Thursday, April 28, 2011

End of Angst

Remember when people used to worry about the meaning of life? That whole Kerouac/ Herzog thing was eclipsed by the Age of Irony. We had Warhol, punk, Madonna and the travails of Real Life- such as -how to die with the most toys and win. With a wink and a nod people dismissed all things sublime, subliminal, or transubstantiated and learned to love the Simpsons and the suburbs.

Now we have entered the post Irony age where The Donald is proud to have forced up a birth certificate and in so doing tops the polls.If Jim is ironic, Dwight is post-ironic.(Office reference)
Swift Boat Veterans are post-ironic. Joe the Plumber is post-ironic. They look in the fun house mirror and don't make a joke about it, don't worry about it, they just accept exactly what they see. They make the most of being plugged in.

I think what Zizek calls cultural capitalism is post-ironic. A full page ad in Mother Jones invites us to the Lohas Forum at the St.Julien Spa in Boulder Co. which will focus on the "expansion of the $290 billion dollar Conscious Consumer marketplace" (Their capitals)
Topics include:

Conscious Capitalism
The Emerging Sheconomy
Social Entrepreneurship
Moving from Transaction to Transformation

There are pictures of really healthy people doing yoga and holding seedlings and looking at mountains. They are all smiling or seriously engaged. Because you can do good AND do well. Save the earth with every purchase.

Of course Boulder is ground zero for the whole spiritual hierarchy, the enlightened ones who are so much more special than the rest of us, but patient.( fortunately) They have come full circle to the post ironic sublime. Mostly through expensive workshops, smudge sticks, drum circles and fair trade sprouts. Hipster entrepreneurs who donate 1% of before-tax profit to Tibet are the worst counter-revolutionaries.

Friday, April 22, 2011


The basic operation of ideology is the dehistoricizing gesture of transforming an empirical obstacle into an eternal condition. For instance, the classic "because the communist ideal has devolved into totalitarianism in certain historical attempts, it is eternally and universally doomed as a project".

With this argument, the particular struggle is turned into a universal essential.To do this a number of obfuscating strategies are generally employed, especially the use of science. For instance, anthropology is enlisted to "prove" the defining characteristics of "human nature". Biology is brought into service to show genetic dispositions inherited from apes or lizard brains or cavemen.This sort of junk is bad enough ( and yes, Marx and Marxists have engaged in it) but then you get to the truly dismal science of economics with drivel like "animal spirits" and "invisible hands".

The problem with such universality is that it secretly privileges some particular content, while repressing or excluding another. Each account of the glories of entrepreneurial spirit privileges our species' competitive drive over the cooperative. Each account of moral hazard privileges a Christian "fallen", slothful Man over the innately creative, motivated being. Each account of the "rational actor" privileges capitalist logic of self-interest over the altruistic. Each account of the racial/cultural victor privileges innovation/ingenuity over raw power and savagery.

This is ideology at it's purest.

When it comes to modern production, the universalist turn is to describe it as participation in symbolic exchange (information age "conscious"capitalism bullshit) or modern "creative planning-programming" while repressing the actual, particular Third World sweatshop labor and misery. The universal "End of History" (liberal democratic capitalism) narrative obfuscates the particular,raw exploitation which is it's underbelly.

Of course universality is unavoidable as is the construction of ideology. The point is to be aware that it is a construction and develop the capability to discern its outlines. I'm not opposed to employing a little universality, such as global emancipation for instance, just as long as we keep in mind the impossible/necessary nature of the task.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Free Markets

“For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand—that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive masterminding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people.”

This high minded account called I, Pencil by Leonard Reed is how elites have packaged "free market- invisible hand" ideology for gullible saps (without mentioning any names). It is in truth a theological account of how economic activity self-organizes through a mysterious and beautiful power and uses a wonderfully simplistic tautology- freedom= free people = freedom. Thinking people, on the other hand, understand that raw Power is inserted into each unmentioned crevice at every stage of the loop but if you kind of squint just right you can pretend it simply doesn't exist. And we live in a permanently squinting society chock full of saps. (one born every minute according to P. T.)

Things are deteriorating so rapidly even progressives are getting in on the act. This is John Nichols ( Nation magazine) who has been energized by Wisconsin and has written a new book titled How Socialists Built America; "America has always been and should continue to be informed by socialist ideals and a socialist critique of society."

Before anyone gets their panties in a bunch, he qualifies it with: "The point here is not to defend socialism." Heavens no! He just likes those social ideals like equality and justice and solidarity.He has no intention of democratizing the economy in any radical sense. Still.

Another prominent liberal, E.J. Dionne, has just written this: "An enlightened ruling class understands that it can get richer and it's riches will be more secure if prosperity is broadly shared.." This is the Great Accommodation I have written about. He has never used the term "ruling class" before but he clearly senses the extreme nature of the historical moment as he goes on:

"The influence of the ruling class comes from it's position in the economy and it's ability to pay for the politicians campaigns" So far so good... "And I'd underscore that I am not using the term to argue for a Marxist economy."

Ohhh, dang. The liberal continues as though he reads Pagan's blog: "We need the market. We need incentives. We don't need our current levels of inequality." In other words, he is sensitive to EXTREME inequality.He just wants the rich to be more responsible and what could be more responsible, reasonable, rational than that? He just wants to rebuild the middle class and that's why he gets the Big Bucks. Liberals can only take baby steps but you can see a shift none the less.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hegemony and Identity

In his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel, Marx presents two seemingly opposed methods for emancipation. In the first he says:

"The proletariat is coming into being in Germany only as a result of the rising industrial development."

This is the formation of a class as a historically determined, revolutionary agent.As the result of capitalist logic, this subject is formed by a "drastic dissolution of society" and humanity is emancipated. All particularity is dissolved into a universality ( representative of the community). Contrast this with a passage further on in the essay:

"On what is a partial, a merely political revolution based? On the fact that part of civil society emancipates itself and gains general domination;..For the revolution of a nation and the emancipation of a particular class of civil society to coincide, for one estate to be acknowledged as the state of the whole society, all the defects of society must conversely be concentrated in another class, a particular estate must be looked upon as the notorious crime of the whole of society, so that liberation from that sphere appears as general self-liberation."

Again, in the first case, all power is dissolved through a totalizing, universal effect. In the second case, no such unmediated universality can be asserted. Writing at a time when it was clear that mature capitalism was not headed in the direction of class solidification, as predicted by Marx, but instead towards increasing class complexity, Antonio Gramsci looked toward the nature of that "mediation" and theorized that any revolutionary subject would be formed through hegemonic, political construction rather than some automatic, necessary movement of history. This construction would take place in the realm of civil society and would be ideological in nature.

Lets see if we can apply this to something as concrete as our own American revolution. First we see that a "particular estate", the Crown, becomes the site where "the notorious crime of the whole of society" becomes identified. From this antagonism an identity of "American" is formed in opposition, an identity able to incorporate landed elites, tenant farmers, petite burgeois, and even some laborers. They are united in a universalizing, abstract concept of Freedom so that their individual, particular demands form a chain of equivalences. This is the moment of hegemonic articulation. It is an ideological challenge at the political level but it does not eliminate the unevenness of power in the challenging group ( the landed elites do not relinquish power) nor involve a total unity of "the people". The elites, through displacement and representation ( sign becomes signifier) are able to present their particular aims as the ones which are compatible with the actual functioning of society. The landed gentry present their own partial emancipation as the emancipation of society as a whole (and embed this in a Constitution). Hegemony.

Currently the "ruling class" (always partial and politically constructed) has hegemonic power through the spread of a dominant ideology using the "Bureaucratic State- New World Order Elites" as the site where "all the defects of society" reside. As the guardians of private property, free markets, free will (Freedom), particular sectors ( workers, small businessmen, liberals, farmers, etc..) are temporarily (and partially) universalized into a hegemonic historical bloc. Of course the bloc is unravelling as people try to understand how Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney are part of Sarah Palin's Real America (state of the whole society)(?).

To be continued...

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Help or Hinderance?

The largest split on the left for some time has been between democratic socialists and social democrats. This remains true today in Europe according to Robert Taylor : "The current crisis of mainstream social democracy is in part due to the surprising tenacity and advance of more radical movements to it's left." He goes on to cite the success of Die Linke, the Norwegian Socialist Left Party,Dutch socialists, Danish Socialist Peoples party and the new Anti-Capitalist Party of France, all capitalizing on the failed compromises of Labor Parties while invigorating young activists and the disenchanted. These parties must negotiate in a parliamentary environment where coalition building is key so that anti-capitalist theory is coupled with defending the gains of social democracy from it's heyday such as health, education and pension systems.

Social democrats, on the other hand, often accuse their more idealistic brethren of undermining their goals by using off-putting anti-capitalist rhetoric. An example would be Sweden's Social Democratic party which insists the future lay THROUGH capitalism rather than BEYOND it. This would be the difference between figures like Karl Kautsky,and Michael Harrington on the one hand, and Eduard Bernstein or Norman Thomas, on the other. In starker terms this might be called the Reform or Revolution split. Social democrats insist capitalism does not face a "terminal crisis", that it is more resilient than Marx foretold, and that tangible gains for workers is the real task, an accommodation based on unions and populist parties with progressive agendas. All my progressive friends say using the "C" word only hinders their organizing efforts and the "S" word is totally discredited due to historic failures.

A couple of questions come to mind. First,does the social democrats claim that "the intransigence of radicals hurts their movement" hold any water?

Second, does the current crisis change this equation in any way?

I suppose a third consideration would be the differences between the European parliamentary system and the American two-party system. A party like Die Linke could reasonably claim that it's efforts toward reform is combined with a vision of radical structural transformation. This does not open them to being crushed by the right-wing. Of course Germans, unlike Americans, are a reasonably intelligent people who understand that saying capitalism has served it's purpose and must be transcended does not translate into Stalinism.

Coming back to America,my answer to the first question is No. This is a red herring. Progressives have lost because they don't understand the nature of power and believe the political, through the state, can check the economic. They don't understand the role of hegemony in cultural reproduction of capitalist ideology. And they don't understand how globalism has changed the terrain, that Roosevelt and Keynes are not coming back, not even war brings prosperity any more.

To the second question I say Yes. This crisis is a confluence of crises,forcing a confrontation with the stark limits capitalism has till now, but can no longer, shove off into the future. The crisis of sustainability, of inequality, of meaning, and of declining profits all fly in the face of social democratic assumptions. It is actually they who stand in the way of a brighter future with their false "pragmatism".

Sunday, April 10, 2011


There are popular movements building to fight-back against austerity programs being imposed in Europe, here in the US and elsewhere. Greece and France have had general strikes, Britain has it's student movement and union led marches,(the last one brought out an estimated half million in London) and other EU countries are seeing protests over massive budget cuts and other attacks on the public sector. Icelanders just voted down a proposal forcing them to pay for their banks failures.

The US movement has had some successful actions, occupying banks and annoying various elites with their call: We won't pay for your crisis!" This chant was started by those resisting foreclosures, resisting bank bailouts (Michael Moores movie themes) and most recently those in Madison Wis. resisting the attack on public service employees and their union.

The question is this: Is a campaign based on a negative vision enough? Saying what you WON'T do only goes so far. At some point you have to articulate what you will do. "Not paying" means, by default, allowing the economy to collapse. Capitalism has only been preserved by the use of massive public expenditure (the bail-outs and the stimulus) and withdrawing those policies now causes the markets to implode. Those who say Re-distribute the Wealth of hedge-fund Managers, (greedy banksters, etc) must realize the short term nature of this fantasy solution. That is, it can never happen because people like Pagan will defend their masters with their lives. But even if it did, Capitalists would just go on strike as they have been threatening to do, bringing down the markets, governments and global financial collapse. Don't think they wouldn't.

This means an Anti-Cuts movement must be willing to call their bluff and say bring it on. Their vision must include deep structural change, far beyond electoral or legislative solutions. This is the gulf between progressives and radicals, one side accepts the fact of a debt crisis but wants others to pay, the other side refuses to accept this basic frame, insisting it is capitalism itself that is the crisis. Those who propose any kind of Popular Front must have some way of bridging this fundamental divide. "Anti-cut" must articulate pro-economic democracy and justice, pro-ecological sustainability and re-examination of the very notions of work, citizenship and politics.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Indefatigueable or What About Jeb?

Most Democrats know at a deep level that each time they write their check out to The Party they are playing along in a cynical game which, like the naked Emperor, they can't never acknowledge without destroying the whole illusion which is their fragile, precariously constructed world view.

Republicans however seem to have limitless reserves of mindless faith. Like moths to a flame they return over and over and over to get burned because empirical evidence barely registers as a distraction to them. From Nixon on, the Party of Goldwater has looked to sociopaths for leadership and Lord knows there is never any shortage in that department. Where then is Jeb, the Final Bush? If Newt can be resurrected why not Jeb? Would the Donald ever be comfortable as a vice president to a woman, say Michelle ? Will the Mormons turn off Fox News and The Party now that Glen is banished?

Meanwhile Obama is on a role, supporting nuclear energy, tar sands development AND the Colombia free trade agreement. So that Richard "Chopped Liver"Trumpka has to once again come out all blustery about the "vanishing middle class". First tragedy, then farce, then spectacle. When Che Bob broke the news to the Catholics the other night they took it fairly well, almost relieved that somebody ( not them) had finally said it. Now they have to grieve a bit and transform the cynicism into joy that they don't have to carry the lie around.

In the RSA animate presentation Language as a Window into Human Nature, we are shown the pitfalls of all our veiled language habits, the games, strategies for getting what you want without having to say what you mean.

"We are over-loaded with critiques of the horrors of capitalism..what isn't questioned is the democratic-liberal framing of the fight against such excesses.The goal is to democratize capitalism...but the institutional set up of the (bourgeois) democratic state is never questioned." Zizek

Actually, the Bolivians seem to be questioning plenty, rejecting the Morales gas hike and the development model it rode in on.

Monday, April 04, 2011


Prognostication is a tricky deal which makes this, written in 1986, pretty impressive: "Firms will locate and relocate their production on a global scale...the employment prospects in each country will therefore depend on each nation-states ability to create attractive business climate; and the ability of any governing group to secure reelection will depend in important measure on the employment situation in the period preceding the election.

In this form of accommodation the democratic structure of the state is rendered vacuous...When economies are so thoroughly integrated in the world economic system that the supply of investment in any given economy is highly responsive to small differences in the expected rate of profit, the effective range of choices my be reduced to a single set of policies, a global equivalent to Henry Ford's "You can have any color car you want , as long as it is black."

The downward pressure on wages and intensification of work in the advanced capitalist countries, would probably foster a sense of unfairness and hostility toward the rules of the game.A heightened sense of conflict..enforcement costs would upward drift in the level of unemployment...uneven development of economic monetary and trading system..are prone to recurrent crises...toward a costly interventionist and militaristic foreign policy. It might prove difficult to mobilize nationalist sentiment on the part of the victims of the global liberal model in the service of making the world safe for multinational capital flight."

Samuel Bowels and Herbert Gintis Democracy and Capitalism

Written twenty five years ago! And of course they couldn't have predicted a Tea Party-FOX-Mega-church to put in exactly that kind of service.

Oh yeah, you have to listen to this Always on watch and WC April.01 broadcast with guest Midnight Rider. Everything you ever wanted to know about oil pricing and social security from people in the know! Without a touch of irony they go for half the show about how stupid other people are! Isn't Storm Watch an Aryan group by the way?

Bachman in 2012!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Truck and Barter

Adam Smith held that it is our natural proclivity to "truck and barter" but of course there is no "natural" human. Instead, the connection between material flow and social relations is reciprocal. Trading makes traders.The economy produces people as well as goods. A constitutive theory of the economy must address not only the question of who gets what and why, it must also ask who gets to become what and why. I would also argue that the market arena of self-interested and anonymous interaction reduces not only the need for compassion, but the sentiment itself.Now if I could only figure out how capitalism destroys brain cells I could develop a full explanation of Michelle Bachman.

Speaking of ignorant, I saw the old Vietnam war documentary Hearts and Minds again the other night. From General Westmoreland to the farm boys who bought his racist bullshit, there were lots of Americans in that film with nothing but empty space between their ears. What happened to their minds? Domino theory? Really? I appreciated the college football and parade sequences mixed in with the mass graves and napalmed children but had to keep laughing to keep from crying.

It has been a little scary in the "intervention" debate over at Znet to see the acolytes and sycophants who couldn't form an opinion until Noam Chomsky weighed in. Not what you would call a ton of original thinking. Zizek said the best indicator of the lefts lack of trust in itself is it's fear of crisis. Everyone is trying to put the global order BACK TOGETHER! Ask Congress for war powers! Follow the UN resolution strictly! Respect state sovereignty! They so love the RULES.

'Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent!"