, energy resources and so on. The tide of neoliberalism is rising again. But it won’t go unchallenged, even when left-wing websites have been closed down. In the past ten days both the People’s Daily and the Guangming Dailyhave devoted several pages to the achievements of state-owned enterprises and the argument against privatisation.
According to several reports, Bo and Zhou had been plotting a smear campaign against future Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while planning to install Bo as a high-level official.
So who knows if all those liberals know they are spreading p.r. related to the PRC’s politoburo. I guess one can say that Assuage is not the only useful idiot. But there this big trouble in big China, and the signal to move investment into India and Brazil as well as Latin America is telling. Canada’s turning to China is telling too, but perhaps short-sited ultimately. The one thing is true: The 1%, to use Occupy’s somewhat vapid term, thinks in global terms in ways Occupiers, despite all their rhetoric, don’t comprehend.
While I am endorsing “Liberal” media for news, let me point you to a serious liberal podcast that I have come to like for its honest wonkiness: Bruno and the Professor is good, honest liberal Keynesianism. That has all the weaknesses that Keynesianism does: It ignores that stagflation, not just neo-liberalization, was part of why things were abandoned: Neo-liberalization was a political project empowered by stagflation, and as Bruno and Professor point out, was often started by Carter, not Reagan. Anyway, their analysis of the brain-drain in Southern Europe to Germany, explains, for the first time, what the ECB could be doing, no order explanation of the sado-monetarism adopted by the Germans was really that coherent.
Now, before you critique me with “Why are you endorsing managerialism and the state?” Who says I am, but to change the world, you must see the world as it is. The abstractions, hypotheses, and refusal to understand managerial logic and the flows of capital that under-grid it is a refusal to be able to offer a real counter-point. To have a theory of what politics should be, one must see what politics is.
If there ever was a guide out of lifestyle rebellion and into systematic critique by means of memoir, Douglas Lain has attempted it. The supposed category errors in that description of Lain’s ambition are part of its appeal and its fugue-quality. While the book describes itself “Your Guide to Urban Foraging, Hollywood Movies, Late Capitalism, and the Communist Alternative,” it is more akin to Doug’s guide to how he went from an urban forager to some form of communist from moving from an inchoate leftist writer in a cubicle job at Comcast to a thinker wrestling with Althusser, Zizek, Debort, and Lefebvre.
Critical theory is often divorced from the core of our experience, yet it describes the experiences at the core. In my experience, often people study it as grist for the mill of academic population as merely a rubric for papers in the Ideological Academic Apparatus. Lain does not do this: Instead we get his dealing with his future wife, his cubicle job, losing that job, and dealing with children to foreground the way ideology works. Often Lain does with collage elements of theory cut in and of out the text.
There are some surprising human movements in which theory weaves in and out: the way desire is defined by lack is seen through Lain’s interaction with his wife, the way ideological conceptions define space, the way many of us move through periods of conspiracy thinking and frustration, through thinking we can hack it through survivalism, and then to grappling with the theory many of us were exposed to tangentially in college.
Indeed, I feel a kinship to Lain in this book as many of the developments in his life and their reflections in theory. I have also covered conspiracy thinking, post-left anarchism, and all the surrounding dross. It hits a nerve personally having to come to terms that the cube farm world was not remotely meritocratic and that everyone in it, including many of the managers, were playing a game designed to be lost.
As for what the communist alternative might be, the letter at the end of the encapsulates a hope but no means to get there. Lain, however, has achieved something in getting us to travel through this fugue from an inchoate understanding to a more systemic one. The question for Lain, and for myself, is where exactly do we go from here. Marty McFly may see communists in the future, but it’s still only a vague outline.
I used to make fun of Saul Williams for having lyrics/poems that sounded amazing but were pretty much substance-less. I suppose that’s what a uppity poet like myself does, but this song could be an anthem these days. I’ll forgive that this was used for a sub-par Nike commercial.
Today I taught to Korean students Sam Mende’s American Beauty, one of those films whose popularity was only really rivaled by the backlash against it a few years later. In many ways, I think the films beauty was in the way it undermines the bourgeois romantic trappings it gives itself. Obviously, the movie for all its gloss and hyper-exact sensibilities has a sloppy middle class family message with Lester’s monologue on at the end trying to wring the sentimental family gloss to an otherwise nihilistic tail with some only thinly veiled cliches. This film cries out for the a Lacanian (phallic mother, oedipal sublimation) and vulgar Marxist (Lester and Caroline as alienated from each other through tedious production of capital as well as alienated from human relationships themselves) readings. Those rubrics won’t be particularly illuminating because a college junior with either an introduction to philosophy or an introduction to critical theory course could write them. Hell, a blogger for the Village Voice could probably write a hip less jargon-laden version of exactly that.
No, what I want to focus on is the film’s own almost dialectical undercutting of its own romanticism, because in lesser’s supposed enlightenment after his brains are splattered against the white wall, he still sees himself as fundamentally concerned with his relationships fulfillment to him. His last vision is one of narcissistic and self-indulgent interiority leaving his family in the ruins that they did not entirely make. It is the picture whose romanticism also shows romanticism nihilism because it literally offers no way out. The moment Lester realizes his dream–his roses–was in his house the entire time, he is shot in the head. This absolves him of the responsibility of cleaning up the mess. Furthermore, his alienation and the implicit violence in his family remained unresolved.
In many ways, American Beauty is an excellent movie despite its impulses–it is hard to say where Mende’s intended this dialectical undercutting–this negative dialectic–into his film deliberately. If the sentimental films he made after it are any indication–with the notable exception of Jarhead–Mende’s aesthetic is problematically middle brow. Yet, perhaps like Balzac and Dickens (or the science fiction writer Gene Wolfe) it is often a conservative or middle-brow disposition that allows enough of the contradictions of its own position into it to truly illuminate the social and cultural problems of a given moment. In this way American Beauty succeeds precisely because of its failure.
Marx and Engels sometimes used a different formulation. Near the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, it says, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles….a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (in Draper, 1998; p. 105—107). Draper explains this as “either a revolution that remakes society or the collapse of the old order to a lower level” (1998; p. 200). Marx may have had the fate of ancient Rome in mind.
Engels restated this several times throughout his Anti-Duhring. He wrote that the modern working class must make the socialist revolution or else face “…sinking to the level of a Chinese coolie,” while the bourgeoisie is “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive [with a] jammed safety-valve…” (1954; pp. 217—218). For the capitalist class, “…its own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and…are driving the whole of bourgeois society toward ruin, or revolution” (p. 228). When the capitalist system turns most people into proletarians, “…it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution” (p. 388).
Socialist revolution is not inevitable, Engels was saying here. It is a possible choice. But if it is not chosen, in the epoch of capitalist decay, society faces destruction, with the working class reduced to the level of the starving, super-exploited, Chinese workers of that time. Therefore the working class and its allies should consciously and deliberately decide to make the revolution (as we, the revolutionary minority, want it to).
Engels did not specifically state that this was a moral choice. That is implicit. There is no great ethical reasoning involved in preferring socialist revolution to the ruin of the working class and all society. The main issue is whether we agree with the political-economic analysis, as I do. Yet I regard it as a weakness that the ethical issues are not brought front and center.
Where Engels said the alternatives were “ruin or revolution,” the great, revolutionary-democratic, Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, said the alternatives were “socialism or barbarism” (Geras, 1976). She believed that capitalism was in its final epoch, propping itself up by imperialism, which would lead to greater crises and devastating world wars. She foresaw that capitalism, if unhindered, would destroy culture and populations, would create deserts where there had been cities and nations. She was accused of believing that the economic collapse of capitalism was inevitable. What she believed was that if capitalism was left alone, to follow out its own dynamic laws of development, it would eventually collapse, and produce “barbarism.” This was “inevitable.” But she argued, if the working class chooses to intervene in history, it will be able to prevent barbarism and collapse; it will be able to save humanity through making socialist revolution.
The anarchist Murray Bookchin noted that the hierarchical structures of modern capitalism threaten human survival through nuclear war or ecological catastrophe (he wrote before global warming became so obvious). “No longer are we faced with Marx’s famous choice of socialism or barbarism; we are confronted with the more drastic alternatives of anarchism or annihilation. The problems of necessity and survival have become congruent with the problems of freedom and life” (1986; p.62).
In its epoch of decay, capitalism threatens humanity with terrible destruction. That is why a revolution is necessary. If this were not so, then socialism (of some sort) might be a nice ideal, a morally-attractive goal, but it would not be necessary. There would be no need to ask workers and others to engage in great struggles, to risk everything in a revolution, if capitalist society might continue on a course of gradual improvement, with ups and downs in the economy. Indeed, it would be wrong to advocate a revolution, with all its costs, in wealth and blood, and risky uncertainties.
While threatening destruction, capitalist industrialism has also made possible a new, non oppressive, classless society. Its technology is so immensely productive that it could provide plenty for everyone, with lots of leisure and only a minimum of labor. No doubt the technology would have to be redesigned to fit a sustainable ecology and a self-managed economy, but the potentials are there to do that.
Will the working class take up the challenge? Capitalist industrialism pushes them toward class consciousness and revolution. But some workers are (relatively) better off than the majority of the world’s workers. Marx and Engels sometimes called this layer of proletarians, the “labor aristocracy.” These workers may be bought off, corrupted, or just feel satisfied with the way things are. At the opposite pole, there is a mass of very poor workers, including the super-exploited (paid less than society’s standard for their labor-power commodity) and the unemployed. They may be exhausted, demoralized, and overwhelmed, feeling uninterested in economic or political struggle. There can be no guarantee that either layer of the working class, or any other, will engage in struggle at any particular time and place.
Marx believed that socialism was only possible when technology had become potentially productive enough. Only this made it possible to return to the equality and freedom of early human hunter-gatherer societies (“primitive communism”) but with a much higher standard of living. In the past socialism (communism) was simply not possible. There was not enough to go around. After previous revolutions, most people had to go back to the daily grind in order to keep everyone fed, while a few were able to spend full time being rulers, as well as artists or scientists. Various mass struggles could produce more freedom if they won, but they could not jump from a low level of productivity to socialist liberation.
But productivity has greatly expanded. For example, up until quite recently, as history goes, 95% of the population was committed to raising food, so that 5% or less could live in cities and have an urban culture. Today, in the industrialized nations, the proportions are reversed. Less than 5% of the population produces more than enough food to feed the rest of the nation. Even if we turned to fully organic methods of farming, the proportion of those who have to do farm work will be much smaller than they have been for most of history. It has finally become possible to have a society which satisfies the needs and wants of all its members, under socialism.
“Production by freely associated men [note]…,” wrote Marx, “demands for society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions for existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development” (p. 92).
Similarly Kropotkin wrote that in the past, “…the power of production of food-stuffs and of all industrial commodities had not yet reached the perfection they have attained now. …Communism was truly considered as equivalent to general poverty and misery, and well-being was…accessible to a very small number only. But this quite real and extremely important obstacle to communism exists no more. Owing to the immense productivity of human labor…a very high degree of well-being can easily be obtained n a few years by communist work” (2002; p. 172).
This concept of Marx’s and Kropotkin’s cannot be proven or disproven (without access to an alternate universe). I hope it is true. If it is not true—if it was possible to achieve socialism any time since people began agriculture 10 thousand years ago—then humans have been failing to create socialism for 10 thousand years. This does not make our future chances look good. But if socialist freedom has only been possible for a century or two at most, due to the development at last of the necessary “material groundwork,” then this is not a long time as history goes. It suggests that we still have a chance to create a free and cooperative society–before catastrophe overtakes us.
This is a partially informed review. I quite like Partially Examined Life as a podcast that goes relatively in-depth on philosophical issues without falling into too much of the philosophical circle jerk. On a train from my girlfriend’s home in Daejeon to the my transfer to Seoul, I love to listen to the Partially Examined Life give me what is akin to a good discussion over beers of a critical theory or philosophy graduate seminar. Lately, I have been almost solely writing about politics or religion, so going back into “pure” philosophy is always a leisure activity for me. It is a similar experience to dealing with pure poetry.
Yet, listening to the Episode 46, it became obvious how much actually rests on the theory/praxis divide: Or the fact that even in Plato’s case with Socrates, there was actually quite a small distance in that divide. In fact, one quickly can see how ethics, semantics, metaphysics, and epistemology almost over-determine politics in Plato’s dialogues. This was, I think unintentionally, driven home for me in Seth, Dylan, Mark and their guess Matt Evan’s dialogue.
So to some points: While I think Matt’s assertion that the Euthyphro s the most important text in the history of Western philosophy is, well, frankly odd, the contention that it illuminates a lot of problems in the text that plague philosophy without any real reconciliation even currently is valid. The way the Euthyphro dialogue has been framed: in theistic debates, in theories about divine commandment, and in the somewhat rarefied notions of justice are given but also complicated. For example, given the discussion that Euthyphro and Plato may have actual ethical consequences in real terms in the narrative, that the issue of violent political stakes are never too far from the surface. Yet one can’t even parse what is at stake totally in contemporary context: the tendency to read Plato’s argument as nontheistic is an approach that one sees from Leo Strauss’s contention that Plato and Socrates weren’t really arguing what they were arguing. The tendency to read this in the context of Christian demand command theory is also just as problematic. For the issue that Euthyphro, as is pointed out in the podcast, is contenting is his insistence that his father’s misdeed would be a miasma against him. It was effectively on grounds of pollution not ethics that was the key. So the argument about demand command takes a Christian confusion on the topic and expands it: In both the Greek (and the Jewish tradition), divine will is arbitrary partly ritual pollution are under the same category, but the ethical rules predominate. In Christianity (and perhaps in later Platonism), there is a unity of the virtues in which ethics and ritual pollution are not separate. In this sense, questions of the Euthyphro are ontological and metaphysical in the first order, and ethical only in the reconciliation. Furthermore, as is discussed in the podcast, the semantics actually have real metaphysical consequences.
Yet one can see that part of the pain of this dialogue is in its abrupt rupture with Euthyphro simply avoiding the difficulty of the question to persecute his father which will probably lead to his father’s death. Furthermore, we know Socrates’s death is approaching.
Needless to say, I was impressed with this episode. I have a few contentions: One the digression about the separateness of the Greek and Jewish idea set from each other is overstated. One) while the Jewish tradition does focus on particularities, it is too strong a claim to say that historical Judaism has simply taken a divine will approach modified by reason after G-d’s revelation is complicated by the fact in the Jewish tradition Abraham and Moses argued with G-d on moral grounds. In others, G-d recognized a reason beyond his own will. The difference is that G-d is under no imperative to be good in the Jewish tradition or the Greek Pagan tradition like he/she/it/they are in either Platonic or the Christian traditions. Two) The primacy of the order of being is interesting, but is largely unresolved by modern set-theory or any sort of insistence on ignoring modal logic.
We are left in a thorny position where the issue of meta-ethics looks impossible in Plato the moment the idea of meta-ethics is set out in the Western tradition.
Some notes on the relationship to left-wing thought: I have been wondering how our metaphysical conception actually relates to our political conception. In moments, I think the avoidance of politics is actually an attempt to separate not only thought from action (as if thought wasn’t an action itself) but also opinion from truth. By truth, I don’t mean fact, but in a Badiou-ian sense, as in a truth process. The dialectical truth process of political economy being key, but even that requires a grasp of the metaphysics of history conceptualized within the idea as well as a relatively fine tooth combing of semantic differences in totality: these rather rarefied notions actually matter to one’s political vision.
For example, one’s metaphysics will actually lead one to varying conceptions on if a rupture with the present is actually truly possible. Hegel, Marx, and even Foucault thought that it was; Popper, Negri, and Deleuze, perhaps to not: yet at least two of the latter thinkers are monists. Does this surprise us? It was there in Plato if we looked hard enough.