Monday, February 25, 2019

Pick a Pill, Dammit!

Slavoj Zizek, "Trump or Clinton, Brexit or Remain, Maduro or Guaido? They are both worse!"
These days, popular media and political elites like to "big up" only wildly opposing alternatives. Thus, better alternatives rarely get an airing.

When I read about the United Kingdom's ongoing Brexit struggle, my first association is always with Stalin. Back in the late 1920s, the Georgian was asked by a journalist which deviation is worse, the rightist one (of Bukharin and company) or the leftist one (of Trotsky and associates), and he snapped back: "They are both worse!"

Indeed, it's a sad sign of our predicament that, when we are confronted with a political choice and must take a side, even if it is only the less-bad one, quite often the reply that imposes itself is: "But they are both bad!"

This, of course, does not mean that both poles of the alternative simply amount to the same. In concrete situations, we should, for example, conditionally support the protests of Yellow Vests in France or make a tactical pact with liberals to block fundamentalist threats to our freedoms (say, when fundamentalists want to limit abortion rights or pursue openly racist politics).

However, what it means is that most of the choices imposed on us by big media are false choices – their function is to obfuscate the true option. And there is a sad lesson to be drawn from this: if one side in a conflict is bad, the opposite side is not necessarily good.

Sad selections

Let's take today's situation in Venezuela: do we want Maduro or Guaido?

They are both worse, although not in the same sense. Maduro is "worse" because his reign brought Venezuela to a complete economic fiasco with a majority of the population living in abject poverty, a situation which cannot be attributed only to the sabotage of internal and external enemies.

It is enough to bear in mind the indelible damage that the Maduro regime did to the idea of socialism: for decades to come, we will have to listen to the variations on the theme "You want socialism? Look at Venezuela."

However, Guaido is no less "worse": when he assumed his virtual presidency, we were without doubt witnessing a well-prepared coup orchestrated by United States, not an autonomous popular insurgency (which is precisely the "better" third term missing in the alternative of Maduro and Guaido who are "both worse").

And we should not shirk from applying the same logic to the struggle between populists and establishment liberals which characterizes present Western democracies. With regard to US politics, this means that the answer to "Who is worse, Trump or Clinton (or now Pelosi)?" our answer should also be: they are both worse!

Trump is "worse," of course: an agent of "socialism for the rich," systematically undermining the norms of civilized political life, dismantling the rights of minorities and ignoring threats to our environment, among other things.

Yet, in another sense, the democratic establishment is also "worse": we should never forget that it was the immanent failure of the democratic establishment which opened up the space for Trump's populism.

Thus, the first step in defeating Trump is therefore a radical critique of the entrenched elites. Why can Trump and other populists exploit ordinary people's fears and grievances? Because they felt betrayed by those in power.

What does this amount to, concretely? Among other things, it means that, obscene as this may sound, the left should not be afraid to also learn from Trump.

Sleight of hand

How does Trump operate? Many perspicuous analysts pointed out how, while (mostly, at least) he does not violate explicit laws or rules, he exploits to the extreme the fact that all these laws and rules rely on a rich texture of unwritten rules and customs which tells us how to apply explicit laws and rules – and he brutally disregards these unwritten rules.

The latest (and, until now, the most extreme) example of this procedure is Trump's proclamation of national emergency. His critics were shocked at how he applied this measure, clearly intended only for great catastrophes like a threat of war or natural disaster, in order to build a border to protect the US territory from an invented threat.

However, not only Democrats were critical of this measure – some rightists were also alarmed by the fact that Trump's proclamation sets a dangerous precedent: what if a future leftist-Democratic president will proclaim a national emergency due to, say, global warming?

My point is that a leftist president should do precisely something like this, especially given global warming effectively IS not only a national emergency. Proclaimed or not, we ARE in an emergency state.

And this brings us back to the ongoing deadlock with Brexit. The debilitating blockade of clear political decisions in the UK, and the split that cuts across both traditionally dominant parties clearly demonstrates that both sides are worse. Neither of them seems to have a coherent political vision, instead they both mix opportunism with ideological distortions.

Brexiteers are "worse" because of the populist-nationalist core of their reasoning, anti-Brexiteers are "worse" because they do not really address what is deeply wrong with the way the EU functions now.

The choice Brits are offered thus ultimately just reproduces the global conflict between the liberal establishment and populist reactions to it.

Both sides fail to address the true task: how to construct a new Europe that would redeem what is worth fighting for in the European emancipatory legacy. Instead they betray this legacy, one by pushing Europe back towards nation-state politics, the other by transforming Europe into a domain of technocratic experts. These are the two sides of the same catastrophe.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Quality Of Mercy Is … What? Sunday Reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 6:27–38:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

In the previous weeks in ordinary time, we have heard Luke’s Gospel of the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus instructs in the Beatitudes, but who are the meek? What precisely is “meekness”? Our first reading from 1 Samuel demonstrates precisely what Jesus meant.

In this passage, David is on the run from Saul, who sees his former protege as a threat. The king leads an army of three thousand men into the desert of Ziph to kill David, but apparently they have a problem with what we’d now call “operational security.” The scriptures tell us that David and his lieutenant Abishai managed to creep their way into Saul’s tent when all were asleep and had the perfect opportunity to kill them — a legitimate act of war under the circumstances.

Consider the power at David’s hands at that moment. He had his avowed enemy defenseless, with a spear at hand to finish him off. As the persecuted one, David had every right to end the war between them at that moment, as well as the means and the opportunity. Abishai even offers to commit the deed himself so as to keep David from having to do it.

What David does next is extraordinary. Rather than deliver judgment himself, he bows to the authority of the Lord. “Do not harm him,” David tells Abishai, “for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Instead, David takes Saul’s spear and his water jug and retreats to a nearby hilltop to let Saul’s troops know what had taken place, and to send this message to Saul: “Today, though the LORD delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the LORD’s anointed.”

This is what Jesus means by “meekness.” It is not powerlessness nor surrender per se, but rather the deliberate and contemplative abnegation from seeking or imposing justice on another, especially worldly justice. David had the power, the means, and the opportunity to impose justice on Saul for waging war on him. Instead, he allowed Saul to live and to have the opportunity to redeem himself as the Lord’s anointed. Ultimately Saul failed to do so and met his fate, but through his own hand rather than David’s.

This is an early example of loving one’s enemy, and especially on behalf of the Lord. It would have been an especially powerful example in the days and area in which Jesus preached, too. The Judeans were captive to the Roman empire and felt the sting of that conquest daily. From the soldiers in the streets to the tax collectors who robbed them and all the way to the temple authorities which collaborated with the Romans, they had no end of enemies from which they prayed for deliverance — or on whom to wreak some revenge.

Displaying meekness was probably low on their list of potential responses to their oppression. However, Jesus’ call was not to forgive and forget, to surrender, or worst of all to assimilate into the oppressing culture. It was a call to remind the Israelites of their lost mission — to serve as a nation of priests and prophets to the world. The Lord chose this people to bring His law to all the nations so that they too may have an opportunity for salvation.

In other words, far from being a call to passivity and surrender, Jesus called His disciples to active conversion by becoming vessels of God’s love for all. Loving only those who already love us is hardly the stuff of conversions; as Jesus points out, “even sinners love those who love them.” That is the basis of fallen human relations, a form of love that is transactional rather than self-giving and merciful, as is God’s love. One is self-interested, while the other is transcendent — especially when the means and opportunity for worldly justice is at hand but put aside.

Paul alludes to the difference between the two forms in his first letter to the Corinthians. The first Adam, Paul writes, “became a living being, the last Adam a life-giving spirit.” The first Adam brought the fall, and with it the selfishness and sin that requires systems of justice of various kinds to arise. The “last Adam” brought salvation and an escape from that by proclaiming and then modeling the caritas of God’s love. Furthermore, Paul preaches that we will eventually bear both images in salvation: “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.”

This teaching may be extremely difficult under our present systems of liberty and justice; imagine what it meant to the people hearing Jesus and Paul preach. Yet it is the meekness that sees God’s anointing in each and every one of His children that models salvation, and eventually converts most “enemies” into brothers and sisters. That is not passivity, but instead becoming warriors for the Lord in love and mercy. And when we all meet in God’s love after this life, it will mean we will have so many more to celebrate it with us.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Avant-Garde and Kitsch

Avant-Garde and Kitsch is the title of a 1939 essay by Clement Greenberg, first published in the Partisan Review, in which he claimed that avant-garde and modernist art was a means to resist the "dumbing down" of culture caused by consumerism.

The term "kitsch" came into use in the 1860s or 1870s in Germany's street markets.

Key ideas

Greenberg believed that the avant-garde arose in order to defend aesthetic standards from the decline of taste perpetuated by the mass-production of consumer society, and saw kitsch and art as opposites.[1]

One of his more controversial claims was that kitsch was equivalent to Academic art: "All kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch." He argued this based on the fact that Academic art, such as that in the 19th century, was heavily centered in rules and formulations that were taught and tried to make art into something learnable and easily expressible. He later came to withdraw from his position of equating the two, as it became heavily criticized.

"The masses have always remained more or less indifferent to culture in the process of development. But today such culture is being abandoned by those to whom it actually belongs-our ruling class. For it is to the latter that the avant-garde belongs. No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold. The paradox is real. And now this elite is rapidly shrinking. Since the avant-garde forms the only living culture we now have, the survival in the near future of culture in general is thus threatened."
Nikolay Repin, "G. I. Zhukov, Battle of Moscow" (1941)

A Change of Pace...


...USA's HAC Equivalent

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Are liberals and populists just searching for a new master?

-Slavoj Zizek, "Are liberals and populists just searching for a new master?"
The rise of populism, nativism and nationalism in recent years has challenged perceptions of what ordinary people want from politicians. Some see the anti-establishment trend as a rejection of centralised power. Others suggest the real hunger is for a moral authority that appears to be lacking in today’s capitalism.

Among the latter group is Slavoj Zizek, a Marxist philosopher at the University of Ljubljana. He criticises the appeal of political correctness, questions the ability of markets to survive without state intervention and excoriates what he sees as the ulterior motives behind fair-trade coffee.

His latest book, “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight”, explores the changing nature of social progress in what he calls an “era of post-humanity”. Mr Zizek responded to five questions as part of The Economist’s Open Future initiative. His replies are followed by an excerpt from the book.

* * *

The Economist: What do you mean by “the era of post-humanity”? What characterises it?

Slavoj Zizek: It is not primarily the automatisation and robotisation of the production process but much more the expanding role of science, machines and digital media in social control and regulation. The detailed registration of all our acts and habits enables the digital machine to know ourselves, even our psyche, better than we know ourselves. In this way, social control no longer needs to be exerted in the old “totalitarian” mode, through open domination—we are already manipulated and regulated when we act freely, just following our needs and desires.

But there is another feature which justifies the term “post-humanity”: the prospect of the direct link between our brain and the digital network. When this happens, we lose the basic distance which makes us human, the distance between external reality and our inner life where we can “think what we want.” With my thoughts, I can directly intervene in reality—but the machine also directly knows what I think.

In the last years of his life, Stephen Hawking experimented with a technology to communicate with the world—his brain was connected to a computer, so that his thoughts could choose words and form sentences, which were then relayed to a voice synthesizer to be spoken aloud. Fredric Jameson noted that, today, it is much more easy to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. This sarcastic insight is today becoming reality: it looks that, in some new form, capitalism will effectively survive the end, not of the world, but of humanity.

The Economist: Brexit and the rise of populist politicians seem to show that voters want to be protected from the harder edges of globalisation. So, back to Jameson’s thought, is it still easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the free-market consensus associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan?

Mr Zizek: As with fascism, I think that populism is simply a new way to imagine capitalism without its harder edges; a capitalism without its socially disruptive effects. Populism is one of today’s two opiums of the people: one is the people, and the other is opium itself. Chemistry (in its scientific version) is becoming part of us: large aspects of our lives are characterised by the management of our emotions by drugs, from everyday use of sleeping pills and antidepressants to hard narcotics. We are not just controlled by impenetrable social powers, our very emotions are “outsourced” to chemical stimulation. What remains of the passionate public engagement in the West is mostly the populist hatred, and this brings us to the other second opium of the people, the people itself, the fuzzy populist dream destined to obfuscate our own antagonisms.

The Economist: In 1968, Jacques Lacan told student protesters in Paris that “what you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.” Does the appeal of populists and so-called strong-men reflect a desire for authority that liberal democracy can't provide?

Mr Zizek: Yes, but in a way different from the one that Lacan had in mind in his pessimist reading of the 1968 turmoil. For Lacan, the consequence of 1968 was the decline of the old (directly authoritarian) figure of the master and the rise of a new master figure, than of the expert—what Lacan baptised the “university discourse.” Just think about how today economic measures are justified—not as an expression of political will and positive social vision but as a consequence of neutral knowledge: it has to be done, this is how markets work.

Just recall how the experts in Brussels acted in negotiations with Greece’s Syriza government during the euro crisis in 2014: no debate, this has to be done. I think that today’s populism reacts to the fact that experts are not really masters, that their expertise doesn’t work—again, just remember how the 2008 financial meltdown caught the experts unprepared. Against the background of this fiasco, the traditional authoritarian master is making a comeback, even if it is a clown. Whatever Trump is, he is not an expert.

The Economist: Do you want a new master?

Mr Zizek: Surprisingly, YES, I do want it. But what kind of master? We usually see a master as someone who exerts domination, but there is another, more authentic, sense of a master. A true master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition, his message is not “You cannot!”, nor “You have to…!”, but a releasing “You can!”—what? Do the impossible, ie, what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing constellation. And today, this means something very precise: you can think beyond capitalism and liberal democracy as the ultimate framework of our lives.

A master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom. When we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we “always-already” wanted without knowing it). A master is needed because we cannot accede to our freedom directly—for to gain this access, we have to be pushed from outside, since our “natural state” is one of inert hedonism; of what Alain Badiou called the “human animal.”

The underlying paradox here is that the more we live as “free individuals with no master,” the more we are effectively non-free, caught within the existing frame of possibilities. We have to be pushed or disturbed into freedom by a master.

The Economist: You have argued for the "occupation" of the digital grid, but how can ordinary people hold big tech firms to account if only a tiny fraction of us are capable of comprehending an algorithm?

Mr Zizek: True, we—the majority—don’t understand the details of algorithms, but we can easily understand how we are controlled by the digital grid. Moreover, I don’t think the experts themselves fully understand how the digital grid really works, plus those who exploit their knowledge also do not know the technical details.

Do you think that when Steve Bannon mobilised Cambridge Analytica, he understood the algorithmic details of its work? Or take ecology: to grasp global warming and the ozone hole, you need science which most of us don’t understand, but we nonetheless can fight against the prospect of ecological catastrophe.

There are risks of manipulation here, of course, but we have to accept them. We have to abandon the naïve faith in the spontaneous wisdom of everyday people as a guideline of our acts. That’s the paradox of our era: our most ordinary daily lives are regulated by scientific knowledge, and the dangers of this (often invisible) regulation can be fought only by a different knowledge, not by New Age wisdoms and common sense.

* * *

From “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity,” by Slavoj Zizek.

In a hotel in Skopje, Macedonia, where I recently stayed, my companion inquired if smoking is permitted in our room, and the answer she got from the receptionist was unique: “Of course not, it is prohibited by the law. But you have ashtrays in the room, so this is not a problem.” The contradiction (between prohibition and permission) was openly assumed and thereby cancelled, treated as inexistent, i.e., the message was: “It’s prohibited, and here it is how you do it.” When we entered the room, a further surprise awaited us: an ashtray with the sign of the prohibition to smoke…


Maybe, this incident provides the best metaphor for our ideological predicament today. I remember a similar incident from my military service 40 years ago. One morning, the first class was on international military law, them among other rules, the officer mentioned that it is prohibited to shoot at parachuters while they are still in the air, i.e., before they touch ground. In a happy coincidence, our next class was about rifle shooting, and the same officer taught us how to target a parachuter in the air (how, while aiming at it, one should take into account the velocity of his decent and the direction and strength of the wind, etc.). When one of the soldiers asked the officer about the contradiction between this lesson and what we learned just an hour before (the prohibition to shoot at parachuters), the officer just snapped back with a cynical laughter: “How can you be so stupid? Don’t you understand how life works?” What goes on today is that a dissonance is openly admitted and for that reason treated as irrelevant, like our example of the ashtray with the sign of prohibition of smoking. Recall the debates on torture – was the stance of the US authorities not something like: “Torture is prohibited, and here is how you do a water-boarding.”?

The paradox is thus that today, there is in some way less deception than in a more traditional functioning of ideology: nobody is really deceived. One has to avoid a crucial misunderstanding here: it is not that prior to our time we took the rules and prohibitions seriously while today we openly violate them. What changed are the rules which regulate appearances, i.e., what can appear in public space. Let’s compare the sexual lives of two US presidents, Kennedy and Trump. As we know now, Kennedy had numerous affairs, but the press and TV ignored all this, while Trump’s every (old and new) step is followed by the media – not to mention that Trump also speaks publicly in an obscene way that we cannot even imagine Kennedy doing it. The gap that separates the dignified public space from its obscene underside is now more and more transposed into public space, with ambiguous consequences: inconsistencies and violations of public rules and openly accepted or at least ignored, but, simultaneously, we are all becoming openly aware of these inconsistencies.

Excerpted from “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity”.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Weapons of Mass Seduction

"Seduction is when the invitation is better than the party itself."
- St. Vincent

Friday, February 8, 2019

Holding On to My Toxicity

In Greek mythology, Antigone displayed all the traits we now freely criticise

When I try to explain to students what “free associations” mean in the psychoanalytic treatment, I regularly refer to the well-known saying: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”

When a psychoanalyst asks a patient to “freely associate”, i.e. to suspend control of the conscious ego and say all that comes to mind, does that psychoanalyst not demand almost the exact opposite?

The patient must throw out the baby (the ego) and keep only the bath water of free associations. The idea is, of course, that this “dirty water” will bring out the hidden truth of the sane and healthy ego itself. Don’t forget that the dirt in the water comes from the baby, not from outside!

Does the same not hold also for many fake ecologists? They are obsessed by healthy “sustainable” dwellings in clean green habitat, ignoring the dirty water that freely floats in the polluted surroundings. If one wants to deal with pollution in a serious way, the first thing to do is to focus on the dirty surroundings and to analyze how our isolated “sustainable” habitats merely export the pollution to their environs.

Perhaps, we should adopt the opposite approach, along the lines of what they are doing in Japan: concentrate as much pollution and population in big cities, so that they function as dirty babies in (relatively) clean water.

Another example: the sheer number of paedophiliac crimes that took place in the Catholic church all around the world, from Ireland and Pennsylvania to Australia. These are crimes committed by members of an institution which propagates itself as the moral compass of our society, and they compel us to reject the easy idea that the Church could simply throw out the bad priests and keep the good.

There is an “institutional unconscious”; an obscene, disavowed underside that sustains the public institution. It is not simply for the sake of conformity that the church has tried to hush up its pedophilia scandals; rather, in defending itself, the church is defending its innermost obscene secret.

Perhaps the clearest example was provided by the recent debate on toxic masculinity. In the response to the recent Gillette ad about making men less violent, and better, we often heard the idea that the ad was not directed against men, just against the toxic excess of masculinity. In short, the ad just signalled that we have to throw out the dirty bath water of brutal masculinity.

But there are problems here. Let’s take a closer look at the list (proposed by the American Psychological Association) of features supposed to characterise “toxic masculinity”: suppressing emotions and masking distress; unwillingness to seek help; propensity to take risks even if this involves the danger of harming ourselves. I don’t see what is so specifically “masculine” about this list.

Does this not fit much more a simple act of courage in a difficult situation where, to do the right thing, one has to suppress emotions, where one cannot rely on any help but take the risk and act, even if this means exposing oneself to harm?

I know many women – as a matter of fact, more women than men – who, in difficult predicaments, have not succumbed to the pressure of their environment and instead set about acting in just this way. To take the example from Greek mythology: when Antigone decided to bury Polynices, did she not commit exactly an act which fits the basic features of “toxic masculinity”?

She definitely suppressed her emotions and masked her distress, she was unwilling to seek help, she took a risk which involved great danger of harm to herself. In our age of politically correct conformism, such a stance poses a danger.

We find traces of this classical feminine figure of courage in today’s popular culture, notably in two TV series, Homeland and The Killing.

The heroine of Homeland is Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder involved in fighting terrorism. Her strict sense of justice compels her to violate many rules and get in conflicts with her superiors which even endanger her life. It’s similar with inspector Sarah Lund, the heroine of the superb Danish series The Killing, another borderline character who reacts violently to the hypocrisy of the establishment and ends up being totally excommunicated. God give us as many of these toxically-masculine women as possible in real life!

There is an delicious old Soviet joke from the “Radio Yerevan” genre: a listener asks “Is it true that Rabinovitch won a new car on lottery?”, and the radio answers: “In principle yes, it’s true, only it wasn’t a new car but an old bicycle, and he didn’t win it but it was stolen from him.”

Does exactly the same not hold for toxic masculinity?

Let’s ask Radio Yerevan: “Is masculinity really toxic?” We can guess the answer: “In principle yes, it’s true, only this toxic content is not specifically masculine at all, plus it stands for what is often the only reasonable and courageous way to act.”
- Slavoj Zizek, "Toxic masculinity can be heroic, and here are the women that prove it"

How to Watch the News

...Part 01 of the series for those who don't enjoy the "not all".

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Wouldn't Want to Be Like You...

Slavoj Žižek, "Not a desire to have him, but to be like him : Beautiful shadow a life of Patricia Highsmith", London Review of Books. vol. 25, No. 16, p. 13-15, 21 Aug. 2003. (English).

For me, the name ‘Patricia Highsmith’ designates a sacred territory: she is the One whose place among writers is that which Spinoza held for Gilles Deleuze (a ‘Christ among philosophers’). I learned a lot about her from Andrew Wilson’s biography, a book which strikes the right balance between empathy and critical distance. Wilson’s interpretations of her work, however, are often vapid. Can one really take seriously remarks such as: ‘Highsmith’s fiction, like Bacon’s painting, allows us to glimpse the dark, terrible forces that shape our lives, while at the same time documenting the banality of evil’? Much more pertinent are the observations he quotes, such as Duncan Fallowell’s perspicuous characterisation of Highsmith as ‘a combination of painful vulnerability and iron will’. Or the anecdotes that illustrate her complete lack of tact, her openness about her fantasies and prejudices (although a leftist, she preferred Margaret Thatcher to the usual feminist bunch). Or the ethico-political grounds – already, in 1954, she was describing the US as a ‘second Roman Empire’ – on which she based her decision to make her home in ‘old Europe’. As Frank Rich put it, she ‘made a life’s work of her ostracisation from the American mainstream and her own subsequent self-reinvention’.

Wilson’s book provides a lot of material for what Freud called ‘wild analysis’. We learn, for example, that five months before Highsmith was born, her mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine; she later told her daughter about this, with the comment: ‘It’s funny you adore the smell of turpentine, Pat.’ It’s tempting to see Highsmith’s liking for the smell of what might have been the agent of her own extinction as an expression of the Oedipal wish to return to her mother’s womb – in other words, of the wish not to have left the womb in the first place and, therefore, not to exist. Such speculations pale into insignificance, however, when you compare them with the wealth of Highsmith’s fictional universe, which is very much more compelling than any secret that might be unearthed by a pseudo-Freudian search of her own experiences for a key to the morbid world portrayed in her fiction. The greatest challenge for a Freudian reading of Highsmith lies elsewhere: to explain how writing for her was literally what Lacan would have called her sinthome, or the ‘knot’ that held her universe together, the artificial symbolic formation by means of which she preserved her sanity by conferring a narrative consistency on her tumultuous experience. In her masterpiece, Those Who Walk Away, the hero’s wife justifies her suicide with the words: ‘The world is not enough.’ It was her writing that enabled Highsmith herself to endure in such a world.

It’s often said that in order to understand a work of art we need to know the historical context in which it was made. The lesson of Highsmith, however, is not only that too much historical context can prevent you from making proper contact with her work but that, in her case, it isn’t the context that explains the work but the work that enables us properly to understand the context. The task in reading Highsmith is not to understand her novels in the light of her biography, but to explain by reference to her books how she was able to survive in her ‘real’ life.

Even her first published work (the short story ‘Heroine’, the novel Strangers on a Train), displays an uncanny completeness: everything already in place, no further growth needed. Her only conspicuous failure as a writer is her lesbian novel, first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as The Price of Salt in 1952, then reprinted in 1991 under Highsmith’s own name as Carol. The cause of this failure is, paradoxically, that the novel comes too close to Highsmith’s real-life traumas and concerns: as long as she was compelled to articulate these obliquely, the result was outstandingly successful; the moment she addressed them directly, we got a flat and uninteresting novel.

In Those Who Walk Away, Highsmith takes the most narrative genre of all, crime fiction, and imbues it with the inertia of the real, the lack of resolution, the dragging-on of ‘empty time’ characteristic of life itself. In Rome, Ed Coleman makes an unsuccessful attempt to murder his son-in-law, Ray Garrett, a failed painter and gallery-owner in his late twenties, whom he blames for the recent suicide of his only child, Peggy, Ray’s wife. Rather than flee, Ray follows Ed to Venice, where he is wintering with Inez, his girlfriend. What follows is Highsmith’s portrayal of the symbiotic relationship of two men inextricably linked by mutual hatred. Ray is haunted by guilt at his wife’s death, and is ready to let Ed’s violent intentions take their course. In accordance with his death wish, he accepts a lift in a motor-boat from Ed; in the middle of the lagoon, Ed pushes him overboard. Ray pretends he has been drowned and assumes a false name and identity, thus experiencing both an exhilarating freedom and an overwhelming emptiness. He roams through a wintry Venice like one of the living dead. Those Who Walk Away is a crime novel with no actual murder, merely a failed attempt at one: there is no clear resolution – except, perhaps, Ray and Ed’s resigned acceptance that they are condemned to haunt each other for the rest of their lives.

Highsmith recognised that true art lies not simply in the telling of stories, but in the telling of how stories go wrong, in rendering palpable the interstices in which ‘nothing happens’. In art, the spiritual and material spheres are intertwined: the spiritual emerges when we become aware of the material inertia, the dysfunctional bare presence, of the objects around us. It emerges after a murder attempt goes wrong and the would-be murderer and his victim are left stupidly staring at each other. Highsmith, more than any of her rivals, was responsible for elevating crime fiction to the level of art.

This feeling for the inert has a special significance in our age, in which the obverse of the capitalist drive to produce ever more new objects is a growing mountain of useless waste, used cars, out-of-date computers etc, like the famous resting place for old aircraft in the Mojave desert. In these piles of stuff, one can perceive the capitalist drive at rest. That’s where the interest of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker lies, with its post-industrial wasteland in which wild vegetation takes over abandoned factories, concrete tunnels and railroads full of stale water, and stray cats and dogs wander the overgrowth. Nature and industrial civilisation overlap, but in a common decay: a civilisation in decay is being reclaimed, not by an idealised, harmonious Nature but by nature which is itself in a state of decomposition. The irony is that it should be an author from the Communist East who displayed such great sensitivity towards this obverse of the drive to produce and consume. But perhaps the irony displays a deeper necessity, hinging on what Heiner Mueller called the ‘waiting-room mentality’ of Communist Eastern Europe:

There would be an announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 18.15 and depart at 18.20,’ and it never did arrive at 18.15. Then came the next announcement: ‘The train will arrive at 20.10.’ And so on. You went on sitting there in the waiting-room, thinking, it’s bound to come at 20.15. That was the situation: basically, a state of Messianic anticipation. There are constant announcements of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and you know perfectly well that he won’t be coming. And yet somehow, it’s good to hear him announced all over again.

The effect of this Messianic attitude was not that people continued to hope, but that, when the Messiah never arrived, they started to look around and take note of the inert materiality of their surroundings; in contrast to the West, where people are always frantic and never properly notice what goes on around them. In the East, people were more closely acquainted with the waiting-room and, caught up in the delay, experienced to the full the idiosyncrasies of their world, in all its topographical and historical detail. One can easily imagine Ray or Ed getting stuck at an East German railway station.

Can we imagine a proper hero in this landscape, someone who could walk these decrepit streets and counteract their inertia? Highsmith’s answer is Tom Ripley, the hero of five of her novels. Ripley is a difficult character to swallow; we can tell just how difficult from the failure of the four cinema versions of books in which he appears. First, there was Alain Delon in René Clément’s Plein soleil (1959, based on The Talented Mr Ripley, except that in the film, to Highsmith’s dismay, the police arrest Ripley at the end); next, Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977, based on Ripley’s Game); then, in two strangely symmetrical remakes, Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and John Malkovich in a new Ripley’s Game by Liliana Cavani (2003). Although, on their own terms, all four are good movies, their Ripley is not Highsmith’s Ripley because they somehow humanise his inhuman core: Delon is a demoniac European; Hopper an existentialist cowboy; Damon an emotionally unstable American brat; while Malkovich displays his usual decadent, ironic coldness.
Who, then, is the ‘real’ Ripley? The contrast is most perspicuous in Minghella’s film. Tom Ripley, a broke young New Yorker, is approached by the magnate Herbert Greenleaf, in the mistaken belief that Tom was at Princeton with his son Dickie. Dickie is off idling in Italy, and Greenleaf pays Tom to go there and bring him back, so that he can take his rightful place in the family business. Once in Europe, however, Tom becomes more and more fascinated by Dickie, and the easy-going upper-class society he inhabits. Tom should not be thought to be homosexual: Dickie is not an object of desire for Tom, but the ideal desiring subject, the subject who is ‘supposed to know’ how to desire. In short, Dickie becomes Tom’s ideal ego, a figure with whom he can identify in his imagination: the repeated sidelong glances he casts at Dickie betray not a desire to have him, but to be like him. To resolve his predicament, Tom concocts an elaborate plan. On a boat trip, he kills Dickie, assumes his identity and manages things so that he will inherit his money, too. Once this is accomplished, the false Dickie disappears, leaving behind a suicide note praising Tom. Tom can now reappear, throwing any suspicious investigators off the scent, and earning the gratitude of Dickie’s parents. Finally, he leaves Italy for Greece.

The novel was written in the mid-1950s, but in it Highsmith foreshadows today’s rewriting of the Ten Commandments as recommendations which we don’t need to follow too blindly. Ripley stands for the final step in this process: thou shalt not kill, except when there is really no other way to pursue your happiness. Or, as Highsmith herself put it in an interview: ‘He could be called psychotic, but I would not call him insane because his actions are rational . . . I consider him a rather civilised person who kills when he absolutely has to.’ Ripley isn’t an ordinary American psycho: his criminal acts are not frenetic passages à l’acte, or outbursts of violence in which he releases the energy accumulated by the frustrations of daily life. His crimes are based on simple pragmatism: he does what is necessary to attain his goal (a quiet life in an exclusive Paris suburb). What is so disturbing about him is that he seems to lack even an elementary moral sense: in daily life, he is mostly friendly and considerate, and when he commits a murder, he does it with regret, quickly and as painlessly as possible, in the way one performs any unpleasant but necessary task.

Highsmith’s Ripley transcends the stock American motif of an individual’s radical reinvention of himself, his capacity to erase the traces of the past and assume a new identity. Minghella’s movie betrays Highsmith in this respect, Gatsbyising Ripley into a new version of the self-recreating American hero. In a telling difference between the novel and the film, Minghella has Ripley experience the stirrings of a conscience, whereas in the novel such qualms are simply not part of his make-up. This is why making Ripley’s gay desires explicit in the film also misses the point. Minghella implies that while, back in the 1950s, Highsmith had to be more circumspect in order to make her hero palatable to the public at large, today we can be more open about such matters. Ripley’s coldness is not a manifestation of his gayness, however; it is the other way round. In one of the later Ripley novels, we learn that he makes love once a week to his wife, Heloïse, as a regular ritual, with nothing passionate about it. Tom is like Adam before the Fall: according to St Augustine, he and Eve did have sex, but only as an instrumental act, like sowing seeds in a field. One way to read Ripley is as an angelic figure, living in a universe which as yet knows nothing of the Law or its transgression (sin), and thus nothing of the guilt generated by our obedience to the Law. This is why Ripley feels no remorse after his murders: he is not yet fully integrated into the symbolic order.

Paradoxically, the price Ripley pays for this is his inability to experience sexual passion. In one novel, he sees two flies copulating on his kitchen table and squashes them in disgust. Minghella’s Ripley would never have done anything like this. Highsmith’s Ripley is disconnected from the realities of the flesh, disgusted at biological life’s cycle of generation and corruption. Marge, Dickie’s girlfriend, sums him up very effectively: ‘All right, he may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex life.’ One is tempted to claim that, rather than being a closet gay, Ripley is in fact a male lesbian. Tom Ripley was not a mask for Highsmith so much as her externalised ego; we learn from Wilson’s book that she even changed her name to Patricia Highsmith-Ripley and signed her mail with ‘Tom (Pat)’. It is rather like the old Taoist idea that a man dreaming he is a butterfly is also perhaps a butterfly dreaming it is a man. Was Highsmith dreaming that she was Ripley or was she Ripley dreaming that he was Highsmith the novelist?

Minghella’s Ripley makes clear what’s wrong with trying to be more radical than the original by bringing out its implicit, repressed content. By looking to fill in the void, Minghella actually retreats from it. Instead of a polite person who is at the same time a monstrous automaton, experiencing no inner turmoil as he commits his crimes, we get the wealth of a personality, someone full of psychic traumas, someone whom we can, in the fullest meaning of the term, understand.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

An Otaku Analyses Vermeer

Quixote Unhorsed...

Slavoj Zizek, "Nomadic // Proletarians"
In some Leftist circles, the exploding growth of homeless refugees gave rise to the notion of “nomadic proletariat.” The basic idea is that, in today’s global world, the main antagonism (the “primary contradiction”) is no longer between the capitalist ruling class and the proletariat but between those who are safe beneath the cupola of the “civilized” world (with public order, basic rights, etc.) and those excluded, reduced to bare life. “Nomadic proletarians” are not simply outside the cupola but somewhere in-between: their premodern substantial life-form is already in ruins, devastated by the impact of global capitalism, but they are not integrated into the global order, so that they roam in an in-between netherworld. They are not proletarians in the strict Marxian sense: paradoxically, when they enter developed countries, the ideal of most of them is precisely to become “normal” exploited proletarians. Recently, a refugee from Salvador who tried to enter the US on the Mexico-US border said to the TV cameras: “Please, Mr Trump, let us in, we just want to be good hard workers in your country.”

Can the distinction between proletarians proper (exploited workers) and the nomadic (less than) proletarians be somehow blurred in a new more encompassing category of today’s proletarians? From the Marxian standpoint, the answer is a resounding no. For Marx, proletarians are not only “the poor” but those who are, by way of their role in the production process, reduced to subjectivity deprived of all substantial content; as such, they are also disciplined by the production process to become the bearers of their future power (the “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Those who are outside the production process – and thereby have no place in a social totality – are treated by Marx as “lumpenproletarians,” and he doesn’t see in them any emancipatory potential at all. He rather treats them with great suspicion, as the force which is as a rule mobilized and corrupted by reactionary forces (like Napoleon III.).

Things got complicated with the victory of the October Revolution when Bolsheviks exerted power in a country where not only a large majority of the population were small farmers (and the Bolsheviks gained power precisely by promising them land!), but also where, as a result of violent upheavals during the civil war, millions of people found themselves in the position (not of classic lumpenproletarians but) of homeless nomads who were not yet proletarians (reduced to the “nothing” of their working force) but literally less-than-proletarians (less-than-nothing). Their massive presence is the central topic of the work of Andrei Platonov who described in detail their way of life, elaborating a unique “materialist ontology of poor life.”[1] From the standpoint of the “ontology of poor life,” the parallel between Beckett and Platonov is fully relevant: is the experience of “poor life” also not the core of Beckett’s great trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies, Unnameable? The entire topic as well as the details of Malone Dies clearly relate to the French peripeties during the German occupation and its aftermath: the Nazi and collaborationist control, terror and oppression, the revenge against collaborationists and the way refugees were treated when returning home and recuperating. What gives such a power to the novel is precisely that these three domains are condensed into a single suffocating experience of a displaced homeless individual, an individual lost in the web of police, psychiatric and administrative measures.

The difference between Platonov and Beckett is that, while Beckett renders the experience of homeless refugees as individuals at the mercy of state institutions, Platonov focuses on displaced nomadic groups in a post-revolutionary situation when the new Communist power tries to mobilize them for the Communist struggle. Each of Platonov’s works “departs from the same political problem of how to build communism: of what communism means and how the communist idea meets the concrete conditions and reality of the post-revolutionary society.” Platonov’s answer to this problem is paradoxical, far from the usual dissident rejection of Communism. His result is a negative one, as all his stories are stories of a failure. The “synthesis” between the Communist project and the displaced nomadic groups ends in a void; there is no unity between proletarians and less-than-proletarians:
“In Chevengur (1926–28), the orphan Sasha Dvanov becomes a communist in the year of the revolution, joins the Bolsheviks and goes on a party errand to support the revolution in a village. During his long journey, Dvanov discovers ‘communism in one village’, established by poor peasants. The communism of the Chevengur village is accompanied by various absurd experiments with urban planning and farming, permanent terror and hunger. The wandering organic intellectuals are a supplement to the wandering masses, classes and communities, and they are all accompanied in their migration by animals, plants and natural landscape. The protagonist of Dzhan (1936; Soul in English translation), Nazar Chagataev, returns to his native town in Turkestan on a party errand to find the lost nomadic nation Dzhan, from which he had come, in order to establish a socialist order. Dzhan was written after Platonov’s two journeys in Turkmenistan as a member of writers’ delegations. This was during the period when the civil war in Turkestan had just ended and a campaign against traditional nomadic forms of life had been initiated. The task of the delegation was to write an orthodox socialist realist story about a successful ‘civilising’ process in the local communities. The central problem of Platonov’s Dzhan may seem to conform to this brief, narrating as it does the story of a ‘Red Moses’ leading the nomadic inhabitants of the Asian desert to socialism. However, Chagataev goes back to Moscow when his mission has ended and one is left with doubts about the future of communism in the desert. /…/ The most famous work of Platonov, The Foundation Pit (1930), was also created in the context of the first five-year plan. It unfolds by way of a series of meetings between the protagonist Voshchev and the residents of a small provincial town, who are involved in the construction of an enormous proletarian house. While Voshchev challenges the representatives of different class groups, engaging in a Socratic inquiry into truth, the project acquires a more and more grandiose plan, before finally coming to an end with no result.”
But we are at the same time as far as possible from the old conservative-liberal critique of revolution as a violent attempt to impose on actual life models that are foreign to it. First, Platonov articulates his despair from the position of an committed fighter for Communism (he was actively engaged with nomadic groups in the 1920s, also at a very practical technical level, planning and organizing irrigation projects, etc.). Second, Platonov is not depicting a conflict between the traditional texture of social life and the radical-revolutionary attempt to change it in the style of Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. His focus is not on the traditional forms of life but on the dispossessed nomads whose lives were already irretrievably ruined by the process of modernization. In short, the radical cut Platonov depicts is not between a “spontaneous” proletarian crowd and organized Communist forces but between the two aspects of the proletarian crowd itself, between the two social “nothings”: the strictly proletarian “nothing” of the modern workers generated by capitalism, and the “less-than-nothing” of those not integrated into the system, not even as its immanent negativity, as is made clear in this short exchange from Chevengur: “‘Who did you bring over to us?’ Chepurny asked Prokofy […] ‘Those are teh proletarians and others’, Prokofy said. Chepurny was disturbed ‘What others? Again the layer of residual swine?’ […] ‘The others are the others. Nobody. They’re even worse than the proletariat.’”

Here are further passages that describe these social “less-than-nothings”:
“Platonov’s heroes have different national and cultural backgrounds, but nonetheless they represent the same category: the proletariat. The idea behind ‘the international’ and ‘non-Russian’ faces is the idea of an average multinational proletariat that makes up one class. There is a significant explanation of the ‘non-Russianness’ of nomadic declassed people in Chevengur: ‘This is the true international proletariat: look – they’re not Russians, they’re not Armenians, they’re not Tartars – they’re not anything! I bring you live international’. It is precisely this multinational, and one can even say anti-colonial, perspective that leads Platonov to the deconstruction of the dominant image of the white industrial working class that was so typical among the hardliners in Proletkult.” / “’He saw comrades the likes of whom he had never encountered before, people without any understanding or appearance of class and without revolutionary worth. These were instead some sort of nameless others who lived utterly without significance, without pride, and off to one side of the impending world-wide triumph. Even the age of these others was impossible to grasp, for all that could be made out was that they were poor, had bodies that grew unwillingly, and were foreign to all.’” / “Platonov names his marginal declassed wanderers as ‘handmade people with an unknown designation’, ‘uncounted’, ‘mistakable’ or ‘prochiye’ – ‘others’, in the English translation of Robert Chandler. The Russian word prochiye also refers to the ‘rest’, the ‘remainder’. Thus, the ‘others’ is the rest of the people; they don’t belong to any class category existing in Marxist theory, because they are too poor and detached from normal social life.” / “The other, therefore, refers to someone who remains unaccounted for due to their amorphous and marginal status, but who is also part of a multiplicity which is not countable – part of a scattered and nomadic people, an anomaly of humanity, trapped between life and death, social and biological.”
As the last quoted sentence makes clear, one has to avoid absolutely the elevation of prochiye into an original site of productivity, its living presence oppressed by state representation. Prochiye are not the Deleuzian multitude; they are, on the contrary, the “living dead” caught in a non-productive passivity, basically deprived of the very will to be active. This is why we should take the risk to offer yet another translation of prochiye: neighbours in all the biblical weight of this term, those who are “others” and precisely as such always too close to as, no matter how far away they are. What makes them too close is that we lack a proper distance towards them because they don’t possess a clear identity, a place in society. The Christian motto “love your neighbour as yourself” acquires here its full weight: true social love is the love for the unaccountable less-than-nothings. But this love can take different forms, and, while the Bolsheviks certainly loved them, wanted to help and redeem them, they followed the model of what Lacan called “university discourse”: prochiye were their objet petit a, and they put all their effort into enlightening them, into changing them in modern subjects. The conflict that lies at the heart of Platonov’s work is thus not a conflict between enemies but a kind of lovers’ quarrel: the Bolsheviks wanted to help the homeless others, to civilize them, and the others (depicted by Platonov) sincerely endorsed the Communist ideals and fought for them, but everything went wrong:
“Others in Platonov’s novels are always manipulated by ‘more conscious’ comrades, party leaders and intellectuals, but always unsuccessfully – it is almost impossible to integrate others into the collective body of the workers and to establish a normalised sociality based on the collectivisation of labour and industrial production.”
However, Platonov subtly noted that this gap is not just the gap between self-conscious revolutionary force and the inertia of the crowds: while the Bolsheviks focused on the operational aspect of social transformation, the core of the Communist utopia was directly present in the dreams of Others who expected something radically new to arise. Communism was nowhere closer than in the immobility of others, in their resistance to getting caught in concrete operative measures: “the special status of the poor and declassed elements, which unlike the organised workers, the party representatives and the intellectuals, are ready to stay where they are in order to do something radically new. In a way theirs is a life that remains in a state of waiting, and the question is what kind of politics will be established here.” Platonov’s famous inflections of language are also located in this context of the tension between official Party language and the “primitive” speech of the others:
“Platonov reflected the historical development of a new Soviet language made of revolutionary slogans, the vocabulary of Marxian political economy, the jargon of the Bolsheviks and party bureaucrats and its absorption by the illiterate peasants and workers. Historical research shows that for most of the post-revolutionary population, especially in the provinces, the language of the party was foreign and unintelligible, so that ‘they themselves perforce began to absorb the new vocabulary […] often garbled its unfamiliar, bookish terms or reconfigured them as something more comprehensible, however absurd’. Thus, ‘“deistvyushchaya armia” – “the acting army” – became “devstvyushchaya armia” – “virginal army” – because “acting” and “virginity” sound nearly identical in Russian; “militsioner” (“militiaman”) became “litsimer” (“hypocrite”).”
Is this unique bastard mixture, with all its “senseless” mobilization of sound resemblances that can send off sparks of unexpected truth (in an oppressive regime, policemen ARE hypocrites; revolutionaries ARE supposed to act virginally, in a kind of innocence, freed from all egotistical motives), not an exemplary case of what Lacan called lalangue, language traversed by all social and sexual antagonisms that distort it beyond its linguistic structure? This lalangue emerges through Platonov’s use of two (almost) symmetrically opposed devices: first, “he interprets an abstract ideological definition through the use of the common man, the person from the people, and secondly, he makes an inverse operation, when he overloads the simplest and clearest everyday words and expressions […] with a set of ideological associations’, to such an extent that these words become ‘so terribly improbable and confusing that, finally, they lose their initial meaning’.”

What is the political implication of this loss of meaning? Although interpenetrating, the two levels – official Bolshevik speech and the everyday speech of others – remain forever antagonistic: the more revolutionary activity tried to combine them, the more their antagonism became palpable. This failure is not empirical and contingent, because the two levels simply belong to radically heterogeneous spaces. For this reason, one should also avoid the trap of celebrating the “undercurrent” of Soviet Marxism, the other line suppressed by official Soviet Marxism-Leninism, the line which rejected the controlling role “from above” of the Party and counted on the workers’ direct self-organization “from below,” as was the case with Bogdanov. This other line indicated a hope for a different, less oppressive, development of the Soviet Union, in contrast to Lenin’s approach which laid the foundations for Stalinism. True, the other line was a kind of “symptom” of official Leninist Marxism; it registered what was “repressed” in the official Soviet ideology, but precisely as such it remained parasitical upon official Marxism, i.e., it didn’t stand on its own. In short, the trap to be avoided here is the temptation to elevate the “poor life” of the others into some kind of authentic communal life out of which an alternative to our ill-fated capitalist modernity can emerge. There is nothing “authentic” in poor life of the others; its function is purely negative, registering (and even giving a body to) the failure of social projects, including the Communist one.

And, sadly, the same failure, which is necessary for structural reasons, also characterizes a homologous project of fusing today’s working class and today’s “less-than-proletarians” (refugees, immigrants), i.e., the idea that “nomadic proletariat” is a potential source of revolutionary change. Here, also, one has to fully assume Platonov’s lesson: the tension is not only between the local conservative-racist lower classes and the immigrants. The difference in the entire “way of life” is so strong that one cannot count on easily achieving the solidarity of all the exploited. Perhaps, the antagonism between proletarians and the less-than-proletarian “others” is an antagonism which is in some sense even more unsurpassable than the class antagonism within the same ethnic community. Precisely at this point when the “subsumption” (of others into “our” proletarians) seems the most obvious, and the universality of all the oppressed seems at hand, it slips out of our grasp. In other words, the “less-than-proletarian” others cannot be subsumed, integrated, not because they are too different, too heterogeneous with regard to our lifeworld, but because they are absolutely immanent to it, the result of its own tensions.

At an abstract level, Platonov thus raises the question of subsumption (of others into proletariat), and today we are facing the same problem not just with regard to refugees and other migrants (can they be subsumed into the global capitalist order?), but also at a more formal level of what Balibar calls “total subsumption” as the basic tendency of today’s capitalism.[2] This term does not cover only the phenomena of the so-called “cultural capitalism” (the growing commodification of the cultural sphere) but above all the full subsumption, under the logic of the capital, of the workers themselves and the process of their reproduction:
“Whereas Marx explained that ‘capital’ ultimately could be reduced to (productive) labour or was nothing other than labour in a different form, appropriated by a different class, the theory of human capital explains that labour – more precisely ‘labouring capacity’ (Arbeits vermögen) – can be reduced to capital or become analysed in terms of capitalist operations of credit, investment and profitability. This is, of course, what underlies the ideology of the individual as a ‘self-entrepreneur’, or an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’.”[3]
The issue here is
“not so much to describe a growth of markets for existing products; it is much more to push the range of the market beyond the limits of the ‘production sphere’ in the traditional sense, therefore to add new sources of permanent ‘extra surplus-value’ that can become integrated into valorization, overcoming its limitations, because capital is valorized both on the ‘objective’ side of labour and production, and on the ‘subjective’ side of consumption and use.”[4]
So, it’s not just about making working force more productive; the point of total subsumption is to conceive of the working force itself directly as another field of capitalist investment: all aspects of its “subjective” life (health, education, sexual life, psychic states…) are considered not only as important for the productivity of the workers, but also as fields of investment which can generate additional surplus-value. Health services do not only serve the interests of capital by way of making workers more productive; they are themselves an incredibly powerful field of investment, not only for capital (health services is the single strongest branch of the US economy, much stronger than defense) but for the workers themselves, who treat paying health insurance as an investment into their future. The same goes for education: besides getting you ready for productive work, it is in itself a field of profitable investment for institutions as well for individuals who invest into their future. It is as if, in this way, commodification not only becomes total but also gets caught in a kind of self-referential loop: working power as the ultimate “source of (capitalist) wealth,” the origin of surplus-value, becomes itself a moment of capitalist investment. Nowhere is this loop more clearly expressed than in the idea of the worker as a “self-entrepreneur,” a capitalist who decides freely where to invest his (meager) surplus resources (or, mostly, resources acquired through loans): into education, health, housing property…

Does this process have a limit? When, in the very last paragraph of his essay, Balibar approaches this question, he strangely resorts to a Lacanian reference, to Lacan’s logic of non-All (from his “formulas of sexuation”):
“This is what I call a total subsumption (after ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption) because it leaves nothing outside (no reservation for ‘natural’ life). Or, anything that is left outside must appear as a residue, and a field for further incorporation. Or must it? That is of course the whole question, ethical as much as political: are there limits to commodification? Are there internal and external obstacles? A Lacanian might want to say: every such totalization includes an element of impossibility which belongs to the ‘real’; it must be pas tout, or not whole. If that were the case, the heterogeneous elements, the intrinsic remainders of the total subsumption, could appear in many different forms, some apparently individualistic, such as pathologies or anarchist resistances, others common or even public. Or they may become manifest in certain difficulties in implementing the neoliberal agenda, such as the difficulty of dismantling a Medicare system once it has been legalized.”[5]
What Balibar says here is, for a Lacanian, very strange: Balibar condenses (or, rather, simply confuses) the two sides of Lacan’s formulas of sexuation, and simply reads exception as non-All: the totality of subsumption is non-All since there are exceptions which resist being subsumed to Capital. But Lacan precisely opposes non-All and exception: every universality is based on an exception, and when there are no exceptions, the set is non-All, and it cannot be totalized. This opposition should be applied to topic of subsumption: one should pass from a search for the exception, for those who resist (universal) subsumption and are as such the “site of resistance,” to endorsing subsumption without exception and counting on its non-All. The subsumption of individual lives to which Balibar refers cannot be reduced to a particular case of the universal capitalist subsumption; they remain a particular case which, on account of its self-relating nature (the working force itself becomes capital), redoubles the production of surplus-value.

In Marx’s critique of political economy there are two main cases of universality through exception: money and the working force. The field of commodities can only be totalized through a special commodity, which functions as a general equivalent of all commodities but is as such deprived of use value; the field of the exchange of commodities only gets totalized when individual producers not only sell their products on the market but when the working force (as a commodity whose use-value is to generate surplus value) is also sold on the market as a commodity. So, maybe there is a third case here: when this commodity which produces surplus-value becomes itself an object of capital investment bringing surplus-value, we get two types of surplus-value, the “normal” surplus value generated by the products of the working force, and the surplus generated by the production of the working force itself.

That is a nice example of Hegel’s insight into how the Absolute always involves self-splitting and is in this sense non-All: with the production of the working force itself as a field of capital investment, the subsumption under capital becomes total. But, precisely as such, it becomes non-All; it cannot be totalized. The self-referential element of the working force itself as a capital investment opens a gap, which introduces imbalance into the entire field. Maybe this gap can function as a source of hope, maybe it opens up the possibility of radical change. The logic of capital gets threatened not from some external non-integrated rest, but from its own inner inconsistency which explodes when subsumption becomes total.
[1] Here, I rely heavily on Maria Chehonadskih, “Soviet Epistemologies and the Materialist Ontology of Poor Life: Andrei Platonov, Alexander Bogdanov and Lev Vygotsky“ (unpublished manuscript, from which all non-attributed quotes are taken).

[2] Etienne Balibar, “Towards a new critique of political economy: from generalized surplus-value to total subsumption,” in Capitalism: Concept, Idea, Image, Kingston: CRMEP Books 2019.

[3] Balibar, op.cit., p. 51.

4 Op.cit., p. 53.

[5] Op.cit., p. 57.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Il Pescatore

Although I can see him still—
The freckled man who goes
To a gray place on a hill
In gray Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies—
It's long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I'd looked in the face
What I had hoped it would be
To write for my own race
And the reality:
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved—
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer—
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.


Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, “Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.”
-William Butler Yeats, "The Fisherman"

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Future of the Globalist Salaried Bourgeoisie

...comes from the past. Welcome to the City of London Corporate Structure, where corporate bourgeoise, not military, commissions can be "acquired".
Slavoj Žižek, "The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie"

How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed.

The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension). Yet this is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation – increases in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth accumulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.

The same is true of natural resources, the exploitation of which is one of the world’s main sources of rent. There is a permanent struggle over who gets this rent: citizens of the Third World or Western corporations. It’s ironic that in explaining the difference between labour (which in its use produces surplus value) and other commodities (which consume all their value in their use), Marx gives oil as an example of an ‘ordinary’ commodity. Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply.

A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially growing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiency, raised productivity etc) which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what should be a blessing – less hard labour needed – becomes a curse. Or, to put it differently, the chance to be exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege. The world market, as Fredric Jameson has put it, is ‘a space in which everyone has once been a productive labourer, and in which labour has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system.’ In the ongoing process of capitalist globalisation, the category of the unemployed is no longer confined to Marx’s ‘reserve army of labour’; it also includes, as Jameson notes, ‘those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, “dropped out of history”, who have been deliberately excluded from the modernising projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases’: so-called failed states (Congo, Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disaster, those trapped by pseudo-archaic ‘ethnic hatreds’, objects of philanthropy and NGOs or targets of the war on terror. The category of the unemployed has thus expanded to encompass vast ranges of people, from the temporarily unemployed, the no longer employable and permanently unemployed, to the inhabitants of ghettos and slums (all those often dismissed by Marx himself as ‘lumpen-proletarians’), and finally to the whole populations and states excluded from the global capitalist process, like the blank spaces on ancient maps.

Some say that this new form of capitalism provides new possibilities for emancipation. This at any rate is the thesis of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, which tries to radicalise Marx, who held that if we just cut the head off capitalism we’d get socialism. Marx, as they see it, was historically constrained: he thought in terms of centralised, automated and hierarchically organised industrial labour, with the result that he understood ‘general intellect’ as something rather like a central planning agency; it is only today, with the rise of ‘immaterial labour’, that a revolutionary reversal has become ‘objectively possible’. This immaterial labour extends between two poles: from intellectual labour (the production of ideas, texts, computer programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is hegemonic in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘common’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.

Hardt and Negri are here describing the process that the ideologists of today’s ‘postmodern’ capitalism celebrate as the passage from material to symbolic production, from centralist-hierarchical logic to the logic of self-organisation and multi-centred co-operation. The difference is that Hardt and Negri are faithful to Marx: they are trying to prove that he was right, that the rise of the general intellect is in the long term incompatible with capitalism. The ideologists of postmodern capitalism are making exactly the opposite claim: Marxist theory (and practice), they argue, remains within the constraints of the hierarchical logic of centralised state control and so can’t cope with the social effects of the information revolution. There are good empirical reasons for this claim: what effectively ruined the Communist regimes was their inability to accommodate to the new social logic sustained by the information revolution. They tried to steer the revolution, to make it yet another large-scale centralised state-planning project. The paradox is that what Hardt and Negri celebrate as the unique chance to overcome capitalism is celebrated by the ideologists of the information revolution as the rise of a new, ‘frictionless’ capitalism.

Hardt and Negri’s analysis has some weak points, which help us understand how capitalism has been able to survive what should have been (in classic Marxist terms) a new organisation of production that rendered it obsolete. They underestimate the extent to which today’s capitalism has successfully (in the short term at least) privatised the general intellect itself, as well as the extent to which, more than the bourgeoisie, workers themselves are becoming superfluous (with greater and greater numbers becoming not just temporarily unemployed but structurally unemployable).

If the old capitalism ideally involved an entrepreneur who invested (his own or borrowed) money into production that he organised and ran, and then reaped the profit from it, a new ideal type is emerging today: no longer the entrepreneur who owns his company, but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over by a CEO) who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who don’t own the bank) or dispersed investors. In this new ideal type of capitalism, the old bourgeoisie, rendered non-functional, is refunctionalised as salaried management: the members of the new bourgeoisie get wages, and even if they own part of their company, earn stocks as part of their remuneration (‘bonuses’ for their ‘success’).

This new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus value, but in the (mystified) form of what has been called ‘surplus wage’: they are paid rather more than the proletarian ‘minimum wage’ (an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia), and it is this distinction from common proletarians which determines their status. The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more by virtue of their competence (which is why pseudo-scientific ‘evaluation’ is crucial: it legitimises disparities). Far from being limited to managers, the category of workers earning a surplus wage extends to all sorts of experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists. The surplus takes two forms: more money (for managers etc), but also less work and more free time (for – some – intellectuals, but also for state administrators etc).

The evaluative procedure used to decide which workers receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency. In La Marque du sacré, Jean-Pierre Dupuy conceives hierarchy as one of four procedures (‘dispositifs symboliques’) whose function is to make the relationship of superiority non-humiliating: hierarchy itself (an externally imposed order that allows me to experience my lower social status as independent of my inherent value); demystification (the ideological procedure which demonstrates that society is not a meritocracy but the product of objective social struggles, enabling me to avoid the painful conclusion that someone else’s superiority is the result of his merit and achievements); contingency (a similar mechanism, by which we come to understand that our position on the social scale depends on a natural and social lottery; the lucky ones are those born with the right genes in rich families); and complexity (uncontrollable forces have unpredictable consequences; for instance, the invisible hand of the market may lead to my failure and my neighbour’s success, even if I work much harder and am much more intelligent). Contrary to appearances, these mechanisms don’t contest or threaten hierarchy, but make it palatable, since ‘what triggers the turmoil of envy is the idea that the other deserves his good luck and not the opposite idea – which is the only one that can be openly expressed.’ Dupuy draws from this premise the conclusion that it is a great mistake to think that a reasonably just society which also perceives itself as just will be free of resentment: on the contrary, it is in such societies that those who occupy inferior positions will find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment.

Connected to this is the impasse faced by today’s China: the ideal goal of Deng’s reforms was to introduce capitalism without a bourgeoisie (since it would form the new ruling class); now, however, China’s leaders are making the painful discovery that capitalism without the settled hierarchy enabled by the existence of a bourgeoisie generates permanent instability. So what path will China take? Former Communists generally are emerging as the most efficient managers of capitalism because their historical enmity towards the bourgeoisie as a class perfectly fits the tendency of today’s capitalism to become a managerial capitalism without a bourgeoisie – in both cases, as Stalin put it long ago, ‘cadres decide everything.’ (An interesting difference between today’s China and Russia: in Russia, university teachers are ridiculously underpaid – they are de facto already part of the proletariat – while in China they are provided with a comfortable surplus wage to guarantee their docility.)

The notion of surplus wage also throws new light on the continuing ‘anti-capitalist’ protests. In times of crisis, the obvious candidates for ‘belt-tightening’ are the lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie: political protest is their only recourse if they are to avoid joining the proletariat. Although their protests are nominally directed against the brutal logic of the market, they are in effect protesting about the gradual erosion of their (politically) privileged economic place. Ayn Rand has a fantasy in Atlas Shrugged of striking ‘creative’ capitalists, a fantasy that finds its perverted realisation in today’s strikes, most of which are held by a ‘salaried bourgeoisie’ driven by fear of losing their surplus wage. These are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians. Who dares strike today, when having a permanent job is itself a privilege? Not low-paid workers in (what remains of) the textile industry etc, but those privileged workers who have guaranteed jobs (teachers, public transport workers, police). This also accounts for the wave of student protests: their main motivation is arguably the fear that higher education will no longer guarantee them a surplus wage in later life.

At the same time it is clear that the huge revival of protest over the past year, from the Arab Spring to Western Europe, from Occupy Wall Street to China, from Spain to Greece, should not be dismissed merely as a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie. Each case should be taken on its own merits. The student protests against university reform in the UK were clearly different from August’s riots, which were a consumerist carnival of destruction, a true outburst of the excluded. One could argue that the uprisings in Egypt began in part as a revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie (with educated young people protesting about their lack of prospects), but this was only one aspect of a larger protest against an oppressive regime. On the other hand, the protest didn’t really mobilise poor workers and peasants and the Islamists’ electoral victory makes clear the narrow social base of the original secular protest. Greece is a special case: in the last decades, a new salaried bourgeoisie (especially in the over-extended state administration) was created thanks to EU financial help, and the protests were motivated in large part by the threat of an end to this.

The proletarianisation of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is matched at the opposite extreme by the irrationally high remuneration of top managers and bankers (irrational since, as investigations have demonstrated in the US, it tends to be inversely proportional to a company’s success). Rather than submit these trends to moralising criticism, we should read them as signs that the capitalist system is no longer capable of self-regulated stability – it threatens, in other words, to run out of control.