Post by Category : Inequality

Sic transit gloria mundi

Laplanche Afterwardness
Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

John Lanchester essays are always worth reading.

In a world facing floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, unprecedented winters, and mass migration on a never before seen scale, will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events.

LRB 18 July 2019

‘Nuff said.

Thus Spake the Zeitgeist

Zombies?

What does this photo tell you?

Roland Barthes would see the crowd, the signs being waved and the t-shirt logo as the “studium” of this photo; the physical, cultural and historical details of the photo that teach us something about the context of a frozen moment. What Barthes would call the “punctum” of this photo – the detail that compels your eye and skewers you – is the defiant and indifferent stare of an old white man.

My first reaction was that I need to jettison the rest of my lingering Socratism (the fanciful notion that if you marshal enough rational arguments you can bring anyone around to your vision of the truth). This old white guy is basking in belligerence; he is not beckoning anyone to civil discourse. I can see no political utility in trying persuade this man (and the portion of the electorate he represents) of anything. Instead, we must see this man and his ilk as the most visible symptoms of an underlying disorder.

I am listening for the politicians who speak directly to the root causes of this disorder; what Bernard Stiegler calls our culture’s “symbolic misery”. So far in this run-up to the 2020 elections, two candidates have impressed me. Elizabeth Warren when asked if she was a socialist replied, “I believe in markets…but capitalism without rules is theft”. The billionaire Sacklers get us hooked on oxy, hoover up as much money as they can from hapless victims and for the pittances they give back to museums are called “philanthropists”. Pillars of American society.
Peter Buttigieg said this:

To the folks on the other side, freedom means ‘freedom from.’ Usually, freedom from government, as if government were the only thing that could make you unfree. That’s just not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. If they get into the business of telling you who you can marry, your county clerk can make you unfree. Let’s talk about what freedom really means. Freedom means being able to start a small business because you know that when you leave your old job, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your healthcare. Freedom means that your reproductive health is up to you. Freedom means that when you have paid your debt to society, you get to re-enter society and become a productive, tax-paying, voting citizen. Freedom means you can organize for fair day’s work, a fair day’s pay, and a fair day’s conditions.

I don’t think Mayor Buttigieg read my post “The Shallow Freedoms of Neo-Liberalism” but given his education I cannot help but believe that he is channeling Isaiah Berlin as he zeroes in on a primary feature of the neo-liberal pathology- the reduction of the concept of freedom to retail choice. We are free to buy anything we want at the grocery store but our children are not “free” to attend school without active shooter drills. If you are an African American teenager you are “free” to buy a hoodie but you are not free to run down the street in it. If you are a poor American, you are “free” to stay poor and so are your children. You are “free” to go to college and “free” to be indentured to a student loan thereafter.

I am listening for candidates who will tell us that things are backward; that we are all the “government” and our life values must supersede the transactional values of the marketplace. I want to hear that we can collectively decide what constitutes a just distribution of wealth; that we are free to create the social and economic conditions in which everyone can flourish.

I am listening.

There Is No Future Filled with Reparations

I have plucked three paragraphs from the n+1 Winter Edition editorial “The Best of a Bad Situation” The link is here. It is a long read but worth it.

In our age of Republican minority despotism, attempts to grapple with anthropogenic climate destruction have been warped to encourage several varieties of despair, rendered acute by the ticking-time-bomb nature of the problem. The losses suffered by Earth and its populations — plant and animal — are neither reversible nor remediable. There is no future filled with reparations. There is no long moral arc. Ten or fifteen years ago it was possible to think of the polar bear and the white rhinoceros as martyrs, dying off to shame us into better harmony with the natural world. Not ruined archaic torsos but videos of extinct creatures would say, “You must change your life.”

So much of our daily behavior is confused and uncertain. We can’t seem to lead the lives we have and acknowledge the future simultaneously, even as we must. We keep our eyes on the middle distance — our hopes for the country (universal healthcare!) and for ourselves — and only feel the shadows on the horizon across our peripheral vision. We are everyday climate deniers the way we are everyday death deniers: we write our articles, save for “retirement,” canvass for causes that give us the most hope. We go to bars and ask our friends whether they plan to have kids.

Truly, we have fucked it up in so many ways! Yet while climate change increasingly feels like an inescapable doom upon humanity, our only means of recourse remains political. Even under the heavy weather of present and near-future conditions, there’s an imperative to imagine that we aren’t facing the death of everyone, or the end of existence. No matter what the worst-case models using the most advanced forecasting of feedback loops may predict, we have to act as if we can assume some degree of human continuity. What happens in the next decades is instead, as the climate reporter Kate Aronoff has said, about who gets to live in the 21st century. And the question of who gets to live, and how, has always been the realm of politics.

High Fly Over

Stay with me here; this is a high fly-over to start the New Year:

-In the name of each individual’s unmediated access to the divine, the Reformation dethrones the hieratic authority of the Church.

-Capitalism metastasizes out of the English countryside.

-The Enlightenment’s dissolvent Reason challenges the pulpits and dethrones the monarch. The new liberal state is founded upon (and delimited by) individual reason and the rights of individuals (see my posts here and here).

-Capitalism and the liberal state flourish for a couple of centuries until the liberal freedom loving citizenry finds itself mired in (what Bernard Stiegler terms) “symbolic misery”.

-Unmoored by the social isolation of an atomized hedonism, they have exchanged the agency of political action for the passivity of the consumer, they experience themselves as helpless in the face of “market forces” that are devouring the planet and petrifying global economic injustice. (see my posts here and here).

-What will anchor them? Or distract them? Is there a difference?

-New retail opportunities? Goose stepping with their “brethren”? Netflix bingeing? Life in a gated community?

At the end of Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, an ahistorical and transcendant power “slouches toward Bethlehem” ready to intercede. Our planet should be so lucky. This is the longest lie. There will be no intercession for good or ill that does not spring from human agency.

All this is to say, what you or I or “they” do…or don’t do… will matter. Happy New Year!

Reality Bares its Teeth, Postscript

During the post screening discussion of Grizzly Man, the anthropologist in the room asked “What kind of society produces a person like this?” Indeed…where is “self-invention” most valorized? Where is the mythology of the “rugged individual” still a folk notion with sway? Almost two hundred years ago, America’s radical individualism greatly concerned De Toqueville. He observed of Americans that:

Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands.

The atomism of American society that so bothered De Toqueville in 1735 has only grown more pronounced as industrialization eroded social bonds and lately neo-liberalism has conflated economic choices with “freedoms” (See my post here.) . Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the American self coexists with a gnawing spiritual hunger the cure for which is often sought in bizarre self-invention, the blandishments of the charlatan or the fantastical pursuit of wealth or fame. Timothy Treadwell is a very American creation.

We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshipers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists… No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?… Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.

Source: “Facts to be Considered,” unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.

Early Fall Reading List

Is traveling outside of the U.S. therapeutic? I certainly hope so. But before I teleport out, I have to share some readings with you. If you haven’t read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ piece “The First White President” (here), please do.
Adam Shatz in the London Review (here) also writes about American racism and makes the same point Coates makes; Trump is a legacy of the Obama presidency. Is it paradoxical that “a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead”?

The New School for Analytic Psychology has started a film series (here). I will be helping facilitate the discussion after a showing of “Embrace of the Serpent”. This movie, set in the headwaters of the Amazon, flips Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on its head and made me think of Gregory Bateson’s essay “Conscious Purpose versus Nature” (here). From the depredations in the Amazon Basin to microplastics in Pacific Northwest shellfish to Caribbean hurricanes to U.S. politics, we are surrounded by our pathologies.

Though like “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, the sublime can occasionally emerge from our pathologies.

Comrade Brooks Reads Books

I haven’t posted for months. Why? …I ask myself.
I could say: I was trying to hold down two jobs; my wife and I had to move; I was focused on an exhilarating 4 month seminar mounted by the New School of Analytic Psychology. But really…I just couldn’t see that could I add anything to our national discourse. Social media has been pulsating with fear and loathing. There was no need for me to pile on and hurl my puny imprecations at the president* or his toadies. It took the MSM years to recognize the feckless shallowness of George Bush but there has been no such lag time for this administration. Even the three conservative columnists at the New York Times (Brooks, Douthat and Stephens) have expressed, with vehemence, their distaste for the president* and their fears for the nation and their Party.

This post was propelled by David Brooks opining on other matters. Mr. Brooks likes to share his readings and the other day he filed another book report, this one headlined “How We are Ruining the Nation”. Based on his reading of two recent books, his piece describes how the educated, American upper middle class “rigs the system”. Their wealth and time is invested heavily in their children’s education and upbringing; they cultivate their kids. They use residential zoning restrictions to “keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.” They use their purchasing power to clothe themselves in cultural codes that exclude those outside their class:

To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.

Though this is largely a seventeen year old “insight” drawn directly from his book about bourgeous bohemians (“Bobos in Paradise”), he does take a big step. He can now recognize that beyond how people symbolically accessorize their status, there are also very real political and economic “structures” which support class differentiation. If you substitute “the bourgeoisie” each time Brooks uses “upper middle class”, his op-ed piece reads like an old-timey Marxist analysis.
Two years ago I wrote about Brook’s delayed advance into 19th century social theory (see my posts here and here); so… progress noted. Although he wants “latte liberals” to know that they are complicit in our economic and political shit-show (and they are), he owns his membership in this class; so…degree of self-awareness noted.

This American bourgeoisie that is now investing heavily in their children has grown up with post-Reagan neo-liberalism (summarized here). As working adults, they have not been offered the defined benefit pensions their grandparents worked toward. They have 401K’s that are subject to the Wall Street casino or they have hit a jackpot at the tech craps table because they happened to be where “the market” happened. However much they may decry the fact, they know that there is no American foundational commitment to a social safety net. They can see that the American “middle class” has been hollowed out. They know in their bones that the caprice of “the market” will decide their children’s fate so their offspring need to be educationally armed and socially groomed. Even if they are “latte liberals” who are uncomfortable with the current distribution of wealth, they rationally recognize that precarity is now the “nature” of our economic and social order. Profit is an unquestioned good; there are only winners and losers in “the market” and the accumulation of wealth by dispossession is the system’s inherent logic. Like the bourgeoisie at all times and all places, they don’t want to slide backward.
Should the following readings make their way onto Mr. Brooks’ reading list, perhaps his vision would clear:

A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, David Harvey. (downloadable here) An essential primer on who we are today.

For a New Critique of Political Economy, Bernard Stiegler. An eclectic critique of the “systemic stupidity” of our consumerist economy nee culture.

The Case for Reparations, Ta Nahesi Coates. A chilling review of how residential zoning and redlining killed the wealth of African Americans.

I am going to end this post with a paragraph from Nikil Saval in n+1 which I wish I had written myself:

Few moments in history have been so crowded with narcissists: incapable of acknowledging the existence of others, unwilling to permit state and civil society—with their strange, confusing, downright offensive cult of taxes, regulations and public services—to impede their quest for monopolizing the mind, muscles, heart rate, and blood of every breathing person on earth. The Mormons, with their registries of the unsaved, have beaten Silicon Valley to the hosts of the dead—but it’s safe to assume that this, too, will not last.

Humanity in all its Terribleness

Right after the election a friend sent me this Buddhist maxim:

Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered, we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

For Ta Nehisi Coates, the veil was pulled back in college:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own special Dream but would break all the dreams,all the comforting myths of Africa and America and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.

A basic substrate of white privilege in America has been a relative immunity to administration changes in Washington DC. But as of November 8th, if you present as a straight white American but you have black, brown or gay family members, there is fear in your family. For those of you who present as white Americans but belong to a union or worship in a synagogue or a mosque, there is fear in your workplaces and in your congregations. If you present as a white American and xenophobia, misogyny, racism and authoritarianism are affronts to your value system, welcome to the political discomfort millions of non-white and gay Americans have always lived with.

I wrote in July: “I think this election is turning out to be an inchoate plebiscite on neoliberalism” and that Trump was coming to bloom in a rich midden of economic dissatisfaction, racism and xenophobia. My last pre-election post shared Richard Rorty’s prescient warning about the appeal of the strongman to an America riven by economic inequality. But…however concerned I have been about our political culture…I refused to let myself believe what rough beast would actually get elected President of the United States of America. I feel like The Onion’s area liberal who “who no longer recognizes his fanciful, wildly inaccurate mental picture of the country he lives in“.

In Ta Nehisi Coates’ terminology I have been a Dreamer; unconsciously clinging to America’s moral exceptionalism. I am through Dreaming and I am going to take the advice Coates gave to his son:

Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.

The Strongman in our Future

Image Courtesy of  ljwhitsitt.com

Image Courtesy of ljwhitsitt.com

I took Philosphy 101 from Richard Rorty in 1968. I was a semi-literate 18 year old; I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know. All I remember of the experience was Rorty’s patrician elocution and that he first introduced me to the term “qua”. A few college courses later I began to glimpse the outlines of my ignorance and my interest in philosophy was launched. However it was decades later before I returned to Rorty. My learned friend J.M. recommended “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity” which spurred me on to the rest of Rorty’s work.

Later in his career Rorty left the strict confines of academic philosophy. His book on American politics “Achieving our Country” was based on lectures he gave almost 20 years ago. I am going to exercise crude editorial license and provide a long extract.

America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie and this process is likely to culminate in a bottom-up populist revolt…Since 1973, the assumption that all hardworking American married couples would be able to afford a home and the wife could then, if she chose, stay home and raise the kids has begun to seem absurd…Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment. The world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers that the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises…in 1979 the kids from the top socioeconomic quarter of American families were 4 times more likely to get a college degree than those from the bottom quarter: now they are 10 times more likely…The old industrialized democracies are headed into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments..(in America)…members of labor unions and unorganized unskilled workers will sooner or later recognize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time they will realize that…white collar workers themselves afraid…are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point something will crack….the electorate…will decide that the system has failed and look for a strongman to vote for – someone who will assure them that the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and post-modern professors will no longer be calling the shots…One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans and homosexuals will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.

Rorty is certainly not alone in espying the lineaments of fascism within liberal democracies; Antonio Gramsci, Edward Luttwak and Tony Judt also come to mind. But the last two sentences of Rorty’s quotation convey a particulary painful and American prescience.

Neoliberalism, Part 3, I’m gonna buy me a Mercedes Benz!

As Americans we are awash in the ‘freedom’ to choose; retail opportunities abound. We can select from a teeming cornucopia of entertainment options. We find it difficult to imagine life without the shallow but narcotic ‘liberty’ of channel surfing. We revel in the niche markets created for us because we have the ‘liberty’ to adopt the styles (of life, of clothes, of self expression) that we use to individuate ourselves; to create our personal brand. Thanks to an innovative, entrepreneurial ‘free’ enterprise system, we are deluged with what I will gloss as lower case ‘freedom’ (I will get to ‘Freedom’ later). As long as there are no barriers, we have ‘freedom’. We are free to buy cigarettes (if we are older than 18) and we are free to smoke them (in someplaces and not in others).

Because we have come more and more to define ourselves in terms of these narrow (and primarily commercial) ‘freedoms’, Americans are wont to object strenuously when we encounter any abridgement of our liberty. This very second, some Americans somewhere are outraged about a liberty denied or circumscribed: that they are required to purchase health insurance or can’t smoke in bars or can’t buy pot legally or can’t graze their cattle for free on public land or can’t take their AR-15 to the supermarket. Any political decision abridging a ‘freedom’ can be seen as an embarkation down the slippery slope to statism and slavery.*

The rhetoric of neoliberalism equates the freedom of shopping choice with political freedom; capitalism is talked about as economic democracy. Even a brief look at recent history and the world around us should disabuse of this naive view. The Bush administration and its avatar Paul Bremer were dumbfounded that the laissez faire “free enterprise zone” they created in Iraq failed to unleash Iraqi entrepreneurialism and provide the backbone for Iraqi democracy. A “free” market does not a polity make. The Chinese now have many of the economic ‘freedoms’ that Americans enjoy. No one is stopping the Chinese from buying a Biagio bag or a Mercedes Benz. But the Chinese people do not live in a democracy and do not have a soupcon of the political liberties that Americans or most Europeans enjoy. Capitalism does not a democracy make.

While I am “free” to buy a Meredes Benz, this freedom exists in a particular social, political and economic context. All Americans are ‘free’ to travel around the world; but how many Americans can afford this ‘freedom”? Much of the support that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Brexiters mustered, comes from the dawning recognition that the government does not care that most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. Of what value is ‘freedom’ if your society has not fostered the kinds of social and economic conditions that allow “freedom” to be meaningful. If you are a poor American you are ‘free’ to stay that way and so are your children:

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

To borrow a trope from Yeats, surely there is a greater “Freedom” at hand?

*This is a long lived American political meme that Richard Hofstadter dubbed the “paranoid style” of American politics and my Dad used to call “fluoride libertarianism”.