And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Master Signifier's...

- Rex Butler, "Slavoj Zizek: What is a Master-Signifier"
...in 1930s Germany the Nazi narrative of social reality won out over the socialist-revolutionary narrative not because it was better able to account for the 'crisis' in liberal-bourgeois ideology, but because it was able to impose the idea that there was a 'crisis' - a 'crisis' of which the socialist-revolutionary narrative was itself a part and which must ultimately be explained because of the 'Jewish conspiracy' (TS, 179).

The same 'arbitrariness' applies not only to reality but to those ideological systems by which we construct reality. That is, again following the analogy of Saussure's conception of language, the meaning of particular political or ideological terms is not fixed or unchanging but given only through their articulation with other terms. For example, the meaning of 'ecologism' is not the same in every ideological system but shifts between several possible meanings: there is feminist ecology, in which the exploitation of nature is seen as masculine; socialist ecology, in which the exploitation of nature is seen as the product of capitalism; conservative ecology, which urges us to get back to the cycles of nature; and even capitalist ecology, which sees the free market as the only solution to our current environmental problems (SO, 87). The same would apply to the terms 'feminism', 'socialism', 'conservatism' and 'capitalism' themselves. And ideology is the struggle over which of these elements not only is defined by its relationship with the others but also allows this relationship, is that medium through which they are organized. It is the struggle not only to be one of those free-floating ideological signifiers whose meaning is 'quilted' or determined by another but also that signifier which gives those others their meaning, to which they must ultimately be understood to be referring.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The New Society of Control

- Zizek on Google leak, "We are moving into a new, controlled society worse than old totalitarianism"
Modern censorship is more dangerous than open totalitarianism, it being concealed and incorporated in our daily routine, says Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, commenting on the insider leak detailing Google’s news blacklist.

The intellectual told RT he’s not advocating for online anarchy, comparing it to snuff movies in hardcore pornography – some regulation should be in place to block harmful content on the internet, he says. But hiding political motives for suppressing voices online is what worries Zizek the most.

“We all know we have to censor things at some level, but the main rule for me is that the process should be transparent. Not in the way – I’m talking about the developed West – it is done now, when all of a sudden somebody is prohibited and you are not even allowed to debate it,” Zizek explains. The “false choice” between politically correct censorship and radical liberalism is a trap, he believes.

This week, conservative transparency group Project Veritas published documents it received from an ex-Google employee. The documents appeared to confirm that Google can boost or de-rank news sources based on a seemingly biased set of internal rules. Calling the practices “dark and nefarious” the whistleblower, Zachary Vorhies, also leaked a doc detailing Google’s “blacklist” that lists nearly 500 websites, including both conservative and leftist media outlets.

Zizek believes the Big Tech's practice of blacklists and shadow bans could prove an opportunity for right-wing activists to show themselves as a group fighting establishment politics and targeted for their opposition. The philosopher thinks this tactic will actually backfire against liberals by giving “the new populist right a position where they can say: you see, we’re the true alternative, we’re the true oppressed.”

Google is likely not the only tech megacorporation with a tight grip on their users’ digital menu, Zizek argues – but “the process isn’t some kind of a dark plot,” rather an inconspicuous slide “into a new, controlled society.”

What’s terrifying about it is that we don’t even experience it as something controlled. We just use social media, buy things, go to a doctor – and all the data about us is out there. But those are the things that we perceive as our freedom. So what we perceive as freedom becomes the very way we are controlled.
One doesn’t know anymore “if there is secret police following you or somebody reading your letters,” and this in Zizek’s mind is what differentiates it from the totalitarianism of the past. Modern control is hidden and undeclared, Zizek says.
...the old

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Journalist's Gaze....

from The Daily Maverick
My view is inscribed in my gaze; I can’t escape myself in the gaze.

The gaze is always already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its blind spot, that which is “in the object more than the object itself”, the point from which the object itself returns the gaze, as political philosopher Slavoj Zizek theorised. “Sure, the picture is in my eye, but me, I am also in the picture.” This is so relevant today as we discuss media credibility and the future of journalism.

Enter ideology and riven politics: the media in South Africa is not one homogenous whole but is split and fractured, and so it should be. It should be multiple, but more and more mainstream media is resembling the politics of the day: in two binary oppositions with no nuance, a typical characteristic of social media too.

If you are confused about what is real, what is true, fact, propaganda or fiction, you are not alone; join the rest of the world. I come back to this point about my place, my gaze. Ideological dogma provides safe havens from truth, nuance and complexity. And so there is groupthink – you are either for the public protector or not, for gun control or not, are a feminist or not, believe in the bogus rogue unit at SARS or not, accept that climate change exists or not.

So my view is inscribed in my gaze and therefore I cannot see because I cannot afford to see – it blocks the ideology and it’s in the excess that the ideology resides. There is always some truth but it’s in the excess and surplus that we get the ideology.

Let us take some examples of the ideological excess: all tax revenue collection institutions in the world need an investigative unit – but if you are hiding something and you need to discredit an institution then you replace “investigative” with “rogue”. Then you label and hail all who seek the facts or put the facts forward as being part of a “cabal”. You need to build your story. For those on the side supporting the end to corruption, there is so much at stake politically in the country that they get caught up in the fights on social media, rather than sticking with the facts of which there are enough. But the ideological interpellators (those who label, hail and shame) provoke on a daily if not hourly basis, and so often journalists respond and provide the oxygen for the fire. Because journalism became embroiled in such excess and surplus, the credibility of the industry, the craft or profession is now at stake. But the facts have to be told and some journalists are doing this.

Journalism is not objective, nor are journalists neutral amorphous operators. Some think they are but they carry around all their biases and lived experiences, naturally. Hence I remind about the “blind spots” of ideology; and what we are seeing today are fantasmic operators who are not just creating fantasy but are operating in theoretical amnesia – conscious or unconscious – that they are ideological subjects doing the work of crooks.

The traditional model of journalism is dying or dead; Facebook and Google need regulation, but this won’t stop death. Job losses are phenomenal due to technological disruption/social media, and companies now make profits but only for the bosses, whose jobs they save. As newsrooms are shed of senior staff the quality of journalism has declined, especially with no subs’ desks and not even replaced by fact-checkers. This is the biggest threat to the credibility of news media – 50% of professional journalist jobs have been lost over the past decade, according to the SA Job Losses in Journalism survey of 2018, which is part of the international wing of the New Beats project.

We can’t easily change the times we live in the ideological chasms with two wide-apart rifts consisting of hard lines, or enemy lines. It’s quite the opposite of the legitimate adversaries we are supposed to be in a democracy. But news media can avoid being part of the hard enemy lines and instead be more nuanced to highlight the complexities. One of the ways to do this is for journalists to move out of the opinion space of toxic Twitter and deal with just the facts and analysis.

Credibility is also at stake if we do not have one big media ethics code, rather than different things applying to different aspects of media – because of convergence we have a radio newscast, going online, then getting tweeted and then redundantly in the newspaper the next day – so of course, we need one code. We definitely should be thinking of ways to strengthen the regulation of the online and social media space.

Then there are tax incentives that can be imagined to encourage organisations, civil societies, government entities and businesses to encourage philanthropic support for journalism; and then there are green shoots and non-profits that can be supported. If we don’t sort out this space, our democracy is at stake.

It’s going to be chaotic, vile and messy for a while.

This column was written in preparation for the panel discussion on the Future of Journalism series: Part 1 on media credibility, organised by Media Monitoring Africa and the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg, 13 August 2019.

Rejecting the Hoard Leader by Denying SuperEgo: Inventing Law Out of the Liberal Fear of Harrassment

Slavoj Žižek, "Against Human Rights"

Alibi for militarist interventions, sacralization for the tyranny of the market, ideological foundation for the fundamentalism of the politically correct: can the ‘symbolic fiction’ of universal rights be recuperated for the progressive politicization of actual socio-economic relations?

Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others.

Let us begin with fundamentalism. Here, the evil (to paraphrase Hegel) often dwells in the gaze that perceives it. Take the Balkans during the 1990s, the site of widespread human-rights violations. At what point did the Balkans—a geographical region of South-Eastern Europe—become ‘Balkan’, with all that designates for the European ideological imaginary today? The answer is: the mid-19th century, just as the Balkans were being fully exposed to the effects of European modernization. The gap between earlier Western European perceptions and the ‘modern’ image is striking. Already in the 16th century the French naturalist Pierre Belon could note that ‘the Turks force no one to live like a Turk’. Small surprise, then, that so many Jews found asylum and religious freedom in Turkey and other Muslim countries after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled them from Spain in 1492—with the result that, in a supreme twist of irony, Western travellers were disturbed by the public presence of Jews in big Turkish cities. Here, from a long series of examples, is a report from N. Bisani, an Italian who visited Istanbul in 1788:
A stranger, who has beheld the intolerance of London and Paris, must be much surprised to see a church here between a mosque and a synagogue, and a dervish by the side of a Capuchin friar. I know not how this government can have admitted into its bosom religions so opposite to its own. It must be from degeneracy of Mahommedanism, that this happy contrast can be produced. What is still more astonishing is to find that this spirit of toleration is generally prevalent among the people; for here you see Turks, Jews, Catholics, Armenians, Greeks and Protestants conversing together on subjects of business or pleasure with as much harmony and goodwill as if they were of the same country and religion. [1]
The very feature that the West today celebrates as the sign of its cultural superiority—the spirit and practice of multicultural tolerance—is thus dismissed as an effect of Islamic ‘degeneracy’. The strange fate of the Trappist monks of Etoile Marie is equally telling. Expelled from France by the Napoleonic regime, they settled in Germany, but were driven out in 1868. Since no other Christian state would take them, they asked the Sultan’s permission to buy land near Banja Luka, in the Serb part of today’s Bosnia, where they lived happily ever after—until they got caught in the Balkan conflicts between Christians.

Where, then, did the fundamentalist features—religious intolerance, ethnic violence, fixation upon historical trauma—which the West now associates with ‘the Balkan’, originate? Clearly, from the West itself. In a neat instance of Hegel’s ‘reflexive determination’, what Western Europeans observe and deplore in the Balkans is what they themselves introduced there; what they combat is their own historical legacy run amok. Let us not forget that the two great ethnic crimes imputed to the Turks in the 20th century—the Armenian genocide and the persecution of the Kurds—were not committed by traditionalist Muslim political forces, but by the military modernizers who sought to cut Turkey loose from its old-world ballast and turn it into a European nation-state. Mladen Dolar’s old quip, based on a detailed reading of Freud’s references to the region, that the European unconscious is structured like the Balkans, is thus literally true: in the guise of the Otherness of ‘Balkan’, Europe takes cognizance of the ‘stranger in itself’, of its own repressed.

But we might also examine the ways in which the ‘fundamentalist’ essentialization of contingent traits is itself a feature of liberal-capitalist democracy. It is fashionable to complain that private life is threatened or even disappearing, in face of the media’s ability to expose one’s most intimate personal details to the public. True, on condition that we turn things around: what is effectively disappearing here is public life itself, the public sphere proper, in which one operates as a symbolic agent who cannot be reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of personal attributes, desires, traumas and idiosyncrasies. The ‘risk society’ commonplace—according to which the contemporary individual experiences himself as thoroughly ‘denaturalized’, regarding even his most ‘natural’ traits, from ethnic identity to sexual preference, as being chosen, historically contingent, learned—is thus profoundly deceiving. What we are witnessing today is the opposite process: an unprecedented re-naturalization. All big ‘public issues’ are now translated into attitudes towards the regulation of ‘natural’ or ‘personal’ idiosyncrasies.

This explains why, at a more general level, pseudo-naturalized ethno-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which best suits global capitalism. In the age of ‘post-politics’, when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the sole remaining legitimate sources of conflict are cultural (religious) or natural (ethnic) tensions. And ‘evaluation’ is precisely the regulation of social promotion that fits with this re-naturalization. Perhaps the time has come to reassert, as the truth of evaluation, the perverted logic to which Marx refers ironically in his description of commodity fetishism, quoting Dogberry’s advice to Seacoal at the end of Capital’s Chapter 1: ‘To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.’ To be a computer expert or a successful manager is a gift of nature today, but lovely lips or eyes are a fact of culture.

Unfreedom of choice

As to freedom of choice: I have written elsewhere of the pseudo-choice offered to the adolescents of Amish communities who, after the strictest of upbringings, are invited at the age of seventeen to plunge themselves into every excess of contemporary capitalist culture—a whirl of fast cars, wild sex, drugs, drink and so forth. [2] After a couple of years, they are allowed to choose whether they want to return to the Amish way. Since they have been brought up in virtual ignorance of American society, the youngsters are quite unprepared to cope with such permissiveness, which in most cases generates a backlash of unbearable anxiety. The vast majority vote to return to the seclusion of their communities. This is a perfect case of the difficulties that invariably accompany ‘freedom of choice’: while Amish children are formally given a free choice, the conditions in which they must make it render the choice unfree.

The problem of pseudo-choice also demonstrates the limitations of the standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women who wear the veil: acceptable if it is their own free choice rather than imposed on them by husbands or family. However, the moment a woman dons the veil as the result of personal choice, its meaning changes completely: it is no longer a sign of belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of idiosyncratic individuality. In other words, a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil that effectively chooses a choice. This is why, in our secular liberal democracies, people who maintain a substantial religious allegiance are in a subordinate position: their faith is ‘tolerated’ as their own personal choice, but the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them—a matter of substantial belonging—they stand accused of ‘fundamentalism’. Plainly, the ‘subject of free choice’, in the ‘tolerant’, multicultural sense, can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being uprooted from one’s particular life-world.

The material force of the ideological notion of ‘free choice’ within capitalist democracy was well illustrated by the fate of the Clinton Administration’s ultra-modest health reform programme. The medical lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defence lobby) succeeded in imposing on the public the idea that universal healthcare would somehow threaten freedom of choice in that domain. Against this conviction, all enumeration of ‘hard facts’ proved ineffective. We are here at the very nerve-centre of liberal ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the ‘psychological’ subject, endowed with propensities which he or she strives to realize. And this especially holds today, in the era of a ‘risk society’ in which the ruling ideology endeavours to sell us the very insecurities caused by the dismantling of the welfare state as the opportunity for new freedoms. If labour flexibilization means you have to change jobs every year, why not see it as a liberation from the constraints of a permanent career, a chance to reinvent yourself and realize the hidden potential of your personality? If there is a shortfall on your standard health insurance and retirement plan, meaning you have to opt for extra coverage, why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either a better lifestyle now or long-term security? Should this predicament cause you anxiety, the ‘second modernity’ ideologist will diagnose you as desiring to ‘escape from freedom’, of an immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the ‘psychological’ individual, pregnant with natural abilities, you will automatically tend to interpret all these changes as the outcome of your personality, not as the result of being thrown around by market forces.

Politics of jouissance

What of the basic right to the pursuit of pleasure? Today’s politics is ever more concerned with ways of soliciting or controlling jouissance. The opposition between the liberal-tolerant West and fundamentalist Islam is most often condensed as that between, on the one side, a woman’s right to free sexuality, including the freedom to display or expose herself and to provoke or disturb men; and, on the other side, desperate male attempts to suppress or control this threat. (The Taliban forbade metal-tipped heels for women, as the tapping sounds coming from beneath an all-concealing burka might have an overpowering erotic appeal.)

Both sides, of course, mystify their position ideologically and morally. For the West, women’s right to expose themselves provocatively to male desire is legitimized as their right to enjoy their bodies as they please. For Islam, the control of female sexuality is legitimized as the defence of women’s dignity against their being reduced to objects of male exploitation. So when the French state prohibits Muslim girls from wearing the veil in school, one can claim that they are thus enabled to dispose of their bodies as they wish. But one can also argue that the true traumatic point for critics of Muslim ‘fundamentalism’ was that there were women who did not participate in the game of making their bodies available for sexual seduction, or for the social exchange and circulation involved in this. In one way or another, all the other issues—gay marriage and adoption, abortion, divorce—relate to this. What the two poles share is a strict disciplinary approach, differently directed: ‘fundamentalists’ regulate female self-presentation to forestall sexual provocation; pc feminist liberals impose a no-less-severe regulation of behaviour aimed at containing forms of harassment.

Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others. The same goes for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism. War is acceptable insofar as it seeks to bring about peace, or democracy, or the conditions for distributing humanitarian aid. And does the same not hold even more for democracy and human rights themselves? Human rights are ok if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent emergency state. Democracy is ok if it is cleansed of its populist excesses and limited to those mature enough to practise it.

Caught in the vicious cycle of the imperative of jouissance, the temptation is to opt for what appears its ‘natural’ opposite, the violent renunciation of jouissance. This is perhaps the underlying motif of all so-called fundamentalisms—the endeavour to contain (what they perceive as) the excessive ‘narcissistic hedonism’ of contemporary secular culture with a call to reintroduce the spirit of sacrifice. A psychoanalytic perspective immediately enables us to see why such an endeavour goes wrong. The very gesture of casting away enjoyment—‘Enough of decadent self-indulgence! Renounce and purify!’—produces a surplus-enjoyment of its own. Do not all ‘totalitarian’ universes which demand of their subjects a violent (self-)sacrifice to the cause exude the bad smell of a fascination with a lethal-obscene jouissance? Conversely, a life oriented towards the pursuit of pleasure will entail the harsh discipline of a ‘healthy lifestyle’—jogging, dieting, mental relaxation—if it is to be enjoyed to the maximum. The superego injunction to enjoy oneself is immanently intertwined with the logic of sacrifice. The two form a vicious cycle, each extreme supporting the other. The choice is never simply between doing one’s duty or striving for pleasure and satisfaction. This elementary choice is always redoubled by a further one, between elevating one’s striving for pleasure into one’s supreme duty, and doing one’s duty not for duty’s sake but for the gratification it brings. In the first case, pleasures are my duty, and the ‘pathological’ striving for pleasure is located in the formal space of duty. In the second case, duty is my pleasure, and doing my duty is located in the formal space of ‘pathological’ satisfactions.

Defence against power?

But if human rights as opposition to fundamentalism and as pursuit of happiness lead us into intractable contradictions, are they not after all a defence against the excess of power? Marx formulated the strange logic of power as ‘in excess’ by its very nature in his analyses of 1848. In The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Class Struggles in France, he ‘complicated’ in a properly dialectical way the logic of social representation (political agents representing economic classes and forces). In doing so, he went much further than the usual notion of these ‘complications’, according to which political representation never directly mirrors social structure—a single political agent can represent different social groups, for instance; or a class can renounce its direct representation and leave to another the job of securing the politico-juridical conditions of its rule, as the English capitalist class did by leaving to the aristocracy the exercise of political power. Marx’s analyses pointed towards what Lacan would articulate, more than a century later, as the ‘logic of the signifier’. Apropos the Party of Order, formed after the defeat of the June insurrection, Marx wrote that only after Louis-Napoleon’s December 10 election victory allowed it to ‘cast off’ its coterie of bourgeois republicans was the secret of its existence, the coalition of Orléanists and Legitimists into one party, disclosed. The bourgeois class fell apart into two big factions which alternately—the big landed proprietors under the restored monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under the July Monarchy—had maintained a monopoly of power. Bourbon was the royal name for the predominant influence of the interests of the one faction, Orléans the royal name for the predominant influence of the interests of the other faction—the nameless realm of the republic was the only one in which both factions could maintain with equal power the common class interest without giving up their mutual rivalry. [3]

This, then, is the first complication. When we are dealing with two or more socio-economic groups, their common interest can only be represented in the guise of the negation of their shared premise: the common denominator of the two royalist factions is not royalism, but republicanism. (Just as today, the only political agent that consistently represents the interests of capital as such, in its universality, above particular factions, is the ‘social liberal’ Third Way.) Then, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx dissected the makeup of the Society of December 10, Louis-Napoleon’s private army of thugs:
Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10 . . . This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpen proletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrases. [4]
The logic of the Party of Order is here brought to its radical conclusion. In the same way that the only common denominator of all royalist factions is republicanism, the only common denominator of all classes is the excremental excess, the refuse, the remainder, of all classes. That is to say, insofar as the leader perceives himself as standing above class interests, his immediate class base can only be the excremental remainder of all classes, the rejected non-class of each class. And, as Marx develops in another passage, it is this support from the ‘social abject’ which enables Bonaparte to shift his position as required, representing in turn each class against the others.

As the executive authority which has made itself independent, Bonaparte feels it to be his task to safeguard ‘bourgeois order’. But the strength of this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He poses, therefore, as the representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense. Nevertheless, he is somebody solely because he has broken the power of that middle class, and keeps on breaking it daily. He poses, therefore, as the opponent of the political and literary power of the middle class. [5]

But there is more. In order for this system to function—that is, for the leader to stand above classes and not to act as a direct representative of any one class—he also has to act as the representative of one particular class: of the class which, precisely, is not sufficiently constituted to act as a united agent demanding active representation. This class of people who cannot represent themselves and can thus only be represented is, of course, the class of small-holding peasants, who form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse . . . They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself. [6]

These three features together form the paradoxical structure of populist-Bonapartist representation: standing above all classes, shifting among them, involves a direct reliance on the abject/remainder of all classes, plus the ultimate reference to the class of those who are unable to act as a collective agent demanding political representation. This paradox is grounded in the constitutive excess of representation over the represented. At the level of the law, the state power merely represents the interests of its subjects; it serves them, is responsible to them, and is itself subject to their control. However, at the level of the superego underside, the public message of responsibility is supplemented by the obscene message of the unconditional exercise of power: ‘Laws do not really bind me, I can do to you whatever I want, I can treat you as guilty if I decide to do so, I can destroy you on a whim’. This obscene excess is a necessary constituent of the notion of sovereignty. The asymmetry here is structural: the law can only sustain its authority if subjects hear in it the echo of the obscene, unconditional self-assertion of power.

This excess of power brings us to the ultimate argument against ‘big’ political interventions which aim at global transformation: the terrifying experiences of the 20th century, a series of catastrophes which precipitated disastrous violence on an unprecedented scale. There are three main theorizations of these catastrophes. First, the view epitomized by the name of Habermas: Enlightenment is in itself a positive, emancipatory process with no inherent ‘totalitarian’ potential; the catastrophes that have occurred merely indicate that it remains an unfinished project, and our task should be to bring this project to completion. Second, the view associated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and, today, with Agamben. The ‘totalitarian’ bent of Enlightenment is inherent and definitive, the ‘administered world’ is its true consequence, and concentration camps and genocides are a kind of negative-teleological endpoint of the entire history of the West. Third, the view developed in the works of Etienne Balibar, among others: modernity opens up a field of new freedoms, but at the same time of new dangers, and there is no ultimate teleological guarantee of the outcome. The contest remains open and undecided.

The starting point of Balibar’s text on violence is the insufficiency of the standard Hegelian-Marxist notion of ‘converting’ violence into an instrument of historical Reason, a force which begets a new social formation. [7] The ‘irrational’ brutality of violence is thus aufgehoben, ‘sublated’ in the strict Hegelian sense, reduced to a particular ‘stain’ that contributes to the overall harmony of historical progress. The 20th century confronted us with catastrophes—some directed against Marxist political forces, others generated by Marxist engagement itself—which cannot be ‘rationalized’ in this way. Their instrumentalization into the tools of the Cunning of Reason is not only ethically unacceptable but also theoretically wrong, ideological in the strongest sense of the term. In his close reading of Marx, Balibar nonetheless discerns an oscillation between this teleological ‘conversion-theory’ of violence, and a much more interesting notion of history as an open-ended process of antagonistic struggles, whose final ‘positive’ outcome is not guaranteed by any encompassing historical necessity.

Balibar argues that, for necessary structural reasons, Marxism is unable to think the excess of violence that cannot be integrated into the narrative of historical Progress. More specifically, it cannot provide an adequate theory of fascism and Stalinism and their ‘extreme’ outcomes, Shoah and Gulag. Our task is therefore twofold: to deploy a theory of historical violence as something which cannot be instrumentalized by any political agent, which threatens to engulf this agent itself in a self-destructive vicious cycle; and also to pose the question of how to turn the revolutionary process itself into a civilizing force. As a counter-example, take the process that led to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine de Medici’s goal was limited and precise: hers was a Machiavellian plot to assassinate Admiral de Coligny—a powerful Protestant pushing for war with Spain in the Netherlands—and let the blame fall on the over-mighty Catholic family of de Guise. Thus Catherine sought to engineer the fall of both the houses that posed a menace to the unity of the French state. But the bid to play her enemies off against each other degenerated into an uncontrolled frenzy of blood. In her ruthless pragmatism, Catherine was blind to the passion with which men clung to their beliefs.

Hannah Arendt’s insights are crucial here, emphasizing the distinction between political power and the mere exercise of violence. Organizations run by direct non-political authority—Army, Church, school—represent examples of violence (Gewalt), not of political power in the strict sense of the term. [8] At this point, however, we need to recall the distinction between the public, symbolic law and its obscene supplement. The notion of the obscene double-supplement of power implies that there is no power without violence. Political space is never ‘pure’ but always involves some kind of reliance on pre-political violence. Of course, the relationship between political power and pre-political violence is one of mutual implication. Not only is violence the necessary supplement of power, but power itself is always-already at the root of every apparently ‘non-political’ relationship of violence. The accepted violence and direct relationship of subordination within the Army, Church, family and other ‘non-political’ social forms is in itself the reification of a certain ethico-political struggle. The task of critical analysis is to discern the hidden political process that sustains all these ‘non’ or ‘pre’-political relationships. In human society, the political is the encompassing structuring principle, so that every neutralization of some partial content as ‘non-political’ is a political gesture par excellence.

Humanitarian purity

It is within this context that we can situate the most salient human rights issue: the rights of those who are starving or exposed to murderous violence. Rony Brauman, who co-ordinated aid to Sarajevo, has demonstrated how the very presentation of the crisis there as ‘humanitarian’, the very recasting of a political-military conflict into humanitarian terms, was sustained by an eminently political choice—basically, to take the Serb side in the conflict. The celebration of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Yugoslavia took the place of a political discourse, Brauman argues, thus disqualifying in advance all conflicting debate. [9]

From this particular insight we may problematize, at a general level, the ostensibly depoliticized politics of human rights as the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political ends. As Wendy Brown has suggested apropos Michael Ignatieff, such humanitarianism presents itself as something of an anti-politics, a pure defence of the innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defence of the individual against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture, state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations or instantiations of collective power against individuals. [10]

However, the question is: what kind of politicization do those who intervene on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose? Do they stand for a different formulation of justice, or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects? For example, it is clear that the us-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by hard-headed politico-economic interests but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be delivered to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, insertion into the global market economy, etc. The purely humanitarian, anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus amounts to an implicit prohibition on elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.

At an even more general level, we might problematize the opposition between the universal (pre-political) human rights possessed by every human being ‘as such’ and the specific political rights of a citizen, or member of a particular political community. In this sense, Balibar argues for the ‘reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between “man” and “citizen”’ that proceeds by ‘explaining how man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man.’ [11] Balibar alludes here to Arendt’s insight on the condition of refugees:
The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were still human. [12] This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer as a human being reduced to ‘bare life’. In a properly Hegelian dialectics of universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of the particular socio-political identity that accounts for his determinate citizenship that—in one and the same move—he ceases to be recognized or treated as human. [13] Paradoxically, I am deprived of human rights at the very moment at which I am reduced to a human being ‘in general’, and thus become the ideal bearer of those ‘universal human rights’ which belong to me independently of my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity, etc.
What, then, happens to human rights when they are the rights of homo sacer, of those excluded from the political community; that is, when they are of no use, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, and are treated as inhuman? Jacques Rancière proposes a salient dialectical reversal: ‘When they are of no use, one does the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. One gives them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes and rights.’ Nevertheless, they do not become void, for ‘political names and political places never become merely void’. Instead the void is filled by somebody or something else:
if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact the human rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the ‘right to humanitarian interference’—a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the humanitarian organizations themselves. The ‘right to humanitarian interference’ might be described as a sort of ‘return to sender’: the disused rights that had been sent to the rightless are sent back to the senders. [14]
So, to put it in the Leninist way: what the ‘human rights of Third World suffering victims’ effectively means today, in the predominant discourse, is the right of Western powers themselves to intervene politically, economically, culturally and militarily in the Third World countries of their choice, in the name of defending human rights. The reference to Lacan’s formula of communication (in which the sender gets his own message back from the receiver-addressee in its inverted, i.e. true, form) is very much to the point here. In the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the developed West is effectively getting back from the victimized Third World its own message in its true form.

The moment human rights are thus depoliticized, the discourse dealing with them has to change: the pre-political opposition of Good and Evil must be mobilized anew. Today’s ‘new reign of ethics’, clearly invoked in, say, Ignatieff’s work, thus relies on a violent gesture of depoliticization, depriving the victimized other of any political subjectivization. And, as Rancière points out, liberal humanitarianism à la Ignatieff unexpectedly meets the ‘radical’ position of Foucault or Agamben with regard to this depoliticization: their notion of ‘biopolitics’ as the culmination of Western thought ends up getting caught in a kind of ‘ontological trap’, in which concentration camps appear as ontological destiny: ‘each of us would be in the situation of the refugee in a camp. Any difference grows faint between democracy and totalitarianism and any political practice proves to be already ensnared in the biopolitical trap’. [15]

We thus arrive at a standard ‘anti-essentialist’ position, a kind of political version of Foucault’s notion of sex as generated by the multitude of the practices of sexuality. ‘Man’, the bearer of human rights, is generated by a set of political practices which materialize citizenship; ‘human rights’ are, as such, a false ideological universality, which masks and legitimizes a concrete politics of Western imperialism, military interventions and neo-colonialism. Is this, however, enough?

Universality’s return

The Marxist symptomal reading can convincingly demonstrate the content that gives the notion of human rights its specific bourgeois ideological spin: universal human rights are effectively the right of white, male property-owners to exchange freely on the market, exploit workers and women, and exert political domination. This identification of the particular content that hegemonizes the universal form is, however, only half the story. Its crucial other half consists in asking a more difficult, supplementary question: that of the emergence of the form of universality itself. How—in what specific historical conditions—does abstract universality become a ‘fact of (social) life’? In what conditions do individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights? Therein resides the point of Marx’s analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’: in a society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals in their daily lives relate to themselves, and to the objects they encounter, as to contingent embodiments of abstract-universal notions. What I am, in terms of my concrete social or cultural background, is experienced as contingent, since what ultimately defines me is the ‘abstract’ universal capacity to think or to work. Likewise, any object that can satisfy my desire is experienced as contingent, since my desire is conceived as an ‘abstract’ formal capacity, indifferent to the multitude of particular objects that may, but never fully do, satisfy it.

Or take the example of ‘profession’: the modern notion of profession implies that I experience myself as an individual who is not directly ‘born into’ his social role. What I will become depends on the interplay between contingent social circumstances and my free choice. In this sense, today’s individual has a profession, as electrician, waiter or lecturer, while it is meaningless to claim that the medieval serf was a peasant by profession. In the specific social conditions of commodity exchange and the global market economy, ‘abstraction’ becomes a direct feature of actual social life, the way concrete individuals behave and relate to their fate and to their social surroundings. In this regard Marx shares Hegel’s insight, that universality becomes ‘for itself’ only when individuals no longer fully identify the kernel of their being with their particular social situation; only insofar as they experience themselves as forever ‘out of joint’ with it. The concrete existence of universality is, therefore, the individual without a proper place in the social edifice. The mode of appearance of universality, its entering into actual existence, is thus an extremely violent act of disrupting the preceding organic poise.

It is not enough to make the well-worn Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it. At this level the counter-argument (made, among others, by Lefort and Rancière), that the form is never ‘mere’ form but involves a dynamics of its own, which leaves traces in the materiality of social life, is fully valid. It was bourgeois ‘formal freedom’ that set in motion the very ‘material’ political demands and practices of feminism or trade unionism. Rancière’s basic emphasis is on the radical ambiguity of the Marxist notion of the ‘gap’ between formal democracy—the Rights of Man, political freedoms—and the economic reality of exploitation and domination. This gap can be read in the standard ‘symptomatic’ way: formal democracy is a necessary but illusory expression of a concrete social reality of exploitation and class domination. But it can also be read in the more subversive sense of a tension in which the ‘appearance’ of égaliberté is not a ‘mere appearance’ but contains an efficacy of its own, which allows it to set in motion the rearticulation of actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive ‘politicization’. Why shouldn’t women also be allowed to vote? Why shouldn’t workplace conditions be a matter of public concern as well?

We might perhaps apply here the old Lévi-Straussian term of ‘symbolic efficiency’: the appearance of égaliberté is a symbolic fiction which, as such, possesses actual efficiency of its own; the properly cynical temptation of reducing it to a mere illusion that conceals a different actuality should be resisted. It is not enough merely to posit an authentic articulation of a life-world experience which is then reappropriated by those in power to serve their particular interests or to render their subjects docile cogs in the social machine. Much more interesting is the opposite process, in which something that was originally an ideological edifice imposed by colonizers is all of a sudden taken over by their subjects as a means to articulate their ‘authentic’ grievances. A classic case would be the Virgin of Guadalupe in newly colonized Mexico: with her appearance to a humble Indian, Christianity—which until then served as the imposed ideology of the Spanish colonizers—was appropriated by the indigenous population as a means to symbolize their terrible plight.

Rancière has proposed a very elegant solution to the antinomy between human rights, belonging to ‘man as such’, and the politicization of citizens. While human rights cannot be posited as an unhistorical ‘essentialist’ Beyond with regard to the contingent sphere of political struggles, as universal ‘natural rights of man’ exempted from history, neither should they be dismissed as a reified fetish, the product of concrete historical processes of the politicization of citizens. The gap between the universality of human rights and the political rights of citizens is thus not a gap between the universality of man and a specific political sphere. Rather, it ‘separates the whole of the community from itself’. [16] Far from being pre-political, ‘universal human rights’ designate the precise space of politicization proper; what they amount to is the right to universality as such—the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself (in its particular identity), to posit itself as the ‘supernumerary’, the one with no proper place in the social edifice; and thus as an agent of universality of the social itself. The paradox is therefore a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity. At the very moment when we try to conceive the political rights of citizens without reference to a universal ‘meta-political’ human rights, we lose politics itself; that is to say, we reduce politics to a ‘post-political’ play of negotiation of particular interests.
[1] Quoted in Bozidar Jezernik, Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers, London 2004, p. 233.
[2] ‘The constitution is dead. Long live proper politics’, Guardian, 4 June 2005.
[3] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. i, Moscow 1969, p. 83.
[4] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, Moscow 1975, p. 149.
[5] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, p. 194.
[6] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, pp. 187–8.
[7] Etienne Balibar, ‘Gewalt’: entry for Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 5, ed. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Hamburg 2002.
[8] Hannah Arendt, On Violence, New York 1970.
[9] Rony Brauman, ‘From Philanthropy to Humanitarianism’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, Spring–Summer 2004, pp. 398–9 and 416.
[10] Wendy Brown, ‘Human Rights as the Politics of Fatalism’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, p. 453.
[11] Etienne Balibar, ‘Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible?’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 320–1.
[12] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1958, p. 297.
[13] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, Stanford 1998.
[14] Jacques Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 307–9.
[15] Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 301.
[16] Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 305.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The New Donald Trumpkinhead Populism

-Slavoj Zizek, "Liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face" (10/3/2010)
Across Europe, the politics of the far right is infecting us all with the need for a 'reasonable' anti-immigration policy

The recent expulsion of Roma, or Gypsies, from France drew protests from all around Europe – from the liberal media but also from top politicians, and not only from those on the left. But the expulsions went ahead, and they are just the tip of a much larger iceberg of European politics.

A month ago, a book by Thilo Sarrazin, a bank executive who was considered politically close to the Social Democrats, caused an uproar in Germany. Its thesis is that German nationhood is threatened because too many immigrants are allowed to maintain their cultural identity. Although the book, titled Germany Does Away with Itself, was overwhelmingly condemned, its tremendous impact suggests that it touched a nerve.

Incidents like these have to be seen against the background of a long-term rearrangement of the political space in western and eastern Europe. Until recently, most European countries were dominated by two main parties that addressed the majority of the electorate: a right-of-centre party (Christian Democrat, liberal-conservative, people's) and a left-of-centre party (socialist, social-democratic), with smaller parties (ecologists, communists) addressing a narrower electorate.

Recent electoral results in the west as well as in the east signal the gradual emergence of a different polarity. There is now one predominant centrist party that stands for global capitalism, usually with a liberal cultural agenda (for example, tolerance towards abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities). Opposing this party is an increasingly strong anti-immigrant populist party which, on its fringes, is accompanied by overtly racist neofascist groups. The best example of this is Poland where, after the disappearance of the ex-communists, the main parties are the "anti-ideological" centrist liberal party of the prime minister Donald Tusk and the conservative Christian Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski brothers. Similar tendencies are discernible in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Hungary. How did we get here?

After decades of hope held out by the welfare state, when financial cuts were sold as temporary, and sustained by a promise that things would soon return to normal, we are entering a new epoch in which crisis – or, rather, a kind of economic state of emergency, with its attendant need for all sorts of austerity measures (cutting benefits, diminishing health and education services, making jobs more temporary) is permanent. Crisis is becoming a way of life.

After the disintegration of the communist regimes in 1990, we entered a new era in which the predominant form of the exercise of state power became a depoliticised expert administration and the co-ordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this kind of politics, the only way to actively mobilise people, is through fear: the fear of immigrants, the fear of crime, the fear of godless sexual depravity, the fear of the excessive state (with its burden of high taxation and control), the fear of ecological catastrophe, as well as the fear of harassment (political correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear).

Such a politics always relies on the manipulation of a paranoid multitude – the frightening rallying of frightened men and women. This is why the big event of the first decade of the new millennium was when anti-immigration politics went mainstream and finally cut the umbilical cord that had connected it to far right fringe parties. From France to Germany, from Austria to Holland, in the new spirit of pride in one's cultural and historical identity, the main parties now find it acceptable to stress that immigrants are guests who have to accommodate themselves to the cultural values that define the host society – "it is our country, love it or leave it" is the message.

Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by such populist racism. However, a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect of differences share with those who oppose immigration the need to keep others at a proper distance. "The others are OK, I respect them," the liberals say, "but they must not intrude too much on my own space. The moment they do, they harass me – I fully support affirmative action, but I am in no way ready to listen to loud rap music." What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late-capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the right to be kept at a safe distance from others. A terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented belongs in Guantánamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologist should be silenced because he spreads hatred. Such people are toxic subjects who disturb my peace.

On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex? The Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare? The contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics? This leads us to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness – the decaffeinated Other.

The mechanism of such neutralisation was best formulated back in 1938 by Robert Brasillach, the French fascist intellectual, who saw himself as a "moderate" antisemite and invented the formula of reasonable antisemitism. "We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; … We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual antisemitism is to organise a reasonable antisemitism."

Is this same attitude not at work in the way our governments are dealing with the "immigrant threat"? After righteously rejecting direct populist racism as "unreasonable" and unacceptable for our democratic standards, they endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures or, as today's Brasillachs, some of them even Social Democrats, tell us: "We grant ourselves permission to applaud African and east European sportsmen, Asian doctors, Indian software programmers. We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable violent anti-immigrant defensive measures is to organise a reasonable anti-immigrant protection."

This vision of the detoxification of one's neighbour suggests a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. It reveals the regression from the Christian love of one's neighbour back to the pagan privileging of our tribe versus the barbarian Other. Even if it is cloaked as a defence of Christian values, it is itself the greatest threat to Christian legacy.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Unlimited Subjective Range in the Post-Modern Which Delimits the Expansiveness of the Grand Narrative

A Lyrical Overwhelming of the Epic Narrative - Product of the Division of Labour?
Honey, You Should See Me in a Crown
Birth of the Subjective Epic
And, in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
-Shakespeare, "Henry IV, Part II" (Act III, Sc. i)

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Countering Right Hemispherical Bias?

- Slavoj Zizek, "Make no mistake, Donald Trump’s conflict with China is a genuine war – and it could become violent"

The big problem for America is how to justify its imperial role. It needs a permanent threat of war, offering itself as the universal protector of all other states

The trade war between the US and China can only fill us with dread. How will it affect our daily lives? Will it result in a new global recession or even geopolitical chaos?

To orient ourselves in this mess, we should bear in mind some basic facts. The trade conflict with China is just the culmination of a war which began years ago when Donald Trump fired the opening shot aimed at the biggest trading partners of the US by deciding to levy tariffs on the imports of steel and aluminium from the EU, Canada and Mexico.

Trump was playing his own populist version of class warfare: his professed goal was to protect the American working class (are metal workers not one of the emblematic figures of the traditional working class?) from “unfair” European competition, thereby saving American jobs. And now he is doing the same with China.

Trump’s impulsive decisions are not just expressions of his personal quirks, they are reactions to the end of an era in a global economic system. An economic cycle is coming to an end – a cycle which began in the early 1970s, a time when, what Yanis Varoufakis calls the “Global Minotaur”, was born. The monstrous engine that was running the world economy from the early 1970s to 2008.

By the end of the 1960s, the US economy was no longer able to continue the recycling of its surpluses to Europe and Asia: its surpluses had turned into deficits. In 1971, the US government responded to this decline with an audacious strategic move: instead of tackling the nation’s burgeoning deficits, it decided to do the opposite, to boost deficits. Who would pay for them? The rest of the world. How? By means of a permanent transfer of capital that rushed across the two great oceans to finance America’s deficits.

This growing negative trade balance demonstrates that the US became a non-productive predator. In the last decades, it had to suck up a $1bn daily influx from other nations to buy for its consummation and is, as such, the universal Keynesian consumer that keeps the world economy running. (So much for the anti-Keynesian economic ideology that seems to predominate today.) This influx, which is effectively like the tithe paid to Rome in antiquity, or the gifts sacrificed to the Minotaur by the Ancient Greeks, relies on a complex economic mechanism: the US is trusted as the safe and stable centre, so that all others, from the oil-producing Arab countries to western Europe and Japan – and now even China – invest their surplus profits in the US.

Since this trust is primarily ideological and military, not economic, the problem for the US is how to justify its imperial role. It needs a permanent threat of war, offering itself as the universal protector of all other “normal” (that is, not “rogue”) states.

Since 2008, however, this world system has been breaking down. During the Obama years, Paul Bernanke, chair of the Federal Reserve, gave another breath of life to this system. Ruthlessly exploiting the fact that the US dollar is the global currency, he financed imports by printing money fast. Trump has decided to approach the problem in a different way: ignoring the delicate balance of the global system, he has focused on elements which may be presented as “injustice” for the US – gigantic imports reducing domestic jobs, for example.

But what Trump decries as “injustice” is simply part of a system which has profited the US; the US were effectively robbing the world by importing stuff and paying for it by debts and printing money.

Consequently, in his trade wars, Trump cheats: he wants the US to continue to be a global power but refuses to pay even the nominal price for it. He follows his “America first” principle, ruthlessly privileging US interests, while still acting as a global power.

Even if some of the US arguments against China and its trade may appear reasonable, they are undoubtedly one-sided: the US profited from the situation decried by Trump as unjust, and Trump wants to keep profiting also in the new situation. The only way out left for others is on some basic level unite to undermine the central role of the US as a global power secured by its military and financial might. One should be as ruthless as Trump in this struggle. Our predicament can only be stabilised by the collective imposition of a new world order no longer led by the US. The way to beat Trump is not to imitate him with “China first”, “France first,” and so on, but to oppose him globally and treat him as an embarrassing outcast.

This does not mean that the sins of those who oppose the US should be forgiven. It is typical that Trump proclaimed he is not interested in the democratic revolt in Hong Kong, dismissing it as China’s internal affair. While we should support the revolt, we should just be careful that it will not be used as an argument for the US trade war against China – we should always bear in mind that Trump is ultimately on the side of China.

So should we nonetheless be glad that the ongoing trade war is just an economic war? Should we find solace in the hope that it will end with some kind of truce negotiated by managers of our economies?

No. Geopolitical rearrangements which are already discernible here could easily explode into (at least local) real wars. Trade wars are the stuff real wars are made of. Our global situation more and more resembles that of Europe in the years before the First World War. It is just not yet clear where will be our Sarajevo – Ukraine, the South China Sea, or closer to home.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019


Slavoj Žižek, "How to boil a frog: Cyril Ramaphosa’s versatile simile has much to teach us"
Back in the early 1990s Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, outlined the new ANC government’s strategy to deal with the whites: ‘it would be like boiling a frog alive, which is done by raising the temperature very slowly. Being cold-blooded, the frog does not notice the slow temperature increase, but if the temperature is raised suddenly, the frog will jump out of the water.’

As Dr Oriani-Ambrosini put it, ‘He meant that the black majority would pass laws transferring wealth, land, and economic power from white to black slowly and incrementally, until the whites lost all they had gained in South Africa, but without taking too much from them at any given time to cause them to rebel or fight.’

Ramaphosa is one of the wealthiest South Africa businessmen, worth more than half a billion dollars, so if we are talking about redistributing wealth, should he not also be thrown into the pot to boil slowly? Or we only aim at replacing the old white ruling class with the new black one, with the black majority stuck in the same poverty?

There is, however, another much more interesting use of Ramaphosa’s rather unfortunate simile: does it not render perfectly how (till now and in the developed countries) we experience the ecological threat? While we are quite literally boiled in the process of global warming, it seems that cruel mother nature is playing with us, humans, the same game of slowly heating the water (and the air): the process of global warming is slow and full of ambiguities exploited by the deniers – say, it generates local effects of extreme cold spells, which then enable stable geniuses like Trump to claim that we need more warm weather. One of the effects of global warming may be that the Gulf Stream will change course and no longer reach northwestern Europe, leading to a new ice age from France to Scandinavia. It is as if the ‘global warming project’ is executed in such a way that it makes it sure the majority of the people will remain skeptical and refuse to do anything about it. Just as a reminder that things are maybe serious, we are from time to time hit by a heat wave or an unexpected tornado, but such calamities are quickly interpreted away as freakish accidents. In this way, even if we are aware of the threat, the subtle message of our media is that we should just go on living the way we do, with no great changes. Recycle your trash, put your Coke cans into one bag and old newspapers into another, and you did your duty…

There is another use of Ramaphosa’s simile: which is no less pertinent with regard to our survival as humans: is something similar not going on with the threat of the digital control of our lives? We are definitely entering the era of digital police state: in one or another way, digital machines are registering all our personal facts and acts, from health to shopping habits, from political opinions to amusement, from business decisions to sexual practices. With today’s super-computers, this vast amount of data can be neatly categorized and organized in individual files, and all the data made accessible to state agencies and private corporations. However, the true game changer is not digital control as such but the pet project of brain scientists: digital machines that will be able to directly read our minds (without us knowing it, of course).

The agents of this process, i.e., those in power, rely on a series of strategies to keep us in the position of the frog unaware of how the water is getting hotter and hotter. One is to dismiss the threat as utopian: we are still far from it, being controlled by mind-reading machines is as liberal-leftist paranoia… The other is to put forward the potential (mostly medical) benefits of this process: if a machine can read the mind of a guy who is totally crippled, it will make everyday life for him much easier, i.e., he can inform those around him what he wants by just clearly thinking about it.

More generally, our media repeatedly point out how much easier everyday life will be for us in a digitally controlled society. My favored story here is the one about eye scanning when we enter a department store: the machine identifies us by scanning our eye, contacts our bank account and establishes our purchase power, plus it automatically registers what we have when we exit the store, so that we have to do nothing, the store becomes a place where we just enter, take what we want or need and leave.

In both global warming and the exploding digital control, changes are gradual, so that, except for brief emergencies, we are able to ignore the effects in our daily lives, until all of a sudden, it will be too late, and we will realize that we lost it all. But there is a difference between boiling a frog and global warming or digital control: in both ecological threat and the threat of digital control, there is no one else, no inhuman agent gradually rising the temperature or enhancing digital control. We are doing it to ourselves, we are raising the heat gradually, thereby enabling us to ignore the threat. We are the frogs boiling gradually ourselves to death.

Monday, August 5, 2019


Fritz Lang (1931)
Slavoj Zizek, "Truth is many Democrat ‘moderates’ prefer Trump to Sanders in 2020 White House race"
Many so-called Democrat ‘moderates’ would prefer Donald Trump to retain the US Presidency than for Bernie Sanders, or another genuine leftist, to defeat him.

In this sense they are mirror-images of establishment Republicans, such as George W Bush and Colin Powell, who publicly expressed support for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 contest.

In the course of this week’s heated Democratic Party primary debate, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper warned that “you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump” if the party adopts radical platforms. Such as Bernie Sanders’ ‘Medicare for All’ plan, the Green New Deal and other game-changing initiatives.

The ensuing passionate exchange clearly exposed the two camps in the Democratic Party: the ‘moderates’ (representatives of the party establishment whose main face is Joe Biden), and the more progressive democratic socialists (Bernie Sanders, perhaps Elizabeth Warren, plus the four young congresswomen baptized by Trump as the “Dem Squad”, and whose most popular face is now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.)

This struggle is arguably the most important political battle taking place today anywhere in the world.

It may appear that the moderates make a convincing case. After all, are democratic socialists not simply too radical to win over the majority of voters? Is the true struggle not the contest for undecided moderate voters who will never endorse a Muslim, like Ilhan Omar who keeps her hair covered? And did Trump himself not count on this when he brutally attacked the ‘Squad,’ thereby obliging the entire Democratic party to show solidarity with the four girls, elevating them to the status of party symbols?

For the Democratic Party centrists, the important thing is to get rid of Trump and bring back the normal liberal-democratic hegemony which his election disrupted.

Deja Vu

Unfortunately, this strategy was already tested: Hillary Clinton followed it, and a large majority of the media thought she couldn’t lose because Trump was unelectable. Even the two Republican Presidents Bush, father and son, endorsed her, but she lost and Trump won. His victory undermined the establishment from the Right.

Now isn’t it time for the Left to do the same? Because, as with Trump three years ago, they have a serious chance of winning.

Of course it’s this prospect which throws the entire establishment into panic, even allowing for Trump’s pseudo-alternative. Mainstream economists predict the economic collapse of the US in the case of a Sanders victory and establishment political analysts fear the rise of totalitarian state socialism. At the same time, moderate Left liberals sympathize with the goals of the democratic socialists but warn that, unfortunately, they are out of touch with reality. Yet, they are right to panic: something entirely new is emerging in the US.

What is so refreshing about the leftist wing of the Democratic Party is that they left behind the stale waters of Political Correctness, as recently seen in the ‘MeToo’ excesses. While firmly standing with anti-racist and feminist struggles, they focus on social issues like universal healthcare and ecological threats, etc.

Far from being crazy socialists who want to turn the US into a new Venezuela, the left wing of the Democratic Party has simply brought to the US a taste of good old authentic European social democracy.

Indeed, a quick look at their program makes it abundantly clear that they pose no greater threat to Western freedoms than Willy Brandt or Olof Palme did.

All Changed

But what is even more important is that they are not only the voice of the radicalized young generation. Already their public faces –four young women and an old white man– tell a different story. Yes, they clearly demonstrate that the majority of the younger generation in the US is tired of the establishment in all its versions. Also that they are skeptical about the ability of capitalism as we know it to deal with the problems we are facing, and that the word socialism is for them no longer a taboo.

However, the true miracle is how many who have joined forces with “old white men” like Sanders represent the older generation of ordinary workers, people who often tended to vote Republican or even for Trump.

What is going on here is something that all the partisans of Culture Wars and identity politics considered impossible: anti-racists, feminists, and ecologists joining forces with what was considered the “moral majority” of ordinary working people. Bernie Sanders, not the alt Right, is the true voice of the moral majority, if this term has any positive meaning.

So no, the eventual rise of the democratic socialists will not guarantee Trump’s re-election. It was Hickenlooper and other moderates who were actually fedexing a message to Trump from the debate. Their message was: “we may be your enemies, but we all want Bernie Sanders to lose. So don’t worry, if Bernie or someone like him will be the Democratic Party candidate, we will not stand behind him – we secretly prefer you to win.”

Friday, August 2, 2019

Spinning Dark Matter Yarns...

Source (w/more graphics): "This Is Why Black Holes Must Spin At Almost The Speed Of Light"
Take a look out there at the Universe, and while the stars might give off the light that you'll first notice, a deeper look shows that there's much more out there. The brightest, most massive stars, by their very nature, have the shortest lifespans, as they burn through their fuel far more quickly than their lower-mass counterparts. Once they've reached their limits and can fuse elements no further, they reach the end of their lives and become stellar corpses.

But these corpses come in multiple varieties: white dwarfs for the lowest-mass (e.g., Sun-like) stars, neutron stars for the next tier up, and black holes for the most massive stars of all. While most stars themselves may spin relatively slowly, black holes rotate at nearly the speed of light. This might seem counterintuitive, but under the laws of physics, it couldn't be any other way. Here's why.

The closest analogue we have to one of those extreme objects in our own Solar System is the Sun. In another 7 billion years or so, after becoming a red giant and burning through the helium in its core, it will end its life by blowing off its outer layers while its core contracts down to a stellar remnant.

The outer layers will form a sight known as a planetary nebula, which will glow for tens of thousands of years before returning that material to the interstellar medium, where they will participate in future generations of star formation. But the inner core, largely composed of carbon and oxygen, will contract down as far as it possibly can. In the end, gravitational collapse will only be stopped by the particles ⁠— atoms, ions and electrons ⁠— that the remnant of our Sun will be made of.

So long as you don't cross a critical mass threshold, those particles will be sufficient to hold the stellar remnant up against gravitational collapse, creating a degenerate state known as a white dwarf. It will have a sizable fraction of the mass of its parent star, but crammed into a tiny fraction of the volume: approximately the size of Earth.

Astronomers now know enough about stars and stellar evolution to describe what happens during this process. For a star like our Sun, approximately 60% of its mass will get expelled in the outer layers, while the remaining 40% remains in the core. For even more massive stars, up to about 7 or 8 times the mass of our Sun, the mass fraction remaining in the core is a bit less, down to a low of about 18% for the high-mass end. The brightest star in Earth's sky, Sirius, has a white dwarf companion, visible in the Hubble image below.
Sirius A is a little bit brighter and more massive than our Sun, and we believe that Sirius B once told a similar story, but it ran out of fuel long ago. Today, Sirius A dominates that system, with about twice the mass of our Sun, while Sirius B is only approximately equal to our Sun's mass.

However, based on observations of the white dwarfs that happen to pulse, we've learned a valuable lesson. Rather than taking multiple days or even (like our Sun) approximately a month to complete a full rotation, like normal stars tend to do, white dwarfs complete a full 360° rotation in as little as an hour. This might seem bizarre, but if you've ever seen a figure skating routine, the same principle that explains a spinning skater who pulls their arms in explains the white dwarfs rotational speed: the law of conservation of angular momentum.
What happens, then, if you were to take a star like our Sun — with the mass, volume, and rotation speed of the Sun — and compressed it down into a volume the size of the Earth?

Believe it or not, if you make the assumption that angular momentum is conserved, and that both the Sun and the compressed version of the Sun we're imagining are spheres, this is a completely solvable problem with only one possible answer. If we go conservative, and assume the entirety of the Sun rotates once every 33 days (the longest amount of time it takes any part of the Sun's photosphere to complete one 360° rotation) and that only the inner 40% of the Sun becomes a white dwarf, you get a remarkable answer: the Sun, as a white dwarf, will complete a rotation in just 25 minutes.

By bringing all of that mass close in to the stellar remnant's axis of rotation, we ensure that its rotational speed must rise. In general, if you halve the radius that an object has as it rotates, its rotational speed increases by a factor of four. If you consider that it takes approximately 109 Earths to go across the diameter of the Sun, you can derive the same answer for yourself.

Unsurprisingly, then, you might start to ask about neutron stars or black holes: even more extreme objects. A neutron star is typically the product of a much more massive star ending its life in a supernova, where the particles in the core get so compressed that it behaves as one giant atomic nucleus composed almost exclusively (90% or more) of neutrons. Neutron stars are typically twice the mass of our Sun, but just about 20-to-40 km across. They rotate far more rapidly than any known star or white dwarf ever could.

If you instead did the thought experiment of compressing the entire Sun down into a volume that was 40 kilometers in diameter, you'd get a much, much more rapid rotation rate than you ever got for a white dwarf star: about 10 milliseconds. That same principle we applied to a figure skater, about the conservation of angular momentum, leads us to the conclusion that neutron stars could complete more than 100 full rotations in a single second.

In fact, this lines up perfectly with our actual observations. Some neutron stars emit radio pulses along Earth's line-of-sight to them: pulsars. We can measure the pulse periods of these objects, and while some of them take approximately a full second to complete a rotation, some of them rotate in as little as 1.3 milliseconds, up to a maximum of 766 rotations-per-second.

These millisecond pulsars are moving fast. At their surfaces, those rotation rates correspond to relativistic speeds: exceeding 50% the speed of light for the most extreme objects. But neutron stars aren't the densest objects in the Universe; that honor goes to black holes, which take all that mass and compress it down into a region of space where even an object moving at the speed of light couldn't escape from it.

If you compressed the Sun down into a volume just 3 kilometers in radius, that would force it to form a black hole. And yet, the conservation of angular momentum would mean that much of that internal region would experience frame-dragging so severe that space itself would get dragged at speeds approaching the speed of light, even outside of the Schwarzschild radius of the black hole. The more you compress that mass down, the faster the fabric of space itself gets dragged.
Realistically, we can't measure the frame-dragging of space itself. But we can measure the frame-dragging effects on matter that exist within that space, and for black holes, that means looking at the accretion disks and accretion flows around these black holes. Perhaps paradoxically, the smallest mass black holes, which have the smallest event horizons, actually have the largest amounts of spatial curvature near their horizons.

You might think, therefore, that they'd make the best laboratories for testing these frame dragging effects. But nature surprised us on that front: a supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy NGC 1365 has had the radiation emitted from the volume outside of it detected and measured, revealing its speed. Even at these large distances, the material spins at 84% the speed of light. If you insist that angular momentum be conserved, it couldn't have turned out any other way.

It's a tremendously difficult thing to intuit: the notion that black holes should spin at almost the speed of light. After all, the stars that black holes are built from rotate extremely slowly, even by Earth's standards of one rotation every 24 hours. Yet if you remember that most of the stars in our Universe also have enormous volumes, you'll realize that they contain an enormous amount of angular momentum.

If you compress that volume down to be very small, those objects have no choice. If angular momentum has to be conserved, all they can do is spin up their rotational speeds until they almost reach the speed of light. At that point, gravitational waves will kick in, and some of that energy (and angular momentum) gets radiated away. If not for that process, black holes might not be black after all, instead revealing naked singularities at their centers. In this Universe, black holes have no choice but to rotate at extraordinary speeds. Perhaps someday, we'll be able to measure that directly.
Source: On the Lopsidedness of our Galaxy and distribution of Young Cepheid Stars