Monday, September 28, 2009

Shadow Play

"But certainly ,for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence...illusion only is sacred ,truth profane."

Fuerbach, Preface to The Essence of Christianity

I want to continue this line of inquiry into the rational or, as Lichanos put it in his last comment, the complimentary notion of "authentic". As concerns any kind of political project, including my own egalitarian, pluralist one, it seems necessary to deal with this tension between the authentic and the spectacle, the rational and the schizophrenic. If it is true, as Bishop Butler said, that "Everything is what it is and not another thing", why is it I have to use scare quotes when I use the term capitalist "democracy"? How is language mediating our understanding? and how is control over language then a key to understanding cultural hegemony, identity and agency?

For me to find a discursive agreement with someone who believes capitalist democracy is a perfectly legitimate, rational term (symbol, signifier) I would need to at least be able to articulate my own ironic use of the same term. I would need to be able to explain this separation and how his reality is to me an illusion. Lichanos asks how am I ( or Fuerbach) so privileged that I can discern the illusion from the thing itself? Does this "separation" also explain why the exploited "proletariat" cannot seem to recognize it's own rational interests and how their consent is "manufactured"? (a la Chomsky)

We can describe this inclination to believe that we believe the true and sensible things we do because they are true and sensible, while other people believe the foolish and outrageous things they do (death panels?) because there is something the matter with these people, as "epistemic self-privileging or asymmetry". I get it but you don't.But democracy requires at the least a symetry between contestants.

At the heart of cultural politics is that notion of hegemonic domination of the narrative, the normative "recieved knowledge" and ideological formation which follows. As Ben Harper puts it "Fight for you mind!" and the fight boils down to one over words. Accepting Frueds "talking cure" means accepting the "magical' property of words, their ability to draw on myth and emotion and trigger responses which can either be transformative or in the service of power and control. I have long maintained that the heart of this contest is not over the meaning of words like socialism, communism or anarchism but over the meaning of the word democracy. Arundahiti Roys new book, Field Notes on Democracy ,and Michael Moores new movie also acknowlege this site of struggle. The chant at the G20 protests in Pittsburgh is the all-too-familiar "This is what democracy looks like". Riot cops and Black Blocs in the street. Ministers and financiers in the marble halls.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Liberal State?

I think I mentioned that I'm reading Democracy's Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics. (Thanks for the recommendation Beakerkin!) The author, John McGowan, disagrees with Foucault's belief in the States power of subject-formation, saying "The liberal state...does not explicitly aim for a unified whole of which it is the consumate expression..." But what if you start from the point of view that we live in a Market society and the State is far from neutral, is in fact, a capitalist state? He then asks of these "culturalists" why their disdain of consumerism runs so deep; if this is not just another example of elite fear of the demos? "What evidence do we have that the masses are not prepared for citizenship;that the masses lead thin, attenuated lives, that alienation, narcissism, or schizophrenia characterize the modern individual?"

Has he met Beakerkin? Should he have joined the latest White March on Washington? Should he come to Hamilton Montana? I agree with many of the authors arguments and also share his faith in pluralism but it cannot coexist with Spectacular Society where such rampant cognitive dissonance exists. ( The damaged, "schizophrenic" self that holds opposing values without experiencing any tension) Mc Gowan wants to believe the contest over culture ,and thus the formation of identity and even agency, takes place on an even playing field and that it is the heavy handed State we have to look out for, but I still think you have to scratch a little deeper. The commodification of culture and the capitalization of State and society must first be removed, then we can talk pluralism, politics , democracy and a "liberal education".

McGowan also wants to contest the very notion of "culture" as well as "modernism" but I will not try to explain his argument there. I think at the very least we can still imagine these as battlefields where meaning is disputed by various forces and where the age old question, Which Side Are You On? ,still exists. The concept of labor used to be fairly well delineated, (and not that long ago), but even it is dissolving into that homogeneous, gelatinous, mush of modern corporatism, with everyone on the "team" working towards a "common goal" of profitability. I saw Bill Fletcher interviewed by Bill Moyers and he has not wavered. If everyone the right-wing calls a Red, from Greenpeace to Jubilee to Human Rights Watch to David Korten would just stand up and say "Damn Straight, what about it?" we could start making some progress.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I am wondering what Conservative Marchers on Washington will think of the protesters who come to Pittsburgh for the G20 meetings? Will they support the "right to assembly" now that they have felt a little pushback, media criticism, negative commentary etc..? We've got a protest planned here in Hamilton Montana by Constitutional Conservatives for today and I'm sure it will draw all kinds of folks with grievances and I think it's a good thing, despite what many of my "progressive" acquaintances seem to think. Sure, they'll be armed, but half the pickups going down the road on any given day have rifles in the back window and pistols in the glove box. I remember when Spiro Agnew called protesters "nattering nabobs of negativity" and encouraged everyone to stay home and watch tv. If I'm standing up for Free Speech I gotta welcome all comers!There will be racists and red-baiters and privateers and profiteers making their illogical, incomprehensible arguments in the light of day, where all can see. We'll see what their vocabulary looks like, and how emotional their grievances.

" the very idea of the social collapses into an utterly private discourse, everyday politics is de-coupled from it's democratic moorings and it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of a vibrant politics and democracy itself".
Paul Giroux in truthout a must read.

I might argue the "coupling" never had a chance to happen because the democracy could never resolve the contradiction with capitalism. Witness Pres. Obama lecturing Wall Street on "irresponsibility" and "excesses" and " other moral failings, saying don't expect us to bail you out next time! Is he naive or is this all wink and a nod? Is he as terrified as any reasonably intelligent person in his position would be? Immanuael Wallerstein and Peter Bohmer can give him some reasons to question the "recovery" and organize for a real overhaul.The National Scolding is pure Spectacle and truly for bi-partisan viewing.

Meanwhile Montana's senior Senator Max Baucus is finally exposed as the truly pathetic sock monkey which he is, presenting his "health reform bill" which contains nothing for anybody except his corporate masters. It is so craven not even Olympia Snow could sign on! It is the purest display of US style capitalist "democracy" ever, lobbyists, backroom deals, anything of any value being "off the table' before negotiations can begin. Well done Max, Obama, Emmanuel and the rest of the Democratic Team! The Right will still call it "socialism" and progressives will slink away in shame.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The End Is Near

Following my compulsive -obsession to understand what makes people tick, I attended the second installment of the Revelation Now seminar at the church across the road. Oh yeah, demons, beasts, dragons "bad angels" ( a long discussion on how you tell the bad angels from the good angels) the whole freaky schtick laid out by a slick, charismatic orator teamed up with his wife, small d "dena" (curiously dressed in black and red) who does the singing and other unscary parts. In this joyous vision, nothing can be done about the coming doom, political involvement is useless, no one can be trusted and all the Answers can be found in one Book. How do we know these are the real answers? It says so in the Book! This amazingly circular reasoning is deployed throughout, is in fact the philisophical system, and to this receptive crowd (about 85 townsfolk) looking for "clear answers...for these uncertain times", it seems to work. Plus you get a free "handsome loose leaf binder" if you attend.( turns out you have to attend nine of the twenty four sessions.)( I won't be getting one)

It occurs to me that I am in a somewhat comparable situation, trying to explain to folks how we are in the end times of capitalism, but, like all these prophetic types, a little shaky about actual dates. Of course I hope my philosophical system is a tad more coherent and my explanation of "left behind" is definately more materialistic, but basically both the preacher man and I are hoping to use our respective soap boxes to find converts. He talks about "Pie in the Sky" (thats a lie!) while I'm all about the here and now, but organize we must and may the best man win. His brochure is definately cooler than mine. He ,of course, is not so tolerant as regards my project, labeling me the agent of a demon or some such, but hey! i've been called worse. Am I any closer to understanding what makes people tick? Perhaps. I also went for literary research reasons, in the novel I am working on there is a character who flirts with millennial dispensation-apocalyptic-Christian Zionism, and she , like my own townsfolk, starts out with a naive, simplistic a-political (mis)understanding but grows to see the doctrines problematic real-world implications. Can my neighbors grow as well? Could I stand before them, the farmers and housewives and students and laborers, and articulate my problems with this doctrine?

"This work of articulation is eclectic. It requires, among many other tasks, elucidation/elaboration/contestation of recieved and current ideas; the examination of prevailing practices, beliefs and institutions in relation to stated principles and as indicators of unstated motivations; an engagement with the multiple traditions that traverse contemporary cultures and influence individual discourse to bear within a polity which features a plurality of discourses."
"The only thing worse than a world where no one agrees with me is a world where everyone agrees with me."

from Democracy's Children by John Mc Gowan

Friday, September 11, 2009

We The People

We had a good discussion the other night about the "We" that must be constructed in order to effect transformational societal change. It brings up lots of interesting points of inquiry, such as the interplay between solidarity and pluralism, the idea of autonomy and individuals comprising a multitude of subject positions ( a la Hardt and Negri) and notions of utopian harmony devolving into a hellish totalitarian unity.

I have been concentrating lately on an investigation of democracy and the state and how these notions combine with the project of "building a new society within the shell of the old". Part of our discussion delved into whether there was a necessity to have a vision ( or particular blueprint) of the future we wish to see or whether the Scream was enough, the critique from the heart ( mind?) and subsequent exposure of injustice. This, it seems to me, leads directly to the chicken or egg conundrum. Building this new "model" we are consigned to using the blocks from the old. On a practical level this means any movement building involves dealing with people whose consciousness is shaped by their experience of the old system. Old theories, old cultural biases, old relations, old notions,etc...And unless you can achieve some sort of total isolation, it means being exposed to constant, corrupting influences of the old system. "Old Left" theory often posited a "transition" period where the consciousness of the masses might "catch up" to the new objective conditions after any sort of revolution. ( assuming a revolution arose out of historical conditions, a big assumption). But this "transition" has in practice proved problematic.

Along with this there is also an assumtion that a transformation of the "We" from having a cynical distrust of capitalist "democracy", or capitalist "justice", or capitalist administration (organization) to a BELIEF that these concepts could now, suddenly, approach their ideal is possible.This assumes a certain rationality or reasonableness that seems not to exist currently. How might this be reconciled? What of the unconscious? How is trust suddenly restored and Spectacular consciousness banished?

In Democracy's Children :Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics, author John Mc Gowan would assert that me and the cultural left are being:;
"to subtle by half. Injustice and the indignities that attend it are just not that complex. In particular,I find any reliance on intricate accounts of psychological mechanisms implausible - and politically troubling when attached to claims about unconscious processes. Democratic interaction depends,I believe, on a faith that people generally know what they are about and that rhetorical efforts to shift their self-understanding can be direct."

He discards chicken and egg, Lacan, Debord, or "false consciousness" and believes I can walk into the Old Testament Revelations revival tent and have a true discourse with the assembled, that the symbology of racism doesn't lie underneath the concern for right-wing "liberty" and that democratic processes are possible under capitalism or whatever. We can walk into a "tea party" and ask to have a meaningful discussion about socialism. I myself have argued that people need to be trusted to understand difficult ideas. So does this just mean that these ideas- pluralism, egalitarianism, democracy - have not been well enough articulated? Are we just lacking in rhetorical skills?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tragedy or Farce

History repeats itself as a tragic farce I suppose. I dreamed I saw Joe Mc Carthy last night , alive as you or me... but it was just Glen Beck casually calling all pinkos trators. I'm sure if I dialed in Rush right now I woud hear the same message. The media is reporting, with oh such serious concern, reports of "race baiting" but I have as yet failed to hear any condemnation of the blatant, 24 hour RED BAITING . Next we can expect a reality show with Glen and Van Jones chasing each other through the Jungle with paint ball guns, perhaps some cameo appearances with Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin mud wrestling! As Debord said, a State with no historical memory cannot be led strategically and that is certainly obvious to everyone, no matter your ideological position. I mean Afgahnistan? Really? California will just let the inmates go? Go where? They will just threaten the Insurance companies with a "trigger"? Farce or tragedy?

But the climate of fear and cruelty is no joke. The British National Party has an openly racist agenda, they cannot keep ammo in stock here where I live, there are cameras everywhere, Pittsburgh is militarized in anticipation of the G20, John Birch and Richard Nixon grin triumphantly from the grave. Homeless people fighting to the death for the "free market and bonuses of Wall Street Securitizers, dying widows on Medicaid railing against government programs, folks whose kids are waiting for liver transplants defending the right of Insurance Corporations to make as much profit as they can.

It's all about tension and equilibrium. We are all "conservative" to the degree we understand that any disruption in the equilibrium, even the percieved equilibrium, can cause forces to swing wildly in unforseeable directions. Like planets losing their orbits. And so I understand the "slippery slope" argument and the reaction to any proposal for radical change.We have all waken from the nightmare where the brooms keep bringing the buckets of water and like panicked Mickey Mouses we can only appeal to some higher power ( or cartoonist) but guess what. Pandoras Box is already opened, the nightmare is already much of the worlds current reality and the wild ocsillating is well underway. Equilibrium can only come from people taking control of their own destinies and remembering what it is like to have SOME measure of dignity.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Empire Strikes Back

As I predicted some time ago, this "health care reform" was indeed perceived as a substantial threat to capitalist forces ( hence the irrational zeal of the shock troops) and though these forces are themselves far from united as to how to proceed, it is obvious that those most concerned with preserving the ideological imperative have prevailed for now. They have decided to kill even this moderate attempt to align ourselves with the rest of the modern western nations, so fervently do they worship at the Temple of Profit. So no, we will not see any substantial gains for the working class in the short run, but a fissure has been opened and a possible Achilles Heel identified. This slight wound, the mere questioning of the legitimacy of profit, is not trivial. The words capitalism and socialism, taboo for decades, have actually entered mainstream discussion, they are seen on signs at rallys and in articles in newspapers and magazines. The Left-Left should be organizing to take advantage of the rare ( and brief) crack in the spectacular narrative.

Witness the stunned dismay of "centrists", moderates, progressives, etc... at the irrational counter-attack against even the "public option". These are the folks most heavily invested in the illusion that there is a "civil discourse" around which our "liberal democracy" is built and include much of the business class that got Obama elected. They depend on the Spectacle and hoped to continue the charade of a "nuetral media" and a "nuetral state" and a "representative government" but they see the veil slipping away to reveal the blatant ideological bias of all these so-called -constitutional institutions. Each "moderate" being asked to justify the profits of the insurance industry is slipping in the muck of contradiction and hypocricy, each sociologist brought on to explain the anger, outrage and frustration stumbles and stammers trying to explain the difference between self-interest and greed, individualism and alienation, rational fear and zenophobic paranoia.Even John Stewart has trouble defending such a corrupt, capitalist government.

This presents amazing opportunities for left radicals and anti-capitalists of all stripes to give a clear, articulate analysis of the historical moment to a understandably confused and frightened public ( workers, managers, coordinators, unemployed) . Only when viewed on a structural level can the dissapointment of liberals and the fear of conservatives be addressed logically and clearly. When someone asks you if you trust "the State" to run the healthcare system you can answer NOT THE CAPITALIST STATE. If someone asks you how you plan to pay for the stimulus and the bailouts you can say WE CAN'T BECAUSE CAPITALISM DOESN'T WORK. If a "progressive" tells you he/she is dissapointed in Obamas Afghanistan policy you can tell him OBAMA IS A CAPITALIST AND THE WAR ON TERROR IS AN IMPERIALIST WAR. We explain that FOX, CNN and NPR are all capitalist media, we explain that all political parties are capitalist parties and all the debt, war, repression, recession, fear and distrust spring from the same Spectacular source.