The Wolf’s Ears

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , on October 3, 2020 by Magadh

Communique #2 from the Kommando Rudi Dutschke:

 

The Wolf’s Ears

Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote of slavery, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson’s relationship to slavery had numerous problematic elements, from his nonconsensual sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, to his predication of freedom for the slaves on their expatriation, to his view that the Missouri Compromise would make slaves happier because they would be more spread out. Still, it expresses something important about at least one species of southern thought about the question.

We mention this neither to in any way lessen the guilt attaching to Jefferson for his engagement in the slave system, nor to make any apology whatever for the failure of southerners (or Americans generally) to concede to enslaved people their fundamental and inalienable rights to freedom and dignity. Rather, we think that, mutatis mutandis, it goes some way toward answering the question of why it is that so many otherwise self-regarding figures in the Republican Party seem so willing to join Mr. Trump in spiraling the bowl.

Mr. Trump is a symptom of what the Republicans have become in the years since the Eisenhower administration. Chased into the wastelands of opposition by Lyndon Johnson, the Republican right turned toward the fanatical conservatism of Barry Goldwater, as the party was colonized by cadres from John Birch Society and the Heritage Foundation. The goal was to combat the combination of increased willingness among northeastern “elites” to collaborate with the moderate liberalism of Johnson and other conservative Democrats, along with the association of liberalism with improved economic conditions during the long postwar boom.

The central thrust of this strategy was to get Americans in the middle and lower segments of the income distribution to vote against their economic interests by convincing them of increasing dangers posed by brown people and communism. Their efforts found fertile soil in American culture, in which systematic racism and fanatic anti-communism were already widespread, even among those who did not regard them as primary bases for electoral choice. By bringing these considerations to the fore, the right-wing of the Republican party created a pullulating mass of xenophobic angst and anger, ready to respond to the dangers posed by Willie Horton and cultural Marxism.

More moderate segments of the party viewed the activists of the rightward fringe as allies, even if they did not follow them down the rabbit hole of paranoid xenophobia. Although fanatical and paranoid anti-communism was well-establish in both parties from the 1920s, there was a point at which it was still possible to distinguish a moderate “mainstream” Republican doctrine that was wrong-headed without being simply insane. Much as it is difficult to believe now, there was a time when most Republicans would have been unwilling to don tinfoil hats and publicly espouse the view that fully a fifth of babies born in the U.S. were kidnapped, used for sex slavery and/or eaten (by liberals).

The ideological project created during and after the failure of Goldwater’s presidential candidacy metastasized during the era of social media. While the devotees of the most lunatic portions of QAnon and its adjacent ideologies (birtherism, Oh God they’re coming for your guns, etc.) still represent a minority even among conservatives, they still constitute a large enough segment of the politically active part of the party to have decisive effects in primary elections for anyone who doesn’t toe the line. Thus, the madness of the party has become self-selecting. Mr. Trump, as has so often been the case in the course of his life, was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. He clearly believes that he has called a political movement into being, when in fact he is simply the avatar of a political pathogen that has been brewing in the pores of the Republican Party for decades.

Mr. Trump’s support base within the party comprises four distinct but overlapping parts: lower and lower middle-class whites won over by a combination of xenophobia and Horatio Alger fairy stories, white evangelicals convinced that the Democratic Party is the embodiment of antichrist, white suburbanites who fear that they will be forced to leave near nonwhites (threatening home values and the sexual sanctity of their wives and daughters), and the hyperwealthy who will simply vote for whoever promises the set capital gains taxes at the lowest level.

Thomas Friedman, the leading running dog of the New York Times opinion page had one of his rare lucid moments the other day when he asserted that many of Trump’s supporters a drawn not so much to the things that he says but to the manner of his rejection of liberal elites and others that they regard as too clever. He then receded into his extreme centrist fantasy world in which the main problem of politics in the United States is the haughty attitude of the smart toward the stupid. But there is a salient point to be gleaned there.

The problem of Trumpism is twofold. First, there is a hard core of partisans whose symbolic order has been colonized by (or intertwined with) Trump as master signifier. Then there is the bulk of the Republican Party, many of whom view Mr. Trump as the bumbling clown that he is, but who have lost whatever connection they may have had to the metanorm of liberal democracy that sees maintenance of the overarching institutional structure as a good in itself. These two nodes are then surrounded by human shoals whose subjectivities have been rewritten to a greater or lesser degree by the obligate feeder algorithm of which Mr. Trump is the primary avatar.

Thus, the core of the modern Republican Party comprises (almost exclusively) zealots and cynics. Many of the latter would probably like to get rid of Mr. Trump, but all are aware that deviance on the question of what the emperor is wearing is likely to result in unfortunate political consequences for both person and party. And so, Mr. Trump has metastasized from parvenu éhonté to a political virus likely to cause liberal democracy to mutate into a variant of Putinism with Upper West Side pretensions.

This is perhaps not a desirable outcome for at least some among the Republican faithful. But it is one that they can certainly live with. It presents the prospect of accumulation of capital untrammeled by the importunate graspings of the lower order conducted under the cover of an aggressive, preening white nationalism employed as a tool to keep the lower orders onside, whether via cooptation or repression. The momentary eddies and disruptions in the stream by the like of the Lincoln Project and others among the rare breed of “never Trump” Republicans are the political equivalent of a serial killer sending the cops a note reading, “Please stop me before I kill again.”

All this might have been different if the left had not been prevented by petit-bourgeois squeamishness and a fondness for soft targets (primarily each other) from undertaking their own project of colonization. It is one of the true ironies of modern American politics that Antifa groups, mostly comprising people in black hoodies and vegan shoes sitting around smoking dope and watching South Park reruns, have been elevated to the status of ruthless and powerful conspirators. No more compelling metonym for the utter capitulation of the left could possibly be conceived.

Like Max Weber, writing a century ago, we do not who what sort of human type will be produced by the “case, hard as steel” that society will be transformed into by Trumpism triumphant. Perhaps, as Weber speculated, “at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrifaction, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance.” In the future, we may find ourselves longing for something so harmless as Weber’s “specialists without spirit” and “sensualists without heart.” What is certain is that it will be a nullity that believes it has achieved humanity’s crowning glory.

 

The Death of the Old Republic

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2020 by Magadh

Communique #1 from the Kommando Rudi Dutschke:

 

The Death of the Republic

The old republic is dead. It was always problematic and ever the subject of brutal criticism from the left (most of it justified) as well as from the right (most of it psychotic). It is a sign of exactly how tenuous its condition has been that the expiration of one elderly Supreme Court justice has cleared a path for a coup detat that can be accomplished within the bounds of strict bourgeois legality.

The republic has been moribund for years. The election of Bill Clinton, a man utterly devoid of any discernable political principle (other than the satisfaction of his own thanotropic desires) was the moment at which the political public sphere in the United States was transformed from an arena of ideological competition among political elites to an encounter between political spectacles generated by factions of the same class.

Arguably, the current circumstances are the result of a thoroughgoing lack of imagination. Among Republicans, a large proportion have long been prepared to countenance a shift in the state along the lines of the effected by Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851. Better that than to continue to have to bear the blunt upbradings and bitter scoffs of non-whites and LGBTQ+ people demanding their rights, or the milquetoast liberals acting as their proxies.

The novelty term that Mr. Trump has brought to the equation is not the substance of these views but the recognition that the path to realizing them lay open for any with the will and imagination to behave as if the tradition and nostrums of American politics did not matter. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Mr. Trump, abetted by Senator McConnell and his merry band of neoliberal revolutionaries, merely managed to accomplish via shameless arrogance what any Republic president since Eisenhower would have done with sufficient cheek. Even George W. Bush, a human nullity amounting to a ventriloquist’s prop for oil and gas interests lacked (pace the imaginings of the tin foil hat brigade) the raw capacity for fantasy to make 9/11 the basis for an actual Staatsstreich.

The left has lacked imagination as well, if in rather a different key. Those in the spectrum running from dead center to center-left of the political spectrum shared with their opponents on the right the failure to conceive of the prospect of airliners transformed into weapons and the deaths of thousands as political theater (although it had been prefigured in literature and elsewhere). But their true failure was in their inability to recognize that their opponents viewed the institutions of the republic as simply a matter of convenience (or inconvenience).

As an institution, the modern Democratic Party exists as an institution for soliciting money from the wealthy and exchanging is for political representation. The advent of the internet changed the equation somewhat, in the sense that it facilitated soaking donors further down the income distribution, but that didn’t change the party’s self-conception as an institution that solicits money from the rich and looks after their influence.

With the exception of a few cockeyed idealists, the modern Democratic Party has been populated by people comfortable with this way of doing things. The fragments of social liberalism leftover from the New Deal receive the occasional nod, generally at times when keeping the more marginalized segments of the party’s voter base onside. But, as with parties of the center-left in the Atlantic world generally, this is invariably performative rather than actual.

The paradigmatic case is that of Blair’s New Labour which made clear its move away from its base in the labor movement by telling the British trade unions that they would do nothing for them, but that, on balance, New Labour would be less pernicious to their interests than the Tories. In the case of the Democrats, blacks, Latinos, women, and LGBTQ+ people can be seamlessly substituted, with a few pious hymns to the dignity of the oppressed added on for decoration.

The great mistake of the Democratic Party was their belief that they and the Republicans were playing the same game. But the colonization of the party by elements of the revolutionary right in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 changed the nature of the game being played. The Democrats remained blissfully unaware that this was the case until the election of Donald Trump in 2016, at which point at least some in the upper echelons of the party began to realize that Trump extreme right-wing populism was a feature, not a bug.

Through all of this, the left has vegetation, losing the impetus generated by the radicalism of the 1960s. The fragmentation of the 1970s, a result of the failure of the anti-capitalist left the integrate the critique of race and gender oppression into the existing analysis of class domination, generated new avenues for agitation and should have resulted in an enrichment of the organizational and theoretical tools of anticapitalist struggle. In the event, the history of left in the last forty years has been a garbage fire, fueled by the hypertrophy of self-indulgent narcissism.

This too has involved failures of imagination. The utopian thrust of the movements of the 1960s has dissipated, leaving behind a residue combining renunciation of utopian thought and self-defeating maximalism. In part, this was the result of a failure to overcome the hangover of the Bolshevik revolution. As Paul Mason wrote in Postcapitalism:

“In the old socialist project, the state takes over the market, runs it in favor of the poor instead of the rich, then moves key areas of production out of the market and into a planned economy. The one time it was tried, in Russia after 1917, it didn’t work. Whether it could have worked is a good question, but a dead one.”

The story of the left in the last four decades has been shaped by two catastrophic failures. The first, alluded to above, is the failure to articulate a utopian vision with mass appeal. This project was made more difficult by the existence of manifold images of the drab, dreary everyday of actually existing socialism. But there has also been a blindness to the fact that the target audience for left utopias simply isn’t interested in the role of self-denying saints. There has, in recent times, been some movement toward presenting ideal worlds that someone outside an Occupy camp or a monastery might want to live in (Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism being an apposite example), but this arrived relatively late in the story, and the prospects for it (or any other leftist utopia) are grim indeed.

The second failure of the left was one of tactics. The coin of the realm (so to speak) of anti-capitalist agitation has been the formation of mass movements comprising those subjected to exploitation for the extraction of surplus-value. As time went on, new groups were added to the pool of those systemically marginalized, including non-whites, LGBTQ+ people, women, students, etc. But even as this pool has grown, and even as wealth has increasingly been concentrated at the upper end of the income distribution, the achievement of solidary mass movements of the left has proved elusive.

Those focused on the traditional class-based politics of the left have tended to see the fault as lying with others whose pursuit of identity-based political solidarities of have detracted from the struggle against capitalism, which they view as preeminent. But the fault lies as much or more with the traditional class-oriented left itself, which has persistently minimized the relative importance of oppression on the basis of race and gender, rather than striving proactively integrate these critical perspectives into the struggle against capitalism.

Perhaps other bases for the lack of leftist solidarity might be adduced, but the fact of the matter is that mass-based organization against capitalism remains an aspiration rather than a fact. In the absence of such a movement (or in the course of its construction), alternative tactics become necessary. The left is not in a position to fight a war of movement. What are the characteristics of the war of position that need has chosen?

In 1967, Rudi Dutschke wrote of the need for the left to undertake a “long march through the institutions.” This is a lesson that the right has learned far better. One of the most crucial foundations of the hegemonic position of the rightwing imaginary in the political public sphere in North America has been the colonization of institutions of the locality, the county, and the state by forces of the far right. This was undertaken on the basis of an explicit strategy to obtain molecular control of institutions at the national level. Dominance at the level of ideas has followed as a not unintended consequence.

Rather than a long march through the institutions, the left has undertaken a long march through the bedroom, the coffee shop, and the protest camp. These are not without value as sites of struggle, but they contribute little to the formation of counter-hegemonic forces. Divorced from power embodied in institutions, critiques of social norms and economic injustice appear as marginal eddies in the flow of spectacular projection.

In recent months, African Americans and others have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. That is as it should be. Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured man has to scream. But protest in the streets has limited potential for transforming systems of oppression without extensive and systematic organizing.

The idea that street protest can create change is a liberal holdover from that brief moment in the post-New Deal era when the Democratic Party was working to amalgamate the support of the African Americans and lower- and middle-class whites. But the effectiveness of the street protests was, in fact, a function of the residuum of the progressivism of the 1930s, synergizing with the fear that actually existing socialism might gain some kind of traction among those subjected to the surplus repression of the American racial state.

Those conditions no longer obtain. In the current circumstances, the solidarity building aspect of street protests is offset to a great extent by the inscription of veneration for the forces of order in the white racial imaginary. Building support, especially by using demonstrations as a means to illustrate the brutality of the police at the same time tends to convince suburban whites and those who idolize them that a wave of black racist anarchy is washing over the country, aiming to seize their property and violate white womanhood. That fact that this is a paranoid fantasy does not make its effects any less profound.

 

Drunks on Death Metal, Vol. 2

Posted in Dispatches on June 27, 2020 by Magadh

Here are Keith, Will, and Magadh talking about Voivod. Probably more than you want to hear, but who cares…

The Necropolitics of Boredom

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2020 by Magadh

I think we’ve all known for a long time that the president was bored. His attention span is (to put it charitably) notoriously brief at the best of times. He does best when he can bounce from strength to strength, like a stone skipping across the surface of a placid sea of nothingness. But now he is so starved for positive feedback that he has been reduced to half-filled arenas in areas slowly being transformed into viral petri dishes.


What are the necropolitics of boredom? In the case of Mr. Trump, they seem to veer wildly between attempts to blame the super-(duper)-boring virus currently devastating the country on the Chinese, and the project of replicating the worst elements of their approach.


In the ecology of Trump administration, the president’s underlings work feverishly to convert his utterances into things which aren’t illegal, immoral, inappropriate, or incomprehensible (or some combination of all of them). These efforts generally last only as long as it takes for the president to utter some other combination of ridiculousness and atrocity, at which point a new metabolic cycle begins, the previous one being consigned to a media-generated memory hole.


The most recent iterations of this have focused on the president’s stated intention to draw down coronavirus testing programs. This has been coming for a while. A couple of weeks ago, the president issued the following pronouncement: “If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, actually…”


The logic underlying this statement will be familiar to any five year old or the parents thereof, but just in case it was unclear, the president’s can be made clear by reference to a remark he made in a meeting with the governor of Iowa last month: “So the media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”


According to the Trumpist way of thinking, the testing is itself driving the spread of the disease. Let us pause for a moment to consider the fact that public discourse in a modern, nuclear-armed state now permits that sort of flat denial of object permanence that would seem out of place in the average kindergarten.


What is really being asserted here is not that COVID-19 would go away, but that people would stop talking about it to the detriment of the president’s prospects for re-election. The fact that meat sacks might still be coughing out their lives on ventilators or in back alleys is simply not something that enters Mr. Trump’s appreciation of the considerable virtues of his own personal brand.


The current project of digestion being undertaken by the redoubtable Kayleigh McEneny and company is Mr. Trump’s determination to make his word flesh, so to speak, by curtailing government funding for virus testing. Mr. Trump hopes thereby to turn a trick of which he was quite fond in his days as white male real-estate speculator and creator of synergy: the creation of alternate realities by simple assertion. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…


Let us here take a moment to ruminate on the character of the stalwart Ms. McEneny. Armed with a BA from Georgetown and a JD from Harvard Law, author of two books, she is the apotheosis of the role of presidential spokesmodel formerly held by (among others) the joie de vivre-laden Sean Spicer and the glum and grumpy Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She is certainly on-model for the sort of profile that Mr. Trump seems to prefer: young, blonde, female, and evincing an apparent willingness to take a position whose job description is alarmingly similar to that of Josef Goebbels.


She is now the mouthpiece for Mr. Trump’s singular obsession: the presidential election in November. The obsession with re-election is common to the vast majority of politicians and their entourages. But it takes on a particular cast in the case of Mr. Trump. Intimately aware of his status as a parvenu among what he once considered to be the “right sort of people” (mostly inhabiting the Upper West Side), he is hypersensitive to the prospect of failure. Having convinced himself that he wanted to be president (maybe that would show the haters) and having, against all odds, actually managed to do so, the most proximate threat to his ever so fragile ego is that he will fail at the next hurdle.


Now, of course, one might find oneself wondering whether bungling the response to a viral outbreak in such a way as to condemn tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Americans to grim demise might be considered a failure. Perhaps. But if real estate speculation has taught him nothing else, it has taught Mr. Trump that you’re only as culpable as your next big deal. If he can only close on this second election thing, then the nattering nabobs of negativism in the press and the liberal elites can curse in vain. He’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.


For now, though, life is kind of boring. Mr. Trump’s new spate schedule of rallies/pandemic vector events notwithstanding, he is still condemned to a seemingly endless expanse of days burdened by abstract, boring, non-Trump-related problems. The coronavirus isn’t sexy and doesn’t have a vagina that can be forcibly appropriated. It doesn’t respond to taunts. The Chinese do, but only in ways that probably seem prejudicial to the rolling over of the extensive debts that Mr. Trump owes to their banks.


Worst of all (for Mr. Trump), he can’t seem to get the news cycles reliably rolling the right direction. People seem to have gotten very tired of winning. Except the losers, the ones in the streets or those crying about lost jobs or dead relatives. They’ve been winning too, they’re just too dumb to understand it, and explaining it to them is just another boring feature of this boring, boring world.

The Language of the Fourth Imperium

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2020 by Magadh

Lingua quartii imperii#2: Antifa

Mr. Trump’s announcement the other day (conveyed as usual via the medium of Twitter) that “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization” illustrates a number of important features of his administration. Antifa occupies a prominent place in the pantheon of enemies against which the American far-right defines itself. Its role is particularly sinister. While people of color are easy to identify, Antifa shares with COVID-19 the qualities of invisibility and omnipresence.

The place held by Antifa in the far-right imaginary illustrates its fundamentally inflationary quality. Antifa is not an organization, even in the polycephalus sense that ISIS or Al Qaida is. There is no leadership, which presents a serious problem for law enforcement’s go-to idea of detaining the leaders, or would if the anti-Antifa rhetoric were anything more than a thinly disguised excuse to surveil and harass people and groups perceived by the right as “enemies.” The fact that there is no there there (or perhaps it might be better to say “no that there”) functions therefore as both problem and solution.

Antifa has long been used in leftist circles as verbal shorthand for anti-fascist. Under normal circumstances, this would be the sort of thing that would be reasonably easy to affirm, even if one were not exactly in soul with all of one’s fellow adherents. “One can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons,” Arthur Koestler once noted, as a way of justifying collaborating with anticommunists without thereby signing on with those at the far end of the spectrum. While it is important to resist the temptation to draw, in uncritical fashion, unequivocal lessons from history, fascism would seem to be one of those phenomena about which negative conclusions might reasonably be drawn.

Yes, in another era that might be so. The fact that, in the first year of his administration, the president was unable to distance himself unequivocally from the Ku Klux Klan made clear the degree to which the dogmas of the quiet past were not simply inadequate to the present, they were in the process of being shredded. Having embraced the ideology of the far-right, a process made easier by having very little in terms of ideas needing to be reordered or displaced, Mr. Trump added Antifa to the list of bogies waiting in the shadows for the opportunity to smash the windows of the nearest J. Crew store.

As anyone who has spent much time among leftists will know, with very few exceptions Antifa is one of those things that is more aspirational than practical. While there are scattered groups that fashion themselves as actual cells (of a non-existent organization), most of their activities could probably be checked by lowering the price of ganja and raising the price of Pabst in equal degree until one reached the threshold at which direct action was abjured in favor of watching endless reruns of Metalocolypse.

Antifa has taken on a special significance and threat profile as the protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd have spread. As usual at such times rumors abound, especially as the police tactics in the face of the demonstrations have in a number of cases resulted in riots. The associated property damage has been blamed on people of color, but also variously on anarchists or far-right agents provocateurs or both. The fascination with the possibility that the property damage might be the result of some organized operation on the party of Antifa is a perfect example of the degree to which the conspiratorial imaginings of the far-right have colonized the president’s brain.

Not that they had to work very hard to do so. The president was already prone to seeing threats, from the Arabs celebrating America’s demise in Jersey on 9/11 to the strange case of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The president’s obsession with secret truths to which only he has access has synergized well with the mindset of his fellows on the lunatic fringe of the right, for whom conspiratorial imaginings are meat and drink.

The failure of Antifa to actually exist in the sense that its right-wing critics think it does has, paradoxically, imbued it with terrifying powers. There have been reports that people have found pallets of bricks and other rioting necessaries placed strategically around protest zones. This is put down to Antifa’s underground operational capacities. Never mind the fact that most groups of soi-disant Antifas could barely cobble together the change needed for a couple of 40s, much less the requisite capital for a pallet of bricks, however much that might be.

Yesterday, the head of the Los Angeles Police Department momentarily claimed that the rioters were themselves, at least in part, responsible for George Floyd’s murder. This represented a new level of Antifa-based schizoid thought. Because it would have required a time machine.

Ultimately, the threat purportedly posed by Antifa is linked closely with the petit-bourgeois obsession with the sanctity of property. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton suggested that looters be given “no quarter,” and this was only one of the more pointed statements expressing the idea that the penalty for interfering with property rights might legitimately be death. But then again, how else might one fight a threat like Antifa, invisible to the point of insubstantiality.

“[T]oday we have entered into a new form of schizophrenia – with the emergency of an imminent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks.” So wrote Jean Baudrillard in The Ecstasy of Communication. The terror of the modern is the vulnerability to threats too close to be perceived or repelled. “No more hysteria or projective paranoia as such, but a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic, an over proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity all things which beleaguer and penetrate him, meeting with no resistance, and no halo, no aura, not even the aura of his own body protects him.”

Antifa has become the codeword for a secret terror, threatening not (or not just) the body but property, the lifeblood of order. The power generated by the invocation of this threat, the power to activate defensive responses from all levels of the bourgeois order, is an illustration of the schizophrenia that shapes it.

 

The Language of the Fourth Imperium

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , , on June 2, 2020 by Magadh

Lingua Quartii Imperii #1: Domination

Mr. Trump described the police response to the demonstrations in Washington D.C. last night as “domination,” alongside praising the “many arrests.” This represents a translation of domination from the lexicon of sport into that of American politics. Of course, there is already an active conceptual commerce between the two. News coverage of the politics in the United States was long ago colonized by the argot of the sports report. Competition for political office is commonly described in terms befitting a horse race rather than the substantive consideration of political programs and norms. It is difficult to say what role this mode of commentary had in bringing that situation into being, but it is clear that any element of rational consideration of policy has been completely evacuated from the decision-making process.

Mr. Trump seems grossly unaware of the inappropriateness of importing the concept of domination from sport, where its consequences are trivial, to that of politics, where its consequences are death and the diminution of life chances. If my team is dominated on the playing field we can simply dust ourselves off and prepare for the next match, be it tomorrow or next season or whatever. If I am politically dominated it means that I am fundamentally unfree, and a basic element of my humanity has been taken.

All this means little to Mr. Trump, for whom the concept of humanity is abstract in the extreme and, in most cases, only applicable after the fact. Living in a world of shadows and meatsacks, my Trump’s id searches incessantly for grist for the mill, and those beings that inhabit his shadow world can only be seen through the lens of their advantages or disadvantages for satisfaction of his appetitive soul. As such, domination is a concept with fundamental appeal. The vicarious appetitive satisfaction of a successful sporting conquest can be translated into direct satisfaction by the domination of those with the temerity to oppose the dear leader’s fulfullment in any respect. Mr. Trump’s particular version of postfascism is, therefore and fundamentally, a politics radiating is the sign of the unconstrained id.

Hegel #1

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2020 by Magadh

“As we shall see, Forster is quite right to note that Hegel’s analysis of becoming does not proceed in exact accordance with the model that Forster himself sets up. But he is quite wrong to believe that matters: for in a genuinely presuppositionless philosophy we have no right to assume in advance any general model as a standard by which to evaluate Hegel’s particular arguments. We are not to assume, therefore, that the Logic is structured according to the famous pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, nor indeed that Hegel arranges concepts in any other, more subtle, triadic sequence. We have simply to consider indeterminate being and observe how, if at all, it develops.”

Stephen Houlgate, The Opening of Hegel’s Logic, 34

Surra

Posted in Dispatches on May 25, 2020 by Magadh

These guys are my absolute favorite thing these days. Ripping thrash from Brazil, and of course, this invites comparisons to RDP. In this case they’re totally justified. Ripping.

Necrocapitalism

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , on May 24, 2020 by Magadh

No dawn whitened the dead sky. The blast furnaces along flamed, and the coke ovens, making the darkness redder without illuminating the unknown. And the Voreux, at the bottom of its hole, with its posture as of an evil beast, continued to crunch, breathing with a heavier and slower respiration, troubled by its painful digestion of human flesh.

        Émile Zola, Germinal

We are living in an era of necrocapitalism. In an important sense, we have always lived in it because, at its base, capitalism is about the conversion of life into power. Much of the superstructure of the political-economic order that has colonized the globe in the last four centuries has been devoted to obscuring this fact. But the narrative of capitalism as a technology of human thriving and progress has been torn away by the global pandemic. For the moment it has become painfully obvious that the emperor is naked, although his power remains considerable.

Under what might at this point be characterized as normal circumstances, capitalism functions on compulsion. The production of surplus value requires workers to be forced by the threat of starvation to enter into voluntary agreements whereby they give up a certain proportion of their life energy in the form of labor time in return for a portion of the value created. The transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production was accompanied by repeated waves of pressure applied by owners of capital to create a mass of disempowered potential sellers of labor power susceptible to such compulsion.


The degree to which the maintenance and increase of pools of capital takes priority over the well-being of the providers of labor power can be seen in myriad ways across the long history of capitalism. From the misery, dislocation, and occasional starvation caused by the enclosure movement beginning in the 1400s (and reaching its peak in the early years of the Industrial Revolution) to workers in electronics factories topping themselves due to overwork, the underlying imperative of capitalism has remained unchanged from its earliest days to the era of its maturity: eat people.


For workers in industrial or agricultural capitalist economies, there has always been a dimension of threat to life over and above that posed by the overt workings of the system. Capitalism in the early 19th and 20th centuries explicitly espoused the proposition that workers should be paid only as much as necessary to keep them alive and punching the clock every day. Some jobs had the more immediate prospect of lethality in the short or long term (coal mining being a particularly egregious example). When this fact was acknowledged it was generally factored away with the application of Horatio Alger myths when the naked power of capitalists over life and death was not simply and openly acknowledged.


With the rise of the trade union movement, the discursive integument of legitimation of these processes was transformed. In the era of rising workers’ power and consciousness, employers were often forced into changes in approach. The power of organized labor compelled rises in wages, the creation of accident insurance, and provisions for the lives of workers who survived to old age. The possibility that workers my die as a result of participation in the work process was viewed as an outcome worth avoiding rather than one of those things like the weather or the migration of birds that are subject to the vagaries of nature.


The decades after the end of the Second World War were the high point of this process. Extensive unionization and economic growth masked the underlying tendency of the system to consume the lives of workers. This has all changed in the last half-century. The end of the postwar boom and the rise of an economy characterized by an increasing degree of financialization and declining job growth (due in large part to global productive overcapacity and to a lesser degree by the spread of automation) the power of workers to protect themselves from the vicissitudes of capitalist production have diminished considerably.


In his seminal article “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe analyzed both European colonialism and the function of the modern war-making state in terms of the concept of “necropower.” Starting from Foucault’s critical account of the concept of sovereignty as developed in his 1975-6 lecture course at the College de France, Mbembe argued that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides…in the power and capacity to decide who may live and who must die.” Generally speaking, appropriations of Mbembe’s work have followed his original project of mode of sovereignty in colonial, decolonizing, and post-colonial environments.

 

In times of crisis, the linkages connecting the colonial and post-colonial zones and the metropole are cast in relief. In addition to the relations of exploitation and subordination that constitute what might be called the public face of the colonial relationship, the system as a whole is comprised within an integument of capitalist relations of production. Modes of production and reproduction across all nodes of the world system share the need to consume human life. That this fact is often more or less disguised by consumerism and media spectacle does not in the least alter the fact that capitalism is, at its root, necrocapitalism.


Thus, the advent of COVID-19 and the challenges it has posed to the normal functioning of important elements of the capitalist system have cast the necropolitical dimension inherent in that system in relief. Some parts of the system, particularly those related to financial markets, are only influenced in second order ways. There it is a matter of increased market volatility and the need to parse and predict what effects that disruptions in the production and circulation of commodities will project into the markets for real estate, insurance, and equities, as well as for more exotic financial instruments.


Necrocapitalism manifests in deferent ways in different places. The distribution of these manifestations constitutes the nomos of the neoliberal order. In some cases, the requirement of producing as backed up by an immediate threat of force. Spaces in which this mode of organization predominates have provided ideal havens for processes organized along the lines of what David Harvey referred to as the spatio-temporal fix. The displacement of productive processes into zones in which the state operates directly, either facilitating or actually undertaking itself the role of organizer or physical compeller of labor discipline and compliance. This allows capitalist production to operate more seamlessly even under conditions of extreme wealth concentration and global overcapacity in terms of productive units.


The ecology of capital reproduction in the so-called more developed economies of the EU and North America differs in important ways. In the financial sector, as well as in sectors mostly based on intellectual labor, the possibilities for conduction affairs from remote locations is greater. The effects of coronavirus on processes in the sectors of the economy centered on material production and service provision are more profound and immediate. In those lines in which physical presence is required, the disruption caused by coronavirus has a profoundly destructive effect on capital accumulation.


The role of government in providing institutional structures and guarantees for spaces of capital reproduction in these latter areas tends to be relatively less hands-on. Thus, it is also easier to camouflage the degree to which the underlying driver of the system is the consumption of human life. Capitalism is presented as life-affirming, producing goods necessary for human survival and flourishing and, by a happy coincidence, providing opportunities for work, which is implicitly or explicitly construed is crucial to human happiness and a good in and of itself.


The engagement of a large proportion of the adult population in “productive” labor also serves the end of imbricating them in structures of power that tend to keep them socially integrated and politically quiescent. Idle hands are the devil’s tools, so the old saying goes, and forestalling the formation of malign intentions toward the system is the basis not only for the retention of labor processes that might otherwise be automated but also for the sort of bullshit jobs described so eloquently by David Graeber.


The confluence of impulses of economic necessity and power drive the necessity of reopening the economy, which is currently so much in vogue especially (but not exclusively) on the political right. While the consensus among epidemiologists and healthcare professionals is that the rescinding of lockdown orders and the reopening of retail and industrial workplaces (as well as public spaces generally) as likely to exacerbate the spread of COVID-19, major figures in the Republican Party have made these openings their primary demand. The recognition of the likely consequences has led Senator McConnell to state that a second stimulus bill would be out of the question unless it contained provisions indemnifying business owners against the possibility that their workers might either die or spread the disease or both.


One of the more interesting elements of the current politics of the right is the astroturfed political campaigns that have seen maskless armed demonstrators assembling on the grounds of statehouses around the country demand that people be given the right (which in fact means required) to expose themselves to a possibly lethal contagion so that the local greasy spoon or tavern can reopen. The attempt to make this appear as a groundswell from below rather than something funded and promoted from above can be read as a recognition of the hesitancy of owners of capital to concede that capitalist accumulation may require the ultimate sacrifice. “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”


To be clear, to employ the concept of necrocapitalism is not to assert that capitalism has itself fundamentally changed form. When Lenin and his followers wrote of monopoly capitalism, or when Hilferding wrote of finance capitalism, what was being asserted was that a broad transformation in mode of capital circulation and accumulation had occurred. Necrocapitalism, by contrast, is simply capitalism, but capitalism viewed in terms of the right of owners of capital, imbricated with the sovereignty of the modern state, to compel exposure to death as a means of perpetuating processes of accumulation.


At the same time, this approach to capitalism and state sovereignty does not imply a discrete position on the Marxist conception of the labor theory of value. Recently, some scholars (principally Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler) have argued that capital is merely power and ought not be distinguished analytically. In part, this argument rests on a trenchant critique of the labor theory of value. Irrespective of the outcome of that debate, the sovereign power to appropriate life is a fundamental element of the system whether capital or power is what is being accumulated.


What is clear is that coronavirus is the mirror that flatters not. The healthcare system in the United States, which leads the world in per capita costs without thereby leading the world in positive outcomes, has had its gaps and shortcomings brutally exposed. Not only is the profit-centered infrastructure creaking under the strain, but the practice of linking access to healthcare to employment has been shown for what it truly is: a means of blackmailing value producers into compliance with the needs of capital accumulation.


Meanwhile, the political classes continue to show that they no longer have any compunction about laying bare the actual imperatives of the system. The mayor of Las Vegas offered up her city as a test site for simply opening the economy irrespective of viral spread. Asked if she would be willing to expose her person to the consequences of turning the city into a massive petri dish (and disease vector), she demurred. The president and his cabal have recently been giving out that Americans should consider themselves “warriors” in the struggle to reopen the economy in the face of coronavirus. As usual, the bosses are willing to fight to the last worker in the war of accumulation.


Contrary to the wishful thinking of many, the crisis caused by COVID-19 is not winding down. There is every reason to believe that before the end of the year the situation will have become considerably worse as the manic drive to reopen the economy wreaks lethal consequences without thereby creating viable conditions for robust capital accumulation. Given the current structure of political division brewed up in the toxic media ecology of the extreme right, the traditional Marxist view that miserable material conditions and exploitation have the capacity to generate defetishizing critique looks as threadbare as it has at any point since the summer of 1918.


Conditions in the world currently seem calculated to destroy the market for dystopian fiction. Why would one want to read it when there seems every likelihood that one could be living The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road War or The Hunger Games or The Road Warrior (or The Road) at some point in the foreseeable future? In the face of impending (or increasing) dystopia, it is incumbent on the left to forge and promote utopian visions. To this point, the left has specialized in utopias that few outside post-Leninist echo chambers have any inclination to realize. The challenge, then, is to find a viable way out before the roof falls in.

Magadh

Night Thoughts on Necrocapitalism

Posted in Dispatches, Research Notes with tags , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by Magadh

Revolution is never quite the revolution we want. Lost in the warp and woof of our mingled thoughts, what lies below bubbles up like the contents of a witch’s cauldron. In such moments we are, or should be, reminded of the frailty of the worlds we make. But human arrogance is such that someone is always to blame, generally someone other than ourselves.


COVID-19 is both revolutionary and meaningless. It is no less meaningless for all the manifold attempts to build it into one narrative or another and thus to affix it within the realm of human causality. This is clearly the case in the flailing attempts of the current administration in the United States to build it into a coherent spectacular image. Having failed to nullify it through blunt denial, the administration’s latest tack is to try to make it part of the larger phenomenon of asymmetric warfare between the United States and China, flavored to taste with collaboration by the deep state.


This is one of those elite narratives that is clearly meant for distribution to the desperate and delusional fractions of the petit bourgeoisie who graze on Fox News and support the president with passionate intensity irrespective of his malign, bumbling incompetence. Its mélange of baseless assertions and debunked, paranoid fantasies is so obviously ludicrous that even that those in media and government tasked with doling it out can hardly do so with a straight face.

Beneath the crass politicization of the event lies a deeper reservoir of cathectic energy wherein the virus becomes an element of stories the moral of which ranges from redemption to pure catastrophe. One is here reminded of the televangelist in Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man who reminds his views that “the Lord works in mysterious and often meaningless ways.” To see COVID-19 as the hand of God might be seen as a source of comfort, even if the underlying purposes might escape the bounds of human comprehension. That the virus is the hand of nullity is rather less palatable.


What COVID-19 has done is to cast the contours of capitalism in relief. If the book trade persists in the wake of the crisis, many bytes will be spilled describing the various ways in which this is true. To take only one of the most immediately horrifying examples, coronavirus has given rise to a new variety of proletarianization. On Marx’s view, the defining feature of the proletariat was that its members had nothing to sell but their labor power. The new proletariat of the era of COVID-19 has nothing to sell but their presence.


Capitalism always involves the consumption of human life force. The current age is one in which the owners of capital are simply being rather more honest and open about it. This COVID-19-inspired glasnost was first eminently clear in the statement a month ago by the lieutenant governor of Texas to the effect that grandparents might (perhaps ought to) be willing to risk death in order to allow the economy to function. What might at another moment have been universally viewed as blood-curdlingly profligate with respect to human life read in the current circumstances as mere candor.


Since that time three things have become clear. The first is that the president is bored by the crisis. There is nothing fun or interesting about it. It just goes on and on. The virus doesn’t care about its reputation, can’t be slandered or flattered in the media, just keeps taking off the kind of inconsequential meat sacks who wouldn’t be part of the kind of entertaining synergies of which the president is so fond. And yet their sheer numbers present a problem that persists in sucking the joy out of life.

The second thing to emerge is the desperation of the state governors. Irrespective of political coloration, the inhabitants of the various statehouses are all intimately aware of the prospects for economic ruin presented by the virus. COVID-19 is having a catastrophic effect on the human propensity to truck and barter. Those segments of the economy that subsist most effectively in the current situation, ones involving delivery and little or no face to face contact, tend to generate cosmopolitan pools of capital that end up in bank or brokerage accounts beyond borders of the states (and often of the country).


Even among the most science-friendly among them, the specter of economic collapse creates inherent systemic pressure to do something. It doesn’t help that several are now being harried by astroturfed “protests” involving white guys, many toting long guns, demanding the freedom to die (or to kill others) for a burrito and a beer. It goes without saying that this is a white man’s protest since the consequences for people of color of showing up armed (be it with a gun or a cell phone or a candy bar) in public spaces are often lethal. Be that as it may, the compelling power of tens of protestors waving flags, guns, and the occasional antisemitic slogan on the premises of the state capital can hardly be denied.

Third, and as a consequence of the previous two items, the president’s response to the crisis is to fall back on the nostrums that have served him well in the past. Rather than engage in the unglamorous and tedious work of planning and executing a systematic, national-level program, it is clear that the president wants to stage some sort of macabre competition among the state governors to see who can wager the most human lives on the reopening of the economy. The weeks and months to come present the prospect of The Apprentice: COVID-19 Edition, with state governors playing the role of supplicants seeking the favor of the dear leader.


Rescinding stay at home orders, as many governors now seem intent on doing, will have one of three consequences. It may have no effect since just because businesses are allowed to open doesn’t mean they will actually do so, and even if they do that still doesn’t mean that people will be inclined to take the risk of patronizing them. It may cause a spike in infections and deaths from the virus, over and above the current upward trend. Or it might allow the state economies to function again, thus saving the day. Of these, the first two seem much the most likely outcomes, while prospects for the third seem vanishingly small. But this hasn’t stopped the cold-eyed realists of capitalism from banking that the longshot will actually pay off.


For that to happen, workers have to be made to give up their labor power and to do so on terms that allow for the efficient extraction of surplus-value. This applies particularly to that segment of the workforce whose jobs cannot be done from a remote location. If the hash is going to get slung and the mani-pedis are going to get done, people have to be on-site to do them and it won’t do to have them withholding their labor power merely because of some squeamishness about contracting a potentially fatal illness.

The opening shot in this struggle (or in this intensified phase of it) was the president’s signing of an executive order indemnifying the meat industry against suits by employees sickened in the course of their jobs. The president was very hesitant to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to make supplies necessary to fight the pandemic. But he approached the project of protecting multibillion-dollar corporations from the depredations of their employees with gusto. When a handful of meatpacking plants were forced to close because employees became ill (and some had the temerity to actually croak), the president saw an imminent threat to the timely provision of hamburgers and moved with alacrity to make sure that the risk remained precisely where it belonged: among the proletariat of the physically present.


Congress has since taken up the call. Mitch McConnell has let it be known that no further bailout money will be made available, especially to the states (read as blue states) without some sort of blanket immunity against liability being provided for employers. Exceptions would be made, McConnell intoned, for cases of “gross negligence”. But they will apparently not be made for simply forcing people on the threat of starvation to deal out subs and chicken wings to whoever might care to come by.


There is a certain (admittedly highly contested) view of fascism that sees it as the project of capital to discipline workers. The argument goes that the rising militancy of workers in the late 1920s and 1930s, resulting from the systemic dysfunction of capitalism in the era between the world wars caused those in need of their surplus-value to undertake extreme measures to encourage, or enforce, workers’ compliance. The root causes and fundamental nature of fascism are certainly more complicated than this. Still, the need or desire to keep capitalism functioning smoothly by making participation more or less explicitly compulsory is a common feature of the system in crisis.

Signs of the systemic crisis are easy to see and were visible before the shock of COVID-19. Slow growth and system-wide overcapacity have combined with the concentration of wealth at the top of the income distribution to create turbulence. In part this turbulence has been managed by diversionary tactics: communism, the threat of global jihad, “we have always been at war with China”, the prospect that brown people are coming to take jobs and white women. Trump is the apotheosis of this diversionary spectacle, but he is only an expression of it rather than, in any significant sense, its author.


Viewed in a certain light, the roots of the current political-cultural formation go back to the formation of the republic, and to the slave system that provided the moment of primary accumulation for both Europe and the settler colonies it created. More directly, it’s roots lie in the need for conservatives to find some other basis on which to compete for votes during the economic boom of the postwar decades, which high growth and a (by American standards) healthy welfare state made small-government conservatism a hard sell. The so-called “Southern strategy” and the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign were its harbingers.


Much as this approach has reaped considerable rewards in the last decades, the advent of coronavirus has presented it with new challenges. The consequences of the destruction of the welfare safety net are now clear for all to see and become painfully apparent to people whose jobs are currently unavailable and are likely to be exceptionally dangerous for the foreseeable future. The ramping up of the ludicrous narrative in which COVID-19 was generated in a weapons lab with the goal of destroying the Trump regime is symptomatic of the challenges facing the neoliberal populist project.


The other side of the coin is the chorus off assertions from Republican officials that “there are more important things than living.” These things include (perhaps are limited to) keeping processes of capital accumulation running. The rush to reopen states is a further expression of this, as it amounts to a sort of back door compulsion for people to reassume their positions in the workforce irrespective of whether it is actually safe for them to do so. The mayor of Las Vegas was particularly brazen in this respect, offering up her city as, in effect, a giant Petri dish in which the effects of unrestrained transmission of coronavirus can be studied at closes range.

Sadly, the popular slogan about things that happen in Vegas staying there never held much water, and in the context of the current circumstances is simultaneously brutal and utterly vain. The mayor herself was coy about her own potential exposure, which gives one a little insight into the understanding in conservative circles about the appropriate distribution of risk. Given the stark facts of COVID-19’s propensity to spread via asymptomatic carriers, it may be the case that best friends of the Republicans (those most willing to cast off the shackles of social distancing) will turn out to be its worst enemies, as the curve of contagion takes a further upward course. In any case, the next few months will see a nationwide experiment in necrocapitalism and where that will take matters in anyone’s guess.


So here we are in the revolution, and it is being televised. The danger posed by COVID-19 and the threat it poses to those lacking the political and economic capital necessary to absent themselves from the venues of greatest risk have the capacity to play the role of class consciousness in the classical Marxist system. Certainly, the rules of the game and the imperatives on which it operates will become ever clearer to those placed in the firing line the need to make and sell. But all the neither automatically constitutes a clear understanding of the problem nor the organizational nous to become an agent of change. The future is, if not open, at least more susceptible to fundamental transformation than it has been for the best part of a century.