Post by Category : Neoliberalism

The Inability to Think

The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.


Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.

Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.

Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.

Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!

Daniel: You’re kidding!

Ralph: Have you read it?

Daniel: No…and I never will!

Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?

Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!

Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.

Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.

As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.

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.

A Thousand Words

A Thousand Words

I can’t unsee this photograph. I really wish I could.  To be honest, it fills me with dread. It documents the end of discourse.

I feel like I should be able to understand this countryman of mine. I still feel like I should try to understand him

Is this man economically insecure? Probably:  seventy eight percent of all Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. (Though among white voters who voted for Trump nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution). Nevertheless, perhaps he feels like he is running on a hamster wheel. He runs and runs and still can’t achieve the financial security he feels he should have (or that his parents had). He works his ass off and he imagines that people with different colored faces from different places are getting something they haven’t earned.  Maybe he has moved from home more than once in his life to find work or maybe he has never left his small Western Pennsylvania town though his children have left. His high school buddies who left and occasionally come home seem to be living in foreign lands.

Like the rest of us, he lives in a world that floods him with information. What to believe? Who to believe? With whom should he believe?  He is awash with technologies that are useful but operate by a magic he does not understand. He resents his ignorance and his dependence.  Maybe he resents people who appear comfortable with the new technologies. Maybe he feels useless to himself.

He has a legion of consumables available to him but no control over the array that he is offered. His only agency is the choice of what to buy with his hamster wheel earnings. His only choices are not really “choices”, they are merely features of the wheel.  He understands himself as the individual surrounded by the goods he has purchased.  This is how he shows himself to the world.  Very possibly he resents those who seem to denigrate the “life style” his purchases advertise. Maybe it is not Mexican immigrants he hates but other smug “white” people. Many of these are the same people who tell him that the plain truths he is holding onto about gender and sexuality are “prejudiced”.

It’s bad enough  that he can’t seem to “get anywhere” economically but then he hears from too many sources that he shouldn’t even be proud to be an American. He really doesn’t want to hear that shit. Everything for which he feels  pride (or took for granted)  seems to make him defensive these days. He is an “old white American”. The “old” is problematic because he is running out of time to become a millionaire. The “white” is just normal for him; he has never hurled a racial epithet and he resents being called a racist. That the “American”  part of his identity is called into question is the last straw. If America is not the “shining City on the Hill”, if America is not “exceptional”, where does that leave him?

He has not misplaced his gratitude about his birthright. What he can do is find himself a congregation of folks who also want to Make America Great Again. Now he is part of something larger.  Once  America is made great again, economic insecurity will depart  and we will all be on the same team once more. His team. You are either on the team bus or you are not . Your choice. Fuck your feelings.

I find myself imagining that the message on his t-shirt is meant specifically for me as my feelings of dread are simultaneously incited and dismissed.

I don’t know this person.  My attempts to understand him are probably overly reductive. But if I don’t care to try to understand the other person, where does that leave me?

Less than fully human?

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.

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.

Our Deformed Public Discourse

In recent posts, I have tried to point out the virulently fertile nexus of neoliberal market culture and the media to which we are connected. This headline from The Guardian says it all: “UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein calls for world to reject populist bigots – in full”. A short excerpt:

Populists use half-truths and oversimplification – the two scalpels of the arch propagandist, and here the internet and social media are a perfect rail for them, by reducing thought into the smallest packages: sound-bites; tweets. Paint half a picture in the mind of an anxious individual, exposed as they may be to economic hardship and through the media to the horrors of terrorism. Prop this picture up by some half-truth here and there and allow the natural prejudice of people to fill in the rest. Add drama, emphasizing it’s all the fault of a clear-cut group, so the speakers lobbing this verbal artillery, and their followers, can feel somehow blameless. The formula is therefore simple: make people, already nervous, feel terrible, and then emphasize it’s all because of a group, lying within, foreign and menacing. Then make your target audience feel good by offering up what is a fantasy to them, but a horrendous injustice to others. Inflame and quench, repeat many times over, until anxiety has been hardened into hatred.

In the NYT 9/10/16, Lee Siegel adds the following:

No wonder, according to reports, that Mr. Trump possesses such a fondness for McDonald’s, whose motto is “I’m lovin’ it.” The pitch requires no argument, no evidence, no complex rhetoric. You’re gonna love our burgers because the fact that billions of them have been sold proves the validity of the claim. You’re gonna love Mr. Trump because millions of Americans already do… There was nothing unusual about Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech in Cleveland, either. People were astonished that he did not tell a touching personal story, as all politicians do, and as Ronald Reagan did to consummate effect. Products, though, have no personal past or any kind of human dimension. A winning product is a result of the seller’s rigid, inflexible, even fanatical belief in the consistent quality of his merchandise.

The same goes for Mr. Trump’s bald lies at this week’s national security forum. He denied, despite hard evidence, that he ever supported the Iraq war. Pundits were dismayed. But his supporters love him all the more for his brazen adherence to the integrity of his “brand” over minor details like the truth.

Hence, the belligerent insularity of Trump & his supporters. How to combat this deformation of social and political discourse? By doing what these two commentators have done, engage in public reasoning: an activity completely alien to Trump and his spokespeople.