The routine of these billionaires is nothing but a lie: speculative exploitation followed by vacuous humanitarian concerns about the catastrophic consequences that their ruthless capitalism is responsible for in the first place.
Every authentic Leftist should put on the wall above his bed or table the opening paragraph of Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism, where he points out that, “It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.”
People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. Accordingly, with admirable –though misdirected– intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their ‘remedies’ do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.
Indeed, these remedies are part of the disease. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.
This last sentence provides a concise formula of what is wrong with Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation. It is not enough just to point out that the Gates charity is based on brutal business practice – one should take a step further and also denounce the ideological foundation of the Gates charity, the vacuity of its pan-humanitarianism.
The title of Sama Naami’s band of essays ‘Refusal of respect: Why we should not respect foreign cultures. And our own also not,’ hits the nail on its head: it is the only authentic stance with regard to the other three variations of the same formula. Gates’ charity implies the formula: respect all cultures, your own and others. The Rightist nationalist formula is: respect your own culture and despise others which are inferior to it. The Politically Correct formula is: respect other cultures, but despise your own which is racist and colonialist (that’s why Politically Correct woke culture is always anti-Eurocentric).
The correct Leftist stance is: bring out the hidden antagonisms of your own culture, link it to the antagonisms of other cultures, and then engage in a common struggle of those who fight here against the oppression and domination at work in our culture and those who do the same in other cultures.
What this means is something which may sound shocking, but one should insist on it: you don’t have to respect or love immigrants – what you have to do is to change the situation so that they will not have to be what they are. The citizen of a developed country who wants less immigrants and is ready to do something so that they will not have to come to this place which they mostly even don’t like, is much better than a humanitarian who preaches openness to immigrants, while silently participating in the economic and political practices which brought to ruin those countries where immigrants come from.
A couple of years ago, I found in a store in Los Angeles a chocolate laxative, a piece of chocolate with the paradoxical injunction on its wrap: “Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!,” i.e., consume the very thing which causes constipation.
The structure of the “chocolate laxative,” of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape. There are two topics which determine a liberal tolerant attitude towards others: the respect of otherness, openness towards it, AND the obsessive fear of harassment – in short, the other is OK insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as the other is not really other…
In the strict homology with the paradoxical structure of chocolate laxative, tolerance of this coincides with its opposite: my duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, not to intrude into his/her space – in short, that I should respect his/her INTOLERANCE towards my over-proximity.
This is what is emerging more and more as the central ‘human right’ in late-capitalist society: the right not to be “harassed,” to be kept at a safe distance from the others. A similar structure is clearly present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is OK if it is counteracted with charitable activities – first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy.
And the same goes for war, for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism: war is OK insofar as it really serves to bring about peace, democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. And does the same not hold more and more even for democracy and human rights?: human rights are OK if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent state of emergency, democracy is OK if it is cleansed of its populist “excesses” and limited to those “mature” enough to practice it…
This same ‘chocolate laxative’ structure is also what makes figures like Bill Gates or George Soros ethically so problematic: do they not stand for the most ruthless financial speculative exploitation, combined with its counter-agent, the humanitarian worry about the catastrophic social consequences of the unbridled market economy? Soros’ very daily routine is a lie embodied: half of his working time is devoted to financial speculations, and the other half to “humanitarian” activities (providing finances for cultural and democratic activities in post-Communist countries, writing essays and books) which ultimately fight the effects of his own speculations.
The crisis we are in is too serious to fight it with chocolate laxatives. We need just bitter laxatives – we are not (yet) in war, but we are maybe in something even more dangerous: we are not fighting an enemy, the only enemy is ourselves, the destructive consequences of capitalist productivity.
Recall that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba proclaimed a “Special Period in Time of Peace” (“periodo especial en tiempos de paz”): wartime conditions in a time of peace. Maybe this is the term we should use for our predicament today: we are entering a very special period in a time of peace.
Thursday, July 29, 2021
Wednesday, July 28, 2021
On July 1, 1921, the founding congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in Shanghai, when 12 men gathered in a villa in French Concession, the richest part of the city. Today, the Party has over 90 million members. Over the past century, it changed the history of China and the history of the entire world.
China in the last decades is arguably one of the greatest economic success stories in human history. It lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. How did China do it?
The 20th-century Left was defined by its opposition to capitalism and authoritarianism. China, however, is the combination of those two in their extreme forms. China today is a strong authoritarian state with wild capitalist dynamics and is perhaps the most efficient form of a socialist state. If someone in China tried to organize workers against the abuses of state power per Marxist ideology, they’d be arrested. In today’s China, one of the main functions of its Communist Party is to prevent workers from organizing their resistance against capitalism.
Deng Xiaoping reportedly said on his deathbed that his greatest achievement was not economic opening but how he “resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.”
We should resist the liberal temptation to assume how, if China were to liberalize politically, its economic progress would have been even faster. Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England. It was in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. The same thing is going on in China today. It was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Party because it is the best protector of the interests of capitalists.
It may appear that, in the passage from the Cultural Revolution to Deng’s reforms, China has moved from one extreme to another. However, there is a structural similarity between the Maoist revolution and the inherent dynamic of capitalism. Mao himself created the ideological condition for rapid capitalist development by tearing apart the fabric of traditional society.
It is capitalism, again and again, that emerges as the only alternative, the only way to move forward and the dynamic force for change when social life gets stuck into some fixed form. Today, capitalism is much more revolutionary than the traditional Left obsessed with protecting the old achievements of the welfare state. Just consider how much capitalism has changed the entire texture of our societies in the past decades.
Lenin’s New Economic Policy from the early 1920s was the obvious model for Deng Xiaoping’s reforms which opened up the way for a capitalist free market under the control of the ruling Communist Party. But are we to make fun of this change as a loss for socialism? What if we defined this as a passage from feudalism to socialism?
With the abolishment of premodern relations of servitude and domination, with the assertion of personal freedom and human rights principles, capitalist modernity is in itself already socialist. It is not surprising that German peasants’ revolt in the 1500s and Jacobins demanded economic equality in this context.
Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in a sense. It accepts the end of direct relations of domination, but as Marx put it in his classic formulation, it transposes domination from the relations between people to the relations between things. As individuals, we are all free, but domination persists in the relationship between commodities that we exchange on the market.
The big question that haunts us is, of course, if market freedom can be abolished without abolishing political freedom. You indeed can abolish the latter while preserving market freedom as China did. But China just seems to be a new form of capitalism with an authoritarian twist that will replace liberal capitalism. Is China, then, the biggest threat to genuine democratic emancipation?
Monday, July 26, 2021
Slavoj Žižek: "Last Exit to Socialism"
The latest data make it clear that, even after the (very uneven) spread of vaccination, we cannot afford to relax and return to the old normal.
Not only is the pandemic not over (infection numbers are rising again, new lockdowns are awaiting us), other catastrophes are on the horizon. At the end of June 2021, a heat dome — a weather phenomenon where a ridge of high pressure traps and compresses warm air, driving up temperatures and baking the region — over the Northwest of the United States and the Southwest of Canada caused temperatures to approach 50°C (122°F), so that Vancouver was hotter than the Middle East.
This weather pathology is just the climax of a much wider process: in the last years, northern Scandinavia and Siberia regularly see temperatures over 30°C (86°F). The World Meteorological Organization had a weather station in Siberia’s Verkhoyansk — north of the Arctic Circle — record a 38°C (100.4°F) day on June 20. The town of Oymyakon in Russia, considered to be the coldest inhabited place on Earth, was hotter (31.6°C [88.9°F]) than it has ever been in June. In short: “Climate change is frying the Northern Hemisphere.”
True, the heat dome is a local phenomenon, but it is the result of a global disturbance of patterns which clearly depend on human interventions into natural cycles. The catastrophic consequences of this heat wave for the life in the ocean are already palpable: “‘Heat dome’ probably killed 1bn marine animals on Canada coast,” experts say. “British Columbia scientist says heat essentially cooked mussels: ‘The shore doesn’t usually crunch when you walk.’”
While weather is generally getting hotter, this process reaches a climax in local extremes, and these local extremes will sooner or later coalesce in a series of global tipping points. The catastrophic floods in Germany and Belgium in July 2021 are another of these tipping points, and who knows what will follow. The catastrophe is not something that will begin in the near future, it is here, and it is also not in some distant African or Asian country but right here, in the heart of the developed West. To put it bluntly, we will have to get used to living with multiple simultaneous crises.
Not only is a heat wave at least partially conditioned by reckless industrial exploitation of nature, but its effects also depend on social organization. At the beginning of July 2021 in southern Iraq, temperatures swelled to over 50°C (122°F), and what occurred simultaneously was a total collapse of the electricity supply (no air conditioner, no refrigerator, no light), which made the place a living hell. This catastrophic impact was clearly caused by the enormous state corruption in Iraq, with billions in oil money disappearing to private pockets.Is there a last exit from the road to our perdition or is it already too late, so that all we can do is find a way to painless suicide?If we access this (and numerous other) data soberly, there is one simple conclusion to be drawn from them. For every living entity, collective or individual, the final exit is death (which is why Derek Humphry was right to entitle his 1992 pro–assisted suicide book Final Exit). The ecological crises which are exploding lately open up a realistic prospect of the final exit (collective suicide) of humanity itself. Is there a last exit from the road to our perdition or is it already too late, so that all we can do is find a way to painless suicide?
Our Place in the World
So what should we do in such a predicament? We should above all avoid the common wisdom according to which the lesson of the ecological crises is that we are part of nature, not its center, so we have to change our way of life — limit our individualism, develop new solidarity, and accept our modest place among life on our planet. Or, as Judith Butler put it, “An inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.”
But is it not that global warming and other ecological threats demand of us collective interventions into our environment which will be incredibly powerful, direct interventions into the fragile balance of forms of life? When we say that the rise of average temperature has to be kept below 2°C (35.6°F), we talk (and try to act) as general managers of life on Earth, not as a modest species. The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon “our smaller and more mindful role” — it depends on our gigantic role, which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality.
If we have to care also about the life of water and air, it means precisely that we are what Marx called “universal beings,” as it were, able to step outside ourselves, stand on our own shoulders, and perceive ourselves as a minor moment of the natural totality. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option; it is a false exit to a catastrophe. As universal beings, we should learn to accept our environment in all its complex mixture, which includes what we perceive as trash or pollution, as well as what we cannot directly perceive since it is too large or too minuscule (Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”). For Morton, being ecologicalis not about spending time in a pristine nature preserve but about appreciating the weed working its way through a crack in the concrete, and then appreciating the concrete. It’s also part of the world, and part of us. . . .Is this not a perfect example of such a mixture as the fate of rats in Manhattan during the pandemic? Manhattan is a living system of humans, cockroaches, . . . and millions of rats. Lockdown at the peak of the pandemic meant that, since all restaurants were closed, rats that lived off the trash from restaurants were deprived of the source of their food. This caused mass starvation: many rats were found eating their offspring. A closure of restaurants which changed the eating habits of humans but posed no threat to them was a catastrophe for rats, rats as comrades.
. . . Reality, Morton writes, is populated with “strange strangers” — things that are “knowable yet uncanny.” This strange strangeness, Morton writes, is an irreducible part of every rock, tree, terrarium, plastic Statue of Liberty, quasar, black hole, or marmoset one might encounter; by acknowledging it, we shift away from trying to master objects and toward learning to respect them in their elusiveness. Whereas the Romantic poets rhapsodized about nature’s beauty and sublimity, Morton responds to its all-pervading weirdness; they include in the category of the natural everything that is scary, ugly, artificial, harmful, and disturbing.
Another similar accident from recent history could be called “sparrow as comrade.” In 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government declared that “birds are public animals of capitalism” and set in motion a large campaign to eliminate sparrows, suspected of consuming approximately four pounds of grain per sparrow per year. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed; millions of people organized into groups, and hit noisy pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests, with the goal of causing them to drop dead from exhaustion.The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon ‘our smaller and more mindful role’ — it depends on our gigantic role, which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality.These mass attacks depleted the sparrow population, pushing it to near extinction. However, by April 1960, Chinese leaders were forced to realize that sparrows also ate a large number of insects in the fields, so, rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased: the extermination of sparrows upset the ecological balance, and insects destroyed crops as a result of the absence of natural predators. By this time, however, it was too late: with no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine in which millions died of starvation. The Chinese government eventually resorted to importing 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replenish their population.
So, again, what can and should we do in this unbearable situation — unbearable because we have to accept that we are one among the species on Earth, but we are at the same time burdened by the impossible task to act as universal managers of the life on Earth? Since we failed to take other, perhaps easier, exits (global temperatures are rising, oceans are more and more polluted . . .), it looks more and more that the last exit before the final one will be some version of what was once called “war communism.”
By Any Means Necessary
What I have in mind here is not any kind of rehabilitation of or continuity with the twentieth-century “really existing socialism,” even less the global adoption of the Chinese model, but a series of measures which are imposed by the situation itself. When (not just a country but) all of us are facing a threat to our survival, we enter a warlike emergency state which will last for decades at least. To simply guarantee the minimal conditions of our survival, mobilizing all our resources is inevitable to deal with unheard-of challenges, including displacements of dozens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people due to global warming.
The answer to the heat dome in the United States and Canada is not just to help the affected areas but to attack its global causes. And, as the ongoing catastrophe in southern Iraq makes clear, a state apparatus capable of maintaining a minimal welfare of the people in catastrophic conditions will be needed to prevent social explosions.
All these things can — hopefully — be achieved only through strong and obligatory international cooperation, social control and regulation of agriculture and industry, changes in our basic eating habits (less beef), global health care, etc. Upon a closer look, it is clear that representative political democracy alone will not be sufficient for this task. A much stronger executive power capable of enforcing long-term commitments will have to be combined with local self-organizations of people, as well as with a strong international body capable of overriding the will of dissenting nations.
I am not talking here about a new world government — such an entity would give opportunity to immense corruption. And I am not talking about communism in the sense of abolishing markets — market competition should play a role, although a role regulated and controlled by state and society. Why, then, use the term “communism”? Because what we will have to do contains four aspects of every truly radical regime.
First, there is voluntarism: changes that will be needed are not grounded in any historical necessity; they will be done against the spontaneous tendency of history — as Walter Benjamin put it, we have to pull the emergency brake on the train of history. Then, there is egalitarianism: global solidarity, health care, and a minimum of decent life for all. Then, there are elements of what cannot but appear to die-hard liberals as “terror,” a taste of which we got with measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic: limitation of many personal freedoms and new modes of control and regulation. Finally, there is trust in the people: everything will be lost without the active participation of ordinary people.
The Way Forward
All this is not a morbid dystopian vision but the result of the simple realistic assessment of our predicament. If we don’t take this path, what will happen is the totally crazy situation which is already taking place in the United States and Russia: the power elite is preparing for its survival in gigantic underground bunkers in which thousands can survive for months, with the excuse that the government should function even in such conditions. In short, government should continue to work even when there are no people alive on the earth over whom it should exert its authority.
Our governments and business elites are already preparing for this scenario, which means they know the alarm bell is ringing. Although the prospect of the mega-rich living somewhere in space outside of our Earth is not a realist one, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the attempts of some mega-rich individuals (Musk, Bezos, Branson) to organize private flights into space also express the fantasy to escape the catastrophe that threatens our survival on Earth. So what awaits us who have nowhere to escape?
Sunday, July 25, 2021
"Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" (2005) is Malcolm Gladwell's second book. It presents in popular science format research from psychology and behavioral economics on the adaptive unconscious: mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. It considers both the strengths of the adaptive unconscious, for example in expert judgment, and its pitfalls, such as prejudice and stereotypes.
The author describes the main subject of his book as "thin-slicing": our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion. This idea suggests that spontaneous decisions are often as good as—or even better than—carefully planned and considered ones. To reinforce his ideas, Gladwell draws from a wide range of examples from science and medicine (including malpractice suits), sales and advertising, gambling, speed dating (and predicting divorce), tennis, military war games, and movies and popular music. Gladwell also uses many examples of regular people's experiences with "thin-slicing," including our instinctive ability to mind-read, which is how we can get to know a person's emotions just by looking at his or her face.
Gladwell explains how an expert's ability to "thin slice" can be corrupted by their likes and dislikes, prejudices, and stereotypes (even unconscious ones). A particular form of unconscious bias Gladwell discusses is psychological priming. He also discusses the implicit-association test, designed to measure the strength of a person's subconscious associations/bias.
Gladwell also mentions that sometimes having too much information can interfere with the accuracy of a judgment, or a doctor's diagnosis. In what Gladwell contends is an age of information overload, he finds that experts often make better decisions with snap judgments than they do with volumes of analysis. This is commonly called "Analysis paralysis." The challenge is to sift through and focus on only the most critical information. The other information may be irrelevant and confusing. Collecting more information, in most cases, may reinforce our judgment but does not help make it more accurate. Gladwell explains that better judgments can be executed from simplicity and frugality of information. If the big picture is clear enough to decide, then decide from this without using a magnifying glass.
The book argues that intuitive judgment is developed by experience, training, and knowledge. For example, Gladwell claims that prejudice can operate at an intuitive unconscious level, even in individuals whose conscious attitudes are not prejudiced. One example is the halo effect, where a person having a salient positive quality is thought to be superior in other, unrelated respects. The example used in the book is Warren G. Harding. Henry Daugherty was impressed by Harding's appearance of respectability, and helped him become president of the United States of America, though Harding did nothing extraordinary for his political career.
Gladwell uses the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, where four New York policemen shot an innocent man on his doorstep 41 times, as another example of how rapid, intuitive judgment can have disastrous effects
...and so we're all now stuck with our "Hang in there baby" police/policing policies. Meanwhile the rhapsodes in the University "African-American Studies" Department keep the CRT hits a coming...
Saturday, July 17, 2021
I. ATHELSTAN King,
Lord among Earls,
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,2
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.
II. Theirs was a greatness
Got from their Grandsires—
Theirs that so often in
Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.
III. Bow’d the spoiler,
Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews
Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow’d, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.
IV. There lay many a man
Marr’d by the javelin,
Men of the Northland
Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman
Weary of war.
V. We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight
Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.
VI. Mighty the Mercian,
Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of
Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the
Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
Drew to this island:
Doom’d to the death.
VII.Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.
VIII. Then the Norse leader.
Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following,
Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.
IX. Also the crafty one,
Crept to his North again,
X. Slender warrant had
He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives—
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had
Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too
Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels,
A youngster in war!
XI. Slender reason had
He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive—
Traitor and trickster
And spurner of treaties—
He nor had Anlaf
With armies so broken
A reason for bragging
That they had the better
In perils of battle
On places of slaughter—
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,3
The wielding of weapons—
The play that they play’d with
The children of Edward.
XII. Then with their nail’d prows
Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden’d relic of
The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen4 again,
Shamed in their souls.
XIII. Also the brethren,
King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.
XIV.Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.
XV. Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.
Tennyson, "Battle of Brunanburh"
Friday, July 9, 2021
"If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think... that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is "Does this thing conform to my identity?" then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility."
"...the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation."
"I'm not at ease with "lesbian theories, gay theories," for as I've argued elsewhere, identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes"- Judith Butler
"Is it not a sign of despair over public politics when identity becomes its own policy, bringing with it those who would "police" it from various sides?"
"And this is not a call to return to silence or invisibility, but, rather, to make use of a category that can be called into question, made to account for what it excludes"
"The dangers of identity politics... are that it casts as authentic to the self or group an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an Other. Reclaiming such an identity as one's own merely reinforces its dependence on this dominant Other, and further internalizes and reinforces an oppressive hierarchy.
While the charge that identity politics promotes a victim mentality is often a facile pot-shot, Wendy Brown offers a more sophisticated caution against the dangers of ressentiment (the moralizing revenge of the powerless). She argues that identity politics has its own genealogy in liberal capitalism that relentlessly reinforces the "wounded attachments" it claims to sever."
- The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy
Wednesday, July 7, 2021
Slavoj Zizek: How Donald Rumsfeld’s catastrophic ‘unknown unknowns’ approach on Iraq can help us deal with Covid crisis
Late US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made colossal errors of judgement during the Iraq War. But strange as it may seem, the thinking behind those terrible mistakes may prove invaluable in tackling the current global crisis.On June 29, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense for Presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, and one of the main architects of the US invasion of Iraq, died at the age of 88. He will be remembered mostly for the catastrophic consequences of that invasion.
The goal of the American military intervention was not just to eliminate “the threat of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction” – none of which were found after the occupation of Iraq – but to change Iraq into a modern secular state that would contain the influence of Iran. As a result, however, Iran only gained more influence in Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism saw a rise, many Christians left the country, women were pushed out of public life, and ISIS emerged out of the mess in Iraq.
What were the roots of such a colossal misjudgment? Here, enter philosophy.
In February 2002, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown. “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know,” he said when asked about the evidence that Iraq could have been supplying WMDs to terrorist groups.
What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say. If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” the threats from Saddam we were not even aware of, our reply should be that the main dangers were, on the contrary, the “unknown knowns,” the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we were not even aware of adhering to ourselves.
This distinction between unknown unknowns and unknown knowns is today more pertinent than ever.
In the case of ecology, disavowed beliefs and suppositions are the ones which prevent us from taking seriously the prospect of a catastrophe. And we cannot even understand the common reaction to the ongoing pandemic without the help of Rumsfeld’s epistemology.
Back in April 2020, reacting to the Covid-19 outbreak, prominent German philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermas pointed out that “existential insecurity is now spreading globally and simultaneously, in the minds of media-connected individuals themselves.” He wrote: “There has never been so much knowledge about our not knowing and about the compulsion to act and live under uncertainty.”
And he was right to claim that this “not knowing” concerns not only the pandemic itself – we at least have experts there – but even more so its economic, social, and mental consequences. Note his precise formulation: it is not simply that we don’t know what goes on, but that we know that we don’t know, and this not knowing is itself a social fact, inscribed into the ways our institutions act.
We now know that in, say, medieval times or early modernity people knew much less, but they didn’t know this, because they relied on some stable ideological foundation which guaranteed that our universe is a meaningful totality. The same holds for some visions of communism, even for Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history – they all assumed to know where history was moving.
Habermas was also right to pinpoint the uncertainty in “the minds of media-connected individuals.” Our link to the wired universe tremendously expands our knowledge, but at the same time it throws us into radical uncertainty (Have we been hacked? Who controls our access? Do we read fake news?). The ongoing allegations about foreign hacking of US government institutions and big companies exemplify this uncertainty: Americans are now discovering that they cannot even determine the scope and methods of the hacking taking place. For the US, the viral threat is not only a biological one, but also digital.
It is no secret what needs to be done. First, we should finally recognize the pandemic crisis for what it is: part of a global crisis for our entire way of life, from ecology to new social tensions. Second, we should establish social control and regulation over the economy. Third, we should rely on science, but without simply accepting it as the agent of decision-making. To explain why, let’s return to Habermas: our predicament is that we are compelled to act while knowing that we don’t know the full coordinates of the situation we are in, and non-acting would itself function as an act. But is this not the basic situation of every action? Our great advantage is that we know how much we don’t know, and this knowing about our not knowing opens up a space of freedom. We act when we don’t know the whole situation, but this is not simply our limitation. What gives us freedom is that the situation – in our social sphere, at least – is in itself open, not fully (pre)determined.
We should read Habermas’ claim that we have never had so much knowledge about not knowing through Rumsfeld’s categories: the pandemic shook what we (thought we) knew that we knew; it made us aware of what we didn’t know that we didn’t know; and, in the way we confronted it, we relied on what we didn’t know that we know (all our presumptions and prejudices that determine our actions even though we are not aware of them). We are not dealing here with the simple passage from not knowing to knowing, but with the much more subtle passage from not knowing to knowing what we don’t know – our positive knowing remains the same in this passage, but we gain a free space for action.
It is with regard to what we don’t know that we know, our presumptions and prejudices, that the approach of China (and Taiwan and Vietnam) to the pandemic was so much better than that of Europe and the United States. I am getting tired of the eternally repeated claim, “Yes, the Chinese contained the virus, but at what price?”
While only a whistleblower can tell us the whole story of what really went on there, the fact is that when the virus broke out in Wuhan, the authorities imposed a lockdown and halted the majority of production across the country, clearly prioritizing human lives over the economy. This happened with some delay, true, but they took the crisis extremely seriously. Now they are reaping the rewards, including economically. And – let’s be clear – this was only possible because the Communist Party is still able to control and regulate the economy: there is social control over market mechanisms, albeit a ‘totalitarian’ control. The pandemic is not just a viral process; it is a process that takes place within certain economic, social, and ideological coordinates that are open to change.
According to the theory of complex systems, such systems have two opposite features: robust stable character and extreme vulnerability. These systems can accommodate great disturbances, integrate them, and find new balance and stability – up to a certain threshold (a ‘tipping point’), above which a small disturbance can cause a total catastrophe and lead to the establishment of a totally different order. For many centuries, humanity did not have to worry about the impact on the environment of its productive activity – nature was able to accommodate deforestation, the use of coal and oil, etc.
However, it seems that today we are approaching a tipping point – one really cannot be sure, since such points can only be clearly perceived once it is already too late. So we encounter a dilemma apropos of the urgency to do something about today's threat of different ecological catastrophes: either we take this threat seriously and decide today to do things which, if the catastrophe does not occur, will appear ridiculous; or we do nothing and lose everything in the case of the catastrophe. The worst case is the choice of a middle ground, of taking a limited amount of measures – in this case, we will fail whatever happens.
That is to say, the problem is that there is no middle ground with regard to the ecological catastrophe: either it will occur or it will not occur. In such a situation, talk of anticipation, precaution, and risk control tends to become meaningless, since we are dealing with the “unknown unknowns”: we not only do not know where the tipping point is, we do not know exactly what we do not know.
The most unsettling aspect of the ecological crisis concerns the so-called “knowledge in the real” which can run amok: when winter is too warm, plants and animals misread the hot weather in February as the signal that spring has already begun and start to behave accordingly, thus not only rendering themselves vulnerable to late onslaughts of cold, but also perturbing the entire rhythm of natural reproduction. This is how one should imagine a possible catastrophe: a small-level interruption with devastating global consequences.
So, to conclude, since we should respectfully follow the old Latin motto “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” (“Of the dead, [say] nothing but good”), we should ignore all the catastrophic decisions of Donald Rumsfeld and remember him as an amateur philosopher who introduced some distinctions which are useful for analyzing our current predicament.
Years from now, if anyone looks at a line graph (in the OED or Google dictionary) tracking the frequency with which a word is mentioned in print, they may notice the current affinity for the word “narrative.” An already overworked word (by virtue of its abstractness), it is now almost impossible to avoid; we encounter it on a daily basis, especially when reading the news. It is a writer’s job to point out how words become flabby through overuse (such is the visceral aversion to cliché), but that is an elitist’s grievance. More telling is the way in which “narrative” has lately acquired the flavor of a pejorative.
The popular connotation, in this case, is one that encourages suspicion. For example, Eric Weinstein likes to refer to what he calls the “Gated Institutional Narrative” (a coinage he uses to indict the insular bias and self-protecting interests of newspapers like the New York Times) to describe a false sense of reality, supported by a phony consensus that is held in place (often in bad faith) by an educated class who have failed in their duty to inform the public. We are inclined to see our distrust of media as evidence of our own elevated literacy: we read the news itself much as we read its content; we know we’re being sold a story and assume bias as the price of entry. But this distrust does not evolve out of enlightened skepticism, as it is shared by those most susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy theorizing. Even those who have little interest in the news and/or do a poor job at reading it seem to agree that the press is out to deceive them.
The Internet’s liberation of information—and disinformation—has engendered distrust in the explanatory power of journalists. Indeed, public distrust of journalism now resembles distrust of the clergy in the 16th century. In modern secular societies, journalists constitute the new priest class, and the media the chief sense-making institution. Nietzsche, who was famously contemptuous of journalism, had already intuited this in the 19th century when he said that newspapers had replaced prayer in modern life. The news offers us the opportunity, previously reserved for the pew, to reflect on the state of the world and consider the sufferings of others, and it has become the job of writers, critics, and journalists (as the primary generators of ideas) to lead their congregations.
Pundits, in possession of “expert” opinions, comprise one such class, as do those Foucault called savants, or “specific intellectuals” who have narrow interests and who toil in established fields of study. Generalist writers and journalists, by virtue of appealing to the largest number, are universalists. But in the market of ideas, the most prized commodity is the “public intellectual.” Podcasts, now the premier delivery system for these figures, have become mobile symposiums, where omnipresent voices furnish a cathedral-like environment (what Marshall McLuhan termed “acoustic space”) that possesses and ignites the tribal mind. In the virtual church that is the online world, the “platform” has become the pulpit, and “followers” (a word that betrays itself) the new laity.
The closest historical analogue to this intellectual dislocation would be the invention of the printing press. Like our own digital age, the Gutenberg revolution marked a point of no return for humanity, and its destabilizing effects were extensive: a century and a half of religious sectarianism, civil war, autos-da-fé, and odium theologicum. A Whiggish reading of history encourages us to see the invention of movable type as inevitably progressive, an event that would ultimately lead to the Scientific Revolution, liberalism, and the Enlightenment. This is true, but it requires taking the long view. As much as print did for literacy, individualism, and science, it did just as much for falsehood, fundamentalism, and disinformation. In her seminal work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein writes that “Mystification as well as enlightenment resulted from the output of early printers,” and while print gave “a great impetus to wide dissemination of accurate knowledge,” it also gave equal impetus to “fraudulent esoteric writings” which “worked in the opposite direction.”
In 1543, for instance, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus was published. That same year, however, Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies went into print, a groundwork for German anti-Semitism (heavily reprinted by the Nazis) and a tool of pogroms for centuries. By the early 16th century, books on angels, demons, magic, divination, numerology, and other arcane subjects were in wide circulation; astrology (considered a naturalistic discipline by the standards of its time) experienced a revival; texts on secret societies like the Rosicrucians set off conspiracies about hidden knowledge held by underground cosmopolitan elites; and works like Malleus Maleficarum (1486) set off a “witch-craze” in places like England and Germany.
Eisenstein reminds us that many people, credulous and barely literate, were able to make sense of this material, and that “for at least a century and a half confusion persisted.” The gift of print fostered distrust in institutional narratives, but this new technology did not automatically teach people how to adapt, nor ensure the level of self-education it demanded of them. Protestantism announced itself as a corrective to this, partly by granting interpretive powers to the individual based on the strength of faith alone (sola fide, sola scriptura). Gutenberg’s revolution democratized information and Luther’s revolution democratized knowledge by placing the individual’s sense-making ability on par with men of the cloth.
It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, however, that this pledge was fulfilled. In the 18th century, French and English philosophers argued that the use of reason was the inheritance of all humankind. (Previous thinkers, from Plato to Machiavelli, believed that only philosophers could make responsible use of this faculty, which gave them the duty to order reality for the rest of society.) This was symbolized by Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which could be placed in every household and read independent of any persuasive authority, a Promethean project that d’Alembert actually described as a “conspiracy” in his primer to the first edition.
With this gift, the power of sense-making was successfully wrested from the first and second estates, which crumbled accordingly. But the evacuation of non-democratic classes like the clergy and the aristocracy left people rudderless, stranded without tradition (a term that could easily substitute for “narrative”). The third and fourth estates—the only estates left standing—were thus obliged to reinforce each other. This was what Nietzsche meant by his remark that newspapers were colonizing the rest of life. Oscar Wilde also deplored the fourth estate’s grip on people’s sense of reality, and likened journalists to inquisitorial priests with his quip: “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.”
A key vanguard of this new estate were writers, now empowered as narrative-makers. The formation of an individual conscience through the interpretation of text (a project that began with Protestantism) shifted from the Bible to literature as novels emerged as a popular form of self-reflection. The idea that it was the writer’s job to assist people in the conduct of life by providing examples of how good character is formed found its place in the bildungsroman, the novel of education, as well as in the moralistic, lesson-heavy novels of the 19th century (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Crime & Punishment).
This was especially the case in a raw democracy like the United States, a young society with no past, which relied on new foundational myths and the creation of its own narrative. Emerson was the first to advocate this in “The American Scholar,” in which he wrote that it was the job of the sense-making class to “cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.” Emerson, who studied at Harvard Divinity School and worked as a pastor for several years, had clerical ambitions for writers, and his prescriptive speeches have the febrile high-style of sermons.
Emerson’s championing of individualism and intuitive education, free of systems and traditions, eventually found its archetype in Abraham Lincoln, that great autodidact. But intellectual life in a democracy is far more perilous. The pledge of a democratic society is that every person gets to decide for themselves—that anyone can “figure it out”—and that there is equality in both opinion and in the ability to form an opinion. But Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to argue that equalizing opinions can make them coercive en masse. That is, the more people feel “on their own” in developing a worldview, the more susceptible they are to consensus, and the more reliant they become on the opinions of others for guidance. The removal of inherited beliefs previously determined by class, ancestry, religion, and culture, means that the new “narrative” will be whatever large numbers of people come to believe it is; otherwise known as “popular opinion.”
Tocqueville was describing intellectual life amid the democratization of sense-making. His “tyranny of the majority” refers less to an actual ratio than to the way in which popular opinion threatens independence of mind, a phenomenon that equally affects groups that consider themselves to be in a minority. As Allan Bloom writes in The Closing of the American Mind:Even those who appear to be free-thinkers really look to a constituency and expect one day to be part of a majority. They are creatures of public opinion as much as are conformists—actors of nonconformism in the theater of the conformists who admire and applaud nonconformity of certain kinds, the kinds that radicalize the already dominant opinions.The danger is not that people won’t see themselves as intelligent or reasonable individuals, but that their dependence on popular sources of “perspective” will weaken their ability to think for themselves. Emerson (who delivered “The American Scholar” two years after Democracy in America was published) agreed with Tocqueville that when opinion becomes part of the operational machinery of a society (as it is in a democracy), the individual is doomed to some extent to become “the parrot of other men’s thinking.” Emerson’s stated aim was that the scholar would save democratic man from falling into the “mass” or the “herd.” If this sounds elitist, that’s because it is. Democracies breed distrust of elites, a resentment leftover and displaced from the old distrust of nobility and clergy. Democratic resentment of elitism is attached to the distrust of narratives fashioned by the educated class, and indeed words like “educated” and “elite,” which are often applied to the media, are regularly used in tandem.
Unsurprisingly, people tend to prefer news that is more interactive and democratic—the kind that relies on opinion polling and participation. The news has always encouraged group participation, but not until very recently has it become central to its survival. It is now truly bi-directional, as social media and blogging platforms allow all information to be shared in one virtual square, where comment threads become rambling appendages to articles, commentaries on the commentary appear in the same space, every voice can be heard at once, and every contribution is equalized by the same sized font.
At the time Tocqueville was writing, most Americans got their news from local papers, and their ability to share it didn’t extend far beyond their community. This, he believed, would keep the nation safe from populism, because no single figure could command the headspace of the entire country. We have now returned to something like this decentralized environment, but its threats are unfamiliar. True independence of mind may still be impossible, but the danger now is that it will appear possible, as information siloing and algorithmically generated content (tailored to psychological profiles) furnish a circle in which we are always the center, a mobile solipsism masquerading as individualism.
Emerson’s hope that an original and democratic mind could come to know nature as “an open book” has never been so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things to know, let alone think about. In the 16th century, when it was possible to read most of what had been written, Montaigne despaired that Diomedes “wrote six thousand books on the subject of grammar” alone. What would he make of our info-glutted landscape today? A world in which Diderot’s dream has been realized, where we carry in our pockets a limitless encyclopedia, a veritable Library of Babel, the depths of which one couldn’t explore in a thousand lifetime.
All emerging technologies induce a kind of psychic trauma (conscious or unconscious) and require some rewiring of our critical faculties. Media, according to McLuhan, is an extension of the central nervous system, and not for nothing are newspapers and magazines known as organs—they are literally appendages of our senses. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan describes how movable type reshaped our way of thinking by making it more linear and sequential. It also fixed much of humanity’s knowledge to bound texts (hence Mallarmé’s remark that everything in the world exists to end up in a book). Today, the Gutenberg Brain, which was once poised to know the world as one knows a book, has been stripped of its sense-making potential, and a new kind of mind is clearly needed for the digital age.
The question is how much work a person should do to make sense of their reality, both out of self-interest and according to the responsibilities their societies place on them as citizens. In an article entitled “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,” Saul Bellow offered an answer to John F. Kennedy’s crisp proposition: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” “One can be preoccupied with it,” Bellow wrote. “That is, one can hold enlightened opinions.” Indeed, this is the very least that can be asked of anyone with the ability to vote. The stability of a polis rests on the education of its citizens. That is why Plato’s Republic is as concerned with the nature of Truth as it is with state-building. In Plato’s society, however, only the ruling class needed to know the world as it is in the light of the sun. In a democracy, this task is assigned to everybody.
But how much sense can an average citizen be expected to make of their reality? How much, for that matter, can the sense-makers? How much time can be set aside every day to consider the rising sea levels, the heating atmosphere, the lopped palm fields, the tyrannies of faraway regimes, poverty, famine, plague, mass surveillance, gun violence, geopolitical crises, nuclear proliferation, institutional political corruption, systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, AI, UBI—and do the deep-sea thinking that all these issues demand.
In the best of all possible worlds—in which the market of ideas isn’t contaminated by falsehood, disinformation, and bad faith—most people would still need help developing an opinion about any one of these subjects, which they have neither the time nor the energy to fully research and consider. In this kind of information ecosystem, informed sense-makers are surely needed more than ever. People have always appealed to an educated class for the interpretation of reality, and there is no society in which people separately and spontaneously self-educate and reject entirely the opinions of informed authorities.
Previous epochs have shown that trust in sense-making institutions is never abandoned wholesale. When one authority is displaced, another rushes in to fill the void; the old guard loses influence, and intellectual prestige is shifted elsewhere. A certain amount of dependence is therefore necessary and to be expected, along with the received beliefs that come with it. Rousseau said as much when he pointed out that the rational liberals of his time might easily have been religious zealots two centuries earlier. All societies, regardless of their political order and level of enlightenment, exert pressure towards intellectual conformity, and the line between education and conformity is often unclear.
If we follow Tocqueville’s logic, another advance in the democratization of knowledge will paradoxically produce still more herd-like behavior, and nowhere has this been demonstrated more hideously than on social media. No “Gated Institutional Narrative” can hope to compete (at least, not for long) with the all-swallowing leviathan that is the Internet. If the culture were a book, as Mallarmé thought, it would be a postmodern novel in which the characters, conscious of the author’s operations, have conspired against them and hijacked the story. The narrative is now being written by everybody all the time. In which case, we should conduct ourselves with the same honesty and responsibility that we demand of the gatekeepers in whom we have lost faith.