Sunshine Recorder

finismisterchu replied to your post: Short of participating in a genocide,…

To read or not? Have you? MC

I finished it yesterday and absolutely loved it. It is huge (over 1,300 pages in French) but it’s very intense and disturbing at times. It literally takes you to the depths of nazi cruelty and sadism. The most disturbing about this book isn’t necessarily the events described in horrific details, but how the narrator (member of the Waffen-SS) makes you think deeply about how we would have reacted in similar circumstances, how intellectuals ended up killing so many people, guilt/blame/justice, and so on. So if you like that period, are interested in perpetrator psychology, or are just looking for a thought-provoking book, I highly recommend it. I personally loved this mix of philosophy, historical details, psychology, and fiction.

Link: A Scanner Darkly

Short of participating in a genocide, how can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless on the level of Adolf Eichmann? Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes the attempt by immersing its reader in a dense, intensely readable marsh of information.

There are a lot of shocking things about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a novel about the destruction of the European Jews that is narrated by a matricidal SS officer named Max Aue, whose greatest joy is having anal sex with his twin sister; but the one that shocks deepest, and longest, is how easily the novel draws you in. I read the book in French (Littell was born in America in 1967, but grew up in France; he wrote The Kindly Ones in French) a couple of years ago and again this winter in Charlotte Mandell’s adroit English translation. Both times, I found myself looking forward to the moment when I was done with other business and could get back to reading about Max Aue and his grisly travels.

I am not the only one: the book has sold well over a million copies in Europe, and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize. As I write this essay, it’s too soon to say if The Kindly Ones will be a big seller in the United States, but some omens are good. When the English translation was published in March of this year, Michael Korda wrote in the Daily Beast, “I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!” Yes, by all means, if you can keep them down. Reading The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers. The question I want to ask is, why?

Maybe the place to begin is near the end of The Kindly Ones, when Aue finds himself in a marsh:

We made our way through a little meadow covered with tall, thick grass, sodden and bent; beyond stretched out more sheets of water; there was a little padlocked hunter’s cabin, also standing in water. The snow had completely disappeared. There was no use sticking to the trees, our boots sank into the water and the mud, the wet ground was covered with rotten leaves that hid quagmires. Here and there a little island of firm land gave us courage. But farther on it became completely impossible again; the trees grew on isolated clumps or in the water itself, the strips of earth between the puddles were also flooded, wading was difficult, we had to give up and go back to the dyke.

This isn’t by any means the toughest terrain Aue has crossed. In the fall of 1941 he slogged through “black, thick mud” from Kiev to Kharkov, following the Wehrmacht’s advance into the U.S.S.R.; in the winter of 1943 he was skulking in the rubble of Stalingrad; he has seen the death camps at Auschwitz and survived the Allied bombing of Berlin. Max Aue witnesses every phase of the Final Solution; in fact, this witnessing is the reason for his existence. Littell, in an interview withLe Monde des Livres, describes Aue as a “roving X-ray, a scanner.” He exists so Littell can attempt a human answer to the questions that still loom over the history of the Holocaust: why? And how?

I want to set those questions, and Aue’s answers, aside for a moment, to talk about this relatively unimportant moment in which Aue, along with his friend Thomas and their driver, Piontek, are trying to rejoin the German lines. What can we say about it? Well, for one thing, the little cabin is remarkable. By the time Aue gets to the marsh, the book is almost over, and we know, in gross, anyway, how the story will end: the Germans are going to lose. And yet Aue takes the time to see the cabin, to remember it, and to describe it. This is a literary strategy known, I believe, as “realism,” but there’s something hallucinatory about Aue’s refusal to sort important from unimportant information, as though he really were a “scanner” and not a person. (Littell has refused to sell the film rights to The Kindly Ones, on the grounds that it would be impossible to make the book into a film, but the effect is distinctly cinematic.) In this scene, the beneficiary of Aue’s X-ray vision is the landscape, which rolls past as if in real time; Aue is trudging, and you, the reader, have to trudge along with him.

[…] The preternatural quality of Max Aue’s memory has been remarked on before; it’s the basis for one of the most telling and often-cited criticisms of The Kindly Ones.Claude Lanzmann, who directed the film Shoah, wrote that

Littell’s “hero” speaks torrentially for 900 pages, this man who doesn’t know what a memory is remembers absolutely everything. One has the right to ask, is Aue flesh and blood? Is Aue a man? Does Aue exist? He speaks like a book, like all the history books Littell has read. At the moment when the last witnesses of the Shoah are disappearing, and the Jews are anxious because memory is becoming History, Jonathan Littell flips the terms of the opposition, and gives his memoryless SS “hero” History as memory.

The danger of this procedure is that it will undermine the value of witnessing, precisely because it’s more complete than any eyewitness account. No one could have seen as much as Max Aue, but there’s something impossibly seductive about the idea that someone could have seen it all, that we could have both the totality of History and the authority of presence. Lanzmann fears that people will stop watching Shoah, stop reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, and pick up The Kindly Ones instead, that the fiction will in time replace the fact.[2] It’s a possibility worth fearing; but let’s assume for a moment that Jonathan Littell is not an idiot—pace the opinion of at least one German critic[3]—and that he knows what risk he runs by this procedure of turning History into memory. Why would he do it?

Here we come back to the question of how. How could the Final Solution have taken place? As Lanzmann observes, the SS don’t speak; it’s impossible to get them to tell their side of the story. Max Aue does speak, but the answer he gives is as predictable as it is unsatisfying: he is “just like you,” and people like you are capable of carrying out even the most horrific acts when the circumstances demand it. “[I]f you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure,” he writes,

which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost fifty thousand troops there in ten years: that’s the equivalent of a little less than three days and two hours’ worth of dead on the Eastern Front, or of some thirteen days, twenty-one hours, and twenty-five minutes’ worth of dead Jews. I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs, they must not count for much to you. Yet you killed forty of them for every single one of your own dead, a fine effort even compared to our own, and one that certainly speaks for the value of technical progress.

Never mind that the Vietnam war was conducted under an idea, however absurd, of strategic gains and losses, whereas the Final Solution had the distressing and unfathomable quality of being an end in itself; in a total war there can be no civilians (this is Aue’s reasoning), only the fight of one mass against another. In such a fight every participant is equally guilty: the killers with blood on their hands and the supply officers who fuel the trucks. You might have died rather than shoot, but would you have died rather than pump gasoline?

This is an argument that got tested at Nuremberg without a lot of success; it does not compel belief. That’s what Aue’s prodigious memory is for. In the middle of the novel, and the war, Max Aue is sent to inspect the concentration camps of Poland, to see what he can do about getting the inmates better rations, a quixotic errand. When he gets to the Lublin camp, things turn out to be complicated, not only because Aue’s mission is incompatible with the purpose of the camp, but also, and above all, because it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge. “Out of about four hundred and fifty men, not counting the Hiwis [local recruits],” a deputy explains,

almost a hundred were assigned to us by the Führer’s Chancellery. Almost all our camp commanders are from there. Tactically, they’re under control of the Einsatz, but administratively, they depend on the Chancellery. They supervise everything having to do with salaries, leaves, promotions, and so on. Apparently it’s a special agreement between the Reichsführer and Reichsleiter Bouhler. Some of those men aren’t even members of theAllgemeine-SS or of the Party. But they’re all veterans of the Reich’s euthanasia centers; when most of those centers were closed, some of the personnel, with Wirth at their head, were transferred here so the Einsatz could profit from their experience.

Get it? Not quite? Good. The enormous quantity of information contained in The Kindly Ones (you could call the novel “encyclopedic,” but, given its narrator’s subjective bias, “wikipedic” might be a better way of putting it) serves not only to enchant, but also to distract. With so many administrative structures in play, so many names and ranks and acronyms and badges and bosses to keep track of, how can you think about what KL Lublin[4] was for? The more immediate, and more satisfying because more achievable, task consists in doing what Aue does: sussing hierarchies, admiring or deploring moves made in the game of Nazi power.

It’s thinking like this that got Eichmann in trouble. Hannah Arendt, reporting on the SS officers’ 1961 trial for the New Yorker, observed that “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all.” Max Aue, who meets Eichmann again and again over the course of The Kindly Ones, puts it more bluntly: “He had a very harsh attitude but at bottom it was the same to him whether or not the Jews were killed, the only thing that counted, for him, was to show what he could do, to prove his worth, and also to use the abilities he had developed, for the rest of it, he didn’t give a fuck, either about industry or about the gas chambers for that matter, the only thing he did give a fuck about was that no one fucked with him.…” Eichmann was guilty of mass murder, but he is infamous for thoughtlessness, for not giving a fuck. As Arendt says, “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Call it the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away, polluting the air with the smell of burning flesh? Especially when the gulf between the one kind of awareness and the other is so vast: the first belongs to the world of information, whereas the second belongs to the order of knowledge. You can have all the information in the world about the camps—Eichmann had much of it—butknowing them is something else entirely.

Now think for a moment about the complicated, perverse thing which The Kindly Ones does to you, the reader. Anyone could tell you that information and knowledge are two different things, that it’s possible to be ignorant even in the thick of the facts. Arendt could tell you that; her remark that Eichmann’s self-important ignorance illustrates the banality of evil has itself become a banality. But how, short of participating in a genocide, can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless? This is the door to which Max Aue holds (or rather is) the key. The book abounds with markers of lived experience: the icy waters of the marsh, the “insomniac dead” who lie scattered by the side of the road to Kiev, the diarrhea and vomiting fits that plague Aue all through the war, and afterward. These signs draw you in; they give you the feeling of knowing, but all you’re getting is information. The effect is weirdly stupefying—which is, perhaps, how Eichmann felt, after a while.

Link: How Much is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for Good Life

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that increases in productivity due to technological progress would lead within a century to most people enjoying much more leisure. He believed that by 2030 the average working week would be around fifteen hours. Eighty-four years later, it doesn’t look like this prediction will come true. Most full-time workers work two, three, or four times, that: and many part-time workers would work more hours if they could since they need the money.

So why haven’t we come closer to realizing the expectations of Russell and Keynes? In their recent book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), Robert and Edward Skidelsky offer an interesting answer. According to them Keynes’ mistake was his failure to realize that capitalism has unleashed forces that can’t be brought under control. Specifically, it has greatly inflamed a natural human desire for recognition and status, turning it into an insatiable desire for ever more wealth—wealth being the number one determinant of status in our society. If we could just settle for a modest level of comfort, we could work far less. But the yearning for more wealth and more stuff now leads people to spend far more time working than they need to. The same insatiability characterizes our society as a whole. Every politician and most economists take for granted that we should be striving with all our might to achieve economic growth without limit. The wisdom of this relentless, endless pursuit of economic growth is rarely questioned.

The Skidelskys’ explanation of why we still work much more than Keynes predicted isn’t entirely wrong, but I don’t think it’s the whole story or even the most important part. It’s no doubt true of some people that they are driven to work more than they need to by insatiable greed. But I suspect that far more people work the hours they do because of circumstances beyond their control. For instance, many people work long hours simply because their hourly wage is quite low, so they work overtime, or perhaps take a second job, just in order to have enough to live on. Some live in expensive metropolitan areas like Boston or San Francisco, so even though they make a good wage, they actually need a full time job even to secure a fairly modest level of comfort, given the cost of housing. Many people keep working full time, even though they’d like to retire or go part time, because only a full time job will provide indispensible benefits like health insurance and a pension. And lots of people would like to cut back the hours they work but can’t for a simple reason: their boss won’t let them.

But there’s also another factor preventing us from achieving a more leisured and balanced lifestyle, and that is the intensely competitive social environment in which we live.

Enthusiastic supporters of capitalism typically sing the praises of economic competition. It’s the goose that lays the golden eggs—the golden eggs being innovation, higher quality goods and services, lower prices, economic growth, and consequently, at least for many, higher living standards, and the satisfaction of desires. Those who accentuate the positive here (who, it should be noted, tend to be people who can expect to be winners rather than losers) are also often inclined to stress the non-economic benefits of competition, such as its power to motivate hard work and produce excellence. Others may be less gung ho about the free market, but nevertheless accept a competitive environment as the situation we find ourselves in. The New York Times op-ed writers I read every morning over my corn flakes exemplify this attitude. A recent Nicholas Kristof article (NYT, 4-3-14) was titled, “We’re not No. 1! We’re not No. 1!” It was about how the US was falling behind other countries according to the Social Progress Index, and concluded, “The Social Progress Index offers a reminder that what’s at stake is…the health of our society and our competitiveness around the globe.” Thomas Friedman regularly laments how the US is failing to do what it needs to do in order to keep up with the global competition. He compares American pre-college education unfavorably with what he sees in places like South Korea, Singapore, and Shnaghai. Globalization and the computer revolution, he argues, mean that the only way to sustain decent levels of skilled employment in the US is to do whatever it takes to compete with such countries, especially in education and in the hi-tech industries of the future.

From the point of view of someone like Friedman, to complain about living in a competitive culture would be like fish moaning about how wet their world is. To resist it would be like fish trying to quit the ocean and walk up the beach. The only thing to do in a competitive world is—compete. But is it? Must we all succumb to our current competitive environment by embracing its values, practices, and goals?

I’m happy to admit that competition can often yield desirable outcomes. But unless we’re blinded by free-market ideology we should also recognize that a competitive culture has its drawbacks. For instance, it creates losers—many of them. Most start-up companies fail; most wannnabe athletes don’t make it. A competitive environment is stressful, and where the competition is fierce and the stakes are high, the stress is correspondingly severe. Living and working in a fiercely competitive world makes it harder to enjoy leisure. While you’re relaxing or recreating, you’re continually aware that you could (and perhaps feel that you should) be doing something to make sure you’re getting ahead of, or at least keeping up with the competition. And you may well be right: those that don’t keep up fall behind and suffer the consequences, which can be serious.

This last point is the one I particularly wish to focus on. Competition is a treadmill. If you stop running you get thrown off. And if the treadmill speeds up, you just have to run faster. Treadmills are fine machines for those who like to use them, but they’re no fun at all for people who don’t particularly enjoy working out. Similarly, competitive environments in optional fields like sport aren’t problematic: you can simply opt out. But this is not really the case in areas like education or employment. We find ourselves thrown into a world where the price for taking it a little easy is not trivial. In the worst cases, people may end up not being able to make enough money to escape deprivation and anxiety. But even for people free from worries of that sort, not being competitive may mean, for instance, that you can’t go to the college of your choice, that you don’t receive adequate financial aid, that you can’t pursue the professional career you would prefer, that you don’t advance in your career as you would like. I’m not saying that these outcomes are unjust; I’m simply pointing out that not throwing oneself into the game with sufficient gusto can carry unwelcome consequences.

In a highly competitive culture people are forced to work harder than they would like to or than is good for them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of children in school. As noted earlier, social commentators like Thomas Friedman worry incessantly about how American kids are falling behind kids in other countries in their mastery of important skills. Now I don’t deny for a minute that he has good reasons to complain about defects in the American educational system, the main one being the shockingly low level of basic skills and basic knowledge attained by the majority of high school students. But the solution is not to emulate what goes on in places like South Korea. There, the intensity of the competition to get into prestigious universities means that many young people, and their families, feel forced to sacrifice a balanced life on the altar of professional prospects. It’s common for high school students to study from five or six in the morning until past midnight, six or seven days a week, getting by on a very few hours sleep, eschewing entirely such things as sports, relationships, or recreational time with family and friends. In the US, students aiming to enter elite colleges don’t usually go to such an extreme, but something of the same pattern has been emerging over the last twenty years or so. The anxiety this creates for all concerned was apparent in the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

            Giving up on or shortchanging many of the traditional pleasures of childhood and youth—such as nice long periods of undirected play or just messing about with a few friends—isn’t the only serious negative effect of life on the competitive treadmill. Another unfortunate consequence is the way it can weaken intrinsic motivation. Students are intrinsically motivated when they study because they love the subject, or just love studying. The motivation is extrinsic when it is directed toward earning grades, winning prizes, improving one’s class rank, getting into college, and so on. The same distinction applies to other activities, including what we do to earn a living. In the workplace, money is the primary extrinsic motivator for most people.

            Speaking as someone who has been involved in education for several decades, I would say that the single most serious problem in American education is the low-level of intrinsic motivation that so many students bring to the classroom. If a student finds a subject inherently interesting and really enjoys learning, everything else will take care of itself. That’s why the starting point of any educational reform should be to focus on ways to increase the intrinsic satisfaction that students derive from studying. Yet the competitive environment militates against this. I admit it would be utopian to imagine a world where the only motivation for any activity is intrinsic. But it still makes sense to try to increase the intrinsic satisfaction that students derive from their studies and employees from their work, while steering away from whatever leads them to view what they do as a mere means to an end. It makes sense both because they will enjoy their work more and because they are likely to pursue it to a higher level.

In general, the most fortunate people are those who enjoy high levels of intrinsic motivation: for them, work isn’t “work” in the bad sense; it’s simply what they want to do. It’s as if they’re being paid to eat ice cream. But while an intensely competitive environment may force students to put in many hours of hard work, it can suppress virtues such as curiosity or love of learning. Inexorably, the focus starts to be on winning the competition, which means scoring the necessary points, which means making high grades and relentlessly prepping for specific exams—and these grades and exam scores come to be the end-it-itself over which students, parents, and, sad to say, teachers obsess. The tail wags the dog­–and that is not a formula for a happy dog.

To continue with the treadmill metaphor. We find ourselves on a treadmill while still young, and education teaches us to get used to being on it though our working life. It goes faster than many of us wish because we don’t get to set the pace. Instead, the pace is set by the forces of competition. These include the familiar market forces of supply and demand–the drive to improve market share by producing a better product or producing it more cheaply than the competition. But they also include, less directly, the rivalry at the top end of the income chain between CEOs, board members, major shareholders, college presidents, and the like whose insistence on keeping up with their peers is satisfied on the backs of those working beneath them.

Capitalism’s cheerleaders often talk about the productivity of competition and the efficiency of the market, and the market is undoubtedly good for some things—for instance, producing great stuff like iphones and cheap blue jeans. But it’s pretty bad for producing other things like affordable housing in London, or low cost health care, or jobs for everyone that wants to work, or the more leisured lifestyle envisaged by Keynes. The problem is that market forces don’t care about anyone’s well-being or happiness. So they crank up the speed of the treadmill, quite indifferent to the effect of this on both the poor sods who are already busting a gut and the even poorer folks who can’t climb aboard.

There is a solution. The government could enact policies aimed at making it much easier and attractive for people to settle for a modest but comfortable standard of living that doesn’t require them to work too hard. Specifically, governments could guarantee free universal health care, free education, affordable housing through controls on the housing market, and an adequate state retirement pension. This no doubt sounds utopian, but there are, in fact, countries where each of these things is available. To the obvious objection that America can’t afford it, the answer is: yes we can. There is a vast amount of wealth swishing around the United States, but its distribution is lopsided. Indeed, the country is much wealthier today than, say, in 1935 when it passed the first Social Security Act, or in 1944 when it passed the GI Bill. A similar point applies to many other countries that are far richer now than at the end of World War Two. The main obstacle isn’t that such policies are economically unfeasible: it’s that they require a more radical redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation along with much more extensive government intervention in areas like health care and housing, and both of these moves are fiercely opposed by currently prevailing ideologies and vested interests.

The single most important idea in Marx’s philosophy is this: the social system we live under, which appears as a mighty alien power to which we must succumb as to a blind force of nature, is actually a human creation that we can, should, and will eventually bring under our control to serve our consciously chosen ends. This is how we should view the intensely competitive culture that we currently find ourselves part of. I am not saying competition should everywhere be avoided, abandoned or abolished. It has its place, its uses and its benefits. But we should also recognize that it is a serious obstacle to realizing Keynes’ vision of a world where everyone enjoys relatively leisured, balanced lives, and work, in the words of Paul Lafargue, becomes a “condiment to idleness.”

Link: ‘A Racism without Races’: An interview with Étienne Balibar

Professor emeritus at the Université Paris X, the philosopher Étienne Balibar has made the question of racism and its new forms of expression an important theme of his political philosophy, notably in his critique of capitalism and of liberal society. He is the author, among others, ofCitoyen Sujet et autres essais d’anthropologie philosophique (2010) andLa proposition de l’égaliberté (2011), published by Presses Universitaires de France. Passing through Montreal last November, he was keen to answer our questions.

Relations: Given the predominance of the question of human rights in our societies, as well as the official condemnation of racism, one might think that racism is a relic of ages past. Yet this is not the case. To what extent is it still a central – indeed, structural – phenomenon, particularly in the era of capitalist globalisation? In other words, what does it say about our societies?

Étienne Balibar: certainly, it tells us that our society is ill – but what society isn’t? I believe that it is important to begin by freeing ourselves of any idealist images, by understanding that it is utopian to imagine a society without any pathologies. But utopias do have a role: they allow us to imagine alternatives and ways of cracking down on unbearable forms of exploitation, domination or hatred.

But let us get back to the problem of racism, because that is what we are here concerned with analysing and neutralising as completely as is possible. What you call the ‘predominance of human rights’ is an ideological phenomenon that certainly is of symptomatic value, but is not enough to change social structures. There are even ways of using it that hide the varieties of racism that are now developing, paradoxically by way of a ‘humanitarian’ or ‘philanthropic’ discourse that serves to keep populations or categories of individuals in the condition of recipients of help rather than as bearers of equal rights. Differences or incapacities are presented as essential properties, though they are in fact the result of historical conditions and of relations of domination.

The official condemnation of racism is a very important historical phenomenon. It coincided – at the end of the Second World War – with the dawn of Black Americans’ great Civil Rights campaigns and the development of more and more irresistible anti-colonial liberation movements, with the awareness that there was an ‘ideological form’ common to all the persecution and discrimination founded on ‘origins’ or ‘heredity’. There was at that time a tendency to consider this ideological form as related to pseudo-scientific myths (see the founding documents of UNESCO and the 1950-51 Declarations on Race). Such a representation of racism was evidently strengthened by Nazism’s use of biological racial doctrines, eugenics and the social Darwinism that was, moreover, also present in the discourse of other institutional racisms. But today we can see that this explanation was too intellectual. That is why even if the UNESCO doctrine and the human rights philosophy that inspired it were right to insist on the important role of education in the struggle against racism, they were too quick to assume that knowledge, or even the capacity for knowledge, would alone provide the key to solving this problem. They were also too linked to a given historical conjuncture and a certain spirit of civilisation. But, alas, no civilisation has a monopoly on racism. And, besides, as the history of the uses of the word ‘race’ and related words like caste or lineage in fact demonstrates, racism both preceded biological ideologies and has survived them. The anthropological red thread of which I am making use consists of studying the discriminatory uses and the metamorphoses of the ‘genealogical schema’, that is, the idea that generation after generation children inherit the ‘qualities’ – or, conversely, collective ‘defects’ – of their parents, be they physical, moral or intellectual… Naturally different societies give such an idea different content, and not all make use of it in an equally violent fashion. A current example of great significance would be the way in which our liberal societies, which preach individualism and equal opportunities, trap the descendants of immigrants within a ‘foreign identity’ for two or three generations, even when they are societies formed by the mixing of populations and the contributions of immigrants, as is the case in North America and in certain European countries such as France.

Does capitalist globalisation, structurally speaking, tend to reinforce discriminatory uses of the genealogical schema and the reappearance of racism in new forms? Yes, of course, above all in the neoliberal form which is today dominant across the world. After all, this does not only entail, as Immanuel Wallerstein in particular has emphasised, a global hierarchisation of the workforce for the sake of its exploitation, meaning that it is differentiated and divided or even that some groups of workers are set against others: men and women, people from the North or the South, workers from different cultures and nationalities… Rather, it also entails a systematic ‘disaffiliation’ of individuals (an expression that I in this case owe to Robert Castel) detaching them from their traditional solidarities, or those that had been reconstructed by way of social struggles, and can even lead to deracination and nomadism, pauperisation, the loss of social rights and, more profoundly still, the loss of the social recognition attached to one’s work. These phenomena, which are today being exacerbated, are justified by a whole individualist and utilitarian discourse that can very well present itself as humanist: as a reaction they engender a powerful need for community, which can easily become exclusivist and spontaneously linked to the idea of genealogy, whereby individuals seek a guarantee against total abandonment.

Is there a continuity or rupture between the racism of times past, and that which has banned the word ‘race’?

There are, necessarily, essential continuities, first of all because ways of thinking and of representation that are rooted in feeling of belonging and the image of community only evolve very slowly; but above all, because – contrary to what my previous remarks might lead you to think – racism is not simply a psychological phenomenon: it always has an institutional racism. It has even occurred to me to say that every racism is a ‘state racism’: but perhaps that is bending the stick too far in the other direction. When I thought that I was considering the development in France of the ideology of ‘national preference’ using which the far right have adjusted part of their discourse and their voter base; but all the same I think that every racism is inscribed in institutions and in ‘pathological effects’, of greater or lesser intensity, connected to their functioning.

Historically, racism has had three great institutional anchors, though they are clearly not completely independent of one another – and when the state takes charge of ‘totalising’ them and making them ‘official’, it can lead to terrifying results. The first is what Michel Foucault called the ‘biopolitics’ of industrial societies, which treats ‘human material’ as an exploitable resource, which implies selecting, evaluating and eventually eliminating it  (what Bertrand Ogilvie called the ‘production of the disposable man’). The second is xenophobia, or what I called – in the book I wrote together with WallersteinRace, nation, class. Ambiguous Identities – the ‘interior supplement’ of nationalism. It is a question of representing a certain ‘identity’ or a certain biological, cultural or religious ‘purity’, as a necessary cement for the preservation of national unity and its protection against internal or external enemies (above all, perhaps, the internal ones…). Finally, the third form is the representation of the variety of groups of humans on the Earth’s surface in terms of a competition between masters and slaves, or simply between ‘incompatible’ civilisations. This representation, which was considerably developed by colonialism, has also been reproduced in the post-colonial period, in the world of the new global relations of force. We could call it a sort of ‘inverse cosmopolitanism’, in opposition to the cosmopolitanism that emerged from the tradition of the Enlightenment. Since what flows from it is no longer mutual recognition and the consciousness that we belong to one same humanity, but, instead, an intensification of intolerance and falling back on identities.

So I think that none of these great institutional anchoring points of racism has disappeared in today’s world, but also that it is very important to analyse how they vary. Capitalism’s biopolitics changes, just as do inequalities, population flows, the ruling powers at the global scale and even the functions and tendencies of nationalism, which is itself dependent on national situations. This is why the idea of ‘race’ can be recomposed, and even become invisible: for example in what has been called ‘differentialist’ or ‘culturalist’ racism, and what I myself some years ago called a ‘racism without races’.

How can we collectively oppose racism and xenophobia? What forms of anti-racist struggle ought to be given priority?

There is no simple recipe for answering this question. I am tempted to say three things. Firstly, in order to reinforce the idea that this question is of fundamental importance for all our societies, I would say that the development of racism in its various forms is inversely proportional to the vitality of democratic citizenship. That is why I insist so much on the institutional dimension. Citizenship is not automatically democratic, egalitarian or the synonym of equal freedom, even if the Western tradition (and no doubt also others) does draw a symbolic link between the idea of the common good and that of the participation of ‘anyone and everyone’ in public affairs, as Jacques Rancière has put it. There is a constant oscillation in the rise and fall of discrimination: one should neither believe in guaranteed progress nor become fatalist about it. Next, the anti-racist struggle necessarily has an ethical as much as a political dimension: it is not very useful to repeat commonplaces like ‘all of us are racists’ but it is important to emphasise that if the struggle is a collective one then it also progresses by way of a transformation of our own selves, and thus also through an effort to imagine other social relations, other figures of the Other, and building a new identity for ourselves. The ‘genealogical question’ is a very complicated one, but it is crucial, here: what does it mean to belong to a tradition, a culture or a group in a way that is not exclusive, and thus does not exclude others? What does it mean to be oneself?

To finish, I would say that the anti-racist struggle cannot progress simply by way of humanist preaching, whether that be secular or religious: we need a political struggle to transform the structures that produce the conditions for racism and ‘make use of them’ for their own reproduction – meaning capitalism, nationalism, imperialism and their latest avatars. In this sense, the anti-racist struggle does not necessarily mean constantly having the word ‘racism’ on our lips; it is a struggle for social welfare, equal rights, education, and moral and religious tolerance.

However, these direct and indirect efforts must be inscribed within a horizon that allows us to explain their meaning. There is just one word for this: I for my part very much cling onto the idea of ‘cosmopolitanism’, because racism in the era of globalisation could be described as an ‘inverse cosmopolitanism’, to reuse the expression I have just mentioned. We must try to reverse this reversal, not only by administrative measures or state cultural policies, but from below, through practices of resistance and solidarity, which are also local practices, because ‘the whole world’ is today present in every neighbourhood and, in a certain sense comes to seek us out in our own homes. We can then speak of a practical cosmopolitanism, a cosmopolitanism from below in our neighbourhoods and daily lives, which can become the substance of a rebuilt citizenship.

There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility. This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.
G. K. Chesterton, The Defendant

Link: Capitalism Simply Isn't Working And Here Are The Reasons Why

Economist Thomas Piketty’s message is bleak: the gap between rich and poor threatens to destroy us.

Suddenly, there is a new economist making waves – and he is not on the right. At the conference of the Institute of New Economic Thinking in Toronto last week, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century got at least one mention at every session I attended. You have to go back to the 1970s and Milton Friedman for a single economist to have had such an impact.

Like Friedman, Piketty is a man for the times. For 1970s anxieties about inflation substitute today’s concerns about the emergence of the plutocratic rich and their impact on economy and society. Piketty is in no doubt, as he indicates in an interview in today’s Observer New Review, that the current level of rising wealth inequality, set to grow still further, now imperils the very future of capitalism. He has proved it.

It is a startling thesis and one extraordinarily unwelcome to those who think capitalism and inequality need each other. Capitalism requires inequality of wealth, runs this right-of-centre argument, to stimulate risk-taking and effort; governments trying to stem it with taxes on wealth, capital, inheritance and property kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Thus Messrs Cameron and Osborne faithfully champion lower inheritance taxes, refuse to reshape the council tax and boast about the business-friendly low capital gains and corporation tax regime.

Piketty deploys 200 years of data to prove them wrong. Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid “super managers”. High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of “meritocratic extremism”, in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty’s thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable. Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.

Inequality of wealth in Europe and US is broadly twice the inequality of income – the top 10% have between 60% and 70% of all wealth but merely 25% to 35% of all income. But this concentration of wealth is already at pre-First World War levels, and heading back to those of the late 19th century, when the luck of who might expect to inherit what was the dominant element in economic and social life. There is an iterative interaction between wealth and income: ultimately, great wealth adds unearned rentier income to earned income, further ratcheting up the inequality process.

The extravagances and incredible social tensions of Edwardian England, belle epoque France and robber baron America seemed for ever left behind, but Piketty shows how the period between 1910 and 1950, when that inequality was reduced, was aberrant. It took war and depression to arrest the inequality dynamic, along with the need to introduce high taxes on high incomes, especially unearned incomes, to sustain social peace. Now the ineluctable process of blind capital multiplying faster in fewer hands is under way again and on a global scale. The consequences, writes Piketty, are “potentially terrifying”.

For a start, almost no new entrepreneurs, except one or two spectacular Silicon Valley start-ups, can ever make sufficient new money to challenge the incredibly powerful concentrations of existing wealth. In this sense, the “past devours the future”. It is telling that the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Cadogan are two of the richest men in Britain. This is entirely by virtue of the fields in Mayfair and Chelsea their families owned centuries ago and the unwillingness to clamp down on the loopholes that allow the family estates to grow.

Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.

Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system. Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population.

As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.

The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war. Piketty fears a repeat. His critics argue that with higher living standards resentment of the ultra-rich may no longer be as great – and his data is under intense scrutiny for mistakes. So far it has all held up.

Nor does it seem likely that human beings’ inherent sense of justice has been suspended. Of course the reaction plays out differently in different eras: I suspect some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.

The solutions – a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax – are currently inconceivable.

But as Piketty says, the task of economists is to make them more conceivable. Capital certainly does that.

Legowelt - Ancient Rites Demoni Mundi (from Crystal Cult 2080)

Link: Beware of cupcake fascism

A sickly sweet movement expresses the desire of an infantilised populace to hide from the world while imposing bourgeois values.

The cupcake is barely a cake. When we think about what “the cake-​like” ideally should be, it is something spongy, moist, characterised by excess, collapsing under its own weight of gooey jam, meringue, and cream. It is something sickly and wet that makes your fingers sticky. The cupcake is none of these things; that is, it possesses none of the ideal essence of cakiness. The cupcake is neat, precise, and uniform. It is dry, polite, and low-​fat. It is defined by its shape, not its taste, and the cake-​cup limits any potential excess. The cupcake is largely aimed at the sort of flat-​stomached people who think consuming sweet things is “a bit naughty” and who won’t even permit themselves to go overboard on their binges. The cupcake is vintagey and twee. It invokes a sense of wholesomeness and nostalgia, albeit for a past never experienced, a more perfect past, just as vintage-​style clothing harks back to an idealised image of the 1920s through 60s that never existed. The cupcake appears as a cultural trope alongside the drinking of tea and gin and the lisped strumming of ukuleles.

The constellation of cultural tropes that most paradigmatically manifest in the form of the cupcake are associated in particular with infantilisation. Of course, looking back to a perfect past that never existed is nothing if not the pained howl of a child who never wanted to be forced to grow up, and the cupcake and its associates market themselves by catering to these never-​never-​land adults’ tastes. These products, which treat their audience as children, and more specifically the children of the middle classes – perfect special snowflakes full of wide-​eyed wonder and possibility – succeed as expressions of a desire on behalf of consumers to always and forever be children, by telling consumers not only that this is OK, but also that it is, to a real degree, possible.

It’s an understandable urge, given how terrifying and confusing the world is at present. But it is, of course, the wrong response. Infantilised possibilities stand in a strange relationship to what we might call possibility as such. This is because, to actually be alive and able to take up possibilities in a genuine way means being able to take a critical and thus transformative stance towards one’s environment; it is to really be a fully cognitive adult. Thus, the possibility of always remaining a cognitive child must involve the elision of the appropriate orientation to possibility. Taking up this particular possibility (to remain a child rather than become adult) means shutting the pursuit of all other possibilities down.

Hence, we see how the restrictive shape of the cupcake, its cold and uniform neatness, matches up with the infantilising elements of twee cupcakey tropes: it is only possible, as an adult, to remain a cognitive child if you are a child without sticky fingers, drily conforming to a prescribed set of rules.

'Keep Calm and Carry On'

Something became clear to me in the aftermath of the London riots in 2011, when I saw thousands of people take to the streets with brooms at the instigation of a twitter hashtag (#riotcleanup), and “clean up” the effects of the anger of the rioters, which was already in the process of being dismissed and demonised in the media as opportunistic looting long before the police would find a way to havetheir killing of Mark Duggan declared “lawful”. This realisation was that if you wanted to found a fascist reich in Britain today, you could never do so on the basis of any sort of ideology of racial superiority or militaristic imagery or anything of the like. Fascism is, if nothing else, necessarily majoritarian, and nowadays racism is very niche-​appeal (just look at how laughable every EDL march is, where the anti-​fascists outnumber the alleged fascists by a ratio of more than two to one). But you could get a huge mass of people to participate in a reactionary endeavour if you dressed it up in nice, twee, cupcakey imagery, and persuaded everyone that the brutality of your ideology was in fact a form of niceness. If a fascist reich was to be established anywhere today, I believe it would necessarily have to exchange iron eagles for fluffy kittens, swap jackboots for Converse, and the epic drama of Wagnerian horns for mumbled ditties on ukuleles.

Fascism is, properly understood, a certain sort of response to a crisis. It is the reactionary response, as opposed to the radical one. The radical response is to embrace the new possibilities thrown up by the crisis; the reactionary one is to shut these possibilities down. In bourgeois society, thus, fascism will always mean the assertion of middle-​class values in the face of a crisis. Because this assertion must mean shutting certain other emerging sets of possibilities down, it will always involve a sort of violence, although this violence can of course be merely passive-​aggressive.

The 2011 riots were a sort of response to the present global financial crisis, and one more radical than reactionary. They were directionless, yes, but they were the product of a summer of simmering tension produced by the austerity measures the government had imposed as its own reactionary response to the financial crisis, which threatened and still threatens to eliminate the futures of every young person in Britain, especially those from poorer backgrounds – the majority of the rioters. Against the possibilities thrown up by the riots (if nothing else, the possibility of expressing real anger), the participants in #riotcleanup passive-​aggressively asserted the very same middle-​class values that informed the imposition of austerity.

There is no better expression of all this than in the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On”, which of course adorns everything cupcakey (“Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake” is almost as prevalent a poster as the original). The association is a profound one on many levels. The “Keep Calm” poster was originally designed as a propaganda poster during the second world war. It plays on similar appeals to vintage nostalgia that the notion of “having a cupcake” does. It appeals to an idealised past that was never experienced by the longer-​afterer. It is also a past that never could have been experienced, since the “Keep Calm” poster was never actually used. It was rediscovered in 2000 and was quickly found to have a vast appeal based largely on how much the slogan cohered with an idealised image of the 1940s. In fact, the poster had never been used because it was considered by those who saw it at the time to be patronising.

Thus the form of the slogan is a perfect expression of the infantilised subject’s orientation towards reality. The same goes for the content. The idea that the best response to any situation is just to accept existing conditions, swallow your anger, swallow your pride, and continue as best you might is an expression of a sort of ideal Britishness, the “stiff upper lip”. But stiff upper lip is, dialectically speaking, nothing more than a form of cowardice; less a level-​headed stoicism than a neurotic unwillingness to confront an unjust reality. Many of the participants in #riotcleanup also participated in another riots-​era hashtag, #OperationCupOfTea, which implored people not to go out rioting but rather, to stay indoors and “have a nice cup of tea”. These nice white middle-​class boys and girls out early clutching brooms were all people whose instinctual orientation towards a hostile world is to cover up, hide, and thus maintain that world in its hostility without confronting it. Images from the #riotcleanup could only seem as if they were from a political rally, for the assertion of this cowardice as a political force.

Gentrification

There is now such a critical mass of infantilised subjects in our society that we see their tropes at work everywhere, aggressively. Typically, any middle-​class man or woman up to their forties is an infantilised subject nowadays. This means a majority of consumers. Thus every advertising campaign launched by a major corporation and every government public service announcement proudly proclaims that the ideology of cupcake fascism is appealing to them.

It is everywhere, from the most trivial examples: a waste bin with a little picture of a sad puppy on it and the line “It’s not my fault my mess doesn’t get cleaned up”, or a napkin dispenser that says on it “Please Only Take One of Me”, (this latter is, incidentally, something I once saw in the House of Commons cafeteria; even those in positions of what in some lights can look like actual power are in the grip of infantilisation). All the way to massive, blockbuster instances of the phenomenon such as the recent Coca-​Cola #ReasonsToBelieve campaign which was full of such obviously insidious expressions of cupcakey positivity as “For every tank being built … there are thousands of cakes being baked” and “for every red card given … there are 12 celebratory hugs”. The advert also features a scene in which a man high-fives a cat.

All of this has an effect on our culture that we can understand as being a sort of gentrification. The cupcake has always itself been a gentrifying force: after all, the “pop-​up cupcake shop” is the paradigmatic pop-​up shop. But what all these things do is assert the infantilised values of an increasingly infantilised middle-​class world on general society. This is how the passive-​aggressive violence of the infantilised twee fascist manifests itself: moving across the world with a cupcake as a cowcatcher, shunting out everything that does not correspond to the values manifested within it; a much more effective way of sweeping up the sort of (poor, working-​class, black) forces that informed the 2011 London riots than any broom. Not uncoincidentally, #ReasonsToBelieve included footage of said riots labelled as an “expression of hatred” to be contrasted with the wave of love apparently unleashed by a long-​overdue government recognition of gay unions.

Niceness

It is in some sense a contradiction to think of cupcake fascism as both an aggressively assertive movement violently imposing a particular set of bourgeois values on society and also the expression of a desire on the behalf of an infantilised populace to “go into hiding” from the world. But these two things only appear in conflict pending the assumption of the right perspective on the matter.

Cupcake fascism asserts itself violently through something the infantilised subject holds deeply as an ideal. This ideal is niceness. On the one hand, niceness is just what the infantilised subject thinks is lacking from the world she is hiding from. In the first instance, the problem these people had with the London rioters was that they were not being nice enough. If the rioters had just sat down with a cup of tea and talked their problems through with their oppressors, the infantilised subject thinks, then there would have been no need to resort to damaging private property. The sort of niceness I mean here is precisely that embodied in the figure of the cupcake: neat and predictable, undangerous and healthy, redolent of a perfect past that never was. In a nicer world, everything would work as it should, the good and hard-​working would get exactly what they deserve, and everyone would behave properly.

This last aspect of the infantilised subject’s vision of a “nicer” world is the most telling, for on the other hand, niceness is also an injunction from above. “Just be nice!” is something a parent or teacher would tell a wayward child. The injunction to behave properly, to smile and get on with it, is precisely a way of shutting down any form of social resistance. People are conditioned to be nice from the very start of school, and it is the effect of an infantilising gentrification that this injunction is further spread by those who have most effectively internalised it. These people are the middle classes. To be nice, to “behave properly”, is simply to behave like an infantilised middle-​class subject. Thus every marketing campaign or government public service announcement that passive-​aggressively preaches niceness is really a violent enforcement of reactionary values that serves to preserve a crisis-​stricken status quo.

The radical possibility and cake

If we see the paradigmatic mechanisms of social oppression operative today in the form of a cupcake, then the clue to the overthrowing of these mechanisms exists also in cake, albeit of an entirely different kind. It is precisely in the truly cake-​like, the spongy and the moist and the excessive and the unhealthy. Against the austerity of the cupcake-​form, we need to recapture, in our social reality, a sort of joy: the joy of being open to genuinely alternative possibilities.

Another way of looking comes when we examine the way in which an infantilised adult is precisely not a child. A child cannot remain a child; a child is on the way to becoming an adult. When a child does child-​like things, it is in order to explore the world in a way that equips it to one day confront that world for what it is, as what the child will be as an individual. So the child is open to possibility. And the child always has sticky fingers, and jam around its lips, and does things that no one would ever think are in its best interests. The infantilised adult, by contrast, because it is neurotically trying to remain a child, must shut down possibilities. It cannot engage with the world in a way characterised by the joy of possibility. In order to actually live the possibility of remaining a child, the world that the infantilised adult engages with must always remain “safe” and coldly uniform: the cupcake as opposed to the messy and collapsing sponge-​cake.

Thus, if we want to be less infantilised, we have to behave more like children. If this seems like a paradox, it must mean that you are just not thinking about the matter dialectically enough.

Link: Technology and Consumership

Today’s media, combined with the latest portable devices, have pushed serious public discourse into the background and hauled triviality to the fore, according to media theorist Arthur W Hunt. And the Jeffersonian notion of citizenship has given way to modern consumership.

Almantas Samalavicius: In your recently published book Surviving Technopolis, you discuss a number of important and overlapping issues that threaten the future of societies. One of the central themes you explore is the rise, dominance and consequences of visual imagery in public discourse, which you say undermines a more literate culture of the past. This tendency has been outlined and questioned by a large and growing number of social thinkers (Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Neil Postman and others). What do you see as most culturally threatening in this shift to visual imagery?

Arthur W. Hunt III: The shift is technological and moral. The two are related, as Ellul has pointed out. Computer-based digital images stem from an evolution of other technologies beginning with telegraphy and photography, both appearing in the middle of the nineteenth century. Telegraphy trivialized information by allowing it to come to us from anywhere and in greater volumes. Photography de-contextualized information by giving us an abundance of pictures disassociated from the objects from which they came. Cinema magnified Aristotle’s notion of spectacle, which he claimed to be the least artistic element in Poetics. Spectacle in modern film tends to diminish all other elements of drama (plot, character, dialogue and so on) in favour of the exploding Capitol building. Radio put the voice of both the President and the Lone Ranger into our living rooms. Television was the natural and powerful usurper of radio and quickly became the nucleus of the home, a station occupied by the hearth for thousands of years. Then the television split in two, three or four ways so that every house member had a set in his or her bedroom. What followed was the personal computer at both home and at work. Today we have portable computers in which we watch shows, play games, email each other and gaze at ourselves like we used to look at Hollywood stars. To a large extent, these technologies are simply extensions of our technological society. They act as Sirens of distraction. They push serious public discourse into the background and pull triviality to the foreground. They move us away from the Jeffersonian notion of citizenship, replacing it with modern capitalism’s ethic of materialistic desire or “consumership”. The great danger of all this, of course, is that we neglect the polis and, instead, waste our time with bread and circuses. Accompanying this neglect is the creation of people who spend years in school yet remain illiterate, at least by the standards we used to hold out for a literate person. The trivialization spreads out into other institutions, as Postman has argued, to schools, churches and politics. This may be an American phenomenon, but many countries look to America’s institutions for guidance.

AS: Philosopher and historian Ivan Illich – one of the most radical critics of modernity and its mythology – has emphasized the conceptual difference between tools, on one hand, and technology on the other, implying that the dominance and overuse of technology is socially and culturally debilitating. Economist E.F. Schumacher urged us to rediscover the beauty of smallness and the use of more humane, “intermediate technologies”. However, a chorus of voices seems to sink in the ocean of popular technological optimism and a stubborn self-generating belief in the power of progress. Your critique contains no call to go back to the Middle Ages. Nor do you suggest that we give anything away to technological advances. Rather, you offer a sound and balanced argument about the misuses of technology and the mindscape that sacrifices tradition and human relationships on the altar of progress. Do you see any possibility of developing a more balanced approach to the role of technology in our culture? Obviously, many are aware, even if cynically, that technological progress has its downsides, but what of its upsides?

AWH: Short of a nuclear holocaust, we will not be going back to the Middle Ages any time soon. Electricity and automobiles are here to stay. The idea is not to be anti-technology. Neil Postman once said to be anti-technology is like being anti-food. Technologies are extensions of our bodies, and therefore scale, ecological impact and human flourishing becomes the yardstick for technological wisdom. The conventional wisdom of modern progress favours bigger, faster, newer and more. Large corporations see their purpose on earth to maximize profits. Their goal is to get us addicted to their addictions. We can no longer afford this kind of wisdom, which is not wisdom at all, but foolishness. We need to bolster a conversation about the human benefits of smaller, slower, older and less. Europeans often understand this better than Americans, that is, they are more conscious of preserving living spaces that are functional, aesthetically pleasing and that foster human interaction. E.F. Schumacher gave us some useful phraseology to promote an economy of human scale: “small is beautiful,” “technologies with a human face” and “homecomers.” He pointed out that “labour-saving machinery” is a paradoxical term, not only because it makes us unemployed, but also because it diminishes the value of work. Our goal should be to move toward a “third-way” economic model, one of self-sufficient regions, local economies of scale, thriving community life, cooperatives, family owned farms and shops, economic integration between the countryside and the nearby city, and a general revival of craftsmanship. Green technologies – solar and wind power for example – actually can help us achieve this third way, which is actually a kind of micro-capitalism.

AS: Technologies developed by humans (e.g. television) continue to shape and sustain a culture of consumerism, which has now become a global phenomenon. As you insightfully observe in one of your essays, McLuhan, who was often misinterpreted and misunderstood as a social theorist hailed by the television media he explored in a great depth, was fully aware of its ill effects on the human personality and he therefore limited his children’s TV viewing. Jerry Mander has argued for the elimination of television altogether, nevertheless, this medium is alive and kicking and continues to promote an ideology of consumption and, what is perhaps most alarming, successfully conditioning children to become voracious consumers in a society where the roles of parents become more and more institutionally limited. Do you have any hopes for this situation? Can one expect that people will develop a more critical attitude toward these instruments, which shape them as consumers? Does social criticism of these trends play any role in an environment where the media and the virtual worlds of the entertainment industry have become so powerful?

AWH: Modern habits of consumption have created what Benjamin Barber calls an “ethos of infantilization”, where children are psychologically manipulated into early adulthood and adults are conditioned to remain in a perpetual state of adolescence. Postman suggested essentially the same thing when he wroteThe Disappearance of Childhood. There have been many books written that address the problems of electronic media in stunting a child’s mental, physical and spiritual development. One of the better recent ones is Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. Another one is Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. We have plenty of books, but we don’t have enough people reading them or putting them into practice. Raising a child today is a daunting business, and maybe this is why more people are refusing to do it. No wonder John Bakan, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote a New York Times op-ed complaining, “There is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis.” The other day I was listening to the American television program 60 Minutes. The reporter was interviewing the Australian actress Cate Blanchett. I almost fell out of my chair when she starkly told the reporter, “We don’t outsource our children.” What she meant was, she does not let someone else raise her children. I think she was on to something. In most families today, both parents work outside the home. This is a fairly recent development if you consider the entire span of human history. Industrialism brought an end to the family as an economic unit. First, the father went off to work in the factory. Then, the mother entered the workforce during the last century. Well, the children could not stay home alone, so they were outsourced to various surrogate institutions. What was once provided by the home economy (oikos) – education, heath care, child rearing and care of the elderly – came to be provided by the state. The rest of our needs – food, clothing, shelter and entertainment – came to be provided by the corporations. A third-way economic ordering would seek to revive the old notion of oikos so that the home can once again be a legitimate economic, educational and care-providing unit – not just a place to watch TV and sleep. In other words, the home would once again become a centre for production, not just consumption. If this every happened, one or both parents would be at home and little Johnny and sister Jane would work and play alongside their parents.

AS: I was intrigued by your insight into forms of totalitarianism depicted by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Though most authors who discussed totalitarianism during the last half of the century were overtaken by the Orwellian vision and praised this as most enlightening, the alternative Huxleyan vision of a self-inflicted, joyful and entertaining totalitarian society was far less scrutinized. Do you think we are entering into a culture where “totalitarianism with a happy face” as you call it prevails? If so, what consequences you foresee?

AWH: It is interesting to note that Orwell thought Huxley’s Brave New Worldwas implausible because he maintained that hedonistic societies do not last long, and that they are too boring. However, both authors were addressing what many other intellectuals were debating during the 1930s: what would be the social implications of Darwin and Freud? What ideology would eclipse Christianity? Would the new social sciences be embraced with as much exuberance as the hard sciences? What would happen if managerial science were infused into all aspects of life? What should we make of wartime propaganda? What would be the long-term effects of modern advertising? What would happen to the traditional family? How could class divisions be resolved? How would new technologies shape the future?

I happen to believe there are actually more similarities between the Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World than there are differences. Both novels have as their backstory the dilemma of living with weapons of mass destruction. The novel 1984 imagines what would happen if Hitler succeeded. In Brave New World, the world is at a crossroads. What is it to be, the annihilation of the human race or world peace through sociological control? In the end, the world chooses a highly efficient authoritarian state, which keeps the masses pacified by maintaining a culture of consumption and pleasure. In both novels, the past is wiped away from public memory. In Orwell’s novel, whoever “controls the past controls the future.” In Huxley’s novel, the past has been declared barbaric. All books published before A.F. 150 (that is, 150 years after 1908 CE, the year the first Model T rolled off the assembly line) are suppressed. Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller in Brave New World, declares the wisdom of Ford: “History is bunk.” In both novels, the traditional family has been radically altered. Orwell draws from Hitler Youth and the Soviets Young Pioneers to give us a society where the child’s loyalty to the state far outweighs any loyalty to parents. Huxley gives us a novel where the biological family does not even exist. Any familial affection is looked down upon. Everybody belongs to everybody, sexually and otherwise. Both novels give us worlds where rational thought is suppressed so that “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength” (1984). InBrave New World, when Lenina is challenged by Marx to think for herself, all she can say is “I don’t understand.” The heroes in both novels are malcontents who want to escape this irrationality but end up excluded from society as misfits. Both novels perceive humans as religious beings where the state recognizes this truth but channels these inclinations toward patriotic devotion. In1984, Big Brother is worshipped. In Brave New World, the Christian cross has been cut off at the top to form the letter “T” for Technology. When engaged in the Orgy-Porgy, everyone in the room chants, “Ford, Ford, Ford.” In both novels an elite ruling class controls the populace by means of sophisticated technologies. Both novels show us surveillance states where the people are constantly monitored. Sound familiar? Certainly, as Postman tells us in his foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Huxley’s vision eerily captures our culture of consumption. But how long would it take for a society to move from a happy faced totalitarianism to one that has a mask of tragedy?

AS: Your comments on the necessity of the third way in our societies subjected to and affected by economic globalization seem to resonate with the ideas of many social thinkers I interviewed for this series. Many outstanding social critics and thinkers seem to agree that the notions of communism and capitalism have become stale and meaningless; further development of these paradigms lead us nowhere. One of your essays focuses on the old concept of “shire” and household economics. Do you believe in what Mumford called “the useful past”? And do you expect the growing movement that might be referred to as “new economics” to enter the mainstream of our economic thinking, eventually leading to changes in our social habits?

AWH: If the third way economic model ever took hold, I suppose it could happen in several ways. We will start with the most desirable way, and then move to less desirable. The most peaceful way for this to happen is for people to come to some kind of realization that the global economy is not benefiting them and start desiring something else. People will see that their personal wages have been stagnant for too long, that they are working too hard with nothing to show for it, that something has to be done about the black hole of debt, and that they feel like pawns in an incomprehensible game of chess. Politicians will hear their cries and institute policies that would allow for local economies, communities and families to flourish. This scenario is less likely to happen, because the multinationals that help fund the campaigns of politicians will not allow it. I am primarily thinking of the American reality in my claim here. Unless corporations have a change of mind, something akin to a religious conversion, we will not see them open their hearts and give away their power.

A more likely scenario is that a grassroots movement led by creative innovators begins to experiment with new forms of community that serve to repair the moral and aesthetic imagination distorted by modern society. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls this the “Benedict Option” in his book After Virtue. Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture essentially calls for the same solution. Inspired by the monasteries that preserved western culture in Europe during the Dark Ages, these communities would serve as models for others who are dissatisfied with the broken dreams associated with modern life. These would not be utopian communities, but humble efforts of trial and error, and hopefully diverse according to the outlook of those who live in them. The last scenario would be to have some great crisis occur – political, economic, or natural in origin – that would thrust upon us the necessity reordering our institutions. My father, who is in his nineties, often reminisces to me about the Great Depression. Although it was a miserable time, he speaks of it as the happiest time in his life. His best stories are about neighbours who loved and cared for each other, garden plots and favourite fishing holes. For any third way to work, a memory of the past will become very useful even if it sounds like literature. From a practical point of view, however, the kinds of knowledge that we will have to remember will include how to build a solid house, how to plant a vegetable garden, how to butcher a hog and how to craft a piece of furniture. In rural Tennessee where I live, there are people still around who know how to do these things, but they are a dying breed.

AS: The long (almost half-century) period of the Cold War has resulted in many social effects. The horrors of Communist regimes and the futility of state-planned economics, as well as the treason of western intellectuals who remained blind to the practice of Communist powers and eschewed ideas of idealized Communism, have aided the ideology of capitalism and consumerism. Capitalism came to be associated with ideas of freedom, free enterprise, freedom to choose and so on. How is this legacy burdening us in the current climate of economic globalization? Do you think recent crises and new social movements have the potential to shape a more critical view (and revision) of capitalism and especially its most ugly neo-liberal shape?

AWH: Here in America liberals want to hold on to their utopian visions of progress amidst the growing evidence that global capitalism is not delivering on its promises. Conservatives are very reluctant to criticize the downsides of capitalism, yet they are not really that different in their own visions of progress in comparison to liberals. It was amusing to hear the American politician Sarah Palin describe Pope Francis’ recent declarations against the “globalization of indifference” as being “a little liberal.” The Pope is liberal? While Democrats look to big government to save them, Republicans look to big business. Don’t they realize that with modern capitalism, big government and big business are joined at the hip? The British historian Hilarie Belloc recognized this over a century ago, when he wrote about the “servile state,” a condition where an unfree majority of non-owners work for the pleasure of a free minority of owners. But getting to your question, I do think more people are beginning to wake up to the problems associated with modern consumerist capitalism. A good example of this is a recent critique of capitalism written by Daniel M. Bell, Jr. entitled The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. Here is a religious conservative who is saying the great tempter of our age is none other than Walmart. The absurdist philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus once said the real passion of the twentieth century was not freedom, but servitude. Jacques Ellul, Camus’s contemporary, would have agreed with that assessment. Both believed that the United States and the Soviet Union, despite their Cold War differences, had one thing in common – the two powers had surrendered to the sovereignty of technology. Camus’ absurdism took a hard turn toward nihilism, while Ellul turned out to be a kind of cultural Jeremiah. It is interesting to me that when I talk to some people about third way ideas, which actually is an old way of thinking about economy, they tell me it can’t be done, that we are now beyond all that, and that the our economic trajectory is unstoppable or inevitable. This retort, I think, reveals how little freedom our system possesses. So, I can’t have a family farm? My small business can’t compete with the big guys? My wife has to work outside the home and I have to outsource the raising of my children? Who would have thought capitalism would lack this much freedom?

AS: And finally are you an optimist? Jacques Ellul seems to have been very pessimistic about us escaping from the iron cage of technological society. Do you think we can still break free?

AWH: I am both optimistic and pessimistic. In America, our rural areas are becoming increasingly depopulated. I see this as an opportunity for resettling the land – those large swaths of fields and forests that encompass about three quarters of our landmass. That is a very nice drawing board if we can figure out how to get back to it. I am also optimistic about the fact that more people are waking up to our troubling times. Other American writers that I would classify as third way proponents include Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, Rod Dreher, Mark T. Mitchell, Bill Kauffman, Joseph Pearce and Allan Carlson. There is also a current within the American and British literary tradition, which has served as a critique of modernity. G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Day and Allen Tate represent this sensibility, which is really a Catholic sensibility, although one does not have to be Catholic to have it. I am amazed at the popularity of novels about Amish people among American evangelical women. Even my wife reads them, and we are Presbyterians! In this country, the local food movement, the homeschool movement and the simplicity movement all seem to be pointing toward a kind of breaking away. You do not have to be Amish to break away from the cage of technological society; you only have to be deliberate and courageous. If we ever break out of the cage in the West, there will be two types of people who will lead such a movement. The first are religious people, both Catholic and Protestant, who will want to create a counter-environment for themselves and their children. The second are the old-school humanists, people who have a sense of history, an appreciation of the cultural achievements of the past, and the ability to see what is coming down the road. If Christians and humanists do nothing, and let modernity roll over them, I am afraid we face what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man”. Lewis believed our greatest danger was to have a technological elite – what he called The Conditioners – exert power over the vast majority so that our humanity is squeezed out of us. Of course all of this would be done in the name of progress, and most of us would willingly comply. The Conditioners are not acting on behalf of the public good or any other such ideal, rather what they want are guns, gold, and girls – power, profits and pleasure. The tragedy of all this, as Lewis pointed out, is that if they destroy us, they will destroy themselves, and in the end Nature will have the last laugh.
This omnipresent cult of the body is extraordinary. It is the only object on which everyone is made to concentrate, not as a source of pleasure, but as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance, a sign and an anticipation of death, that death to which no one can any longer give a meaning, but which everyone knows has at all times to be prevented. The body is cherished in the perverse certainty of its uselessness, in the total certainty of its non-resurrection. Now, pleasure is an effect of the resurrection of the body, by which it exceeds that hormonal, vascular and dietetic equilibrium in which we seek to imprison it, that exorcism by fitness and hygiene. So the body has to be made to forget pleasure as present grace, to forget its possible metamorphosis into other forms of appearance and become dedicated to the utopian preservation of a youth that is, in any case, already lost. For the body which doubts its own existence is already half-dead, and the current semi-yogic, semi-ecstatic cult of the body is a morbid preoccupation. The care taken of the body while it is alive prefigures the way it will be made up in the funeral home, where it will be given a smile that is really ‘into’ death.
— Jean Baudrillard, America

Link: How Does One Resist the Joys of Marketing? And Why?

The Mantle is pleased to present the fourth in a series of important blog posts by Cæmeron Crain addressing critical concepts in contemporary political philosophy. Cæmeron’s previous post explored the contours of life in what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze called a “Society of Control.” In what follows, Cæmeron begins the difficult process of articulating a practice of resistance to the “diffuse matrix” of late-capitalist power. 

In his “Postscript on the Societies of Control” Deleuze suggests that it will be up to the next generation—us—to figure out how to resist the “joys of marketing.” Several questions present themselves immediately: What does marketing have to do with control? What with joy? Why is this a joy to be resisted? And, of course, how might we do that? I will try to approach these questions in more or less that order.

To understand what marketing has to do with control, it might be helpful to start with Deleuze’s claim that marketing attempts to take over the role of philosophy: to create concepts. Of course, marketing does not truly create concepts, at least not philosophical ones; it creates the brand. We all know by now that the brand has little to nothing to do with the functionality of the product; it isn’t even linked to a particular kind of product. The brand is an “idea” or structure of affects. It organizes desire within a certain frame, linking the brand name to an image of the self and its relation to the world. Fantasy, in all of its psychoanalytic connotations, is fully deployed. But these are fundamentally false fantasies. They tie desire to premade products, or sterile ideas.

This can be described in terms of the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of desire. Marketing works by detaching desire from what it strives to create (deterritorialization) and then re-attaching it to a premade product. This reterritorialization occurs through the intermediary of the brand. To take an example that is perhaps overly simple, one desires to create a satisfying life, have meaningful relationships, be innovative, etc. The brand offers itself as a structure for such desire, as though one could have a satisfying life simply by shopping at the right store, or using the right kind of phone.

The brand reigns not just in the domain of consumer goods, but in that of politics. The political party, the candidate, is a brand. We should feel the similarity between Barack Obama’s campaign of Change in 2008 and something like Pepsi’s old ad campaign about being the “choice of a new generation.” 

In both cases, what was invoked was a sort of blank idea of the “new.” But nothing new happened. Everywhere marketing creates false movements, false oppositions: Pepsi v. Coke, Democrats v. Republicans. The real movement is always elsewhere. Marketing controls us by convincing us that our desires can only be directed toward the products that are available. Then, we can only buy what they’re selling. True desire, Deleuze and Guattari insist, is productive – it creates its object and its frame.

The link between marketing and desire also allows us to see how it involves a joy. There is real joy – or, at least, enjoyment – in identifying with the brand. The brand’s success feels like it is in part one’s own. Apple provides what may be a paradigmatic example of this structure, starting with the campaign that encouraged us to “Think Different.”

It is important to note here how ‘different’ functions as a noun: one is not encouraged to “think differently” but to identify with the brand of the different. This effort has been wildly successful, making Apple the brand of choice not only for creative types (for whom it may offer better software options), but also for all of us who want to identify as creative, bohemian, what have you. Nevermind the proprietary software, or the fact that you cannot replace the battery on your device yourself; or, rather, do mind these things, because they speak to a deepening of brand identification. One takes an enjoyment in having something that feels special precisely because it does not work with other things. And the outpouring of emotion when Steve Jobs died! The credit given him as an innovator! He was, to be sure, but primarily in the domain of brand creation.

It is by enjoying that we submit most thoroughly to control. There is nothing to subvert, no grand authority to overthrow, no sovereign, not even an explicit disciplinary program. We are slaves of our own desire, or rather it is our desire that is enslaved. Resistance then involves refusing to desire the goods being sold to us. Desire must become creative. Unions wither because we are supposed to enjoy merely having a job. Jobs are terrible; everyone knows that. Work is not, if it is creative, and perhaps this is what we should demand: meaningful work or no work at all!

Let the different be different (be differently) and refuse to allow it to be tamed under the same – everywhere we need more distinctions, a rejection of binaries, a refusal to separate the polis into the people and the Other (criminals, immigrants, layabouts on the government dole, etc.). Whatever its success in actually governing, The Best Party captured the political potential of simply refusing to buy what They are selling, and that of humor.

We should distinguish between such humor and irony. The movement of irony involves taking a distance from its object: it criticizes from the heights, as though the ironist understands the truth far better than his opponent, who is trapped in a circle of confusion. Think of Socrates, or Jon Stewart. Irony can be useful, but it risks a detachment that can become reactionary, or quietistic. One feels satisfied in knowing the Truth, and thus stands above the existing conflicts. The humor the Best Party actuated lies rather in an honest insistence upon one’s desire: “we will not accept the mediocre, because we want the Best!” It is the absurdity of the demand, in the face of “political reality” that creates the humor. We move along the surface, refusing to accept the reality that seeks to control our desire by relating it to pre-established norms.

It is only in insisting upon a desire that is truly creative that we can resist the joys of marketing. Rather than choosing a brand, one must create new concepts. Think differently. If this is a call to philosophy, it is not an aristocratic claim about the ivory tower. It is to insist on philosophy’s force as directly practical, directly political – the question is one of how we conceptualize the world we inhabit, and how those concepts structure desire. Resistance comes through the creation of the New, and this can be just as much a practice undertaken by artists, or by people in general, as by those within the confines of the academy.

Imagine an Occupy movement that made us laugh, or the humor involved in naively insisting that one will vote for whatever candidate (probably from a third party) most nearly represents one’s own views, because isn’t that how a republic is supposed to function? In all cases, we must reject the notion that we have to have a worked out plan for the new order. The new is created through its own process. The new, better, best, way of structuring society is a problematic idea. It is not a question of knowing the solution beforehand, but of being committed to the process of working toward it. Humor is a tactic, not an end in itself. It is a matter of pushing through on a desire that the currently existing reality takes to be absurd. It is only a first step toward the creation of the new, or the different. And there are perhaps other ways of resisting the joys of marketing.

We must be very careful, however, because this all risks being too easily co-opted by existing forces, and wrapped into a brand. I was recently offered an Occupy credit card. Apple tells me to “think different.” If resistance involves, on the contrary, thinking differently, this slippage may be the most dangerous of all.

Beach House - Zebra (from Teen Dream)

(Source: sunrec)