Archive for the Political Theory Category

Brief Note on Consensus

Posted in Activism, Political Theory with tags , , on June 7, 2010 by traxus4420

For those who don’t know, formal and quasi-formal consensus are approaches to decision-making in which every participant has to agree before a decision can be made. Like majority voting, there are a number of mechanics designed to facilitate the process, and others to make it work with larger and larger groups. It’s standard for U.S. anarchists, and widely adopted in some form by other activists, community organizers, etc. Advocates tend to argue that, while mechanics may differ, consensus is the only fully non-coercive principle to guide decision-making, and that anything else (i.e. majority voting, vanguardism, technocratic bureaucracy) has to rely at some point on the threat of force.

I want to respond to a common criticism of consensus, that it simply legitimates coercion by not institutionalizing the power of certain individuals (leaders, representatives, etc.) or subgroups (the majority, elites) to have final say. Instead, these factions continue to influence things while hiding — even from themselves — behind the screen of total legitimacy. Note that this is the exact opposite of the Marxist criticism that anarchist consensus is individualistic, libertarian, and undisciplined. My own (limited) experience as a participant makes the latter hard to take seriously. The facilitators were constantly talking about consensus’s usefulness as a way to “get people out of their own heads” by forcing everyone to speak. The ‘free rider’ problem was reduced, as was the possibility of disclaiming a decision that had already been made — after all, ‘you’ were equally responsible for it.

So the idea that any of this is individualistic is a pretty unimaginative position, and an insult to the commitment of group members, without which the entire endeavor is sort of pointless. Far from being idealist, consensus organizing is deeply pessimistic — as with ‘appropriate technologies’ (another popular idea with activists) the point is to design structures that are resistant to abuse by the ambitious/insensitive/imbecilic. Anything that presupposes competent oversight, resistance to corruption, and a modest degree of human decency in order to function (monarchy, nuclear power plants, oil rigs, oligarchy, etc.) only justifies an elite who will inevitably ruin everything by taking responsibility from those more directly involved (the labor force, the citizenry, etc.).

Anyway, as someone who spends most of my time inside my own head, it quickly became clear that I was not fit for membership. But the accusation that consensus is hypocritical because it’s still ‘coercive’ seems in bad faith. Consensus decision-making is not utopian. It has features common to any form of deliberation: it’s boring, tedious, uncomfortable for introverts, and a lot of hard work. It’s only as effective as the ability of the people it empowers to work together, and their sensitivity to those who might be affected by their decisions. The definition of ‘coercive’ that tends to be assumed in this sort of disillusioned, skeptical critique I’m talking about only allows pure autonomous freedom to count as ‘non-coercive,’ and in that sense discounts itself. A bit like assuming (as lazier readers of Derrida and Bourdieu sometimes do) that vigorous disagreement is a kind of ‘violence’ comparable to punching someone in the face, or blowing up a bank. It is, of course, but this is just a banal truism unless the whole notion of violence is rethought. And that would necessitate rethinking ‘consensus’ apart from assumptions grounded in the idealist justifications (and everyday experience) of representative democracy.

What is Centrism?

Posted in Political Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , on January 19, 2010 by traxus4420

‘Centrism’ is rather confusing as a political position. Vague and relative as they are, terms like ‘leftist,’ ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative’ denote a set of core principles that can be upheld or challenged. I, at least, have always been confused by what it’s supposed to mean. After devoting a bit of thought to the question, I’ve decided I was right the first time: centrism is fundamentally incoherent. It’s also much worse.

One often hears that in U.S. politics, smart politicians aim for the center. Clinton ran as a centrist, so did both Bushes, so did Obama. Pretty soon someone will call the U.S.’s dominant role in Haitian relief efforts ‘centrist.’ Being a centrist means you can call yourself non-ideological and pragmatic, which in our anemic intellectual climate is understood to mean ‘correct,’ or as close to that vapid ideal as humanly possible.

Centrism is without content because unlike conservative or liberal, its basis is completely relative to ‘right’ and ‘left,’ conceived as imaginary ‘ideological’ positions that the centrist grants himself the authority to name. Centrism has a history (how could it not), but it keeps its distance. It is always cheerfully presentist.

None of which prevents some centrists from calling themselves radical, which is also ‘in’ these days. Third Way politics constitute ‘radical’ centrism’s most visibly branded forms. But the pragmatic centrist can always call himself ‘radical,’ since he predicates himself on being undetermined, unimpressed, a step ahead, free.


On one level, centrism should be taken at its word: it is neither right nor left, because these equal and opposite poles are its inventions. It has no formal dogma, because dogma is also its invention. Centrism is about just what it says it is: finding the center, or figuring out where the power is in any given situation and sticking to it. Since power is what relates otherwise disparate situations, centrism has a broadly ‘progressive’ teleology (in the sense of expansion) and a broadly conservative strategy (in the sense of conservation of power). The closest term of comparison is ‘opportunism.’


At the risk of rubbing salt in an open wound, we can take Obama’s trajectory as a high-profile, exhaustively documented example of how centrism works in practice. Obama’s marketing and general demeanor on the campaign trail skewed progressive because that’s where the power was after eight years of Bush on the Internet. He cut the cord once elected because in becoming president power had shifted from the grassroots to the Oval Office, Wall Street, and the Pentagon. He (correctly so far) calculated that nothing he could do once in office would drive away his party’s avant garde because in a two-party system they have nowhere else to go, while everything had to be acceptable to the most bought and paid for members of his party first, who are willing to leave at the drop of a gavel. Barring an inverted Reagan-style comeback, Obama looks like he will be remembered as the president who took most seriously his role as the chief PR man for big capital in its hour of need. What else does he have the time or space to achieve beyond constant crisis management?

Centrism as a political norm has in fact changed the face of politics, openly acknowledging what politics has been in reality since the dismantling of the ‘welfare state’ and the fateful decision to stake the world’s future on the price of the dollar, that is, public relations as population management. Rousseau’s ideal state, with government as the strictly bureaucratic servant of the general will, has come to pass, with the modification that the general will is now produced by a corporate entertainment media complex. Or at least it is only taken seriously when in this form. Every excuse the centrist makes, every concession to ‘hard realities’, every condescending shake of the head to the criticisms and demands of ‘ideologues,’ should remind us that the individual citizen, traditional agent of the general will, has been effectively purchased by capital, and is now kept in a state of constant terror, surveillance, precarious dependency, and iPod-ified consumer satisfaction. If conservatism is the failure of democracy, centrism is its abnegation. And those still willing to identify as ‘left’ can’t be sure if they’re Zhuangzi or the butterfly.

Notes on Copenhagen, etc.

Posted in current events, Environmentalism, Political Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , on December 26, 2009 by traxus4420

The cards on the table are these:

– An unprecedented number of world leaders met in Copenhagen to work out an international response to climate change. The West especially needed a deal, because a) it’s generally accepted among their populations that climate change is an existential threat and b) certain ‘developing’ nations are coming of age pollution-wise, making it in the West’s political and economic interest to set the terms of the deal.

– As a consequence of his campaign strategy and the historically obstructionist role of the U.S. in prior attempts at such treaties, Obama became the symbolic representative for the interests of the West at Copenhagen and the lightning rod for the first wave of criticism from the green Left. Concretely Obama needed a deal because without one it would be much more difficult to push even the most modest ‘green agenda’ through the circus of late imperial decadence that is Congress.

– But hold on, Obama only avoided being the unambiguous weak link of the Copenhagen debacle because of the ‘obstructionist’ role played by the U.S.’s chief emerging competitor, China (think of Obama and Wen Jiabao’s conference as an informal passing of the torch ceremony), the West’s agreed-upon villain. As the world’s top two carbon emitters, the U.S. and China were the least willing to make definite commitments (the U.S. came to the talks pledged to reduce emissions to 4% below 1990 levels, compared to a 20% commitment from the EU; China notoriously vetoed not only a proposed 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 but the even bigger commitments proposed for developed countries as well). But the country with vastly greater domestic limitations — China, where millions of households are still without access to electricity — has officially replaced the U.S. in the eyes of the ‘responsible left’ in propaganda pieces like this one, just as the good intentions of Obama replaced the bad intentions of Bush.

– The entirely speculative, ‘meaningful’ deal that was finally arrived was negotiated by a ‘coalition of the willing’ out of sight of most of the conference participants, while being widely praised for legitimizing the idea that poor countries should have to submit to emission limits just like the developed and upper-level developing countries (i.e. China, India, Brazil). Here’s a list by Johann Hari of the democratic proposals that this virtual deal has concretely succeeded in ruling out. These debates have seen the ‘responsible left’ take truly horrific attitudes toward the objections of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Sudan, and Venezuela to the proposed treaty that have even filtered down to progressives like David Roberts of Grist:

It was only by forging a non-UN side agreement that Obama and other national leaders averted disaster. The UNFCCC “took note” of the accord, but since Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba wouldn’t sign on, it couldn’t formally adopt it.

That’s right—a clutch of hostile Latin American kleptocracies practically derailed the entire process. This can’t help but raise serious questions about whether the UN is the proper venue to hash out emission reductions. Does it really make sense to give 192 nations veto power when the vast bulk of emissions come from under 20 of them?

It may be regrettable from an ‘idealistic’ standpoint, but the only way to get results is to ditch democracy, says Joe Romm of Climate Progress (who nevertheless allows facts to keep him from completely endorsing the anti-China rhetoric):

Ultimately, the point is not the friggin’ process, but the outcome, and if the UN could demonstrate its process could lead to a better outcome, I’d be all for it.  But I doubt it.

I think Obama showed the process that can work to get the best possible outcome:  High-level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters.

Let me therefore end with the conclusion of an analysis by the Harvard economist Robert Stavins:

We may look back upon Copenhagen as an important moment – both because global leaders took the reins of the procedures and brought the negotiations to a fruitful conclusion, and because the foundation was laid for a broad-based coalition of the willing to address effectively the threat of global climate change.  Only time will tell.

This is an extreme example, but the resurgence of ideological pragmatism among the left, especially in the U.S., in the wake of unrelenting defeat, leads to a sort of theoretical agnosticism about politics combined with a blithe acceptance of the structurally weak position it (especially in the U.S.) currently holds. In practice this amounts to agnosticism over the real existence of ideological structures like neoliberalism, which no one could stop talking about when Bush was in charge, combined with prostrate submission to a priori limits on the potential of the progressive movement to change anything. As left economist Peter Dorman puts it in a critique of Waxman-Markey (the guiding framework for U.S. negotiations at Copenhagen):

Mainstream environmental groups are not blind to these problems, but they see them as second-order. Above all, they are soooooo happy that climate deniers are not in command of politics any more. They are fighting yesterday’s battle, to get general agreement on the principle that climate change is caused by people, and people need to do something about it. They like the nice feeling that comes from all of us raising our hands and pledging, scout’s honor, to achieve sustainability by 2050. But they are losing today’s battle to put into place a viable means to get from here to there, and judging from their public statements they don’t even know it.

The failure to go beyond the literal reading of the individual elements of reform bills to grasp their structural role is nowhere more apparent than in the health care debate. Anyone who objects to the Senate bill is an ‘obstructionist’ or ‘hostage taker’ out for self-interested political gain (or sociopathy, or excess of enthusiasm) over the ‘greater good’ moral objective that we all must accept. Progressives, both the weaker of the two opponents and the one liberal Democrats would like to secretly agree with, are expected to cave to the obstructionism of the centrists despite their efforts in getting public support for reform. But not before putting on an ineffectual performance of outrage that makes their opponents feel better about the inevitable.

[The ideological divide within the Democratic party is more succinctly analyzed here.]

Obama: “This notion I know among some on the left that somehow this bill is not everything that it should be … I think just ignores the real human reality that this will help millions of people and end up being the most significant piece of domestic legislation at least since Medicare and maybe since Social Security.”

Set aside for the moment the lies about the policies he campaigned on. First a bad faith moral imperative is employed: blame for the historical failure of the U.S., the the most powerful etc. country in the world, to put together anything more than a catastrophically shitty health care system is shifted away from the anti-democratic structure of the Senate, the power of health insurance lobbyists, and the failure and/or unwillingness of politicians to overcome these obstacles, to any individual on the left who threatens the passage of the textbook Third Way, neoliberal, government-corporate merger that is the Senate bill, and the one Obama apparently wanted from the start. As many have said, the early telegraphing of the Democratic majority and the White House’s unwillingness to reject any deal that can win cloture, and the consequent vilification of progressives who are so willing, kneecapped the left’s power to negotiate. Objections that seem reasonable are the intended casualties of this backlash. Finally the value of the health bill is put in terms of ‘significance’: it’s a big (“sweeping”) reform, and that’s what really matters. After all.

Of course, either the slightly more elitist Senate bill or the slightly more populist House bill would be “a historic first step,” “a foundation that can be improved on in the future” (as defenders like to say). Something that will help real people, etc. But what have we been watching if not the design of the new health bill’s architecture to make the much-publicized progressive improvements — single payer and compromise #1, the public option — all but impossible? Simply because the bill will contain contradictory elements does not mean it has no structuring logic. As the cost of regulation, any currently possible bill ensures that the grip of private health insurers on American lives will be more intransigent and more comprehensive. But these are precisely the sorts of concerns dismissed as ‘symbolic’ by enlightened commenters.

The ‘bill-killers’ chief political argument is/was that necessity combined with progressive pressure will push democrats to renegotiate even if the current bill is abandoned. This best-case scenario would be plausible if the progressive movement were as powerful as a major corporation. For many reasons, it is not. One of those reasons is how unusually stratified American society is as a whole, and how precarious, conformist, and alienated from the rest of the culture we tend to be, especially when educated. But the increasing implausibility of the bill’s defeat from the left (despite 11th-hour statements to the contrary) is only a convincing reason to stop fighting it if one’s subjective approach to politics is the consumerist model presumed by most news media: the independent, neutral observer, who wants “to see both sides of every issue” but is instead forced to decide between Two Bad Extremes. One who (unlike the others) is free to imagine ideal solutions to problems, but whose moral triumph is found in putting away childish things and learning to accept ‘reality.’ But working to improve the bill and threatening its passage aren’t mutually exclusive; defending it and improving it are.

In their ‘realist’ guise, apologists for bank bailouts, compromised health reform, Copenhagen, and the escalation in Afghanistan defer criticism of these policies and their authors to all those previously ignored ‘structural factors,’ now emptied of agency and presented as if laws of nature to be challenged only by the naive (liberal homilies about the sad realities of politics are the ‘soft’ side of this tactic). This brand of cynicism, which reduces all thought and perception to whatever shit is being shoved in your face right now, is worn as a sign of acumen, as it is indeed the gateway to professional status.

By the very gesture of having enabled thought (by excluding ’emotion’ and ‘partisanship’) that the intellectual class, the captured consumer/producers of news events and political decisions, encourages itself to react in place of thinking. From the laptop to the newspaper to the movie theater (and back to the laptop):

But if the term ‘progressive’ is to be taken seriously, a different political reality has to be embraced. All the feel-good talk about ‘getting somewhere’ or ‘good starts’ is so much living in the past. Everyone who calls the shots now knows, or has to pretend they know, that environmental catastrophe and financial crisis are real, and that health reform is necessary. We can be pleased or terrified about that. But from a practical standpoint the most important immediate goal is to move the center left. I always feel uncomfortable writing ‘calls to action’ like this, mostly because I always think that not only is it obvious what should be done, it is being done. And that is pushing back hard in whatever way we can against the future our political elites are building for us, so that, as much as possible, we can build it for ourselves. We can’t make decrees or issue five year plans, or make the kinds of promises campaigning politicians make. In the world we live in, where we are just extras whose consent is either manufactured or assumed, fighting back means refusing to take on ourselves the dreary weight of their responsibilities and the illusion of power that comes with them. Demanding at the same time that they live up to their professed responsibilities and killing their bills when they don’t may be irresponsible in this heavily leveraged political environment — a losing battle — but that’s asymmetric politics. Devoting our energies to help the political class make decisions as if we didn’t exist isn’t even a partial victory, it’s just martyrdom.

My absence

Posted in Daoism, Philosophy, Political Theory with tags , on October 18, 2009 by traxus4420

Work and play have been keeping me from this blog. That will change, the sooner the better. Until then, here’s what I’ve been thinking about:

What is the role of humanistic knowledge and information if they are not to be unknowing (many ironies here) partners in commodity production and marketing, so much so that what humanists do may in the end turn out to be a quasi-religious concealment of this peculiarly unhumanistic process? A true secular politics of interpretation sidesteps this question at its peril.

— Edward Said, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community”

Though I am not interested in a politics of interpretation, I am interested in a secular politics. Perhaps I believe the two are incompatible.

Moving on:

Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

— Heart Sutra

True words are not ‘beautiful.’

‘Beautiful’ words are not true.

Those who know are not ‘widely learned.’

The ‘widely learned’ do not know.

The good do not have much.

Those who have much are not good.

The Sage accumulates nothing.

The more he does for others, the more he has.

The more he gives to others, the greater his abundance.

The Way of Heaven is pointed but does no harm.

The Way of the Sage is to serve without competing.

Dao De Jing Verse 81

Contrary to most amateur readings of Buddhist and Daoist tenets I’ve seen (I don’t read the professionals), my sense is that they don’t at all consider ‘harmony’ to be easy or automatic. Of course, I can only refer to my own tiny inroad into (the very different) Buddhism and Taoism, but it seems evident that much as ‘Being’ might be the central problem for  Greek philosophy and its offspring (whether through the logic of sympathetic resemblance or identity and difference), Harmony is rather what these texts are about; it is their organizing problem. The reactionary conservativism and historical fatalism that seem to be their general political tenor is a consequence. But another consequence is the rejection of ‘the Being of Being’ or ‘Being’s being-for-itself’ as a false problem however much it is also a inevitable one, whose solution is its negation. The real question for positive knowledge is the relentlessly practical one of appropriate relations. The effect of meditation on Being is the foreclosure of any logic of Being, and the ‘utility’ of philosophy is its own self-abnegation. I believe this point is what continues to sustain my interest in these practices, and how I might one day justify my frivolous, Orientalizing indulgences.

Blogs, Form and Sense: A Compendium

Posted in blogging, Cultural Theory, Lacan, Media, Parody, Political Theory, The Internet with tags , on August 21, 2009 by traxus4420

Maybe in the early days of blogging the medium seemed poised to open new dimensions of creative expression, where all sorts of people could express anything from themselves to other stuff. In reality, human creativity is rarely marketable as such beyond the scope of individuals and small groups. It probably has to do with being a human myself, but from the proverbial birds-eye view people and their actions look less like unique liberated snowflakes and more like snow.

Now we know there is a finite number of genres available to the entry level blogger. What is less often acknowledged is that just like corporate news, each of these genres carry with them their own structural logic of representation, which manifests as their own built-in ‘slant.’

To stay objective, we’ll avoid immediate issues (like health care) and pick some old news. Here‘s a topical AP piece from last month:

UNITED NATIONS — Out of genocides past and Africa’s tumult a controversial but seldom-used diplomatic tool is emerging: The concept that the world has a “responsibility to protect” civilians against their own brutal governments.

At the U.N. General Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pushed Tuesday for more intervention for the sake of protection.

“The question before us is not whether, but how,” Ban told the assembly, recalling two visits since 2006 to Kigali, Rwanda. The genocide memorial he saw there marks 100 days of horror in which more than half a million members of the Tutsi ethnic minority and moderates from the Hutu majority were slaughtered.

“It is high time to turn the promise of the ‘responsibility to protect’ into practice,” Ban said.

How does the blogosphere respond? I limit myself to blogs of the ‘left-of-center’ persuasion — whatever differences in ideology they may have are also differences in style. That, at least, is my working hypothesis.

The linkblog:

Unhappy Monday links:

– Think we’re out of the recession? Doug Henwood says think again.

‘Expert warns against advent of ‘Terminator’-style military robots.’ If you’re unemployed, don’t sell your Playstation — there may be hope for you yet:

The US currently has 200 Predators and 30 Reapers and next year alone will be spending US$5.5bn (€3.84bn) on unmanned combat vehicles.

At present these weapons are still operated remotely by humans sitting in front of computer screens. RAF pilots on secondment were among the more experienced controllers used by the US military, while others only had six weeks training, said Prof Sharkey. “If you’re good at computer games, you’re in,” he added.

Ender’s Game, here we come.

– In foreign policy news, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine has been getting more and more airtime. According to President Obama, there are “exceptional circumstances in which I think the need for international intervention becomes a moral imperative, the most obvious example being in a situation like Rwanda where genocide has occurred.”

As an on-again off-again pacifist, I’m deeply skeptical about any use of military force (particularly U.S.-led), but must confess not knowing nearly enough about the situation in Rwanda to make a sound judgment on that score.

– To compensate for your worries of U.N.-backed robot takeover, say hello to TOFU, “the ponderously eyebrowed robot fuzz owl with OLED eyes and some seriously rhythmic body jams.” Via (who else?) BoingBoing Gadgets.

The libblog:

I know we tend to stick to domestic politics around here, but if the Afghanistan/Iraq debacles have taught us anything, it’s that in this country we can’t afford to treat foreign and domestic policy as completely separate issues. The corporate media try to make it easy by chronically underreporting anything they can get away with, but this conditioned state of ignorance is unsustainable. The state of one affects the state of the other.

In the field of international relations, the issues of sovereignty and the right of other nations to intervene is a highly vexed issue. How do we legitimate ‘good’ uses of force, like Kosovo and Haiti, while preventing ‘bad’ ones, like Iraq? How do we reliably prevent acts of genocide, as in Rwanda or (arguably) Darfur, without risking the misuse of the same rhetoric for neo-imperialist purposes?

An increasingly important potential solution is emerging, known as ‘responsibility to protect,’ or R2P.

[here follow about 1,500 words of analysis of policy documents with links to the original pdfs)

In conclusion, a renewed liberal international order is our only hope. There is a real difference between a liberal, internationalist hegemony and an imperial, nationalist one; in fact it’s all the difference in the world. And we have the power to push our nation’s policy and culture toward the one and away from the other. Not just the power, I would argue, but the duty: religious fundamentalism and the Bush White House’s excessive response to it have shown us that universalism without tolerance is a recipe for global catastrophe.

I know I can’t speak for all of you on this one. It’s something that as liberals we need to discuss, and I urge you to get the ball rolling in the comments below. Keep it respectful, y’all.

The professional ‘expert’ as editorialist or someone who blogs under the assumption that their (usually well-respected) professional specialty gives them unique insight into events that often have little or nothing to do with that specialty:

…in my book, Twitsturbation Nation: How the Internet Generates Community, I made the argument that traditionalist notions of autocratic sovereignty would be the first major casualty of the Internet’s production of society from below, one narcissistic avatar at a time. Today, even the biggest figures in international leadership are keenly aware that Web access is changing the way politics works at all levels, from policy to advocacy, from elections to revolution. “You cannot have Rwanda again,” Gordon Brown said last month, “because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken. Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.”

I don’t say this simply to brag about my foresight, but to make an important point about how attitudes change. Not long ago, the U.N. held a conference on the ‘responsibility to protect,’ a new doctrine that would set new standards for humanitarian intervention. In the past, even to attempt such a thing would have been immediately (and wrongheadedly) denounced as ‘imperialism’ by most liberals, and, post-Somalia, as sheer folly by realists. But we live in a different age. Life on the Internet is changing the way we think about the responsibility we have to one another, regardless of race, nationality, gender, or religious differences. How else could a stolen election in Iran generate such spontaneous support among the youth of its national enemy, the U.S.? It’s true that many suffering people don’t have access to the Internet, much less platforms like Twitter. But our imaginations have expanded to include them, and aid programs are not far behind. If this talk of responsibility sounds terribly old-fashioned, perhaps  one should draw comfort from another ancient adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The ‘literary’ editorialist or the blogger who, motivated by a frustrated ambition to be a novelist (successful novelists don’t have time for ‘real’ blogging, see below), attempts a form of online commentary that is literature in its own right :

“May you live in interesting times.” So goes the ancient Chinese proverb which is not a blessing, but a curse. And yet, even after the amused Western reader recognizes this, that ‘interesting’ retains its double edge. For we must admit that most suffering is not interesting whatsoever, even to the sufferers themselves. Suffering is common. Suffering is boring.

So it is almost surprising to the typical U.S.-ian solipsist (yours truly) to read about occasions like this, when serious policy thinkers debate in serious policy language the future of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ justifying the refocusing of the war machine with shocked, shocked descriptions of brutal, nay, genocidal violence still going on in darkest Africa. As if its persistence were in violation of some cosmic ordinance and not just the willfully impoverished cant of Empire, the Beast that rapes the already pillaged; as if the history of suffering had not already been printed in history books, academic journals, even (cough!) newspapers.

Though this is perhaps not so surprising: because politics is boring too.

And I, I struggle once again for inspiration, and the nerve (the blessed, unholy nerve) to write once again the already written.

The propagandist:

Another day, another insult to sanity:

[Ban Ki-Moon] advised limiting U.N. action under the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept to safeguarding civilians against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. He acknowledged the possibility of some nations “misusing these principles” as excuses to intervene unnecessarily, but said the challenge before the U.N. is to show that “sovereignty and responsibility are mutually reinforcing principles.”

This is the same old messianic language of imperial violence, rephrased to appeal to latte-sipping Hardt-Negrian shills. All states are on the verge of ‘failure,’ and can only be evaluated by external criteria. Never mind the totally negligible and contingent fact that some states are ‘too big to fail.’ People are suffering, dammit!

Far from a universal degradation of sovereignty, what this amounts to is the invisible justification of a few ueber-powerful states, based on two mutually defining concepts of ‘failure.’ Under this proposed division of governmental labor, a country like the U.S. has a ‘responsibility’ (entirely unrelated to its ‘excesses’) to ‘supply’ military force to nations that, whether because sanctioned by the U.S. or on the wrong end of the international ‘free’ market, are unable or unwilling to prevent human rights abuses. ‘Success’ means either a) all nations magically achieve the status of liberal capitalist states with their militaries outsourced to the U.S./U.N. or b) the U.S./U.N. ‘intervenes’ and punishes the evildoers.


I’d go into more depth, but Lenin’s Tomb has beaten me to the punch — make sure you check out these two typically awesome and well-researched posts.

One last thing: good to see folks getting disillusioned with Obama’s domestic politics, but his ideological misreading of Rwanda and tacit support for ‘R2P’ once again reinforces the obvious: that he’s just as firm a supporter of imperialist intervention as Bush, despite his pragmatic reservations.

Let’s keep fighting, y’all.

The Critical Theorist:

The following video clip illustrates a salient point I want to make about ‘the call’ to humanitarian intervention (periodically resurrected in mainstream political discourse despite frequent criticisms; for an example see the increasing popularity in policy circles of the odious ‘new’ doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’) as a standard ideological gesture, in Jameson’s terminology an ideologeme, “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes.”

The sublime moment comes when we are told that “This is Reality” precisely because “We Have The Power To Change It.” The shift involved is purely anamorphotic, a shift internal to our own perspective: we cease to be the moral subject negatively threatened with a loss of reality in relation to the significance of its categorical claims and become this subject of transformative Power in relation to this (subsequent) representation of (the True) Reality alongside essentially Sublime objects. But this sudden shift in the phenomenological value of the image content becomes one of utopian positivity when and since it prominently features an anonymous, well-funded team of caring ‘peace core types.’ To follow Zizek’s reading of ideologically sublime objects, the paradox is hence that “pure difference” between the form of our moral subjectivity with its impossible categorical mandates and the real conditions of objective violence which underlie it as revealed by the ad’s negative perception, become the point of their greatest Truth, of their sublime Identity with ‘Reality’ through the supplement-object as the representation of the other ‘subject supposed to care.’ The starving African children become the Real of moral tragedy not because of the descriptive content their images are supposed to represent (that they are in fact in Africa which is in fact plagued by readily observable and structurally necessary economic and political instability) but precisely because they signify the point at which our categorical moral claims become meaningless, because Africa is the place in which ‘inalienable human rights’ become inapplicable in the face of the objective historical necessity of incomplete ‘development,’ and the ostensibly ‘supplementary’ fiction of the ‘NGOther’ becomes essential.

This is the paradoxical moment of the Kantian sublime, in which “a[n enjoyable] representation arises where we would least expect it” of the Truth beneath our avowed categorical moral claims, at the point of the very impossibility of fully realizing our formal categorical moral subjectivization within the symbolic order. Following Lacan’s famous reading of Kant via Sade, we can say that this reveals the truly Sadean dimension of the Kantian moral law. Just as the Sadean fantasy imposes upon the subject the impossible pathological injunction to enjoy his victim’s sublime body without any regard for the limitations imposed upon it by real mortality, the Kantian categorical moral law is “the Real of an unconditional imperative which takes no regard for the limitations imposed upon us by reality—it is [a formally equivalent] impossible injunction.” Hence the subject is ‘freed’ from burden of its impossible demands through the presentation of this very impossibility, by submitting to the ad’s ‘irrational’ categorical imperative, and thus it only fully assumes this identity in a disavowed, ‘properly distanced’ manner, through the moral object supposed to care, the transcendentally ‘free’ subject of transformative Power whose ‘gear’ begins to fill the screen.  In this sense the sublime experience is, following Zizek, strictly one of false inter-activity: as our traumatic kernel of real-life impotence/passivity is transcended by the little other(qua imaginary subject supposed to care)’s enacted desire, our real-life activity becomes structurally equivocal with the enactment of this desire in the gaze of an impersonal, unconsciously assumed big Other.

The act of donation is hence properly a phenomenon of surplus jouissance, literally the enjoyment of sense, of the (material and hence significant) making of sense: ‘joui-sense’ is precisely this sublime experience of a signification who’s meaning is only truly known by the Other object-supplement (its imaginary referent) but is formally assumed by the subject as its ‘efficient’ cause. But from the very beginning of the ad we are already ‘sublimely’ subject to the obscene injunction to enjoy ‘our’ own subjective position precisely as a barred subject, as the contingent content of the enunciation of a categorical ‘You’ that perhaps also enjoys what has now come to be the simulacral myth of Michael Jackson-type innocence: one that survives despite being foreclosed from the formal Law as such. The realized injunction to donate is hence not only a ‘truly sincere’ investiture in the sublime meaning produced, but the assumption of this impossible-real objective presentation as a subjectively necessary condition for this ‘meaning’ to exist as the retroactively attributed Truth to ‘Your’ ‘real’ activity. Is this not the perfect analogue to injunctions of ‘international law’ and their justifications? The point is to realize that both ‘support’ for any given ersatz ‘law’ devised in the interests of global capitalism’s elite oligarchs and individual donations to humanitarian NGOs are made effectively real for the subject only by passively making what is, in fact, a ‘purely symbolic’ gesture for the gaze of an assumed big Other, and that the sublime enjoyment we gather from our fundamentally passive ‘participation’ is that of producing a signification of this Other’s desire, of assuming the subjective role of an object-cause for this Other’s active enjoyment.

The hipster editorialist:

Yall. Starting to get annoyed seeing sOO many blogs and ‘articles’ about celebrities trying 2 ‘make a difference’ by applying their personal brands to ‘3rd world shitholes’ (i.e. Hotel Rwanda). I feel like ‘activism’ oriented vaycays have prior brand identity as what MSTRMers and meaningfulcore bros do in college over the summer to ‘find themselves.’ Feels ‘unfair’ for celebrities with private jets to make 10x of a difference in 1 weekend than u and me ever could in our entire lives.

It’s kinda weird how ur supposed to go somewhere where ppl are ‘less fortunate than u’ at some point in ur life. Whether it is Africa, New Orleans, Detroit, or rural Missouri, there are people who are less fortunate than ‘us’ every where. Just want to appreciate my family + personal social networks on the internet more than ever when I see people who are ’suffering’, ‘uneducated’, ‘hungry’, and ‘0% self-aware.’

Sort of feel bad that I dont ‘get’ ‘what the big deal is’ about Africa. Not sure why I’m supposed to care about ‘millions’ of ‘lil negroes’ who don’t add value to my lifestyle/product lines. It’s hard 2 integrate ‘giving a shit about the world’ with my post-chillwave personal brand. But there comes a time when every entity with a ‘public voice’ has to use their voice 4 good. I don’t know what cause I’m going to rally around, but it will probably be something tangible/meaningful in my ‘personal life.’

How bout yall?
Do yall feel like Africa should be ‘first on the agenda’ for 2k10?
Does ‘the West’ (via Barry Obama) have a ‘responsibility 2 protect’ ‘troubled regions’?
Any ideas 4 how 2 spread chill values like ‘human rights’ and access to sweet social networks to places where ‘folks can’t read’ and/or vote?
Should ppl just ‘mind their own damn business’?

The self-promoter – all blogs are fundamentally tools for self-promotion. But some bloggers are of such elite status that they don’t have time for anything else. This status can’t be gained purely through blogging, only by taking advantage of the blog’s effect on one’s career. The struggling novelist publishes with Harper Collins. The professional editorialist begins to appear on TV. Etc. While sometimes difficult to tell apart from the linkblog, the promoter”s slightly higher ratio of self-disclosure (treating the blog literally as an ‘online journal’)  is one sign that they are in fact of two distinct species — celebrities and normals. It is at any rate the final stage of evolution for all blogs:

This morning I woke up to this outside my window. Ah, Brazil. How I loathe to leave thee.

– Launch party for the new book next Friday at the Hive. Open bar after my reading. I’ll see you there.

– Interview up at DesignBlog.

– My good friends Ted Brand and Sylvie are performing tonight at the Pinhook. Mp3s available here. I (obviously) can’t make it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Show some love!

– Thanks to Kamau for bringing this link to my attention: some interesting debates going on in the U.N. about international responsibility post-Rwanda. Speaking of which, donate money to this site.

God bless.

The Opacity of Hope

Posted in Political Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 13, 2008 by traxus4420

Saw this the other day (find the link to the whole video after the gap)

The best of the Obama-as-blank-screen readings — at once totally fascinating and symptomatic of a certain type of boomer leftist intellectual, the one driven to irrational exuberance over the contradiction between traditional origin myths and ‘radical breaks.’ The archetype Critchley summons to contain Obama is that of the empty postmodern hero, drained of all positive qualities, ‘open’ for being ultimately enigmatic, bearer of an essential mystery identified with his origin. Critchley invokes psychoanalysis to penetrate this mystery, using it to structure the more common fixations on the future president’s mixed race and international upbringing. Perhaps the most fascinating film versions of the postmodern man without qualities to come out of the ’70s (when his generation came into maturity) were aliens: the David Bowie character in Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Christopher Reeve’s Superman (1978). Both were updates of characters inherited from the ’50s — Klaatu and the George Reeves Superman. Subtracting the then-discredited rational paternalism magnified their strangeness, their aura of vulnerability and their capacity to reflect and transcend, through personal, moral suffering, the divisions of the Cold War society into which they had been thrust.


Right and left boomer critiques of Obama’s immense popularity tend to be carried out in the standard language of the belittling of Generation X, i.e. that his rhetoric is basically devoid of content, unoriginal, unpolitical, inauthentic, etc. This resistance partially stems from the fact that Obama defies readings based on identity or origin. Despite Critchley and others’ best efforts, not even the ambiguity of his racial politics can be fetishized in the usual way (as ‘oppositional,’ ‘transgressive,’ etc.), nor is he particularly convincing as a sex object, ‘alternative’ or otherwise. But he is also not, as Gen X heroes have tended to be (from the amoral ciphers of Bret Easton Ellis to Beavis and Butthead), aimless, apathetic, or nihilistic. What wins these critics over despite themselves, I think, is that as the first black president, Obama has actually realized the symbolic victory that American culture under Reagan and then the New World Order had dismissed as either impossible or irrelevant. He offers the opportunity to move on from battles over representation which a) seem to be all the American left has been capable of winning since the ’70s and b) seem to be carried out based on questionable assumptions about identity and identification that have nevertheless been protected from criticism due to their increasingly limited political utility. Obama’s election was not a victory over racial prejudice, but over an identity-based rhetoric of opposition. Though it’s been monopolized in mainstream politics by the Republicans, it has also been largely accepted by the Left as the only authentically political discourse. Reactions from this quarter have been accordingly ambivalent.

What sensible responses by people like Judith Butler(via) leave out, which exhort supporters to have their fun but be emotionally and practically ready for inevitable disappointment, is an analysis of how Obama’s rhetoric functions. They start from the assumption that his slogans are ’empty’ in the sense of being without content, and therefore not worth taking seriously. She is led to question her naive friends, but not the political assumptions she shares with them. It’s of course true that Obama relies on the same myths of ‘the American people,’ the overcoming of internal division, freedom, and inevitable sacrifice as just about every president before him. But, while the language of American presidential politics may not change, emphasis and strategic function do. So it’s important to understand these shifts, no matter how minute they may appear when written in books.

First we have to remember that every definition of ‘real’ Americans insists on their impatience with ideology and partisanship, a trait usually connected to good, honest work. Though the transcending of ideology despite/as intense nationalism is a feature of liberal ideology in general, what Habermas identified as “the Janus-face of the modern nation,” Americans seem especially invested in denying even its occasional suspension; any decline in the political capital of ‘natural unity’ always seems to coincide with a long and painful period of disillusionment. Recall that, despite their reputations, Bush and McCain both based their success on calls to unity: Bush’s “compassionate conservativism,” McCain’s “reaching across the aisle.” Indeed, they established their singularity precisely by touting consensus against partisanship — “uniter, not a divider” — another recurring feature of American political rhetoric. We find the distinctive qualities of American presidents in how they stage the reestablishment of continuity.

The following is from The Audacity of Hope, after Obama describes his ‘real America’ as those who “understand that politics today is a business and not a mission”:

“A government that truly represents these Americans — that truly serves these Americans — will require a different kind of politics. That politics will need to reflect our lives as they are actually lived. It won’t be prepackaged, ready to pull off the shelf. It will have to be constructed from the best of our traditions and will have to account for the darker aspect of our past. we will need to understand just how we got to this place, this land of warring factions and tribal hatreds. And we will need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break.”

Despite the mix of assertions and provisions, Obama defines consensus negatively: it is not autonomous from the everyday (“will need to reflect our lives”), not a commodity (“prepackaged”), not ahistorical or historical in a purely aesthetic way (i.e. quoting the Founding Fathers and celebrating WWII), not given (“constructed”). Our national scene, lacking consensus, is figured as premodern (full of “tribal hatreds”). In the last line, the naturalness of community is reasserted; the work necessary to construct it is also the work of remembering the eternally true. Of these themes, repeated again and again in Obama’s speeches, the attention to history is probably where he most distinguishes himself from Bush, most strikingly in his settling of accounts with the ’60s.

“I’ve always felt a curious relationship to the sixties,” he writes, and he singles out the basic contradiction of the Democratic Party since Carter defined it as the party of social values. The movements of the ’60s were for social values against the political-economic values of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, and racism, and were only really coherent in that context. Their ‘values’ did not mix well with reconciliation, no matter how many of their activists eventually did. The usual response is repression. Part of what makes Obama so exciting is what his race forces a president to admit about the last 50 years of American life. In his speeches, he reconstructs the ’60s as an exciting era of struggles against injustice, and in the book locates himself as its “product.” His distance from the civil rights movement (his youth, his upbringing abroad, his white mother) leads him to seek a separation of its culture from its politics. He is not a product of its ideology, not a bearer of ‘black identity’ as constructed by and through Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and their successors in the cultural sphere, but of the political struggles, defined in terms of their victories. In this way he subtly replaces the old ideology with a new one — his blackness is not a condmenation of America but its redemption, its ‘spirit’ authenticated in the fact of his election: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

There are two disciplines associated with the ’60s he rejects: economics and rhetoric. He is for a “dynamic free market” against the various radicals (including both Bush and environmentalists) and their oppositional, divisive politics even though he Feels Their Pain. Here is his reconciliation between right and left in the sphere of political economy, free market vs. social welfare:

“But our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive, government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. It tells us that we can emerge from great economic upheavals stronger, not weaker. Like those who came before us, we should be asking ourselves what mix of policies will lead to a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility. And we can be guided throughout by Lincoln’s simple maxim: that we will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually and privately.
In other words, we should be guided by what works.”

The various threads in this argument coalesce in his characterization of Reagan. Reagan’s aggressive foreign and domestic policies and his divisive rhetoric only worked for a tiny elite. But they did work. The ideological success of Reaganism was not just that it defended a certain position, still less that it made good on its populist promises (quite the opposite), but that it used what Obama identifies as the New Left’s rhetoric of intense partisanship to change the field of American political discourse against the left: “the more his critics carped, the more those critics played into the role he had written for them — a band of out-of-touch, tax-and-spend, blame-America-first, politically correct elites.” It’s not difficult to see in retrospect that the rewriting of political language and the marginalization in advance of his opponents has always been key to Obama’s strategy.

Idealized pragmatism allows the establishment of formal equivalence between right and left radicals, rejecting them together as “cynical.” Their real differences are politely bracketed — the Iraq war and the financial crisis join the collapse of communism as undeniable proofs of failed, impractical ideologies. The (obviously flawed) existing popular language with which to debate “socialism” vs. “capitalism,” or “free market” vs. “social welfare” has been swept aside, but their defenders are redeemed by shared American values, welcomed back into the fold. In this transitional period at least, when Obama’s policies are still unclear, his success in reframing American politics in strictly idealist terms — “idealism” against “cynicism” — is undeniable. His ability to turn the Iraq war and the finance crisis in his favor has closed off any attempt to analyze him in terms of existing theory; we critics are virtually locked into waiting patiently for the results.


We are now finally able to get at the truly unique aspect of Obama’s politics. Almost no one seems to recognize that he has already anticipated the most common criticism of him, that his rhetoric and even his person are ’empty’ and meaningless. The point of his slogans is not just that they remain open to different meanings, in the typical fashion of traditional advertising. They are open to different uses; they open outward, as a call to fill an empty signifier with concrete action (like contemporary advertising). Reid Kotlas of Planomenology is one of the few to get it right: “The republican criticism that Obama talks a lot about change, but doesn’t tell us what exactly this change is, is thus poorly aimed: it is by virtue of leaving the goal of this change open, by entrusting us with its realization, that Obama’s message is truly effective.” Critchley remains focused on the out-of-context “blank screen” quote. Also his “listlessness” which “generates in us a desire to love him,” but in a “restrained,” liberal sort of way. I think Grant Park proves this reading is at least incomplete. Obamamania was always just as fervent as Palin-mania, just without the threat of violence. Critchley’s psychoanalytic reading acknowledges the political valence of the ethical demand Obama makes on his supporters, restaging boring liberal compromise as potentially radical. “No one is exempt from the call to find common ground,” Obama asserts; to substitute mere words for action is “to relinquish our best selves.” But he pointedly declines to critique it. Critique, however, is necessary to understand that Obama’s rhetoric is directed at organizing, not just generating fantasy fodder.

His opacity, his refusal, we might say, to entirely identify with himself, instead offering his biography and campaign together as a kind of open-source “vehicle” for emotional and practical investment, is his most important political move. As Critchley does note, the prophetic plays a big role here. “Change we can believe in” is pure speculation, open to further speculation. If we have (as the pessimists say) been witnessing the steady deterioration of political discourse over the past however many years, then this would have to be its absolute nadir. And yet at the same time it spawned a massive popular mobilization. What Butler has to say about left disavowal should also be applied to Obama himself, with the proviso that his provoked the movement that got him elected while ours produced it: beyond liberalism’s politics of anti-politics, Obama, by visibly taking a step back from his own power, has inspired the masses to create their own anti-politics under his brand. His election is not his victory, it’s our victory — his win has nothing to do with his race, but our enlightened attitude toward race — he’s done everything shy of announcing that his office will not be in his power but in our power. We are not led to identify with him. We are led to identify our politics through him.

This is not to say that his supporters do not think, only that the campaign is (pragmatically) indifferent to any thoughts they might have which can’t be incorporated into the ‘movement.’

Doesn’t all the increasingly anxious speculation about Obama (this post included) have something to do with the fear that when he actually becomes president, something precious will have been lost? We already have intimations that this will be the case, though it’s impossible to tell exactly how the actual dynamics of his relationship with his activists will play out. Just as ironic distance fails to negate its real investments, the image of Change fails to negate its material function as an image, a commodity bought and paid for by Wall Street with the American people as (now) minority shareholders. If the image America just opted into is that of Future President Obama giving our politics back to us, then the Left, if there is still to be one apart from Team Change, has to ask itself: would this obviously compromised image be so appealing if the practical (anti-) politics it enabled were not ten times more radical than the most radical of ideologies?

And now I shall make the masses….disappear!!!

Posted in Activism, Apocalypse Porn, Philosophy, Political Theory, structuralism, The Internet, U.S. Politics on October 31, 2008 by traxus4420

Well, here’s a fun little blip:

I have been struck by the absence of collective protest over the actions of those in the financial industry. Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated? Leftists watch as our elected leaders hand over the oversight function to the very companies that caused this mess; why aren’t they taking to the streets?

Talk shows and blog postings reveal plenty of individual anger, but there hasn’t been much collective expression. Why is this? And what forms of protest and outcry would be legitimate?

At the risk of being accused of inciting mass violence, I’d like to know whether people would be justified in using the riot at this particular moment in history. More broadly, under what conditions is the riot a rational (and/or justifiable) response to injustice?

Sociologists love the riot, of course, because it offers an opportunity to test theories regarding mass behavior and individual tolerance for oppressive conditions.

Having observed a few riots, I know that they can also be caused by trivial factors: For example, I watched looters take over streets on the South Side of Chicago after the Bulls won their second consecutive basketball championship — hardly an “oppressive” situation.

But in general, riots are responses to fairly serious issues, like the rising price of commodities, police brutality, assassination of political leaders.

So the federal government is now sending $700 billion of taxpayer money to free market scions who, I remind you, spend millions on collective protest (“lobbying”) against any form of government aid — especially to the middle class, to the poor, and to foreigners.

Scandalous! Taxpayers of the world unite, I say!

Here is my theory as to why the riot has gone the way of the Sony Walkman — an appendage of an earlier era:

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

It goes without saying that I miss a good old-fashioned riot. But my malaise hardly compares to others who are suffering in these times.

For example, I often pity the poor souls who took out property insurance with A.I.G. and other insurers. In the event of a riot, they might be next in line for a government bailout. Will there be anything left in the $700 billion for them?

Some highlights from the peanut gallery:

Forget a riot, how about a simple mass protest?

— Posted by Andrew M


You raise an interesting question. I refused to be completely forthright in the previous discussion of corruption just for that very reason- as not wishing to cause harm. I think the truth does help so long as it does not knowingly cause others great pain and suffering. There is the matter of knowledge and the use to which it is put. Perhaps sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Honesty is not always the best of policies.

— Posted by science minded


Not saying I totally support this idea, but it is a thought I had; is it possible that the lack of riots could be credited to the internet and blogging? Rioting is a way of letting the community know that you are, well, really pissed off and want change. It is a way of venting. With the advent of blogs, myspace, facebook, etc. people are able to (as we are doing know) share their feelings with the “world” and believe, rightly or not, that it will somehow bring about change.

Added bonus: No police. No riot gear.

— Posted by dave


Our societies have been very successful at socializing us that “violence is always wrong” (unless, of course, it’s used by the monopolist of violence, our government) and that if we want to change the system we need to do so from within.

Convincing the overwhelming majority of the population of the evils of violence has been a phenomenal achievement that is all-too-often overlooked. Those in power control the levers of power, and they’ve convinced the rest of us that if we want change, we need to use those same levers. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a war between those who know there’s a war and those who don’t.”

Society’s ability to “rule out” violence as a legitimate forum of social change has had an impact throughout society. The possibility of violence, preferably never acted upon, helped labor throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Negotiating in the shadow of violence has now been replace by negotiating in the shadow of the law, and the law is a predictable tool of power.

— Posted by Boldizar


There was a protest of the bailout. The media didn’t care to cover it:

— Posted by Matt


My guess would be that the urge to riot is being sublimated into the election.

— Posted by Victor Kava


IF or when Obama’s election is sabotaged, a’la 2000 and 2004, you can perhaps expect to see shocking replays of the fires of Newark, Detroit and Watts.
“Burn, Bay, Burn!” is simply a bottled-up reaction waiting to be ignited — it is not something antiquated. It could get very ugly, and the worst of Euro-Americans will emerge. Excess has its price, and that price is the implosion of the flimsy empire.

— Posted by Frank Little

Ah, democracy. This sort of thing strengthens even further my admiration of J.G. Ballard’s rewriting of the bourgeois psychological novel as its apparent opposite, apocalyptic science fiction. Pundit and basement-dweller alike mind meld over vistas of rubble, the utopian vision of suburb and shantytown coming together in an orgy of violence, the rule of melancholy survivalists, and the binary moral choices so amply generated by these exciting scenarios.

The pundit is of course much more polite about it. The fantasy of the revolt of the masses is posed as a good-natured interactive thought experiment. This is possible because its subject is invisible. And so (where else could it go) the impulse to riot, justified of course, though repressed by the efficiency of 21st century commodity culture, is in the last account explicitly connected with the author’s middle-class “malaise.” Our responsibility, you see, is to avoid violence when it might cause the innocent to suffer, especially members of that unseen, amorphous mass capable of serving all our rhetorical needs. No matter how much we might want to break shit. Oh, we’re so naughty!

The number of commenters capable of recognizing the difference between riots and protests without a prompt is reassuring, at least.

The sad thing is that this convenient anthropology isn’t limited to being a pastime of MSM columnists. I’ve heard and read active and inactive leftists read their own actions in these terms. It’s a comforting fantasy, perhaps even a dominant one, to assume the reasons for collective failure or marginalization can be found in individual neuroses, consumer products, or the favorite modernist lament, lack of the new. The one ‘social’ condition given in the article, debt, is accompanied by a friendly reminder that despair at one’s circumstances is both narcissistic (based in excessive consumption — second homes) and “partly at the root of our current mess.”

It’s undeniable that there is a problem with left politics in America, or even independent politics. The obvious side of the problem is a failure to organize. Here it’s put in rigidly psychological terms, as the psychology of a population, or in at least one jargon, the ‘collective unconscious.’ The problem is therefore conceived in terms of a set of speculative, in this case mostly arbitrary conditions on this unconscious. Just for a moment, however, let’s permit ourselves to take seriously this rather limited context. The fundamental problem is prior to all this fanciful mapping out of opportune and inopportune conditions, and is rather what enables that conundrum to appear in its usual form as amusing intellectual puzzle: subjectification, or the failure to become a political subject.

This topic is an official area of philosophical inquiry which is unfortunately too important for me to get away with summarizing here. My point for now is that a certain type of speculation — social theory as the projection of various myths onto a people or even another person — seems to me delegitimated if one understands subjectification in politics as an unavoidable necessity of social life. Even if a collective product, the myth is applied by someone, irreducibly an attempt by the one to determine the many. Whether luxury or crime, existence beyond the walls of the subject (the obvious fantasized escape) would then be restricted to a temporary, anomalous, or precarious state, brought on by, among many other things, a certain theatrical posture toward writing. ‘Abstract’ discourse about society and Man is then damned to oscillate between fiction and autobiography, with history caked under the fingernails.