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

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Dalai Lama

One piece of wisdom the media bombards us with is that the Covid-19 pandemic taught us about our mortality and biological limitation: we should abandon our dreams about dominating nature and accept our modest place in it.

Is there a more sobering lesson than being humiliated and reduced to near-impotence by a virus, a primitive self-reproductive mechanism which some biologists don't even count as a form of life? No wonder that calls for a new ethic of modesty and global solidarity abound.

But is this the true lesson to be learned here? What if the problem with living in the shadow of a pandemic is exactly the opposite: not death but life, a strange life that drags on, allowing us neither to live in peace nor to quickly die?

So, what should we do with our lives in this predicament?

Maybe the Rammstein song “Dalai Lama” indicates the right answer. The song is vaguely based on Goethe’s "Der Erlkönig" ("King of the Elves"), a poem which tells of a father and son riding a horse when the wind begins to hypnotize the child, who eventually dies. In the song, the child is on an airplane with his father; as in the poem, the travellers are menaced by a mysterious spirit which “invites” the child to join him (though only the child can hear it). However, in the poem, the alarmed father rides for help, holding the child in his arms, only to find that his son is dead; in Rammstein’s song, it is the father himself who causes the child’s death.

What does all this have to do with the Dalai Lama? The title of the song does not just make fun of the current Dalai Lama's fear of flying – there is a more intimate link with the core of Buddhist teaching. The Dalai Lama’s fear of flying strangely echoes the words of the Lord in heaven in Rammstein’s song: “Man does not belong in the air / So the Lord in heaven calls / His sons on the wind,” to cause a strong turbulence that will kill the child. But how? Not just by crashing the plane but by directly haunting the child’s soul: “A choir drips from the clouds / Crawls into the little ear / Come here, stay here / We are good to you / We are brothers to you.” The devil’s voice is not a brutal cry but a soft loving whisper.

We have to live till we DIE

This ambiguity is crucial: the external raw threat is redoubled by a chorus of seductive voices heard only by the child. The child fights the temptation to surrender to these voices, but the father, holding him too tightly to protect him, does not notice his shortness of breath and “pushes the soul out of the child.” (Note the ambiguous ending of the song: the lyrics never say that the plane really fell down, just that there was strong turbulence.) The father (who obviously stands for the Dalai Lama) wants to protect the child from the external threat of reality, but in his excessive protection he kills his son – there is a deeper identity shared by the Dalai Lama and the “king of all winds”. The obvious implication is that the Buddhist protection from the pain and suffering mortifies us, excludes us from life. So, to quote a well-known ironic paraphrase of the first lines of the GDR anthem, the message of Dalai Lama effectively is “Einverstanden mit Ruinen / Und in Zukunft abgebrannt” (“In agreement with the ruins / and in future burned down”).

However, “Dalai Lama“ gives this standard pessimist wisdom an additional spin – the central refrain of the song is: “Weiter, weiter ins Verderben / Wir müssen leben bis wir sterben” (“Further, further into ruin / We have to live till we die”) – this is what Freud called the “death-drive” at its purest, not seeking death itself but the fact that we have to LIVE till we die, this endless dragging of life, this endless compulsion to repeat.

The refrain sounds like empty tautological wisdom – like “a minute before he died, Monsieur la Palice was still alive” – what in France they call a lapalissade. But Rammstein turn around the obvious statement that “no matter how long you live, at the end you will die”: till you die, you have to live. What makes the Rammstein version not an empty tautology is the ethical dimension: before we die we are not just (obviously) alive, we HAVE to live.

For us humans, life is a decision, an active obligation – we can lose the will to live.

This stance of “we have to live till we die” is the proper one to adopt today when the pandemic reminds all of us of our finitude and mortality, on how our life depends on an obscure interplay of (what appears to us as) contingencies. As we experience it almost daily, the true problem is not that we may die but that life just drags on in uncertainty, causing permanent depression, the loss of the will to go on.

We HAVE to live till we die

The fascination with total catastrophe and with the end of our civilization makes us spectators who morbidly enjoy the disintegration of normality; this fascination is often fed by a false feeling of guilt (the pandemic as a punishment for our decadent way of life, etc.). Now, with the promise of the vaccine and the spread of new variants of the virus, we live in an endlessly postponed breakdown.

Notice how the time-frame is changing: in spring 2020, authorities often said “in two weeks, it should get better”; then, in the fall of 2020, it was two months; now, it is mostly half a year (in the summer of 2021, maybe even later, things will get better); voices are already heard which place the end of the pandemic in 2022, even 2024… Every day brings news – vaccines work against new variants, or maybe they don’t; the Russian Sputnik is bad, but then it seems it works quite well; there are big delays in the supply of vaccines, but most of us will still get vaccinated by summer… these endless oscillations obviously also generate a pleasure of their own, making it easier for us to survive the misery of our lives.

As in “Dalai Lama,” Covid-19 is the turbulence which shattered our daily lives. What provoked the rage of today’s gods? Were they offended by our biogenetic manipulations and destruction of the environment? And who is the Dalai Lama in our reality? For Giorgio Agamben and many protesters against lockdown and social distancing, the Dalai Lama who pretends to protect us but in reality suffocates our social freedoms is the authorities, who while ostensibly seeking to protect us, choke out our ability to live before we have to die.

We have to LIVE till we die

Agamben recently wrote a short poem titled Si è abolito l’amore, which makes his position clear. Here are two lines from his poem:
If freedom is abolished
in the name of medicine
then medicine will also be abolished.
If man is abolished
in the name of life
then life will also be abolished.
But one can also argue the exact opposite: is the stance advocated by Agamben – let's stick to our social life as usual – also not a seductive voice of angels which we should resist? Agamben's own words can be reversed and turned back on him: “If medicine is abolished in the name of freedom, then freedom will also be abolished. If life is abolished in the name of man, then man will also be abolished.”

The Rammstein conceit that “we have to live till we die” outlines a way out of this deadlock: to fight against the pandemic not by way of withdrawing from life but as a way to live with utmost intensity. Is there anyone more ALIVE today than millions of healthcare workers who with full awareness risk their lives on a daily base? Many of them died, but till they died they were alive. They do not just sacrifice themselves for us in exchange for our hypocritical praise. Even less could they be said to be survival machines reduced to the bare essentials of living. In fact, they are those who are today most alive.

[Verse 1]
An airplane is in the evening wind
On board is a man with his child as well
They sit secure and warm
And so they fall into the trap of sleep
In three hours they will be there
For mama's birthday
The view is good the sky is clear

Onwards, onwards into destruction
We must live until we die
Humans don't belong in the sky
So the lord in Heaven calls
His sons to the wind
Bring me this human child

[Verse 2]
The child has still lost time
Then an echo jumps to his ears
A muffled rumbling drives the night
And the driver of the clouds laughs
He shakes the human cargo awake

Onwards, onwards into destruction
We must live until we die
And the child says to the father
Don't you hear the thunder
That's the king of all the winds
He wants me to become his child

From the clouds falls a choir
Which crawls into the little ear
Come here, stay here
We'll be good to you
Come here, stay here
We are your brothers

[Verse 3]
The storm embraces the flying machine
The pressure falls quickly in the cabin
A muffled rumbling drives the night
In panic the human cargo screams

Onwards, onwards into destruction
We must live until we die
And to God the child pleads
Heaven take back the wind
Bring us unharmed to earth

From the clouds falls a choir
Which crawls into the little ear
Come here, stay here
We'll be good to you
Come here, stay here
We are your brothers

The father is now holding onto the child
And has pressed it tightly against himself
He doesn't notice its difficulty in breathing
But fear knows no mercy
So with his arms the father
Squeezes the soul from the child
Which takes its place upon the wind and sings:

Come here, stay here
We'll be good to you
Come here, stay here
We are your brothers

Thursday, February 11, 2021

First as Farce, Then Tragedy...

We all know Marx’s remark that history repeats itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce. Marx had in mind the tragedy of the fall of Napoleon I and the later farce of the reign of his nephew Napoleon III. Back in the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse remarked that the lesson of Nazism seems to be the opposite one: first as a farce (throughout the 1920s, Hitler and his gang were mostly taken as a bunch of marginal political clowns), then as a tragedy (when Hitler effectively took power). Obviously, the intrusion of the mob into the Capitol also wasn’t a serious coup attempt, but a farce. Jake Angeli, the QAnon supporter known to all of us as the guy who entered the Capitol with a horned hat similar to a Viking helm, personifies the fakeness of the entire mob of protesters. Viking warriors are associated with horned helmets in popular culture, but there is no evidence that Viking helmets really had horns. They were invented in this shape by early 19th century Romantic imagination: so much for the authenticity of the protesters.

The same holds for Trump’s presidency. When our digital gang of four – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube – cancelled Trump’s online accounts, many commentators noticed the problematic aspect of this act. A private company (not even clear who, which body, in it) excluded someone from public space. This is a consequence of the privatization of digital commons, of the public space, in which we more and more communicate, especially in a time of lockdowns and bodily distancing. Trump was hit especially hard with this measure, because his main channel of reaching the public was sending tweets. Or, to quote Russell Sbriglia (from private correspondence):

“Could there possibly be a better exemplification of the logic of the ‘theft of enjoyment’ than the mantra that Trump supporters were chanting while storming the Capitol: ‘Stop the steal!’? The hedonistic, carnivalesque nature of the storming of the Capitol to ‘stop the steal’ wasn’t merely incidental to the attempted insurrection; insofar as it was all about taking back the enjoyment (supposedly) stolen from them by the nation’s others (i.e., Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, LGBTQ+, etc.), the element of carnival was absolutely essential to it.”

What happened on January 6 in the Capitol was not a coup attempt but a carnival. The idea that carnival can serve as the model for progressive protest movements – such protests are carnivalesque not only in their form and atmosphere (theatrical performances, humorous chants…), but also in their non-centralized organization – is deeply problematic. Is late-capitalist social reality itself not already carnivalesque? Was the infamous Kristallnacht in 1938 – this half-organized, half-spontaneous outburst of violent attacks on Jewish homes, synagogues, businesses, and people themselves – not a carnival, if there ever was one? Furthermore, is “carnival” not also the name for the obscene underside of power, from gang rapes to mass lynching? Let us not forget that Mikhail Bakhtin developed the notion of carnival in his book on Rabelais, written in the 1930s as a direct reply to the carnival of the Stalinist purges. Traditionally, in resisting those in power, one of the strategies of the “lower classes” has regularly been to use terrifying displays of brutality to disturb the middle-class sense of decency. But with the events on Capitol Hill, carnival again lost its innocence. Will, then, in this case also, the farce repeat itself as tragedy? Will it be followed by a serious violent (or, even better, not so violent) coup d’état?

There are certainly ominous signs pointing in this direction:

“A poll taken the day after the assault on the Capitol revealed that 45 percent of Republicans approve of the action and believe Trump must be imposed as president by force, while 43 percent oppose or least do not support the use of violence to achieve this end. The far Right has thus created a base of about 30 million people, an increasing number of whom explicitly reject the principle of democracy and are ready to accept authoritarian rule. We are lucky that the object of their veneration is crippled by narcissism and cognitive decline. It is only a matter of time, however, before a new Trump emerges, less delusional and more competent; the pathway to the installation of an authoritarian regime against the will of the majority of the electorate is now well established.”

But Trump is not just crippled by narcissism and cognitive decline; these two features are at the very roots of his success. His followers’ basic stance is that of a “cognitive decline,” of denying the true impact of the pandemic, of global warming, of racism and sexism in the US. For them, if there are any serious threats to the American way of life, they must be the result of a conspiracy. (The way the pandemic affected Trump is ambiguous: Trump basically lost the elections because of Covid, but his movement also gained strength from the way he reacted to the pandemic by denying its full impact.) Out of this decline emerged a substantial radical-right movement, a synergy of white supremacy, pandemic denials, and conspiracy theories. Its class base is (as in Fascism) a combination of the lower middle class white mob, afraid of losing their privileges, and of their discreet billionaire enablers.

Was the US state apparatus really disturbed by the Capitol intrusion? It may seem so: “America’s most senior general Mark Milley and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is comprised of the heads of each military branch, issued a statement Tuesday /January 12/ condemning the violent invasion of the US Capitol last week and reminding service members of their obligation to support and defend the Constitution and reject extremism.” The FBI is now investigating and prosecuting the protesters, but hidden traces of solidarity remain: as it was often noted, just imagine how much more brutally the authorities would have acted if BLM protesters were to lay siege on the Capitol… Protesters were not defeated; they simply went home (as Trump advised them to do), or, perhaps, to a nearby bar to celebrate their act.

Most of the Capitol protesters “flew from their affluent suburbs to the U.S. Capitol, ready to die for the cause of white privilege.” True, but many of them were also part of a lower-middle class, which sees their privileges threatened by the imagined coalition of big business (new digital media corporations, banks), state administration (controlling our daily lives, imposing lockdowns, masks, gun control and other limitations to our basic freedoms), natural catastrophes (pandemic, forest fires), and “others” (the poor, other races, LGBT+…) who are allegedly exhausting the state’s financial resources and compelling the state to raise taxes. Central here is the category of “our way of life”: socializing in bars and cafeterias or at large sport events the free car movement and the right to possess guns; the rejection of everything that poses a threat to these freedoms (like masks and lockdowns), and of state control (but not against controlling the “others”). Everything that poses a threat to this way of life (unfair Chinese trade practices, Politically Correct “terror,” global warming, pandemics…) is denounced as a plot. This “way of life” is clearly not class-neutral: it is the way of life of the white middle-class people who perceive themselves as the true embodiment of “what America is about.”

So, when we hear that the agent of this conspiracy did not just steal the elections but is taking from us (gradually eroding) our (way of) life, we should apply here another category, that of the theft of enjoyment. Jacques Lacan predicted way back in the early 1970s that capitalist globalization will give rise to a new mode of racism focused on the figure of the Other who either threatens to snatch from us our enjoyment (the deep satisfaction provided by our immersion into our way of life) or itself possesses and displays an excessive enjoyment that eludes our grasp. (Suffice it to recall anti-Semitic fantasies about secret Jewish rituals, white supremacist fantasies about superior sexual prowess of the Black men, the perception of Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers…) Enjoyment is not be confused here with sexual or other pleasures: it is a deeper satisfaction in our specific way of life or paranoia about the Other’s way of life. What disturbs us in the Other is usually embodied in small details of daily existence: the smell of their food, the loud sound of their music or laughter… Incidentally, was not a similar mix of fascination and horror present in the left-liberal reaction to the protesters breaking into the Capitol? “Ordinary” people breaking into the sacred seat of power, a carnival that momentarily suspended our rules of public life: there was a little bit of envy in all the condemnation.

The dimension of what Trumpist protesters are denying is terrifying. Despite the vaccine, the pandemic is still spreading, with social differences exploding. As for our environment, “the planet is facing a ‘ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals’ that threaten human survival because of ignorance and inaction, according to an international group of scientists, who warn people still haven’t grasped the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises.”

What we should focus on now is elements of a similar denial in Biden’s inauguration. Here is SE Cupp’s comment on the inauguration:

“It was almost as if none of it really happened. Except, of course it did. The last four years have tattooed a trauma on so many Americans, and it won’t fade overnight. There’s healing to do, and Biden has a long journey ahead. But at least for an hour or so at the United States Capitol, there was finally a much-needed respite from the madness, the moment of demarcation that will forever be 2020.”

Not only did it happen, but also it emerged out of the very world celebrated in “The Hill We Climb,” the poem read by the Young Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at Biden’s inauguration. Describing herself as “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother [who] can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one,” she said:

“And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us / We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. /…/ We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. / We’ve seen a force that would shatter or nation, rather than share it. / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. / And this effort very nearly succeeded, but while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated in this truth.”

If the term “ideology” has any meaning, this is it – the fantasy of the establishment and progressives all joined together in a sublime moment of unity. When we are immersed in this unity, it effectively appears as if Trump didn’t really happen. But where did Trump and his followers come from? Does his rise not signal a deep crack in that unity? If we want to have any future, we must not put our differences aside, but do precisely the opposite: focus on our divisions and antagonisms, which traverse the US society, not the “uncivil war” between the liberal establishment and Trump followers, but the actual class antagonism and all its implications (racism, sexism, ecological crisis).

That’s why the calls for unity and healing divisions are false. Trump as such stands for radical division, for us against them (the “enemies of the people”), and the only proper way to beat him is to demonstrate that his division is a false one, that he is really one of “them” (a creature of the establishment “swamp”), and to replace this division with a more radical and truer one, namely the establishment with all its faces versus the broad unity of all emancipatory forces.

So, will the farce repeat itself as tragedy? There is no right answer that may be given in advance to this question. It depends on all of us, on our political mobilization, or the lack of it. “Be careful what you wish for!” Trump warned Biden apropos the idea to deposit him by way of evoking the 25th Amendment. Maybe Trump himself should have been careful what he wished for in his support of protesters. However, maybe, in the long term, he made a pertinent point: what Biden wished for is contradictory, an impossible dream, and the sooner we awaken from this dream the better for all of us. It was easy to defeat an obvious target like Trump. The real struggle begins now.

In the much-celebrated ceremony of the inauguration, there was a lone figure, who stole the show by just sitting there, sticking out as an element of discord disturbing the spectacle of bi-partisan unity: Bernie Sanders. As Naomi Klein put it, what mattered more than his mittens was his posture: “the slouch, the crossed arms, the physical isolation from the crowd. The effect is not of a person left out at a party but rather of a person who has no interest in joining. At an event that was, above all, a show of cross-partisan unity, Bernie’s mittens stood in for everyone who has never been included in that elite-manufactured consensus.” In his commentary of the inauguration, Bernie already described the contours of the struggle to come. Every philosopher knows how impressed Hegel was when he saw Napoleon riding through Jena. It was, for him, like seeing world spirit (the predominant historical tendency) riding on a horse… The fact that Bernie stole the show and that the image of him just sitting there instantly became an icon, overshadowing all the Gagas and Gormans, means that the true world spirit of our time was there, in his lone figure embodying skepticism about the fake normalization staged in the ceremony. And that there is still hope for our cause.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Leave her Johnny, et al...


"Barrett's Privateers" is sung from the point of view of a young fisherman who, in 1778 at the age of 16,[note 1] enlisted on Elcid Barrett's ill-fated Antelope. The Antelope is described as the "scummiest vessel [he'd] ever seen", and the song describes the many faults of the decrepit sloop, which had just received a letter of marque from George III to operate as a privateering ship.[note 2]

The sloop leaves on June 4 (the king's birthday) and takes three months to make it to Montego Bay, Jamaica. After a five-day layover, the Antelope returns to sea and encounters an American merchant ship loaded down with gold. Because of the poor state of the sloop, it takes the Antelope two days to come within firing distance of the American vessel, which ultimately turns out to be far more heavily armed than they are. The Antelope is capsized with one volley from the American vessel, and the narrator witnesses Barrett's gruesome death. The rest of the crew also dies in the wreck; only the singer, who loses use of both his legs when the truck of the mainmast carries them off, survives.

The closing verse moves ahead to 1784, as the survivor has only the day prior returned to Nova Scotia, lying broken on a pier in Halifax and longing to go home to Sherbrooke.
Historical authenticity[edit]

From the very opening line of the song, Rogers paints a plausible and mostly authentic image of a privateering vessel. He sets the tale in 1778, at the height of the American Revolution, when privateering was a common activity on both sides of the war. Rogers's choice of names, nautical terminology, and details of weapons and places all accurately reflect historical fact, with some exaggeration on the loss of life. The song's mentions of Halifax, Nova Scotia, are also historically accurate, as Halifax was a well-known port for privateers operating on the east coast and out of Nova Scotia at that time.

The meaning and accuracy of some parts are open to discussion. The refrain of "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" is one example. If he is referring to a town, then there is a conflict with the date of 1778, as the town of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia was not founded until 1815, and Sherbrooke, Quebec not until 1818 (in any case, John Coape Sherbrooke, the namesake of both towns, was only 14 years old in 1778).[3] Another possibility is that this reflects Stan Rogers's artistic license in tribute to his family origins near Sherbrooke, on Nova Scotia's eastern Shore. Others believe the line refers to the privateer brig Sir John Sherbrooke, one of the largest and most formidable privateers based in Nova Scotia. However, like the town of Sherbrooke, the Sir John Sherbrooke significantly post-dates the American Revolution, having been built in 1813.[4] Perhaps he was referring to the community of New Ross, which was originally Sherbrooke but renamed after the War of 1812, rather than Sherbrooke village. These are actually two different locations: Sherbrooke village "nestled between Sherbrooke Lake and St. Mary's River" and the other (New Ross formerly Sherbrooke) located in the Chester Municipal District.

Encounters of this nature were uncommon in privateering, as the aim was to capture an undamaged merchant ship. However, a privateer out of Halifax engaged in one of the bloodiest battles in the history of privateering in a naval battle off Halifax in 1780, resulting in 51 deaths and the disabling of both vessels. Other privateers (such as the Rolla) were lost with all hands in shipwrecks.[5] Some American privateers met with disastrous fates off Nova Scotia at the hands of the Royal Navy (e.g., see the story of Young Teazer, as well as the naval battle off Halifax of 1782).
The Antelope

"The Antelope" is described as a sloop in the song, with a total of 21 crew, all of whom were formerly fishermen. She is armed with several "cracked" four-pounder cannons. The Antelope has many other faults: she lists to port, and constant pumping is needed to keep ahead of the many leaks in the poorly maintained wooden hull. The Antelope's sails are described as being "in rags", likely the result of poor upkeep.

Many vessels of the period bore the name "Antelope", including several in the British Royal Navy named HMS Antelope. As the name of a somewhat exotic animal, it conveyed a sense of the vessel's speed, although in this case it is an ironic moniker.

Sloops were often used by privateers because they were good for short-range assaults. Their range was extremely limited by their small size, although even a small sloop normally warranted a crew of at least thirty, so that there might be enough men to crew a captured prize. Given the Antelope's state of repair, the smaller crew could be taken to mean that it was difficult to recruit for such an obviously unreliable vessel.

The precise afflictions of the Antelope – listing to port, ragged sails, constant leaks, and an evidently incompetent crew – are all likely problems. Many ships either damaged in storms or barely seaworthy to begin with had constant rotations of crewmen pumping out water. While stored, sails could be damaged by rats or insects. Without good maintenance, they might also become eroded in the normal course of use. The cook is described as having the "staggers and jags", a euphemism for delirium tremens resulting from alcoholism; this was an all too common condition for sailors. Additionally, the listing to port could also have been caused by poor ballasting by the crew.

The Antelope is armed with cracked "four-pounders", quite common privateer weapons. As smaller weapons, they allowed the privateer great speed, although it also meant that they lacked range. Given the poor armament of most merchantmen, a skilled captain could use them very effectively. While some debate has been raised over the fact that cracked cannons would be difficult to fire, resulting in a claim that Rogers's original was "crack four-pounders" using the slang of "crack" meaning "the best", recordings of Rogers show him singing "cracked".[6] Furthermore, it is more in keeping with the description of the Antelope for the cannons to be in disrepair rather than exceptionally good.

The assumed authenticity is often so great that other performers have either been confused by it or played off it to fool unsuspecting audiences. In one of their recorded performances of the song, famed Scottish folk singers The Corries state during a preamble that the song is in fact from the 18th century. However they also claim that it is the story of a Scottish exile, changing the line "I wish I was in Sherbrooke now" to "I wish I was in Edinburgh now" even though no such references appear in the lyrics, and that the Antelope's captain was "Cid Barrett" not the correct "Elcid".

Saturday, February 6, 2021

When Croatian movie director Dario Jurican ran in the country’s presidential election in 2019, his campaign slogan, ‘corruption for everybody’, promised that normal people would also be able to profit from cronyism. The people reacted with enthusiasm although they knew it was a joke. A similar dynamic is present on the wallstreetbets subreddit, which subverts the financial system by over-identifying with it or, rather, by universalizing it and thereby revealing its in-built absurdity.

The story is well-known already, but let’s briefly recap. Wallstreetbets is a online group in which millions of participants discuss stock and options trading. It is notable for its profane nature and promotion of aggressive trading strategies. Most of its members are young amateurs who ignore fundamental investment practices and risk management techniques, so their activity is considered gambling. Its members recently made (and encouraged others to make) massive investments in the stock of GameStop (a company that had been losing value on the market) which drove the GameStop price up and caused further panic and oscillations on the market.

The decision to invest in GameStop was less motivated by what was going on with the company and more just to raise temporarily the value of its stocks and then play with its oscillations. What this means is that there is a kind of self-reflexivity which characterizes wallstreetbets: what goes on in the companies in whose stocks the participants invest is of secondary importance. The participants primarily count on the effects of their own activity (of massively buying or selling the stocks of a company) on the market.

Critics see in such a stance a clear sign of nihilism, of reducing stock-trade to gambling — as one of the WSB participants put it: ‘I went from a rational investor to some sick irrational desperate gambler.’ This nihilism is best exemplified by the term ‘yolo’ (You Only Live Once) used in the community to characterize people who risk their entire portfolio on a single stock or options trade.

But it’s not simple nihilism that motivates participants: their nihilism signals indifference towards the final result — or, as Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University, put it: ‘It’s not even the ends that matter. It’s the means. It’s the fact that you’re placing this bet, that’s where the value in all this is. Sure, you may get money, or you may end up broke, but you played the game, and you did it in some crazy way.’

In his psychoanalytic theory, Jacques Lacan distinguishes between direct pleasure (enjoying the object we want) and surplus-enjoyment. For example, many people enjoy the activity of shopping more than what they actually buy. Wallstreetbets members have brought this surplus-enjoyment of stock-exchange gambling out into the open.

The popular appeal of wallstreetbets means that millions of ordinary people participate in it. A new front in America’s class war has opened up — as Robert Reich tweeted: ‘So let me get this straight: Redditors rallying GameStop is market manipulation, but hedge fund billionaires shorting a stock is just an investment strategy?’ Who would have expected this — a class war transposed into a conflict among stock investors and dealers themselves?

So it’s ‘kill the normies’ again, to repeat the title of Angela Nagle’s book. In this case, the ‘normies’ are the so-called rational investors and hedge fund managers. But this time the normies should actually be ‘killed’ (eliminated). We are in a situation in which Wall Street, the model of corrupt speculation and inside-trading, always by definition resisting state intervention and regulation, now opposes unfair competition and calls for state intervention. In short, wallstreetbets is doing openly what Wall Street has been doing in secret for decades.

The utopia of populist capitalism — the ideal of millions who are during the day ordinary workers or students and in the evening play with investments — is, of course, impossible to realize, it can only end in self-destructive chaos. But is it not in the very nature of capitalism to be periodically in crises — the Big One of 1928 and the financial meltdown of 2008, to mention just the two best-known cases — and to come out of them even stronger?

However, in all the old cases it was (and is) impossible to restore balance through market mechanisms, because the price is too high, so a massive external (state) intervention is needed. Can the state then control the game again and restore a normality ruined by wallstreetbets?

What then is the solution? The excesses of wallstreetbets brought into the open the latent irrationality of the stock exchange itself. It isn’t a rebellion against Wall Street but something potentially much more dangerous: it subverts the system by over-identifying with it, just like the presidential candidate in Croatia with his placard.

Yes, what the wallstreetbets members are doing is nihilistic, but it is nihilism immanent to the stock exchange itself, a nihilism already at work in Wall Street. To overcome this nihilism, we will have to move out of the game of the stock exchange. The moment of socialism is lurking in the background, waiting to be seized, since the very center of global capitalism is beginning to fall apart.

Will this happen? Almost certainly not, but what should worry us is that this latest crisis is another unexpected threat to the system already under attack from multiple sides (by the pandemic, global warming, social protests…). Moreover, this threat comes from the very heart of the system not from outside. An explosive mixture is in the making, and the longer the explosion is postponed, the more devastating it could be.

Timonia...Dusya my Maruysa

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

En Vino Veritas


Slavoj Zizek, "What was Trump’s greatest treason?"
Trump’s true victims were his own supporters

When the district judge Vanessa Baraitser rejected the US demand to extradite Julian Assange, many leftist and liberal critics commented on this decision in terms that recall the famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason / To do the right thing for the wrong reason.” In the play, Becket is afraid that his “right thing” (the decision to resist the king and sacrifice himself) is grounded in a “wrong reason” (his egotistical search for the glory of sainthood). Hegel would have answered to this predicament that what matters in our acts is their public content: If I do a heroic sacrifice, this is what counts, independently of the private motives for doing it, which may be pathological.

But the rejection to extradite Assange to the US is a different case: It was obviously the right thing to do, but what is wrong are the publicly stated reasons for doing it. The judge fully endorsed the US authorities’ assertion that Assange’s activities fell outside of the realm of journalism and justified her decision purely on mental health grounds. She said: “The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future.” She added that Assange’s high level of intelligence means he would probably succeed in taking his own life. Evoking mental health is thus an excuse to deliver justice. The implicit but clear public message of the judge is: “I know the accusation is wrong, but I am not ready to admit it, so I prefer to focus on mental health.” (Plus now that the court also rejected bail for Assange, he will remain in solitary prison which brought him to suicidal despair…) Assange’s life is (maybe) saved, but his cause (the freedom of the press, the struggle for the right to render public state crimes) remains a crime — this is a nice example of what the humanitarianism of our courts really amounts to.

But all this is common knowledge — what we should do is apply Eliot’s lines to two other recent political events. Is the comedy that took place in Washington on Jan. 6, 2020, not the final proof (if one is needed) that Assange should not be extradited to the US? It would be like extraditing dissidents who escaped Hong Kong back to China. The first event: when Trump put pressure on Mike Pence, his vice-president, not to certify the electoral votes, he also asked Pence to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Yes, the US electoral system is rigged and corrupted; it’s one big fake organized and controlled by the “deep state.” The implications of Trump’s demand are interesting: He argued that Pence, instead of simply acting in his constitutionally prescribed pro forma role, could delay or obstruct the Electoral College certification set to occur in Congress. After the votes are counted, the vice-president is only supposed to declare the result whose content is determined in advance, but Trump wanted Pence to act as if he were making an actual decision. What Trump demanded was not a revolution but a desperate attempt to save (his) day by forcing Pence to act within the institutional order, taking the letter of the law more literally than was meant.

Now for the second event. When pro-Trump protesters invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, they also did the right thing for the wrong reason: they were right in protesting the US electoral system with its complicated mechanisms whose aim is to render impossible a direct expression of popular dissatisfaction (this was clearly stated by the Founding Fathers themselves). But their attempt was not a Fascist coup. Prior to taking power, Fascists make a deal with big business, but now “Trump should be removed from office to preserve democracy, business leaders say.” So did Trump incite the protesters against big business? Not really — recall that Steve Bannon was thrown out of the White House when he not only opposed Trump’s tax plan but openly advocated raising taxes for the rich to 40 percent; he also argued that rescuing banks with public money is “socialism for the rich.” Trump advocating ordinary people’s interests is like the titular character from Orson Welles’ classic movie Citizen Kane. When a rich banker accuses Kane of speaking for the poor mob, he answers that, yes, his newspaper speaks for the poor ordinary people in order to prevent the true danger, which is that the poor ordinary people will speak for themselves.

As Yuval Kremnitzer demonstrated, Trump is a populist who remains within the system. Like any populism, today’s also distrusts political representation, the pretense of speaking directly for the people. It complains about how its hands are tied by the “deep state” and financial establishment, so its message is “If only we didn’t have our hands tied, we would be able to do away with our enemies once and for all.” However, in contrast to old authoritarian populism (like Fascism), which is ready to abolish formal-representative democracy and really take over and impose a new order, today’s populism doesn’t have a coherent vision of some new order. The positive content of its ideology and politics is an inconsistent bricolage of measures to bribe “our own” poor, to lower the taxes for the rich, to focus hatred on immigrants and our own corrupt elite outsourcing jobs, etc. That’s why today’s populists don’t really want to get rid of the established representative democracy and fully take power. “Without the ‘fetters’ of the liberal order to struggle against, the new right would actually have to take some real action,” and this would render obvious the vacuity of their program. Today’s populists can only function in the indefinite postponement of achieving their goal since they can only function as opposing the “deep state” of the liberal establishment: “The new right does not, at least not at this stage, seek to establish a supreme value — for instance, the nation, or the leader — that would fully express the will of the people and thereby allow and perhaps even require the abolition of the mechanisms of representation.”

What this means is that the true victims of Trump are his ordinary supporters who take seriously his babble against liberal corporate elites and big banks. He is the traitor of his own populist cause. His liberal critics accuse him of seemingly controlling his supporters ready to violently fight for him, while he is really at their side, inciting them to violence. But he is NOT really on their side. On the morning of Jan. 6 he addressed the rally on the Ellipse: “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol. And we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” However, when the mob did this and approached the Capitol, Trump retreated to the White House and watched on television as the violence unfolded on Capitol Hill.

Did Trump really want a coup d’état? Unambiguously NO. When the mob penetrated the Capitol, he made a statement: “’I know your pain, I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order.” Trump blamed his opponents for the violence today and praised his supporters, saying, “We can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you; you’re very special.” And when the mob began to disperse, Trump posted a tweet defending the actions of his supporters who stormed and vandalized the Capitol: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.” He concluded his tweet with: “Remember this day forever!” Yes, we should — because it displayed the fakeness of US democracy as well as the fakeness of the populist protest against it. Just a few elections in the US really mattered, such as the California gubernatorial election in 1934, when Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair lost because the entire establishment organized an unheard-of campaign of lies and defamations. (Hollywood announced that, if Sinclair won, it would move to Florida.)

A furious, dissatisfied crowd attacking parliament on behalf of a popular president deprived of his power through parliamentary manipulations… sound familiar? Yes: this should have happened in Brazil or in Bolivia. There the crowd of the president’s supporters would have the full right to storm the parliament and re-install the president. A totally different game was going on in the US. So let’s hope that what happened on Jan. 6 in Washington will at least stop the obscenity of the US sending observers to judge the fairness of elections in other countries — now the US elections themselves need foreign observers. The US is a rogue country not just when Trump is president: the ongoing (almost) civil war displays a rift that was there all the time.