Friday, March 30, 2007

Nightmares of the Present (to be followed shortly with a post on dreams)

Wendy Brown’s “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization” (Political Theory 34/6) is a great article, part of a growing literature of critical philosophical responses to Neoliberalism. (Well, that sentence is a wee-bit hyperbolic, since I am primarily thinking of two other things: Brown’s essay in Edgework and Foucault’s Naissance de la Biopolitique, the latter of which is technically almost thirty years old). It is primary strength is that it takes as a philosophical problem the articulation of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

It has been commonplace on the center-left to dismiss the relationship between these two political “rationalities” (to use Brown’s term) as one that is purely strategic: some dark cabal between Dick Cheney and James Dobson. Or, to cite the argument of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, to see the neoconservatism of the right as simply the sheep’s clothing of values (technically a lamb) worn by the wolf of privatization. Brown, however, argues for a more intimate, even essential, connection, based upon their shared anti-democratic tendencies. Neoliberalism’s tendency to privatize social issues (to depoliticize them), not just in the literal sense of turning public spaces to private profit, but in the sense that every social problem becomes a private matter, addressed by commodities, crime by gated communities, pollution by bottled water, etc., paves the way for neoconservatism.

At first it would seem that these two rationalities are linked by more of what they oppose than what they have in common. What they oppose are first and foremost equality, which neoliberalism can only see as an authoritarian imposition on the “natural” competition and hierarchies of the market and neoconservatism sees as a violation of the authority of church and family. But they are also opposed to freedom and democracy defined in anything other than individualistic terms. However, the two rationalities do not just share the same enemy, which would have to be called democracy, or democratization. They also work on the same terrain or conditions, reinforcing each other as they oppose each other. As Brown writes: “What this suggests is that the moralism, statism, and authoritarianism of neoconservatism are profoundly enabled by neoliberal rationality, even as neoconservatism aims to limit and supplement some of neoliberalism’s effects, and even as the two rationalities are not concordant. Neoliberalism does not simply produce a set of problems that neoconservatism addresses or, as critics claim, operate as neoconservatisms’s corporate economic plank. Rather, neoliberal political rationality…has inadvertently prepared the ground for profoundly antidemocratic ideas and practices to take root in the culture and subject.” Thus it is possible to see both as privatizations, as reductions of the social to the individual. Neoliberalism reduces the social to the individual of the market, defined by calculations of cost and profit. Neoconservatism reduces society to the individual of morality, defined by faith and sin.

What strikes me about the general problem of neoliberalism and neoconservatism is that the very problem appears in fundamental points in the history of philosophy, albeit modified. From a particular perspective one could read Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, specifically the dialectic of “civil society” and the state, as a contradictory logic which demonstrates how the possessive individualism of the market is reinforced by the authoritarian tendencies of the state. As is so often the case, Hegel is most revealing about this in a remark prior to the section on ethical life where he discusses Protestantism (a conceptual stand in for subjectivity) and Catholicism (a conceptual stand in for the objectivity of institutions). “A longing may therefore arise for an objective condition, a condition in which the human being gladly debases himself to servitude and total subjection simply in order to escape the torment of vacuity and negativity. If many Protestants have recently gone over to the Catholic Church, they have done so because they found that their inner life was impoverished, and they reached out for a fixed point, a support, and an authority, even if what was gained was not the stability of thought.” Unlike the latter discussions of civil society and the state, which focus on the structural conditions of competition and overproduction, this remark, which completes part two of The Philosophy of Right, offers an existential understanding of the dialectic.

I foreground this existential, or subjective dimension, in part because of Brown’s remark about the “culture and the subject,” but also because I would like to drawn a point of comparison between dialectics as a logic of the conjuncture and Deleuze and Guattari’s logic of deterritorialization. To quote the famous passage from Anti-Oedipus:

“Civilized modern societies are defined by processes of decoding and deterritorialization. But what they deterritorialize with one hand, they reterritorialize with the other. These neoterritorialities are often artificial, residual, archaic; but they are archaisms having a perfectly current function, our modern way of ‘imbricating,’ of sectioning off, of reintroducing code fragments, resuscitating old codes inventing pseudo codes or jargons…These modern archaisms are extremely complex and varied. Some are mainly folkloric, but they nonetheless represent social and potentially political forces…. Others are enclaves whose archaism is just as capable of nourishing a modern fascism as of freeing a revolutionary charge…Some of these archaisms take form as if spontaneously in the current of the movement of deterritorialization…Others are organized and promoted by the state, even though the might turn against the state and cause it serious problems (regionalism, nationalism).”

Two things about this passage: First, It is hard not to read this as a version of the relation of neoliberalism and neoconservatism; and, second, it is equally difficult not to read this passage existentially.

By way of a conclusion: I take Brown’s essay to be something of a provocation, an attempt to grasp the logic of the current conjuncture, the intersection of the seemingly opposed rationalities of capital and the state, freedom and authority. To which I would add, or have attempted by way of Hegel, Deleuze, and Guattari, that philosophy is not free of this logic, that perhaps in some form or another all thought of society has tried to grasp the problem of capital and the state, under various names, dialectics, desiring-production, etc.

Finally, I just want to add a note about The Host. A film that could take the mantle of the most biopolitical film of the year. Now it is commonplace to understand horror films as the projection of some cultural anxiety (Godzilla and the Atom Bomb, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and communism), however, I do not think that would apply here. The monster in this film does not stand for anything, if only because the film spends so much time on the “real” threats that it would represent, pollution, disease, chemical weapons, all of these things are given full reign within the plot of the film. These things all appear as “conditions” within the film, in that there is a pretty standard monster movie narrative (tampering with nature creates monster which harms humans and must be destroyed), which is refracted through the lens of biopolitical panic and authority. It gives a vision of a state which pollutes and contaminates the environment while simultaneously offering itself as the only possible protection of this environment.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Love and Cartoons

It starts out a bit slow, but Michael Hardt's discussion of Spinoza's concept of love and political organization reminds me of why I love them both (Hardt and Spinoza).

While you are on Youtube, check this version of The Communist Manifesto illustrated by cartoons:

The voice over is not great. I mean is a little passion too much to ask for? It is the Manifesto after all. The images, however, are not only riddled with nostalgia (Underdog, Rocky and Bullwinkle, etc), but show that there were some really interesting representations of work in old cartoons. Thanks to Tzuchien for the latter.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Prehistory of Neoliberalism

In Book IV of the Politics, after classifying all of the various types of political constitution monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, etc., Aristotle argues that there are mainly two constitutions, of which all the others are only variations: democracy (rule of the poor, and many) and oligarchy (rule of the rich, and few). The reason for this is quite simply the principle of non-contradiction. It is possible for the same person to be both a farmer and a warrior, a craftsman and judge, thus making possible any combination of positions and tasks (e.g. an agrarian military dictatorship), but it is not possible for the same person to be both rich and poor (1291b). Rich and poor remain irreducible as identities and thus the conflict between the rich and the poor is unavoidable for every constitution.

Aristotle’s assertion of the fundamental nature of class struggle for politics beats The Communist Manifesto to the punch by over two thousand years. It is perhaps not surprising that Alain Badiou cites Aristotle in a chapter of Being and Event dealing with Marxist state theory. As Badiou writes: “Aristotle had already pointed out that the de facto prohibition which prevents thinkable constitutions—those which conform to the equilibrium of the concept—from becoming a reality, and which makes politics into such a strange domain…is in the end the existence of the rich and the poor” (pg. 104). Unlike the Manifesto Aristotle does not propose to overcome this rift through revolution but seeks to manage it by conjoining aspects of democracy and oligarchy. Aristotle argues that one solution is to promote the formation of a middle class. For Aristotle this middle class, neither rich nor poor, is also a “mean” between two extremes politically, it is a class that neither “avoids ruling” or “pursues it” (1295b). Underlying Aristotle’s assertion regarding the virtue of the middle class is an argument that is so contemporary that it is almost unrecognizable: the identification of the social position of the middle class with the political position of the center. What is contemporary about this argument, which is really more of an axiomatic assumption than an argument, is the assertion, that the class which is in the economic middle is also the mean between extremes politically. The middle class is free of the arrogance and major vice of the rich and the malice and petty vice of the poor. They are the moral center of the polis. It turns out, however, that the middle class is as precarious as it is ideal, the middle class is constantly at risk of disappearing into its two extremes. (Two themes that which we might associate with contemporary invocations of the “middle class”: its fundamentally decent and honest nature and its “disappearance” turn out to quite ancient) It is for this reason that Aristotle lists other ways of resolving the tension between the rich and the poor, other ways of protecting the middle from its extremes. One strategy is to place the capital in the middle, equidistant from the small farms and villages, which make up the populace. The people, including the poor, are the permitted to participate in politics by right, but excluding by the mundane facts of life. As Aristotle writes: “For they have enough to live on as long as they keep working, but they cannot afford any leisure time” (1292b27). The rift between the rich and the poor is unavoidable, but it can be managed by other facts that are just as unavoidable. There is only so much time in a day, and given a choice between political participation and making a living the poor will always choose the latter—if it can be called a choice. The translation puts a particular contemporary spin on the matter by foregrounding “leisure time,” suggesting the contemporary situation in which politics is simply the least entertaining of several “leisure time” activities.

Rancière has gone so far as to argue that what we find in Aristotle, the idea of the middle class and the use of the mundane facts of space and timing to manage political conflicts, is the strategy of contemporary politics. “Aristotle is the inventor of…the art of underpinning the social by means of the political and the political by means of the social.” As Rancière writes:

The primary task of politics can indeed be precisely described in modern terms as the political reduction of the social (that is to say the distribution of wealth) and the social reduction of the political (that is to say the distribution of various powers and the imaginary investments attached to them). On the one hand, to quiet the conflict of rich and poor through the distribution of rights, responsibilities and controls; on the other, to quiet the passions aroused by the occupation of the centre by virtue of spontaneous social activities. (On the Shores of Politics pg. 14)

Politics undermines the social by displacing the divisions of the rich and the poor with a unified identity, that of the citizen, or of the nation. At the same time the social or economic activities of work and leisure are used to temper political grievances, the conflict over the distribution of offices. In contemporary terms, Rancière argues that there is a “reduction” of the social by the political whenever national unity is used to ward off the facts and conflicts of social division. The inverse, the reduction of the political by the social, takes place whenever the promise of general economic development, of progress, is offered as a solution to political conflict.

What Rancière finds in Aristotle is a “strategy” that he argues is paradoxically as ancient as it is modern. Aristotle’s text is exemplary in that the double process of the reduction of the political by the social and the political by the social is explicitly articulated. Aristotle explicitly articulates the various strategies or deceptions by which the tension between the rich and the poor can be overcome or displaced. In On the Shores of Politics Rancière is critical of the reduction of democracy to a democracy of consumer choices, “the banal themes of the pluralist society, where commercial competition, sexual permissiveness, world music and cheap charter flights to the antipodes quite naturally create individuals smitten with equality and tolerant of difference.” Thus, suggesting that the reduction of the political by the social has triumphed. At the same time, however, Rancière is quick to distance himself from “metapolitical” critics such as Marx who reduce democracy to a merely an appearance, an after image of the realm of exchange with its “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”

What Rancière’s interpretation leaves open, however, is precisely how this “double process” can be related to the contemporary world. What institutions, structures, and organizations perform this dual action of reduction? To what end? This question seems all the more pertinent today in that we are witnessing in the form of “neo-liberalism” a reinforcement of the overlap between the political and the social. The very term “free markets,” the dominant ideal of political and economic life according to neo-liberalism, articulates this overlap and consumes: “free” invokes political ideals of freedom while the term “market” grounds these ideas in economic life. The term “free-markets,” and its associated rhetorics, politicizes economic life, making the market a space of freedom rather than of the production, circulation, and exchange of resources, while at the same time “economizing” politics, freedom becomes a choice between consumer goods. The term “free market,” at least in the manner in which it functions in contemporary polemics, defines politics and economics by each other, simultaneously confusing the two. Thus democracy and free markets become not only conditions of each other, but ultimately the same thing.

In Hatred of Democracy Rancière turns his attention not to neoliberalism, to the practices that reduce democracy to consumer choice, but to the theories quasi-sociological and philosophical, which reduce the politics of democracy to a pop-sociology of consumer society, what he calls the collapse of political, sociological, and economic onto the same plane. What this paves the way for is ultimately a reduction of democracy to an anthropology, or an anthropological opposition between “an adult humanity faithful to tradition, which it institutes as such, and childish humanity whose dream of engendering itself anew leads to self-destruction.” I will say two things about this: one, it is oddly reminiscent of Rancière’s critique of the 1844 Manuscripts, which he argues reduced such terms as value, wealth, and alienation to an anthropological meaning, and two, it is a little disappointing. Now this disappointment may have to do with untranslatable nature of a polemic. Ultimately what Rancière offers is a critique of what we would call in neoconservatism and not neoliberalism, or the juncture between the two.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mediocrity Rules: Notes from TV Land

Just when I was losing all patience with Battlestar Galactica, the show springs a plot with a general strike. There is nothing like the promise of a general strike to reignite my interest in a television show (Do you hear that Gilmore Girls?). However, I have to say that the actual episode did not live up to the promise, clearly an example of what Sorel would call a political and not a proletarian general strike. Worse than that is making Baltar the author of a radical manifesto. This seemed completely out of character, not to mention ideological, the radical intellectual as self-serving effete. What I enjoy about the character of Baltar is that he is pure opportunism, his evil is simply an effect of weakness. Like Spinoza’s devil he is a being to be pitied. (A more favorable discussion of the show can be found here).

I have become hooked on The Wire as of late, and have watched the whole first season over the last few weeks. I was incredibly reluctant to start watching this show, despite its praise by critics and friends. This is mainly I really do not like cop shows, I have no patience for the various “CSI: Texarkana” and “Law and Order: Traffic Court” that populate television. However, I found myself getting interested in The Wire because it is, as the creators of the show argue, really a show about the decline of the American city and the futility of the war on drugs. More than that I find the most compelling thing about the show to be its representation of the modern relation between the state, which is to say bureaucracy, and capital.

On the surface the first season of the show deals with the Baltimore police’s attempt to break a drug cartel in a housing project. The police are not the pure representatives of good, found in usual shows, but a collection of individuals driven by motivations of career, prejudice, petty revenge, and macho brutality. The series also foregrounds the institutional structure of the police, and not just in the sense of the usual “lone cop against a bureaucracy.” One of the phrases heard throughout the series is “chain of command,” meaning a respect for the structures of institutional hierarchy. The series reveals that as one goes up the chain, dealing with judges, city council, etc., the motivations become more unclear, more political, in the pejorative sense. Case in point: important leads and convictions are squandered when the higher ups decide, after the shooting of a police officer, that they need “drugs on the table,” one of those photo-ops where piles of drugs, money, and guns are displayed as some kind of trophy from the war on drugs. The demand to appear effective outweighs the need to be effective.

It is hard not to think of every theory of bureaucracy that I have ever read while watching the show, from Marx (“the materialism of passive obedience, of faith in authority, of the mechanism of fixed and formalistic behavior…”) to Claude Lefort, as well as my own experience within a state institution. In fact what it reminds me of most of all is a discussion I had with an anthropology professor years ago. It was when I was involved in some political struggle over curriculum reform. The professor explained, in the calm and detached way that one would expect from an anthropologist, how the university functions. The explanation went a little like this: The dedicated members of the faculty are too busy with research, writing, and teaching to really bother with committees, seeking the service appointments that distract the least. Thus, the mediocre professors, the ones with their best years behind them, gravitate to the really important committees, the ones that determine curriculum, tenure, etc. Of course he explained all of this as if he was discussing the rituals of the Yanomamö of Central Brazil, ultimately concluding that the university bureaucracy rewards mediocrity.

Back to The Wire: If the police are the state, then the drug dealers are capital. The latter are brutally inefficient, free of the conflicted motivations of the police/state. In the beginning of the series one cop says to a dealer something to the effect of, “Why is that everything else can be bought and sold without people being killed?” For the conflicted dealer at the center of the show, D’Angelo Barksdale, this becomes something of a utopian dream, the idea of pure business without violence. Over the course of the first season this ideal become increasingly impossible, not only with respect to the drug business, but with respect to capital itself. [Spoilers ahead] It is eventually revealed that the economy of drugs is not the outside, the dark underbelly, of the legitimate economy, but is internal to it, as the money trail leads to connections between the drug trade and real estate speculation, connections that lead to politics etc. Thus, there is no opposition between the state and capital.

Best "Get Your War On" Cartoon ever.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Experiments in Sarcasm

I just got home from going to see Little Children. Not a perfect movie, not by a long shot. For one thing the voice over sounded a little like someone decided to read the actor's directions out loud, in case the audience just wasn't getting it. A few of the scenes were really well done, but the back and forth between the effective scenes and and the pedantic voiceover was a little like reading a good novel only to find that random pages have been torn out and replaced by pages from the Cliffs Notes. But any movie that has Kate Winslet, a discussion of Madame Bovary, and a bunch of Hummels getting smashed to pieces can't be all bad (Although, with respect to the Hummels, the film suffers from a bit from SYMBOLISM. "Quick class what does the playground symbolize?").

I went to this movie alone, something I do quite often nowadays in this solitary phase of my life. I really don't mind going to see movies alone. When it comes down to it movies are not much of a social activity, yes you get to talk before and after, and hopefully there is dinner or drinks or something, but most of the time, during the actual film, you might as well be alone. However, I find that if you are going to the movies alone, it is best to plan the showing accordingly, in general matinees are good, weekdays best of all. Then practically everyone is alone. This particular evening I went to see a movie alone on a Saturday night, which is perhaps not the best choice. Saturday night tends to be filled with couples, this can easily make the transition from alone to lonely.

I got to the film five minutes before it was supposed to start, in general a little late for my taste, but I thought that this would allow me to slip in as the one solitary guy amongst all of the dating couples. Alas, no. There was a huge crowd filling the lobby and spilling out onto the street. Apparently, the last showing of the film had not let out yet, and didn't get out for another fifteen minutes. First, this was awkward. There were many colleagues from the University in the crowd, a few of whom do not even know that I am no longer married. (Well at least I have not told them, I find that word has a way of spreading, and, believe me, when you have difficult news to deliver, the kind that makes you feel like crying, gossip is your friend.) Second, and more importantly for my story, I couldn't quite get past the fact that the last film went over. After all, it is not like this is basketball (do they have overtime in basketball? I hope so. It would really help my point). Movies have a fixed length; in this case 130 minutes. Granted that is a bit long, but it is not like the theater did not know how long the film was. In fact I know from looking at the theater's web site. So I could not contain myself, I made few sarcastic remarks, to everyone and no one. A very uncharacteristic gesture on my part. People seemed to be amused.

Which brings me to the title of this story: once in college participated in psychological experiment on sarcasm. I was something like the mole, or plant, or accomplice (there must be a technical term for this, for the person who appears to be in the experiment but is actually in on it). My friend had the thesis that the conditions for sarcasm are: a) an incompetent authority figure and b) a pointless task. So he had volunteers sign up for what they were told was an experiment on memory. They were then given a lengthy and easy test, matching shapes or some other idiotic task for pages on end. My role was to get the sarcasm going, I would say things like, "This guy has a real winning project" (referring to my friend, when he was out of the room). Despite the fact that my experience this evening confirms one of the theses, nothing calls for sarcasm like incompetent authority, it was not a very succesful experiment, but it was a lot of fun. Since the whole things was filmed, I felt like I had participated in the long history of psychological films; like Stanley Milgram's experiments on obedience...

And the Stanford Prison Experiment...

As a philosopher, and one of an anti-humanist materialist orientation, I find it necessary to criticize psychology for its focus on interiority and subjectivity, but I have to admit they have some of the best documentaries. Or maybe it is just the look of the sixties and seventies that makes them so enjoyable, like watching old Twilight Zones or episodes of In Search Of...