Sunshine Recorder

Link: What I've Learned as an Internet Drug Dealer

Many fans of Bitcoin would like to distance the technology from the reputation it has gained as the currency of choice for drug dealers and criminals on the internet. But to ignore the cryptocurrency’s use in illicit markets is to miss a vital part of what has made it successful. Food trucks and floundering satellite television companies accepting digital cash is nice, but if you want to see where the real action is in this new economy, you need to enter the deep web.

So one afternoon, I downloaded the Tor Browser, checked out /r/darknetmarkets for site recommendations, found one I liked, and took the dive.

Of course, I had heard about these sites for a long time, but it was still shocking to see what was on offer on my computer screen: row after row of listings for heroin, meth, MDMA, weed, coke, and any other drug you could want. It was Amazon for drugs, all priced in Bitcoin, all available for convenient vacuum sealed delivery to the mailing address of your choice.

Much like other e-commerce sites, every vendor on the site had a username and rating to help customers know which of these strangers selling potent narcotics over the internet had a track record of trustworthiness. One name in particular stood out, a vendor who had hundreds of completed sales with a nearly flawless feedback rating.

I sent a simple message identifying myself as a journalist and asking if he or she would be interested in an interview. To my surprise, a quick response appeared in my inbox: he or she would be happy to chat. The only stipulations were that we use PGP encrypted messaging and that I did not include his or her actual username in my article. The dealer chose the handle “RainDuck” for our interview.

Over the next week we exchanged messages about being a vendor on the dark web site Evolution, integrity on the black market, what it’s like to run a business that’s dependent on the Bitcoin network, and the war on drugs—at a time when that war is shifting to the web.

It’s not easy to estimate the amount of drugs sold online, but estimates by the United Nations and others say the market is multiplying in size. To stop the internet trade, the UN says that postal inspectors, customs agents, and “other agencies” are “vital to ensure that points in the supply chain could be more effectively cut off and make it more difficult for buyers to obtain products.”

A number of questions to RainDuck went nowhere: when I asked for RainDuck’s age, he apologized.I’m sorry but I can’t give even an approximate answer to that question. I’m old enough that I can do this safely, but not old enough to die of natural causes. That’s the best answer I can give, somewhere between 25 and 90.”

Motherboard: Why did you become a vendor?
RainDuck: I became a vendor after quite a bit of experience starting as a buyer. When I discovered the darknet markets, I saw an opportunity to avoid the shadyness that comes with buying drugs from a friend of a friend of that one guy that I met at a bar. I could buy drugs from someone after reading dozens of reviews on their service and product, and feel confident that I was getting what I was paying for.

Unfortunately vendors online can rip people off just as drug dealers in person can. There is a degree of safety, but some vendors follow a pattern of providing legitimate service for a short period of time before ripping a bunch of people off and running away with the money.

I saw an opportunity to provide a legitimate service to my customers. I became a vendor and made it a point to prove that I am honest and trustworthy. I made a name for myself and became known as the type of person who you could trust. I’ve had many opportunities to rip people off without repercussions, but I’ve never once scammed someone. Reputation is everything on the darknet markets, and establishing myself as a trustworthy individual has been far more profitable for me than being a con artist. To summarize, I saw an opportunity to provide a degree of service that is uncommon in the world of drugs, and decided to fill that void.

Were you involved in this industry before your current account? And if so, how long have you been in the business?
I have indeed been involved prior to my current account. Unfortunately I can’t go into specifics. Staying anonymous is the most important factor to any vendor who values his/her freedom, and being in the spotlight is not always a good thing. When someone has too much attention drawn to them it’s sometimes best to step back and lay low for awhile, and that applies to the internet just as much as to drug dealers in real life.

You are currently using a centralized marketplace. What are your thoughts on decentralized marketplaces (i.e. the Dark Market project) and what they mean for the future of online commerce?
Good question. To those who don’t know, centralized marketplaces hold all of the money for you. Tens of thousands of buyers and vendors will trust the marketplace to hold their money in escrow, and they release the funds from the buyer to the seller when both users confirm that the transaction has been complete.

The downside to this model is that the amount of money the marketplaces hold at a time can reach hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s held by someone who has the opportunity to run away with the money at any time. In the last year there have been several marketplaces that have run away with a total of well over a billion dollars. Many people’s lives have been ruined by money loss, and the community as a whole is very distrustful of this business model after several recent scams.

Decentralized marketplaces limit their own power, and rather than keeping the money in their own account, they essentially hold “keys” to the accounts that the money is held in. Two people must use their keys in order to unlock the funds from escrow, whether those two people are the buyer and vendor, or the buyer and the marketplace, or the vendor and the marketplace. This allows the marketplace the ability to resolve issues without giving them the freedom to run off with large sums of money.

The downside to this model is that from a technical side it can be very hard to use. So far most of the decentralized marketplaces require some degree of programming knowledge, or external software, or otherwise are too complicated for the average user. For that reason most of the decentralized marketplaces attract less traffic. In the long run, I believe that we will move almost entirely to using decentralized markets, but it may be another year or two before the sites are streamlined to allow both the buyers and the vendors to use this kind of marketplace easily.

What is your average revenue and profit in a month?
Unfortunately that’s not a question I feel comfortable answering. I can say that there is a very large amount of money that can be made in this industry,and I make more than enough.

Did you have prior business experience before coming to this industry?
I did. Most people don’t consider selling drugs to be a business, but the successful vendors treat it just like any other business. It’s important to have good time management skills, accounting skills, as well as customer service skills. Being a vendor online is just like owning or managing a business—the only difference being that the government decided that what we do is illegal.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about dark net markets?
I think there are two equally large but opposing misconceptions. Some people believe that using darknet markets as a buyer is extremely dangerous and they don’t feel comfortable doing so because they think if a few grams of weed is sent to them that they will undoubtedly go to jail. Others are too confident in the safety of the markets, and they will openly talk about sensitive information that could easily lead to their arrest.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. For security reasons most marketplaces require buyers to encrypt their addresses using special software that only allows a specific person to read it. However there are a shocking number of people who don’t encrypt sensitive info and openly admit online to crimes that could easily lead to their arrest if the information were in the wrong hands.

At the same time, law enforcement for the most part is after the large-scale buyers and vendors who are moving large amounts of product. Although if given the opportunity they may try to arrest someone buying a small amount of weed, the truth is that the level of caution needed for someone interested in buying a quarter ounce of weed is completely different than the amount of paranoia and protection needed for someone buying thousands of dollars of product on a regular basis.

Use common sense and protect yourself, but realize that there are a plethora of people who use these sites on a regular basis, and 99.99% of the people who do so will never encounter any problems doing so. The system is designed to be relatively safe for the buyers, and in most cases you’re more likely to go to jail for buying drugs in real life than online.

Do you have any qualms about the fact that you may be supporting the problems of drug addicts?
Initially yes, though after becoming more involved in this community I look at things differently. Even among the “hard drugs” such as meth and heroin, many of the people who do it are not bad people, and not all of them are addicted. Most people only see the stereotypes. The truth is that while there are people who have used drugs and became addicted to them and had their lives ruined, a surprising number of the people who use drugs regularly you would never know. I regularly get messages from people who confide in me that although they are a successful businessperson, there’s not a single person who knows about their drug use because it’s not socially acceptable.

Prohibition has never worked. It didn’t work with alcohol and it doesn’t work with drugs. People should make their own choices. I’m not here to judge people for what they do, I just want to make sure that if they make that choice, they get it safely, at a fair price, and that they know what’s in it rather than buying cocaine from some random guy that turns out to be laundry detergent. There’s no doubt that drugs can be dangerous, but sometimes the lengths that people are forced to go through to get their drugs are more dangerous than the drugs themselves.

Do you use your own products?
I do occasionally, though I don’t use all of the drugs that I sell. I don’t mix business with pleasure, and I don’t have the time to do so often even if I wanted to. My use of my products is mainly limited to testing them and making sure they are safe before sending them off to my customers.

Drug legalization is slowly gaining traction among policy experts. Do you think, twenty years from now, this industry won’t be relegated to the lesser traveled corners of the internet?
Yes and no. There is increasing pressure to legalize drugs, but unfortunately most of that focus is strictly on marijuana, and that’s at the state level more than the federal level. It’s impossible to say what will happen 20 years from now, but there are too many people who profit off of the fact that drugs are illegal. Prisons, police officers, tobacco companies, and alcohol companies all would lose an unbelievable amount of funding if drugs were legalized.

It’s sad to think that the majority of people in jail right now are there for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, but unfortunately it’s a cat and mouse game that take an insane amount of money from taxpayers and puts it in the pockets of the corporations that stand to benefit from the way the laws are structured now.

Only time will tell what will happen, but I doubt that 5, or 10, or even 20 years from now people will be openly doing cocaine, meth, shrooms, heroin, or acid, though I do think that weed has a much larger chance of being completely legalized due to the fact that it’s more socially acceptable.

You say that there are “too many people who profit off of the fact that drugs are illegal” for anyone to expect widespread legalization anytime soon. Do you think that’s the central motivation for the “War on Drugs”? Or is it more about protecting the public?
I think that point of view is very accurate. A lot of people seem to look at it as a conspiracy, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Rather, it’s the people who profit off prohibition who spend very large sums of money to lobby politicians in Washington. It would be naive to think that’s not the case. Polls shows that the public is largely in favor of legalization (of certain drugs at least) and yet no one at the political level seems to be in any rush to make things happen.

At the very least, drug use should be legalized. If they want to keep throwing us dealers in jail that’s one thing, but the fact that 98% of drug related arrests involve simple possession is ridiculous, and it’s not okay that millions of people’s lives are being ruined when most of them simply were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for doing something that would be completely okay if they lived in certain states (Such as California and Colorado).

This answer refers mainly to marijuana of course, but again the point remains. There are almost as many people who smoke marijuana as there are who drink alcohol, and weed kills significantly less people. If we are still putting people in jail for possession of a much safer substance than alcohol, I wouldn’t count on heroin being legalized anytime soon.

You have to worry about law enforcement in your business. Have there been any close calls?
I can say that if I had what I would consider to be a close call I would get out of the business completely, but that doesn’t mean I feel completely safe either. In this business it’s always better to be too paranoid than not paranoid enough.

How do you deal with, what I would imagine to be, the constant stress from this paranoia?
Unfortunately I haven’t figured that part out yet. My business keeps me busy most of the time, and unlike traditional jobs I don’t get vacation days or time off. I’m too busy to focus on the constant stress I endure, and although that may sound pessimistic to some degree, I’m overall very happy with my life. I love what I do and knowing I’m providing a service that not many people can offer.

Mainly it’s the people who purchase drugs not recreationally but for medicinal purposes that makes it all worth it. I regularly have people confide in me that my products are the only thing that has relieved their pain, and many of my customers are old enough that they don’t have the ability to buy from a friend of a friend. Knowing that I’m helping to safely provide medication for someone who otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to get it is more rewarding than anything else. That said, the money isn’t bad either.

Would you consider vending online to be a safer option than vending in person?
For the vendors, dealing in person would be safer. For the buyers, the reverse is true. Law enforcement mainly targets the vendors, and most buyers have nothing to worry about unless they are ordering very large amounts of product. There have been reports of buyers being questioned after failing to take the proper steps to protect themselves, but buying online is generally much safer than buying in person for most circumstances.

If dealing in person is safer, then why do you choose to vend online?
Overall dealing in person is safer, but it depends what you are selling, who you are selling to, and how much. If you know what you’re doing, vending online has the potential to be safer than dealing in person, but the risk lies not in what you are doing, but the mistakes you make. For a vendor, all it takes is one message that is accidently left unencrypted, one fingerprint left on the inside of a package, or one strand of hair that could potentially lead to their arrest if in the wrong hands.

A vendor that knows what they are doing can be perfectly safe, but unfortunately there’s no college course for being an internet drug dealer. The only way to learn is to try it, but unfortunately this is one industry where making mistakes while learning is not okay. Essentially I choose to vend online because I feel I have the knowledge and ability to do so safely. For the majority of people who take the same path however, they are playing Russian roulette and they will either make very little money, quit shortly after, or law enforcement will just wait for them to make a mistake.

Do you run a solo operation or are there employees?
Sorry but I can’t answer that.

How does Bitcoin’s volatility affect your business?
When business is good bitcoin volatility isn’t an issue, but when business is slow, a drop in the value of bitcoin can be the difference between making a profit and breaking even or even losing money.

Bitcoin can definitely play a huge role in the amount of income vendors make, especially for newer vendors. Vendors that have not earned trust in the community are almost always required by the marketplaces to use their escrow system. On average it can take about a week between the time the package is sent and the time the money is released from escrow, but in some cases if there are problems with an order it can take 3 weeks or more.

In addition, the vendors have to find a way to safely and anonymously convert bitcoin into actual currency, which can take even longer. Considering that bitcoin can stay around the same rate for weeks and then suddenly increase or decrease by hundreds of dollars in a matter of days, newer vendors may find themselves gambling with their profits.

Many vendors who are more established can get away with requiring the funds to be released from escrow before sending packages. Even then it can be several days from the point the order is placed to where the vendor has the money physically in their possession, but it tends to average out over time. If a vendor does a lot of business consistently over time, they can accept short term losses from drops in bitcoin, knowing that at some point they will make more money if bitcoin goes up in the future.

How do you cash out your bitcoins?
Again, answering that question would be a security violation. I take very great lengths to make sure that I cash out my bitcoins safely, but elaborating on exactly what I do is not something I’m willing to share.

Among people in the “real world” of drug dealing, is Bitcoin gaining a name for itself?
Not at all. The majority of “real world” drug dealers have no idea what Bitcoin is or even that this community exists. Of those who do, they certainly won’t share that information with others. There is a huge opportunity for drug dealers to make a very large amount of money reselling the right products, but no one wants anyone else to know that. There are plenty of people who purchase from the darknet markets and resell the product wholesale, taking advantage of the cheap prices of Chinese-made drugs specifically, but it’s a very small percentage of dealers who do so.

Darkmarket sellers were some of the first in the world to rely heavily on the Bitcoin network for their trade. Considering this wealth of experience, do you think Bitcoin has a legitimate chance at becoming a widely used method of payment for transactions beyond the black market? Or do you think of it as mainly useful for what you do today and nothing else?
I think Bitcoin has the potential to become a widely used method of payment in general. Unfortunately until recently it’s been very unstable, and few legitimate businesses want to take the chance of accepting a payment method that may be worth 20 percent less a few days from now. Most businesses that accept bitcoin are owned by people who believe in the long-term potential of bitcoin, but currently the number of businesses who do so are few and far between. That said, there are a small number of very large businesses who have recently stated their intentions to accept bitcoin, and I believe that will encourage other smaller businesses to do the same.

Right now the bitcoin community is divided mainly among those who use it as an investment and those who use it for illicit purposes. Fortunately it seems that recently there are efforts by bitcoin investors to use it for more legitimate purposes, and we are seeing an exponential number of businesses offering services such as hotel rooms and flight, as well as retailers offering electronics, furniture, and other commodities. It’s too early to tell exactly how this will play out, but there are enough people who believe strongly in the long term future of bitcoin that I truly believe we will see much more widespread use of it for legitimate purposes. Bitcoin certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.

Do you plan on being in this business for a long time?
I do. I’ve done quite a bit in my life, but nothing has been as satisfying as being a vendor. It’s stressful, dangerous, and time consuming, but the rewards are great.

Link: Hope in the Age of Collapse

An exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project.

Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
“State of the Planet Declaration,” London, March 29, 2012

That’s the warning issued last week by a high-level group of scientists, business leaders and government officials at the Planet Under Pressure conference  in London.  As The New York Times Green blog reported, “The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.” (The Times’ Andy Revkin offers a good wrapup at his Dot Earth blog.)

Earlier last week, at the start of the conference, visitors to the website were greeted with this short video, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” charting “the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes” (the idea that the planet has passed from the Holocene into an “Age of Man” has, of course, gained wide acceptance):

It’s certainly an arresting video. And many might see in those images a call to action, however belated.

Not Paul Kingsnorth.  An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. He’s moved beyond it. If anything, his message today is too radical for modern environmentalism. He’s had it with “sustainability.” He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and — unlike, say, imprisoned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who might be seen as Kingsnorth’s radical American opposite — he seems to welcome what he sees there.

Not everyone is quite ready to hear, or accept, what Paul Kingsnorth has to say. In 2009 he co-founded, together with collaborator Dougald Hine, something called the Dark Mountain Project, a literary and cultural response to our global environmental, economic, and political crises. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” appeared that summer, and got some attention in the UK.  He and Hine have summed up the Dark Mountain message this way:

These are precarious and unprecedented times. Our economies crumble, while beyond the chaos of markets, the ecological foundations of our way of living near collapse. Little that we have taken for granted is likely to come through this century intact.

We don’t believe that anyone – not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers – is really facing up to the scale of this. As a society, we are all still hooked on a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilisation from self-destruction.

Well, we don’t buy it. This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.

Some would call Kingsnorth — indeed have called him, in The New Statesman and The Guardian — a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a deathwish for civilization. Others would call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.

Not well known here in the U.S., Kingsnorth tossed a bomb in the January/February issue of Orion magazine, in the form of an essay entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” (The magazine’s current issue features “America the the Possible: A Manifesto,” by James Gustave Speth — the first of two parts! But the editors must know that Kingsnorth’s piece is the real manifesto. I have a thing about manifestos.)

In that essay, Kingsnorth gets to the heart of the matter:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.

Provocative stuff, indeed. Down with sustainability! But then Kingsnorth goes on to say this:

If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of “sustainability” is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten to unacceptably erode our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things.

Safe to say that stopped me cold. Carbon and climate may not be the only things in the world worth talking about — I can think of one or two others — but this much is certain : if we don’t keep talking about them, and start acting in a serious way to address them, the consequences will be a whole lot more “unthinkable” than darning socks and growing carrots, and for a whole lot more people (especially those who have done nothing to cause the problem) than Kingsnorth acknowledges here.

But it was Kingsnorth’s conclusion that really threw me. His answer to the whole situation comes down to one word: withdrawal.

It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.

Withdraw? Are you kidding? That Kingsnorth’s piece appeared in the same issue as Terry Tempest Williams’ long, morally bracing interview with Tim DeChristopher, “What Love Looks Like,” only made it harder to take. This, I felt, is what giving up looks like.

But this story doesn’t end in bitterness. After I read the essay, Kingsnorth and I engaged in a spirited exchange (on Twitter, where else?), and it has led to some sort of mutual understanding. It also led me to the Dark Mountain Project and its publications. So when I launched this blog,  I invited Kingsnorth to engage in an email exchange, an invitation he graciously (even enthusiastically) accepted.  Below is my opening missive to him. I’ll include his response in a post to follow.

It may be that what Paul and I have in common is more important than our differences. I see us each striving to define what hope looks like.

Wen Stephenson

+++

From: Wen Stephenson
To: Paul Kingsnorth

Dear Paul,

Thanks so much for engaging in this exchange.

I confess that I’ve only recently come to know your work. You caught my attention with the essay in Orion. It’s a beautiful piece — I honestly think so, despite my reaction to it. The thing that initially hooked me is the way your trajectory is almost precisely the inverse of my own. Whereas you’ve grown deeply disillusioned with modern environmentalism, and what’s universally known as “sustainability” — including urgent and necessary efforts to cut carbon emissions — I’ve never been an “environmentalist” in the first place (if anything, I’m a recovering journalist!). And yet here I’ve gone and become an advocate for climate action. Strange times we live in.

But while there are many things about the essay that I genuinely admire — especially the way it nails the state of anxiety in which environmentalism seems to find itself today, the internal tensions and contradictions — I found your dismissiveness toward the climate movement, and especially your conclusion, profoundly frustrating and discouraging. That conclusion appears, essentially, to be a resigned withdrawal: “I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching…. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”

Look, I’m all for walking — especially if it means clearing one’s head and reconnecting with the reality outside our windows. But not as withdrawal, not as running away. The idea that in the face of climate change — humanity’s greatest crisis (and I mean all of humanity, especially those who have done little or nothing to cause it, including future generations) — someone with your experience, and your conscience, could simply choose to “withdraw” … well, it was incomprehensible to me.  And it was especially ironic given that the same issue contained the interview with Tim DeChristopher.

That interview’s title is drawn from DeChristopher’s now-famous words to the judge: “This is what love looks like.”

And so, of course, I turned to Twitter and responded to you and your essay: “This is what giving up looks like.”

Whereupon you accused me of naivete for joining in a worldwide rally for climate action (and organizing a walk to Walden Pond) last September.  Touché!

So, yes, you might say our correspondence got off to a rocky start.

But we’ve patched things up! And your essay and our Twitter exchange has led me, I’m glad to report, to the Dark Mountain Project. I think I now have a much better understanding of where you’re coming from, and where you’re trying to go, and I have to say, once again, that we’re largely in agreement — up to a point. I think it’s quite likely that you’re right about the situation in which civilization now finds itself, given what science is telling us and the state of our political and economic systems. As you encapsulate it in Dark Mountain Issue 1:

“[The manifesto’s] message — that it’s time to stop pretending our current way of living can be made ‘sustainable’; that ‘saving the planet’ has become a bad joke; that we are entering an age of massive disruption, and our task is to live through it as best we can…”

Indeed. But it’s the “live through it as best we can” part, and how we’re going to do that, where our viewpoints begin to diverge — because you seem to reject the possibility that any combination of mass political engagement and human technological (and yes, industrial-economic) ingenuity might help us do just that: live through it as best we can. For a literary project, that seems like an odd failure of imagination.

So I’d like to pose a series of questions for you, in reaction to specific passages in the manifesto.

You write in part one that the “the myth of progress” is “the engine driving our civilisation.” Then, in part two, you suggest that our response to climate change and environmental crisis has yet to give up this myth:

We hear daily about the impacts of our activities on ‘the environment’ (like ‘nature’, this is an expression which distances us from the reality of our situation). Daily we hear, too, of the many ’solutions’ to these problems: solutions which usually involve the necessity of urgent political agreement and a judicious application of human technological genius. Things may be changing, runs the narrative, but there is nothing we cannot deal with here, folks…. There will still be growth, there will still be progress… There is nothing to see here. Everything will be fine.

We do not believe that everything will be fine.

Nor do I. But to dismiss the search for “solutions” — which I assume must include efforts to stabilize the climate in the coming century — seems a bit too cynical, or fatalistic. As if to say that nothing can be done. The task, we agree, is no longer to “prevent” or “avoid” the “perfect storm,” but to live through it, and still maintain our humanity. At the very least, we can still work urgently to minimize the human (and non-human) suffering that is coming.  Unless you believe that compassion is also a myth.

You write that “time has not been kind to the greens.” And then,

Today’s environmentalists are more likely to be found at corporate conferences hymning the virtues of ’sustainability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ than doing anything as naive as questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation. Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.

This is followed shortly after by one of the manifesto’s central (and most memorable) passages:

And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down….

Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?

We believe it is time to look down.

This is a striking passage. But wait — “Would it be as bad as we imagine?… Could it even be good for us?” Do you mean that the future could in fact be better than the present? That it might be (gasp) sustainable? Does that imply your own myth of progress?   Before you answer that, here’s another question.

Your project is fundamentally a literary and cultural one. It’s based on the idea that our stories — the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — are what make us who we are. And so you want to change the story, the myth, of civilization. You write:

Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? … What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?

These are excellent questions. But art and storytelling won’t stabilize the climate. The only way to do that is to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transfomation of our energy systems. Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?

You say that Uncivilised writing “is not environmental writing… It is not nature writing… And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.”  You then conclude that the project of Uncivilisation “will be a thing of beauty for the eye and for the heart and for the mind, for we are unfashionable enough to believe that beauty — like truth — not only exists, but still matters.”

There’s something almost hopeful about that last page of the manifesto, and the last lines: “Climbing Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise…. Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.”

But it occurs to me that “beauty” and “truth” (like politics) are human “confections” — anthropocentric categories. And this seems to imply a belief that something like civilization, which gave birth to art and philosophy, will not only survive, but is worth fighting to preserve. And yet, how does one propose to preserve beauty and truth, these human constructs, unless the climate is stabilized? And how does one propose to do that without engaging in politics? Are you suggesting that a new art and philosophy will give rise to a new politics? Maybe it will. But do we really have time to wait for that?

All the new storytelling in the world will change nothing without politics. In fact, it seems to me that the ultimate cynicism is to give up on politics — because it means giving up on the possibility of change. Not necessarily “progress” (i.e., material progress). I mean the preservation of what makes us human.

You write: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.”

But unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.

All best,

Wen

+++

From: Paul Kingsnorth
To: Wen Stephenson

Dear Wen,

Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.

But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.

This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.

I’d like to start this response with your very last line. Here it is:

‘Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.’

This is an interesting statement for this reason: that it elides modern human civilisation and the living planet. They are not the same thing. They are very far from being the same thing; in fact, one of them is allergic to the other. If we don’t start to realise this — really get it, at a deep level — there will be no change worth having for anyone.

I have spent twenty years and more as an environmental campaigner. My feeling, my philosophy, if you like, across that whole period has been rather different to yours, and rather different also to that of Tim DeChristopher, who you mention in your e-mail, remarkable though his current stand is. My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position – it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.

You might find that an odd position, or even a dangerous one, but I see it as quite cogent and rational. The fact is that ‘pumping carbon into the atmosphere’ will not cause ‘the end of the world’. The world has endured worse. It has endured five mass extinctions and half a dozen major climate change events. I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to. Perhaps it’s the Holocene: the period of the planet’s history in which homo sapiens sapiens (cough) was able to build a civilisation so extensive and powerful that it energetically wiped out much non-human life in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites.

‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat. I have two problems with this. Firstly, I am not convinced it is a good idea! To put it mildly. The modern human economy is an engine of mass destruction. Its ravaging of all non-human life is not incidental; it seems to be a requirement of the program. Economic growth of the kind worshipped by our leaders could be described as a process of turning life into death for money. With nine billion humans demanding access to the spoils, there is not going to be much life left to go around. Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to.

But I do feel the need to be honest with myself, which is where the ‘walking away’ comes in. I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going. The journey I am on is intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual too. I’m not sure I will find any answers. Certainly I won’t come up with any better ways to ‘save the world.’ But what world are you saving, Wen, and why? Do you imagine that Thoreau would have looked out of that window at this Machine and determined to put all his efforts into marching about trying to keep it afloat? I think he would have kept on growing beans. His retreat from activism, after all, produced the words which now inspire yours.

I sense in your response a lot of the confusion, and the passion, that drove me for many years (I am still both passionate and confused, of course, though perhaps for different reasons.) There is a plaintive quality to your questions. ‘Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?’ you ask. ‘Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?’ The answer to the first question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it ‘development’.

But as for the ‘transformation of our energy systems’: the minute you ask this question in this way, you are trapped in a paradigm, with no hope of escape. What are ‘our energy systems’ for? Who is us? Us, I’d guess, is the bourgeois consumer class of the ‘developed’ world, and ‘our energy systems’ are needed to provide us with our cars, planes, central heating, Twitter feeds, ambulances, schools, asphalt roads and shopping malls. How are we going to transform these systems, in short order, globally, busting through economic vested interests and political stalemate and cultural patterns, in less than 100 months, to prevent more than a 2 degree climate change? How, in other words, are we going to change the operating system of the entire global economy in a decade or so?

Answer: we’re not, though we’ll do a lot of damage trying, not least to much of the natural world we want to protect. I notice that a US-government backed plan to cover much of the Mojave desert in solar panels is currently running up against resistance from both conservationists and Native Americans; and let’s not even get started on the battles over carpeting vast areas of mountain, rangeland and countryside with giant wind power stations. This new world of yours is beginning to look a lot like the old one: business-as-usual without the carbon. The beast must be fed; the only question is what it will eat.

As for the climate movement which you believe is necessary to prevent this: well … I know I am beginning to sound cynical, but it’s not exactly cynicism, it’s a raw realism born of 20 years of wanting to believe in such movements and not seeing them. There is no ‘climate movement’. Sure, there are a few thousand people who may take to the streets in the wealthy West, or on the odd threatened atoll, and there are many more people who, when asked in opinion polls, will say they want to stop climate change. But how many of these people will be taking to the streets to demand personal carbon budgets? How many of them will be taking to the streets to demand much higher gas prices, limits on their holiday aeroplane flights and their daily electricity use, and radical reductions in their ability and right to consume at will? And how many of the two thirds of the planet not living in the rich world will be taking to their streets to demand that they do not have access to the consumer cornucopia that we have, and which we are using so effectively to destroy non-human life without even really noticing?

I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ’1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. Here I am writing to you on a laptop computer made of aluminium and plastic and rare earth metals, about to send you this e-mail via undersea cables using as electricity created by the burning of long-dead deposits of fossilised carbon. I am climate change. You are climate change. Our culture is climate change. And climate change itself is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, if you’ll pardon the terrible but appropriate pun. If we were to wake up tomorrow to the news that climate change were a hoax or a huge mistake, we would still be living in a world in which extinction rates were between 100 and 1000 times natural levels and in which we have managed to destroy 25% of the world’s wildlife in the last four decades alone.

I’m afraid my current beliefs are going to seem to you rather bleak. I believe that our civilisation is hitting a wall, as all civilisations eventually do. I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it. I think we have created an industrial techno-bubble which has cut us off from the rest of nature so effectively that we cannot see, and do not much care about, its ongoing death. I think that until that death starts to impact us personally we will take very little interest. I think we are committed to much more of it over the next century. I fear for what my children will experience and sometimes I wish I was not here to experience it either. I am not yet 40 but I have seen things that my children will never see, because they are already gone. This is my fault, and yours, and there is nothing that we have been able to work out that will stop it.

How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.

Sometimes people say to me: ‘But you have children! How can you say all this? Don’t you want a better world for them?’ Other people say other things to me, things like: ‘We know this might not work, we know it’s a long shot — but it’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than giving up!’ I find this kind of thing very telling, because what is actually being said is: ‘doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the something being done is ineffective and powered by wishful thinking!’ I don’t agree. Sometimes, I think stepping back to evaluate is a lot more useful than keeping on for the sake of keeping on.

I don’t want to sound like a nihilist. There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one. Protecting non-human nature from more destruction by the Machine, for example. Some of the best projects I know of creating islands and corridors of wild nature and trying to keep them free from our exploitation. Standing up in whatever small way we can to protect beauty and wildness from our appetites is a worthy cause if ever there was one: probably the most vital cause right now, I’d say. I’m all for fighting winnable battles. But we need to do so in the context of a wider, bigger picture: the end of the Holocene, the end of the world we were taught to believe was eternal; and, perhaps, the slow end of our belief that humans are in control of nature, can be or should be. You asked me about hope for the future: the thought that the disaster we have created may help us see ourselves for what we are — animals — and not what we believe we are — gods — gives me a kind of hope.

There is much that is noble about being human, but we have a big debt to pay back, and debts, in the end, always have to be paid.

All the best,

Paul

ContinuedRead the conclusion of this exchange.

Link: Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future

After 85 years, antibiotics are growing impotent. So what will medicine, agriculture and everyday life look like if we lose these drugs entirely?

Predictions that we might sacrifice the antibiotic miracle have been around almost as long as the drugs themselves. Penicillin was first discovered in 1928 and battlefield casualties got the first non-experimental doses in 1943, quickly saving soldiers who had been close to death. But just two years later, the drug’s discoverer Sir Alexander Fleming warned that its benefit might not last. Accepting the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine, he said:

“It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them… There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

As a biologist, Fleming knew that evolution was inevitable: sooner or later, bacteria would develop defenses against the compounds the nascent pharmaceutical industry was aiming at them. But what worried him was the possibility that misuse would speed the process up. Every inappropriate prescription and insufficient dose given in medicine would kill weak bacteria but let the strong survive. (As would the micro-dose “growth promoters” given in agriculture, which were invented a few years after Fleming spoke.) Bacteria can produce another generation in as little as twenty minutes; with tens of thousands of generations a year working out survival strategies, the organisms would soon overwhelm the potent new drugs.

Fleming’s prediction was correct. Penicillin-resistant staph emerged in 1940, while the drug was still being given to only a few patients. Tetracycline was introduced in 1950, and tetracycline-resistant Shigella emerged in 1959; erythromycin came on the market in 1953, and erythromycin-resistant strep appeared in 1968. As antibiotics became more affordable and their use increased, bacteria developed defenses more quickly. Methicillin arrived in 1960 and methicillin resistance in 1962; levofloxacin in 1996 and the first resistant cases the same year; linezolid in 2000 and resistance to it in 2001; daptomycin in 2003 and the first signs of resistance in 2004.With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly — and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them — the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more. In 2004, there were only five new antibiotics in development, compared to more than 500 chronic-disease drugs for which resistance is not an issue — and which, unlike antibiotics, are taken for years, not days. Since then, resistant bugs have grown more numerous and by sharing DNA with each other, have become even tougher to treat with the few drugs that remain. In 2009, and again this year, researchers in Europe and the United States sounded the alarm over an ominous form of resistance known as CRE, for which only one antibiotic still works.

Health authorities have struggled to convince the public that this is a crisis. In September, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a blunt warning: “If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. For some patients and some microbes, we are already there.” The chief medical officer of the United Kingdom, Dame Sally Davies — who calls antibiotic resistance as serious a threat as terrorism — recently published a book in which she imagines what might come next. She sketches a world where infection is so dangerous that anyone with even minor symptoms would be locked in confinement until they recover or die. It is a dark vision, meant to disturb. But it may actually underplay what the loss of antibiotics would mean.

In 2009, three New York physicians cared for a sixty-seven-year-old man who had major surgery and then picked up a hospital infection that was “pan-resistant” — that is, responsive to no antibiotics at all. He died fourteen days later. When his doctors related his case in a medical journal months afterward, they still sounded stunned. “It is a rarity for a physician in the developed world to have a patient die of an overwhelming infection for which there are no therapeutic options,” they said, calling the man’s death “the first instance in our clinical experience in which we had no effective treatment to offer.”

They are not the only doctors to endure that lack of options. Dr. Brad Spellberg of UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine became so enraged by the ineffectiveness of antibiotics that he wrote a book about it.

“Sitting with a family, trying to explain that you have nothing left to treat their dying relative — that leaves an indelible mark on you,” he says. “This is not cancer; it’s infectious disease, treatable for decades.”

As grim as they are, in-hospital deaths from resistant infections are easy to rationalize: perhaps these people were just old, already ill, different somehow from the rest of us. But deaths like this are changing medicine. To protect their own facilities, hospitals already flag incoming patients who might carry untreatable bacteria. Most of those patients come from nursing homes and “long-term acute care” (an intensive-care alternative where someone who needs a ventilator for weeks or months might stay). So many patients in those institutions carry highly resistant bacteria that hospital workers isolate them when they arrive, and fret about the danger they pose to others. As infections become yet more dangerous, the healthcare industry will be even less willing to take such risks.

Those calculations of risk extend far beyond admitting possibly contaminated patients from a nursing home. Without the protection offered by antibiotics, entire categories of medical practice would be rethought.

Many treatments require suppressing the immune system, to help destroy cancer or to keep a transplanted organ viable. That suppression makes people unusually vulnerable to infection. Antibiotics reduce the threat; without them, chemotherapy or radiation treatment would be as dangerous as the cancers they seek to cure. Dr. Michael Bell, who leads an infection-prevention division at the CDC, told me: “We deal with that risk now by loading people up with broad-spectrum antibiotics, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. But if you can’t do that, the decision to treat somebody takes on a different ethical tone. Similarly with transplantation. And severe burns are hugely susceptible to infection. Burn units would have a very, very difficult task keeping people alive.”

Doctors routinely perform procedures that carry an extraordinary infection risk unless antibiotics are used. Chief among them: any treatment that requires the construction of portals into the bloodstream and gives bacteria a direct route to the heart or brain. That rules out intensive-care medicine, with its ventilators, catheters, and ports—but also something as prosaic as kidney dialysis, which mechanically filters the blood.

Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. Those bacteria are benign in their regular homes in the body, but introduce them into the blood, as surgery can, and infections are practically guaranteed. And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics

Dr. Donald Fry, a member of the American College of Surgeons who finished medical school in 1972, says: “In my professional life, it has been breathtaking to watch what can be done with synthetic prosthetic materials: joints, vessels, heart valves. But in these operations, infection is a catastrophe.” British health economists with similar concerns recently calculated the costs of antibiotic resistance. To examine how it would affect surgery, they picked hip replacements, a common procedure in once-athletic Baby Boomers. They estimated that without antibiotics, one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die.

Antibiotics are administered prophylactically before operations as major as open-heart surgery and as routine as Caesarean sections and prostate biopsies. Without the drugs, the risks posed by those operations, and the likelihood that physicians would perform them, will change.

“In our current malpractice environment, is a doctor going to want to do a bone marrow transplant, knowing there’s a very high rate of infection that you won’t be able to treat?” asks Dr. Louis Rice, chair of the department of medicine at Brown University’s medical school. “Plus, right now healthcare is a reasonably free-market, fee-for-service system; people are interested in doing procedures because they make money. But five or ten years from now, we’ll probably be in an environment where we get a flat sum of money to take care of patients. And we may decide that some of these procedures aren’t worth the risk.”

Link: Why Europeans should Reread the Stoics to Save Themselves from Resignation

In the first installment of our Spanish series on the “other” origins of Europethe legend of the wolf and the Bear put us on the trail of Mithraism. And the second installment discovered that Mithraism was born in an environment that was heavily influenced by Stoicism, if not a deliberate product of this philosophical movement. But, who were these philosophers that became so influential between 300 BCE and the imposition of Christianity in 380 CE?

Zeno was born around 334 BCE in Cyprus. He was the son of a merchant. We know that he was a disciple of Crates, one of the leading thinkers of the Cynic school. But when he was around thirty years old, he had a full-blown crisis about the teachings of his elders. In today’s terms, and in very plain words, the Cynics were degrowthers, and Zeno was a minimalist. So, he broke with Athen’s Cynical millieu and began teaching at the painted portico of the Acropolis. Portico in Greek is stoa, so Zeno and his followers started to become known as the “Stoics.”

But there was a Cynic idea that Zeno and his disciples rejected even more than the love for poverty that the former professed: That of a necessarily chaotic world, characterized by irrational principles or historical deities. That’s what sums up his famous maxim: “There is both a rational and natural order of things.” Of course, by “things,” he refers to the scope of the disciplines that we know today as Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Zeno divided the available knowledge of his time into three main branches: Logic (formal thinking), Physics (what we now call the “hard” and natural sciences) and Ethics (which formed the basis of social relationships).

For the Stoics, Nature begins and ends in itself, and in that sense it is a large network of interrelations, which can be approximated by natural “laws.” The Stoics embrace the empiricism of the Epicureans, and against the “skeptics” — a school that broadly suggested that reality was unknowable — and Platonic idealism, they defended the notion that consensus on the representations that our senses make of natural reality is enough to propose models and demonstrations. That is, they relativize the results of the natural sciences, stripping them of ultimate truth and infusing them with social and historical truth — a truth based on a consensus that may change.

In this sense, the Stoic theory of knowledge lay the foundations that would much later legitimize what we call “the scientific method” and its conception of science as an approximation of the reality of Nature, as if aiming towards a constantly moving target. Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE) said that truth about Nature is available through investigation, but that there always will be much to discover because “an era is not enough time for research” (ad inquisitionem tantorum una aetas non sufficit). And maybe that’s why Stoics are more interested in the social than the natural.

To begin with, given their “scientific” conception of Nature, they consider that it is not possible to conceive of any “virtue” (self-improvement) that is not based on the acceptance of natural laws and the determinism implicit in them. In other words, there is no room for comforting ourselves with thinking that gods or supernatural phenomena will suddenly show up to get us out of trouble in extreme situations. The natural world is what it is, and there are no grounds to believe in anything other than better knowledge as a tool for surviving and thriving in it. Hence the popular use of the word “Stoic” to mean resignation, a notion that came about as an interpretation and value judgment of Christianity, which succeeded Stoicism as the dominant ideology in decaying Rome.

The virtuous person, the wise person, then, is someone who, above all, accepts the materiality of existence and its subordination to natural laws. In terms of the Eastern monotheisms, the Stoic will be more of an atheist than a pagan. But because the Stoics recognize a “divine,” creative principle in every living being and nature as a whole, they will become known as “pantheistic.” And in fact, the “pantheism” of the Stoics is a bit more complicated than the usual interpretation of the term.

Zeno imagines a sort of fiery “vital principle” that is present in all natural phenomena, especially in living things. Seneca states “divinity” is synonym with “the mind of Nature”, i.e., with its laws and wonderful equilibria. And to the possibility of a body-soul dualism, he sharply retorts: “I have a body, therefore I am, and if I also have a soul, it is because it is in the body.” (orpora ergo sunt, et quae animi sunt; nam et hic est corpus est). A remarkable notion centuries before psychoanalysis or neuroscience, which contradicts the denatured version of him promoted by Christian apologists, who presented him as a proto-Christian and came up with the legend that he had corresponded with St. Paul. Actually, according to Zeno, if there is a soul, it dies with the body. There is only nothingness after death. In the words of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) — another stoic that Christian historiographers have tried to “recover” through quotes taken out of context and mistranslations — “we live for a moment, only to fall into complete oblivion and the infinite vacuum.”

The Stoics withdraw the gods from Nature and place them, emptied of “superstitio,” in the social realm. Certainly not as autonomous “beings” involved in the course of history and natural phenomena, but as allegories of principles and values present in the will of each one of us. They understand the social realm in a similar manner to how they understand Nature: as a large network of interrelationships and interactions in which we have some leeway, some ability to rebalance relations unilaterally, even de facto leaving and breaking them if necessary. Epictetus (55-135), a Greek slave who ended up as one of the masters of his time, says:

Duties are universally measured by relations. Is your brother unfair? Well, keep your situation with him intact. Do not consider what he does but what you do to keep your freedom in a state consistent with Nature. Nobody can hurt you if you do not consent. You will only be hurt you if believe you’ve been hurt. In this way, therefore, applying the idea to a neighbor, a citizen or a general, you can establish the corresponding duties if you get used to consider the different relationships.

So. following the same reasoning, by cultivating the values of their choice through allegories, rituals, and ceremonies, people learn to take ownership of their own behavior and therefore become able to rationally modify social interactions and their outcomes, bringing them closer to their own way of being. For the Stoics, ethics are the basis of all action within the social realm.

This is why they became one of the main forces that transformed the Roman “religio” into an allegorical system of values for coexistence. Because the belief in supernatural autonomous beings in the style of the Asian gods, with a symbolic language of its own, seemed to them to be childish “superstitio.” As Cato famously said in a phrase later picked up by Cicero, “it is incredible that a haruspex doesn’t break out in laughter when he sees another haruspex.” But of course, the idea of transforming ancient and foreign religions into allegories is not unique to the Stoics, as it was part of the ethos of the ruling classes of the republican era. Cicero himself (106 BCE – 43 BCE), who was a colleague of Cato in the Senate and one of the most influential critics of Stoicism during the first imperial stage, openly campaigns for “rationally” creating tailor-made gods, catering to the common need of “living together”:

It is also convenient to deify human virtues such as intelligence, Pietas [self growth through community], Virtus [self improvement], and Fides [respect for the given word]. In Rome, all these virtues have officially consecrated temples, so that those who have them — and certainly, people of good faith have them — believe that in this way the gods are installed in their spirits.

It is in this sense that Marcus Aurelius, in the first book of his “Meditations,” thanks his mother for teaching him “respect for the gods” as much as his father for teaching him not bear “any superstitious fear.” Gods are allegories; having “an unfounded fear of the Gods” is “superstitio,” that is, confusing the representation of allegories with autonomous beings endowed with will and capacity to intervene in nature and history.

But for the Stoics, everything has an extra little twist. Beyond the “superstitio,” we must be careful with those values, because whichever we choose, they must not oppose nature and its laws, nor human nature. There is no virtue in pain. There is no virtue in pursuing scarcity or suffering, just as there is no virtue in the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. An ethics that is not based on the naturalness of humans, in the rationality of an understanding of their role in nature, can only be “pathological” and take us away from ataraxia, the serenity on which the Epicureans had already based their ethics. As Seneca said, “secundum naturam suma vivere” — to live according to (our) nature.

That serenity is born out of a life based on safeguarding freedom and making free use of Reason. For Seneca, once again, the meaning of life is to know and learn, that’s what the “elevation” or true deification of man is all about. The Stoic sage understands virtue as reasoning, learning, and gaining knowledge in a material environment without excess or painful shortcomings. Marcus Aurelius thanks his parents for having allowed him to have private teachers instead of being sent to a public school because “for such purposes, it is necessary to spend generously,” and on the other hand, teaching him how “not to live like the rich.” Spending in knowledge is not superfluous, as it increases personal freedom by allowing him to better understand the nature of things; conspicuous consumption, on the contrary, makes us dependent on external power and takes us away from our own nature, making us less free.

Stoic “minimalism” is designed to maintain serenity, to strengthen personal autonomy over crony relationships based on authoritarian distribution of welfare. The wise should not aspire to anything that cannot be produced within a set of relationships in “accordance with Nature,” that is, voluntary, free, and based on mutually agreed rights and duties. Epictetus says:

Power is bestowed upon those who can give what others want and remove what others despise. Therefore, whoever wants to be free must get used to not holding any desire or aversion towards that which depends on alien power. Otherwise, he will necessarily be a slave.

Having defined ethics as the central concern of the Stoic, and virtue as the only reasonable goal, the political becomes subordinated to the possibility of self-improvement. In principle, again following Seneca, the Stoic shall “not fear death, nor chains, nor fire, nor the blows of fortune; for he knows that these things, though they seem evil, are really not.” But if the environment does not allow virtue, they shall not feel greater obligation towards the “polis,” they shall feel free to leave, since they are “cosmopolitans” at heart, they are not loyal to any other community than that which they freely choose for developing their virtue in the context of balanced relationships. The freedom to leave, to segregate, even to commit suicide, is the ultimate requirement for genuine liberty.

That is, the Stoic, for the first time, defines inalienable individual sovereignty on the basis of the maxim “one should fear humans just a little, but not fear gods at all”  (Scit non multum esse ab homine timendum, a Deo nihil).

In practice, what the Stoics tell us is something like “no limits for gaining knowledge and freedom, but do not burden yourself with needs that will make you dependent on others and therefore less free. And if, in any case, you keep relationships with others that provide you with useful things —customers, servants, the State— don’t let them affect you if they they fail or try to manipulate you with the threat of breaking them.” Epictetus again:

Begin, therefore, with the small things. Have you spilled a little oil? Did someone steal some wine from you? Think of this: “This is the price of serenity and tranquility, and nothing is free in this life.” If you call your servant, he may not come; and if he comes, he might not do what you want him to do. But your servant is never so important as to give him the power to upset you in any way.

And for the same reason, they condemn charity (what today we call “welfarism”) in the public realm and propose philanthropy instead, a concept created by them which differs from charity in fostering autonomy instead of dependency. The Stoic emperors will emphasize distributing lands instead of grains (although they continue doing the latter during supply crises), eliminate rents while legalizing and promoting all kinds of guilds and mutual support associations — largely liberalizing the creation of colegia and subtracting monopoly power from them — and practice philanthropy from a primitive view of the imperial apparatus as something light, underpinned by a robust society that is resilient against threats to freedom. Marcus Aurelius thanked his “brother” Severo,

for conceiving the idea of a constitution based on equality before the law, governed by fairness and equal freedom of speech for all, and a royalty that honors and respects, above all, the freedom of his subjects.

Epicureans and Stoics

But what differentiates Epicureans from Stoics? In principle, very little. In the sciences, the Epicureans insisted on their atomic theory as the basis of scientific materialism, and the Stoics on a reticular view, in nature as a large set of interconnected things. In epistemology, the Epicureans were probably more subtle and arrived in the early stages of the Empire to similar statements to those of Renaissance science. And in their ethics, both seek Ataraxia, serenity or personal sovereignty as a result of virtue.

But Epicurean serenity is based on happiness, and Stoic serenity on love for knowledge. And the difference is not a minor one. The promise of of Epicurus, another minimalist avant la lettre, of happiness through moderation, joy, and doing things, will eventually tie the Epicurean to a wider social context .

Following the models of Nature of each school, the Stoics see themselves as social atoms, individuals pursuing knowledge and Serenity. Epicureans see themselves as nodes of a network, and as such, part of a small, real community, united by happiness and fraternity.

As a result, Stoicism — individualistic, secular, balanced, lover of life — in the end, is bound and subjected to politics, as there is nothing that shields the individual from the whole of society or the State.

The Stoic — in principle alien and not interested in the State, ready to leave or commit suicide if there aren’t sufficient conditions to live as they like — ends up influencing the learning and values of the imperial elites to the point of shaping the government of at least two of the so-called “five good emperors”: Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, the latter becoming one of the last great Stoic thinkers of antiquity.

But, also, probably due to practical reasons more than Epicurean influence, they will also influence the social reality encouraging communitarian movements among the “cosmopolitan” classes (as we saw with Mithraism)

Platonics and Stoics

The core of Platonism is the theory of ideas. According to this theory, the world as we perceive it is only a representation of another, abstract world of unchanging ideas. Everything that is “real” for us is just a degraded form compared to its origin. This importance of the ideal and original nature of things (ontology) has shaped many of the ideologies that still live among us. For Christian ontological thought, the heir of Platonism, things are pure in their origin, for ideas are divine creations, and their “passage” through the world is nothing but a degradation, which only makes sense if history is understood as a road towards restoration, a return to the origin. This source would be God, as conceived by Christians, but the general template morphs into many avatars: the class emancipates itself and in turn emancipates all mankind in Marxism, the motherland that gains back its original essence through the assertion of a state of its own in a culturally “purified” identity, etc.

Stoics and Epicureans are at the opposite end of this ontological view of the world which seeks to “change men,” “improving” them according to preconceived ideals. For the Stoics, what matters is not “restoring” anything, nor does it makes sense to try to change human needs. It’s about having a full view of what is possible and acting accordingly. And for that we must align expectations with the possibilities set by the laws of nature, knowledge and the available technology at any given time. The gods will not make it rain, put an end to disease, or change the course of rivers.

And much in the same spirit, we cannot expect human nature to change, nor change it through laws and punishments. Instead, human nature must be understood as it is, and from there, virtuous “ethoses” must be encouraged. Yes, in plural. Because for the Stoics, although “human nature” has a common basis, it does not develop or manifest itself equally for every person, but takes shape based on their own experience, knowledge, and the meaning they have given to their own existence.

That is, Stoicism’s relationship with nature is primarily “technological,” since it won’t strive to go “back to the origin,” but towards an alignment, through the use of scientific knowledge, between what’s possible within the environment and what’s necessary for people.

And likewise, in the social realm it will generate a “praxology” that will develop an ethics of virtue/knowledge wherever the Stoic may act in the world, whether in a small philosophical community or in the magistracies of Empire. That praxology has to take into account “what is the nature of the whole and what is mine, and how that behaves with respect to the other, and [in turn], which whole that part belongs to,” that is, thinking in terms of communities and networks. And always, at least for Marcus Aurelius, who in the end was an emperor, without giving up the practice of speaking frankly, since “no one prevents you from always acting and saying that which is consistent with Nature, of which you are part.”

The Stoic Ethos of Learning

Discovering that “nature of things” is the permanent adventure of the Stoic. And as we have seen, it doesn’t assume that human nature is unanimous or that it functions according to a unique model. Every person standing before us is a world to decipher. So unlike the Cynic, the Stoic won’t be silent, but a “serene” listener. When Zeno was invited for the first time by Antigonus of Macedonia to a banquet, apparently the king, surprised by his silence, sent him a message asking why he was not involved in the conversation. “Tell the king that here is a man who knows how to listen,” he replied. A celebrated phrase by a character said to have joked with a disciple saying that if we have two ears and only one mouth, it is because we should listen twice as much as we speak.

But neither Zeno nor any of the great Greek Stoics, let alone the Latin ones, were in any way sparing with their speech or agraphic. They were actually defining a form of social relationships based on active listening, just as their relationship with Nature was based on practical observation. This love of listening, the first value transmitted by Stoic teachers at all levels to their disciples, will be one of the clues to follow the footsteps of Stoicism in medieval times in future posts.

Moral

The popular use of the word “Stoicism” implies resignation, endurance. But the truth is that the Stoics did not give up, they changed the world by learning to listen, and by making every act and every day a battle to be more free. They didn’t turn to politics and didn’t trust society or the state, even if many great rulers were shaped by their ideas, defended the dignity of slaves, and promoted the extension of education to the less affluent. They did not obsess with origins and essences, but embraced and defended the irreducible diversity of human nature, assuming a cosmopolitanism that extolled real, small communities, dedicated to generating knowledge; they put personal sovereignty and the serenity that characterizes it above any social convention or power structure. And they defended personal integrity and love of knowledge to the point of defending the right to secede and to leave the political community, and even life, if the environment made a virtuous life untenable.

They made up one of the threads with which the tangle of values and stories that we call Europe was was woven. And those of us who live in Europe today should reread them, lest we fall into resignation or melancholy.

Link: The Feels of Friendship

On same-sex friendship and homoeroticism in Korean dramas. Korean dramas have refreshing views of same-sex friendship, but do their gains depend on a gay retreat to the closet?

In an interview published in the April 1981 issue of Gai Pied, Michel Foucault proposed that gay male friendship represented the apotheosis of homosexuality’s capacity to challenge the regimes of normativity. “How is it possible for men to be together?” was the question Foucault unfurled at the heart of the gay experience beyond sex, “[How] to live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences?” When normative culture reduces homosexuality to justsex, Foucault argued, it forecloses the possibility of a new way of life already emergent in gay friendship, in the trenches of brutal military conflict, in the locker room. Some 40 years after gay liberation, our evolving culture’s awareness of gay life beyond sex has usually taken the shape of commodity consumption, of the endless baubles and chic cachet an “out” identity affords. While Lena Dunham’s Girls gives us bathtub scenes of a socially acceptable deeply intimate sorority, the idea that two men might love one another with all the passion of a romance but stripped of its erotic charge still raises suspicion, if it isn’t outright unintelligible.

When a friend introduced me to Korean dramas, I was immediately drawn into the emotional intensity of their romantic comedies and the comparatively unbridled intimacy of their depiction of male friendship. As cultural products second only to the now ubiquitous “K-pop” in globally disseminating South Korean culture, these single-season TV shows are at once universal and culturally particular. They epitomize the extreme melodramatic pitch and romantic intrigue of American soap operas, but are situated within an often-critical economic and political context absent from our domestic varieties and populated by male heterosexual types whose feeling and presentation isn’t hamstrung by our gender standards. A classic example is the “flower boy,” a young male whose personal style recalls the extreme aesthetic flair of Johnny Weir — think boat neck angora sweaters, elaborately fur trimmed waistcoats, and neon-colored fitted pants that make jeggings feel modest — but whose look invites none of the same speculation about his sexuality. 

A case in point is actor Lee Jong-Suk, an iconic flower boy in heavy rotation on contemporary K-dramas, whose promotional video for fashion magazineCeci Korea might be one of the queerest things I’ve ever seen. As the soft-lounge vocal styling and synth loops of “Come Gaze at Me” (or is it “Come Gays At Me,” as my friends like to say?) play in the background, Lee sleepily stretches around set pieces with Lolita-worthy languorousness before the hysterical and inexplicable editorial decision to film him first in grinding embrace with a taxidermied bear, then appearing to fellate the bear’s snout. What is hard to process across the Pacific is that this optic doesn’t read as gay to Korean viewers, and for a country that consumes nearly 25 percent of the global market for men’s cosmetics, it’s an aspirational look for straight Korean men. That difference also has the effect of enabling more physically intimate and emotional relationships between men in Korea that don’t necessitate the “no homo” policing so familiar in the United States. This is, in no small part, because homosexuality isn’t really recognized in South Korea, a country where a recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 39 percent of the population believes that gays and lesbians should be accepted by society, up from 18 percent in 2007. Koreans aren’t unaware of homosexuality, but in mainstream media it has tended to be presented as a comedic trope, foreign phenomenon, or fantasy, rather than as a reality of Korean life. In two particularly interesting and popular cultural phenomena — “slash fic” and “shipping” — fans of K-pop boybands, typically female, pair their favorite male celebrities together in imaginary relationships expressed in short stories, fan art, and other media that run the gamut from chaste romance to explicit sex. The point is not that fans believe these young men lust after one another, but rather, as some critics have argued, that slash fic and shipping offer a venue in which young women can engage romantic or sexual imaginaries that often go unfulfilled in heteronormative culture. In other words, the depiction of homosexuality isn’t representative of true life relationships, it’s just fantasy. Or at least, it used to be, and that change has made a big difference in the K-dramas’ world of male–male feels.

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For viewers from abroad, the immensely popular 2007 hit Coffee Princeserves as a gateway drug to the world of K-dramas. The central plot orbits around the romance between Choi Han-Gyul, the directionless scion of a giant corporation, and Ko Eun-Chan, a tomboyish scamp who poses as a man in order to earn money for her family. When Han-Gyul first meets Eun-Chan, he assumes she is a delivery boy and hires her to pose as his gay lover as part of an awkward strategy to fend off the blind dates that his grandmother has arranged upon his return from New York. When he takes over the titular coffee shop and adds Eun-Chan, still in drag, to the roster of an attractive all-male staff, Han-Gyul begins to develop inexplicable romantic feelings for her. In order to transfer that longing into a culturally sanctioned form, Han-Gyul consecrates Eun-Chan as his “sworn brother,” lavishing “him” with sentimental gifts, life advice, food, and tense sleepovers. The normality of that fraternal passion is mirrored in the other males’ jocular relationships — naked cavorting and the humor of bodily effluence, yes, but also similar physical and emotional tenderness. Han-Gyul’s series-long struggle is resolved with the revelation of Eun-Chan’s true gender and the show ends with the two happily paired. The gay bait-and-switch works because both audience and auxiliary characters always already know that there’s nothing gay going on here, not really. Han-Gyul was only mistakenly playing gay and that makes everything okay. 

A similar playacting is the central scandal of 2010’s Personal Taste, in which young architect Jeon Jin-Ho pretends to be gay in order to live with Park Kae-In, daughter of a legendary architect whose house he wishes to use as inspiration in a project bid for the prestigious Dam Art Center. Of course, the two fall in love. The big reveal of Jin-Ho’s heterosexuality occurs in a scene that is, ironically, also one of the genre’s campiest. “Game over!” Jin-Ho shouts, forcefully strutting across the room in an iridescent sharkskin suit jacket and comically billowing silk underpiece before planting a deep, passionate, high lip-gloss kiss on Kae-In’s shocked mouth. It’s a pretty gay scene, but not actually gay at all. 

It turns out that Jin-Ho’s gay masquerade was a bit too convincing, giving project bid judge Choi Do-Bin the confidence to confess his romantic feelings for the lanky lad. Director Choi proposes that the two might come to love one another as a couple, two fugitive exotic birds flying above the normative radar of Seoul society. Jin-Ho confesses his heterosexuality, but promises to keep Director Choi’s secret. While Personal Taste took the then-groundbreaking step of introducing an actual gay character to the screen, that homosexual presence recasts the jocular intimacy between Jin-Ho and his architecture colleague Noh Sang-Jun in troubling ways. In performing gayness, Jin-Ho and Sang-Jun become more aware of the ways in which their bodies and feelings encounter one another, as when their friendly affection leads two female characters to assume they must be dating. In response to this comedic gag, they begin modifying their previously natural relationship. Since Personal Taste and the popular family drama Life is Beautiful debuted in 2010, K-dramas have been caught between representing the necessity of strong male relationships in navigating the life struggles of contemporary Korean society and the realistic portraits of homosexual life that threaten how those relationships signify.

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When Answer Me 1997 first aired in 2012, it struck an immediate chord with viewers eager to immerse themselves in its heady mix of 1990s nostalgia for boy bands, first loves, and adolescent angst. What viewers weren’t expecting was a third episode revelation of dramaland’s most tortured love triangle: romantic male lead Yoon-Jae pines after H.O.T. fangirl Shi-Won, unaware that he is the object of affection for his best friend, Joon-Hee. When Yoon-Jae eventually learns of Joon-Hee’s feelings, it presents a serious crisis for the boys’ friendship. While Yoon-Jae’s empathy overcomes his uneasiness and he resolves to remain loyal to his friend — a bit of anachronistic optimism for a show set in 1997 and 2005 — Joon-Hee’s homosexuality is never openly discussed and their cohabitation is soon abandoned so Yoon-Jae can pursue Shi-Won. In Answer Me 1997, gay characters might stand a chance of a happy life but they can’t have erotically uncomplicated feelings about their male friends.

A year later, the absence of homosexuality from the world of School 2013produced in its place one of the most emotional male relationships of the genre. The general plot concerns the reunion between Go Nam-Soon and Park Heung-Soo, two high school students who used to run together in a middle school gang before Heung-Soo’s ambitions to pursue a soccer career in Seoul drove Nam-Soon to break his leg, thereby ending his career. Haunted by guilt, Nam-Soon cocoons himself for two years inside an empty apartment that remains a conveniently parents-free zone throughout the show. “I was scared you would really leave me,” Nam-Soon tearfully confesses when he meets Heung-Soo again in high school, “I had only you back then. I had no one to turn to. I know I can’t repay you for what I’ve done. I, who ruined your legs and your future!” “Other than soccer, I had only you,” Heung-Soo fires back, his perfect cheekbones freshly bedewed as he exorcises his years-long pain over Nam-Soon’s abandonment. “You should have been there. Didn’t you miss me?!” The scene ends with both young men in tears, the camera sweeping up and away toward the Seoul street lamps as Nam-Soon’s voiceover relays what sounds like a Wildean truism: “All the shining flowers in this world, bloom while being whipped.” 

This tidal wave of feels and the sodium rich vapors of a date to a local ramen shop soon restore the boys’ friendship, and just in time for them to resolveSchool 2013’s other male crisis. A trio of young toughs risks being torn apart when two members want to give up gang life, calling down the fury of their heavily mascaraed leader, Oh Jung-Ho, whose broken home and alcoholic father are only a few of the obstacles he faces in overcoming the poverty that makes life a daily struggle. Taken under the wing of Nam-Soon and Heung-Soo, Jung-Ho learns to trust others and, in one particularly touching scene, all five boys sleep together under Nam-Soon’s (still parentless) roof, tucking one another in and even, at one point, spooning.

These male relationships have a worlding importance in School 2013 as resources that guard vulnerable youth against the challenges faced by those who fall below economic and academic ideals. Moreover, these passionate friendships secure the boys against precarity when the institutions traditionally vested with that power — conjugal romance (which surprisingly never enters the picture), filial obligation, and the state apparatus — fail to do so.

Link: The AIDS Granny In Exile

In the ’90s, a gynecologist named Gao Yaojie exposed the horrifying cause of an AIDS epidemic in rural China — and the ensuing cover-up — and became an enemy of the state. Now 85, she lives in New York without her family, without her friends, and without regrets.

The enormous brick fortress in West Harlem was built in the mid-1970s as a visionary housing project, a new model for an affordable, self-contained urban community. Today, on a balmy September afternoon, it is a low-income housing compound lined with security cameras, guards, and triple-locked doors. A few drunks shouting at nobody in particular linger outside. Pound for pound, though, the most dangerous person living here may just be a diminutive 85-year-old Chinese grandmother dressed in a stylish purple sweater set with black leopard spots sent by her daughter in Canada.

This is not a slum. Neither is it where you would expect to find an internationally known human-rights warrior living out her golden years. In her one-bedroom apartment, Dr. Gao Yaojie — known to many as “the AIDS Granny” — moves with great difficulty through her tidy clutter and stacks of belongings. In the small kitchen, she stirs a pot of rice and bean porridge, one of the few things she can digest. She lost most of her stomach in surgery after a suicide attempt four decades ago and suffered multiple beatings during the Cultural Revolution.

A large bed where Gao’s live-in caretaker sleeps overwhelms the living room. In Gao’s bedroom, two twin beds are piled with stacks of books, photos and quilts. Her desk is heaped with papers, medications, and yet more books. Gao’s computer is always on, often clutched to her chest as she lies working in bed.

“I left China with one thing in each hand,” Gao says to me in Chinese. “A blood-pressure cuff to monitor my high blood pressure and a USB stick with more than a thousand pictures of AIDS victims.”

Before she agreed to meet me at all, she set rules via email: There would be no discussion of China’s politics, the Communist Party’s future, or the myriad issues that concern other dissidents. These are inexorably tied to her own life, but Gao does not want to be known as a multipurpose Chinese dissident. A lifetime of looking over her shoulder for danger has left her wary. She never learned English.

“I seldom see anyone,” she says. “Many people from China are very complicated. I don’t know what kind of intentions they have. I see them as cheating to get food, drinks, and money. They don’t really do any meaningful work.”

Gao believes she is watched here, just as she was in China for so many years. Given China’s well-documented pattern of stifling critical voices abroad, it’s impossible to rule out that someone is monitoring or harassing her, even in Harlem.

Money is tight. She had a fellowship through Columbia University for her first year in the U.S. Now she gets by on private donations that cover roughly $35,000 a year in expenses, the largest of those being her rent at Riverside. She has a few teeth left and can’t afford dental work.

She spends her days in bed, sleeping, writing, researching online, and obsessively analyzing what she witnessed in China in a lifetime that bridged tremendous tumult. For hours, she clicks away on her keyboard, emailing contacts back home for information and putting final touches on her newest book. She learned to use a computer at age 69.

This will be Gao’s 27th book and the ninth to chronicle China’s AIDS epidemic, a public health catastrophe that decimated entire villages and put her on the government’s enemy list. “You wouldn’t understand the earlier books, they were too technical,” she says, flashing a near-toothless grin.

“Although I am by myself, appearing to be lonely, I am actually very busy,” she says. “I am turning 86 soon and will be gone, but I will leave these things to the future generations.”

Her unplanned journey from Henan province to Harlem began 17 years ago, six months after she retired as a gynecologist and professor at the Henan Chinese Medicine University hospital in Zhengzhou. She went from being a retired grandmother to China’s first and most famous AIDS activist, and became such a thorn in the side of the regime that she eventually fled to New York for safety, away from her family and everyone she knows.

She turns to her computer and pulls up a photo of a gravely ill woman with an incision up her abdomen. Gao did not set out to become a dissident.

“I didn’t do this because I wanted to become involved in politics,” she says. “I just saw that the AIDS patients were so miserable. They were so miserable.”

In April 1996, Gao, then 69, was called from retirement to consult on a difficult case. A 42-year-old woman, Ms. Ba, had had ovarian surgery and was not getting better: Her stomach was bloated, she had a high fever and strange lesions on her skin. She grew sicker and her doctors were stumped. After finding no routine infection or illness, Gao demanded an AIDS test for the young mother.

Gao knew from her work that AIDS had entered Henan, the heartland Chinese province. Yet her colleagues scoffed: How could a simple farmer have AIDS? China had only a handful of confirmed cases. The government said AIDS was a disease of foreigners, spread through illicit drugs and promiscuous sex.

Gao insisted on a test. The results came back; Ms. Ba had AIDS. Her husband and children tested negative, which puzzled the doctors further. The patient was not a drug addict nor a prostitute, so Gao began to investigate. She determined the source was a government blood bank — Ms. Ba’s post-surgical blood transfusion infected her with HIV. “I realized the seriousness of the problem,” Gao later wrote. “If the blood in the blood bank carried the AIDS virus, then these victims would not be a small number.”

With no treatment available, Ms. Ba died within two weeks. Her husband, Gao remembers, spread a cot on the ground in front of her tomb and slept there for weeks in mourning.

Witnessing his grief launched Gao on a relentless campaign. She began investigating AIDS in Zhengzhou and nearby villages, conducting blood tests, compiling data, and trying to educate farmers about the risks carried by blood donations and transfusions.

Over months and years, her research into the epidemic took her across much of rural China. What she found astounded her: villages with infection rates of 20, 30, 40% or more; whole communities of AIDS orphans, zero treatment options, and little awareness of what was sickening and killing a generation of farmers. Worse, the population did not know how the disease spread. The numbers of how many were infected and died remain secret, the officially released data almost universally believed to be far too low.

Gao had finally found the cause. “Even now, the government is lying, saying AIDS was transmitted because of drug use,” she says. “The government officials were very good at lying.”

The breadbasket of China, Henan is cut by the Yellow River and its seasonal, devastating floods. Through generations of extreme poverty, it developed a reputation as a place where people lie, cheat, and steal. In reality, rural Henan is not unlike Middle America, with its sweeping, open pastures, peaceful landscapes, and hardworking people. But among the poor agrarian landscape, dark and deadly ideas for amassing wealth germinate. In the early 1990s, emerging from several decades of manmade and natural disasters, floods, and famine, its best resource was people, nearly 100 million living in a China operating under the notion that “to get rich is glorious.”

Among the cruelest of these schemes was the “plasma economy,” a government-backed campaign from 1991–1995 that encouraged farmers to sell their blood. Fearing the international AIDS epidemic and viewing its own citizens as disease-free, China banned imports of foreign blood products in 1985, just as disease experts began to understand HIV and AIDS were transmitted through blood.

Modern medicine requires blood, and importantly, blood plasma, which makes albumin, an injection vital after surgery and for trauma victims. It is also used in medications for hemophilia and immune system disorders. And plasma is a big-money business — and a deeply controversial one — worldwide. Giving plasma is more time-consuming and painful than donating blood, so fewer people contribute for free, and it attracts people who need quick money: In the 1990s, inmates in United States prisons were pulled into a plasma donation schemes; today, Mexican citizens cross into the United States to border town plasma collection stations.

Though the donors of Henan got a pittance for their blood, middlemen grew relatively wealthy on what was believed to be a pure, untainted plasma supply. Plasma traders worked to convince Chinese people traditionally opposed to giving blood — thought to be the essence of life — to sell it. Villages were festooned with red sloganeering banners: “Stick out an arm, show a vein, open your hand and make a fist, 50 kuai” (at the time, about $6), “If you want a comfortable standard of living, go sell your plasma,” and “To give plasma is an honor.”

Local officials in some places went on television, telling farmers that selling plasma would maintain healthy blood pressure. (It doesn’t.) Traders pressured families, especially women. Since females bleed every month, the cracked reasoning went, they could spare a few pints for extra income.

Though some villages were spared, often thanks to foresight of skeptical local leaders, Henan’s poorest places, especially those with bad farmland, jumped into the blood trade with gusto. Henan officially had around 200 licensed blood and plasma collection stations; it had thousands of illegal ones. Collection stations were overwhelmed. Needles were reused time and again, as were medical tubes and bags. Sometimes, stations sped up the process by pooling blood, unknowingly re-injecting people with HIV-tainted red blood cells.

The system became a perfect delivery vehicle for HIV. Thousands upon thousands of the farmers who sold plasma to supplement meager earnings left with a viral bomb that developed into AIDS. In the years before education and life-extending antiretroviral drugs, it was a death sentence.

As Gao made her discoveries, another doctor, Wang Shuping, was finding the epidemic further south in Henan. Both tried to get provincial health officials to act, to warn people about the risk of AIDS via blood donations and transfusions, and to shut down the system. Both say their bosses and government officials told them to keep quiet.

For several years, Gao, Wang, and other doctors spoke out, but the scandal was hushed up. When people started getting sick and dying en masse, the epidemic became harder to hide.

As soon as she began making her discoveries, Gao started giving public lectures, printing AIDS education pamphlets for villagers, and speaking to the press. Still, local officials managed to keep the news contained for a few years.

By 1999, some brave Chinese investigative reporters started writing about the plasma economy and AIDS epidemic. In 2000, international media seized on the story, and Gao became a favorite media subject, seemingly unafraid, always willing to provide detailed statics and talk about what she had found in the hidden epidemic.

Gao and the other doctors finally convinced China to ban plasma-for-cash programs and shut down unlicensed blood collection centers, but the damage was already done to thousands infected with HIV and hepatitis. (And despite the reforms, smaller illegal plasma operations still continued to pop up in rural villages.) This was not without pushback: Gao was threatened, blocked from speaking, had her own photos of AIDS victims confiscated, and believes her phone was tapped for years. Then there were the young men who followed her everywhere, forcing her to sneak out to do her work in rural areas under cover of night.

Gao continued to work to educate rural people about the disease and push for legal rights for victims. She inspired dozens of young volunteers, like the activist Hu Jia, to travel to Henan to donate money, food, and clothing over the years. But as the government tightened its controls and increased threats, volunteers stopped going. Gao, targeted more than most, kept sneaking in. She traveled undercover, visiting families and orphans and passing out her pamphlets.

Her charity embarrassed local officials who weren’t doing the job, and several became enraged. In one particular AIDS village, Gao learned the mayor had put a 500 yuan ($82) bounty on her head. Any villager who caught her in town and told police would get the huge sum. In all the years she visited, donated, and brought journalists in to investigate, Gao says, “they didn’t even try to catch me, they didn’t want to turn me in.”

Gao focused her attention, and her own family’s bank account, on the AIDS orphans, chastising the government to admit what had happened and make reparations. For that she became a target, as did those who accepted her gifts. Local officials wanted credit for helping AIDS victims, though according to her, most did very little.

“I gave them money,” she says, nodding toward a photo of a young woman. “She sold blood at age 16 and died at 22. I gave her 100 kuai ($16). If you gave them money and other things, they had to say it came from the government; they would have to thank the Communist Party.”

China has never provided a full accounting of the infection rate and death toll from the plasma disaster in Henan and surrounding provinces. Low estimates say 50,000 people contracted the virus through selling blood; many more sources put the number at at least 1 million. Another million may have contracted HIV through transfusions of the contaminated blood. Gao believes as many as 10 million people might have been infected, but she is alone in that high estimate.

China recently acknowledged AIDS is its leading cause of death among infectious diseases. In 2011, a joint U.N.–Chinese government report estimated 780,000 people in China are living with HIV, just 6.6% of them infected via the plasma trade, in Henan and three surrounding provinces. The real numbers are subject to debate and almost certainly higher, say global health experts. That figure also includes China’s original, larger AIDS epidemic that entered from Burma into Yunnan province along the drug trade route in 1989, about which the government has been much more open. There is no way to trace how many of China’s acknowledged AIDS cases are linked to the Henan plasma disaster. This is not an accident.

“You understand the situation?” Gao asks. “One thing is lying and the other is cheating. Fraud. From top to bottom, you cannot believe in government officials at any level. Cheating, lying, and fraud are what they do.”

Link: The Necktie and the Noose: On Meritocracy, Unpaid Internships and the Economics of Anxiety

“Live it up while you can, kid. These will be the best years of your life,” thus spake the baby boomers, wisely instructing the starry eyed millennial children as they are whisked off to the University each autumn to spend the next four years pursuing their dreams (read: high salaried positions), liberating their minds (read: job training) and making generally poor consumption choices (read: preparing for the ‘real world’). As each year’s latest influx of undergrads quickly realize however, the idealized university of yesterday, the apocryphal fun-house of hedonism and wisdom that John Belushi promised them[1], no longer exists (although it is questionable as to whether it ever existed at all). The mythologized University student of yore, Apollo by day and Dionysus by night, has been liquidated in favor of the undergrad qua Sisyphus.

Upon their entrance into the [American] university system, the undergraduate student is immediately burdened with a heightened and sustained sense of anxiety, born of the incessant mandate to perform. This relentless, authoritarian call to produce is a queer one: it simultaneously emanates from without and within, it is all encompassing, total – in other words, totalitarian. The call from within is the result of that from without and the two exist in a dialectical tension; the apparently ‘self-produced’ drive to succeed is the result of the child being steeped in a culture which champions the relentless work ethic and ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, this culture of incessant production is in turn reproduced by the indoctrinated child as an adult in the interminable pursuit of material abundance.

The students have been instilled with this drive to incessantly produce from the days of their youth; for members of the elite, this takes the form of the ‘superchild’ who from his/her very first word is constantly being shuttled from one competitive activity to the other, playing piano recitals in a bathing suit so that they will not miss the swim meet immediately following – they must distinguish themselves at all costs from the first and the parents, who want ‘nothing but the best’ are merely fulfilling their parental duty. Thus the child is robbed of his childhood, so that he may be robbed of his adult life all the more. Yet at 18, upon his full immersion into society as the newest member of the species homo economicus, the adult does not despair at his lost youth; he is now instilled with the drive for prestige gained through the acquisition of material objects. He now willfully accepts this state of constant production unto himself, unaware that this incessant drive for more is not natural, but was artificially produced from the first. Conversely, the child from the dregs of society is also instilled with a relentless work ethic, yet this is hammered into him by his/her big Other not so that the child will flourish, but merely so that the machine won’t entirely consume him/her. He swims side by side at the swim meet with the bourgeois child, but the latter is competing for the gold, whereas the former is entirely consumed with the task of merely trying to stay afloat. Both were produced by the movement of capital, which necessitates continuous and expansive production and consumption,  their consciousness sheathed in a consumerist veil, the beginnings of a lifelong neurosis.

This regime of anxiety which will dictate the undergraduate’s (college) life is euphemistically known as a ‘meritocracy,’ a term coined Michael Young in his satirical 1958 essay The Rise of the Meritocracy. Despite the term’s status as a neologism, the idea of a system based on individual achievement or merit (usually quantified in terms of intelligence or effort, individual character traits which are themselves divined by rigorous standardized examinations) dates back to Confucius. The original meritocratic regime was that of the Han Dynasty (ca. 200 BC), which implemented the Confucian philosophy in the form of civil service examinations, which then became the key to social mobility in the China of antiquity.

Throughout the next two millennia, the notion proliferated in the West, with thinkers from Voltaire to John Stuart Mill giving lip service to meritocracy in their writings, despite the general failure of the West to implement it as a practice[2]. This development culminated in the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in the United States, which replaced the federal spoils system with a meritocratic system of competitive examinations for government jobs, a piece of legislation influenced by the British meritocratic model implemented earlier in the 19th century. Interestingly enough, the ‘rise of the meritocracy’ corresponded directly with the rise of Industrial capitalism, although the devastating consequences of the synchronous development of these two socioeconomic forces wasn’t truly recognized for nearly another century.

Until recently, sociopolitical philosophy generally appraised the notion of a meritocracy as progressive and egalitarian, which it certainly is – in theory. The inherent problem with a meritocracy is that it assumes that all those who fall under its sway begin from a point of socioeconomic equality – a mythical origins story, given that no culture has managed to accomplish such a staggering feat of economic justice. When meritocracy is implemented in a less than egalitarian society (which is always the reality), it throws open the door for a whole host of problems which were previously theoretically neglected. The most obvious of these, as Michael Young detailed in his book, being that in a state of socioeconomic inequality, the access to institutions which proffer meritocratic screening is closed to significant portions of the population. Indeed, it is not that society’s lower strata become less socially mobile, but rather the subaltern population is entirely paralyzed through institutionalized economic exclusion.

This is clearly the case with an [American] university degree, the preeminent standard of merit in the 21st century. The rapidly rising costs of receiving a four year degree from an accredited American university has cut off access to higher education for many millennials, especially in the wake of the recent economic downturn. Of the almost 20 million Americans who attend college every year, nearly 12 million (roughly 60%) are forced to borrow from state or private entities to fund their education.  According to the Institute for College Access & Success’ Project on Student Debt, the class of 2012 received their bachelor’s with an average debt of over $29,000, which is hardly surprising given shrinking family income coupled with rising costs of tuition and associated fees[3].

Yet this is not news. The elitist nature of higher education has long been decried by leftists and liberals alike, and rampant speculation regarding the student loan crisis (outstanding student debt in the United States recently reached over $1-trillion) has long colored the debate around university education in the US. Both of these features of contemporary higher education, the privileged access and its astronomical costs, find their origins in the regime of meritocracy, insofar as the university system has become the standard of meritocratic value (read: the key to social mobility) and as such the university degree has acquired the characteristics of a commodity with continuously inflating exchange value on the marketplace. This is a relatively new phenomenon, which only came to fruition in the postwar years; prior to the 1950s, the difference in wages between those with a high school degree and those with a bachelors degree was very small, suggesting that a college education was not necessary to earn a decent living. As such, a college education was a luxury item, mostly consumed by white Americans of middle and upper classes. After 1950, however the trend reversed itself, reflecting the increasing demand for highly skilled labor. The passage of the Higher Education Act in 1965 accelerated this process of university enrollment exponentially by providing need based financial assistance for higher education to the general public for the first time in history. This federal mandate, in conjunction with other measures such as the GI Bill, resulted in a 340% increase in college enrollment from 1965 to the present.

As previously mentioned, meritocracies largely function based on the standardized examinations, which can be designed to measure both intelligence and effort, or some amalgamation of the two; this has become a necessity with the increasing division of social labor, as a means of stratification which can effectively mobilize an army of producers on an international scale in the era of globalized finance capital. This system of rankings based on ‘merit’ is a natural development under capitalism, insofar as it allows for increasing efficiency in the ruthless extraction of surplus value from the labor force by way of hypertrophied statistical analysis.

When one enters the university system, one becomes immediately defined by a hierarchal system of five letters and a numerical indication of your overall place within undifferentiated mass of undergraduates (i.e., your GPA), both of which correspond to a unique set of 9 numbers which identify one as a person; in short, one becomes a statistic. This reduction of the cognitive subject to a set of numbers displaced within the matrix of the university system is characteristic of a bureaucratic machine, which to follow Weber “means fundamentally a domination through knowledge.[4]” Just as the bureaucratic mechanism is a concomitant development to capitalism proper, so too is the erasure of individual identity (in which the individual student qua individual is rendered superfluous) to the corporatization of the university.

It is a fundamental feature of this modus operandi that the social and material relations which comprise ‘capitalism’ must be reproduced for the system to survive. Yet they must not be merely reproduced, but reproduced with interest – in short, the production process of capital must also be expansive. The end goal of the capitalist is not stasis, but rather growth. For a social system to sustain a paradigm of infinite growth, it is imperative for it to operate in accordance with the principle of complete efficiency. This may sound strange to some – after all, capitalism is a system that is unique in its unprecedented capacity for waste and many contend against Weber that bureaucracy is not the culmination of rational organization but is rather its marked deterioration. This is undoubtedly true, however the efficiency of bureaucracy is akin to an asymptotic line, insofar as the efficiency of the system will never quite reach zero but can and will infinitely continue to approach this threshold of inefficiency until the bureaucracy itself is overthrown, the line erased.

This is precisely the purpose of the student’s mutation into a mere statistical locus: it promotes the efficiency of the capitalist system. By producing a fresh crop of idealistic graduates each spring, all of whom have been statistically indexed according to the university system’s meritocratic standards, the increasingly irrational system of capitalism can maintain its efficiency by having the ability to immediately place the graduate in his/her correct place within the system of socially divided production, ensuring that there is no lag time and thus no halt to the continual appropriation of surplus value.

Yet despite the dismal state of the Real for the undergraduate student, a secondary development born of the meritocratic regime is even more terrifying, a terror which is compounded by the utter critical neglect of this ancillary phenomenon until recent years. This phenomenon is characterized by the intensified liquidation of the individual for the sake of the expansion of capital in the form of unpaid internships. The unpaid internship serves two interdependent purposes within the general logic of the system, one of which is material, the other ideological.

Materially, the unpaid internship is a means of maximizing surplus value extraction from labor- indeed, it is the apex of efficient exploitation of the labor force. In this respect, it far surpasses even slave labor. Whereas the slave driver must bear the fiscal onus of reproducing his labor (providing the slaves with the minimal materials required for sustenance, so that they may live to toil another day), the capitalist who enlists the unpaid intern is acquiring his variable capital completely free of any costs of reproduction. He does not pay the intern wages, nor does he provide for his sustenance; the intern must furnish his own living expenses, assuming the form of a slave who willingly sells himself into bondage. What is more, by preying on the manifest anxiety of the intern, who feels compelled to incessantly produce, the capitalist can intensify the labor regimen itself, indirectly coercing the intern to toil for 55 hours a week and to maintain peak productivity throughout the duration of the work week. This latter means of intensifying the extraction of both absolute and relative surplus value from the labor of the intern is accomplished through the ideological mechanisms inherent in the unpaid internship under the auspice of globalized capital.

When the student desires a position as an unpaid intern, they are obeying the logic of a meritocratic system, where those who do not constantly and efficiently produce are not merely deprived ofsuccess, but are in fact punished, relegated to the realm of absolute penury for their failure to adhere to the social norms of the system. This is the economics of anxiety, where the increasingly contingent nature of labor (often times real, but occasionally imagined) induces the laborer to accept (indeeddesire) subhuman standards of labor, while also allowing the capitalist to more efficiently extract surplus value from the products of the laborer.

The unpaid intern is constantly reminded that they exist in a state of perpetual precariousness – there are a dozen other students nipping at the bit, ready to replace the intern that does not perform at the level demanded of him/her. The intern’s state of anxiety is thus increased at the thought of losing what is considered to be a crucial opportunity for upward social mobility in this context of meritocracy. They cannot afford to forgo the opportunity of working as an unpaid intern, and will certainly not relinquish this position of ‘relative’ power (in terms of opportunity for social mobility) once it is obtained; to do so would be to relinquish the American Dream itself, to disavow the myth of ‘catching up,’ of having the potential to increase their material wealth. In a society stratified by the possession of property, such a disaster would be tantamount to complete social alienation; a self-immolation of sorts, insofar as the interns now perceive themselves as relegated to the realm of the subaltern. The material destitution is bad, but the psychological damage is worse: the individual which fails to perform has indeed failed to live up to the standards of the system itself – (s)he is perceived as inadequate and treated as such.

Link: ‘A Government Of Thugs’: How Canada Treats Environmental Journalists

I attempted to enter Canada on a Tuesday, flying into the small airport at Fort McMurray, Alberta, waiting for my turn to pass through customs.

“What brings you to Fort Mac?” a Canada Border Services Agency official asked. “I’m a journalist,” I said. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” He pointed me to border security. Another official, a tall, clean-shaven man, asked the same question. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” he frowned. “You mean oil sands. We don’t have tar here.”

Up until the 1960s, the common name for Canada’s massive reserves of heavy bitumen mixed with sand was “tar sands.” Now, the phrase is officially considered a colloquialism, with “oil sands” being the accurate name, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. But “tar sands” is not really an informal phrase in Canada as much as it is a symbol of your views. If you say tar sands, you’re an environmentalist. If you say tar sands, you’re the enemy.

“We might have to send you back to the States,” the official said, after asking if I had working papers. I didn’t, so I phoned a colleague staying at a nearby hotel. “This guy at border security says I need working papers or something and that he’s gonna send me back to the States,” I said.

“Why did you say I was going to send you back to the States? I didn’t say that,” the official said after I hung up. “See, you’re already misrepresenting what’s going on here.”

My interrogation included details about where I was going, who I was meeting with, why I wanted to see the sands. The official had me open my bag so he could see if I was carrying cameras. Then he let me into Canada. “Because I’m being nice,” he said, and gave me a certificate stating that I must leave the country by Friday.

Can’t Criticize If You Don’t Know

In all, I was delayed for about 45 minutes — a relatively painless experience — but I did get the feeling I wasn’t the only one being hassled in Canada for an association with environmentalism. Indeed, as interviews with multiple reporters and activists show, the federal government places numerous obstacles in the way of those who try to disseminate information about the Canadian tar sands. Many believe this has amounted to a full-on war.

There are logical reasons why impeding environmental journalists could be in Canada’s interest. The tar sands are the third largest oil reserve in the world, and production is currently accelerating so quickly that the governmentpredicts capital investments will reach $218 billion over the next 25 years. Part of that investment could come from the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial proposal that, if approved, would bring up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil per day down to refineries in the U.S.

So it makes sense that Canadian officials may want to prevent environmental perspectives on Fort McMurray’s vast tar sands reserves, which have replaced thousands of acres of boreal forest with massive refineries and sprawling mining sites — shiny, black excavated deserts that sit next to glowing white ponds of chemical waste. A small portion of boreal forest remains, but it doesn’t do much to cover the scars.

From the air, you can see enormous white smokestacks 50 miles away. And from the ground, you can talk to those who have been physically harmed by accidental releases from the white ponds of tar sands chemical waste, called tailings ponds, which leech into the Athabasca river and flow downstream to First Nations communities like Fort Chip, where cancer rates have skyrocketed in the last 30 years.

Stories that describe the detrimental effects of Canada’s fossil fuel boom — not to mention the high carbon-intensityof tar sands oil extraction or unlikelihood that mining sites will ever be adequately reclaimed — threaten public support for projects like Keystone XL, and by extension, speedy and lucrative development.

‘A Culture Of Secrecy’

According to Tom Henheffer, executive director of the non-profit Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the Canadian federal government has been actively working for the last decade to prevent journalists’ access to information, particularly in science-related fields. The trend only got worse, he said, when current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fierce supporter of tar sands development, took office in 2006.

“It’s specifically very bad in science-related fields, but it extends into every other field,” Henheffer said. “This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.”

This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.

Henheffer, whose group in April released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada Report Card, noted two main issues at play. One, he said, is an increase in the amount of bureaucracy journalists must go through to get information. The other is a gradual de-funding of research, so the information journalists want isn’t even created in the first place.

The CJFE’s report card gave a failing grade to Canada’s access-to-information (ATI) system, which saw delays beyond the legal time limit affecting almost 45 percent of information requests, and more than 80 percent of responses partially or mostly censored. That report card also slammed the government for cutting scientific research, dismissing more than 2,000 scientists and cutting 165 research programs affecting “almost every federal scientific and monitoring institution.”

The report also noted a nationwide “muzzling” of federal scientists, citing government efforts to ensure its scientists limit discussions with the media on their work — much of which includes the environmental and climate impacts of tar sands development. This was confirmed in 2007, when a leaked PowerPoint presentation from Environment Canada revealed that government scientists were told to refer all media queries to communications officers who would help them respond with “approved lines.”

The current climate, Henheffer said, is frustrating journalistic efforts throughout the country.

“They’ve essentially dismantled our access to information system,” he said. “It makes investigative journalism impossible.”

The ‘Extremist Threat’ Of Environmentalists

Along with access to information for journalists, Stephen Harper’s government has also been working to dismantle environmental groups, a fact that has been revealed, ironically, by document requests from journalists. Those documents show unprecedented attempts from agencies across the federal government to spy on, de-fund, and otherwise disrupt the efforts of environmental groups.

[Environmental] groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.

The most recent example of this has been a rigorous effort by the Canada Revenue Agency to target environmental groups for possible abuse of their nonprofit charity statuses, alleging they may be violating the limits on how much political advocacy work they can do. The CRA’s $8 million effort was launched in 2012, shortly after the pro-tar sands group Ethical Oil kicked off a public campaign to “expose the radical foreign funded environmental groups” criticizing the oil industry.

“There are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” Joe Oliver, then-Natural Resources Minister, wrote at the time. “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects.”

One of the original groups targeted was ForestEthics, a British Columbia-based nonprofit with branches in Vancouver and San Francisco. One of the fiercest and more outspoken opponents of the tar sands and the proposedNorthern Gateway pipeline, the group responded by giving up its charitable status (thereby giving up tax breaks to its donors) so it could focus more on combating what it refers to as “attacks on the environment.”

“Ever since we formed the advocacy group we’ve been under further … ‘intense scrutiny’ I guess is the nicest way to put it, because the advocacy group is set up explicitly for the sake of taking on the Harper government,” ForestEthics tar sands campaigner Ben West said.

West said that since his group founded its advocacy arm, it has been a target of a recently-revealed spying effort by the Canadian federal government. That effort, revealed in November by a public records request from the Vancouver Observer, showed that officials had been sending spies to meetings of anti-tar sands groups, relaying their plans for rallies and strategies for public meetings.

What’s more, documents obtained in February by the Guardian revealed that both Canada’s national police force and intelligence agency view environmental activist protest activities as “forms of attack,” and depict those involved as national security threats. Greenpeace, for example, is officially regarded as an “extremist” threat.

West said the revelations have had a “chilling” effect on the groups’ volunteer and donor base.

“The word is out that ForestEthics is one of the groups that the federal government is paying close attention to, and that has an impact on people’s comfort levels and their desire to get involved,” West said. “If you look at the pieces of the documents we were able to get our hands on, they explain what was happening at meetings where you would have had to have been in the room to have known the content of that meeting.”

‘A Government Of Thugs’

In addition to the more-calculated attempts to prevent environmental criticism, multiple reporters and activists say they experience an egregious amount of defensiveness, spitefulness, and intimidation from the federal government that prevents them from doing their jobs effectively.

“We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, anaward-winning journalist who has been reporting critically on Canada’s oil and gas industry for more than 20 years. “It’s a hostility and thuggery, is the way I would describe it. That’s exactly what it is.”

We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless.

Nikiforuk says he’s been shut out of government events, “slandered and libeled” by a member of the government’s conservative party, and repeatedly contacted by government flacks who criticize his reporting.

The most blatant example of government intimidation Nikiforuk can recall was when members of Canada’s Energy Resources Conservation Board actively tried to prevent the publication of his 2010 book, Tar Sands, claiming he made numerous factual errors and posting a long letter about it on its website. Nikifourk rebutted the claims, eventually winning the Society of Environmental Journalist’s Rachel Carson Book Award for his reporting.

Documentary and satire filmmakers Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis also said they experienced government intimidation when, like me, they were detained at the Fort McMurray airport in October 2013. Unlike me, however, they were deported.

“He basically told us that the tar sands weren’t news, that he wasn’t recognizing us as journalists, and that if we wanted to come to Canada, we weren’t going to be able to do it today,” Damanskis said.

Though it seemed like at first they would be able to enter the country without working papers, Damanskis and Cobb said the border official had an “immediate change of heart” after watching a clip of their previous work — a videosatirizing the infamous Mayflower, Arkansas tar sands pipeline spill.

Border spokesperson Lisa White said she was not authorized to speak on specific cases, and declined to specify whether officers were allowed to make entry decisions based on the content of journalists’ work. She did say, however, that documentary filmmakers required working papers to enter Canada, and that all entry decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

“All decisions are made in accordance with Canadian law,” she said.

Swift And Snarky Push-Back

Of course, it’s important to note that journalists like Nikiforuk, Damaskis, and Cobb are more likely to get negative feedback from Canadian government officials because they are not, and don’t claim to be, completely objective. All three are openly and fiercely opposed to the speed of tar sands development.

But even reporters who are seemingly more objective toward development have been subject to government push-back. For example, Economist correspondent Madelaine Drohan said via e-mail that Alberta’s provincial government once posted a “defensive” response on its website to an article she wrote that mentioned leaks from tailings ponds, which are large lakes of tar sands waste. That response has since been removed, but Drohan said she remembers it happening.

“It made me think that the government was even more sensitive than the industry,” she said.

As for hostility from the Alberta provincial government, one journalist pointed specifically to David Sands, a director at Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau, whose Twitter account is made up largely of rebuttals to journalism critical of Alberta government. In recent tweets, Sands compared two newspapers’ coverage of Parliament to “jihad,” among other critical responses.

“Yeah, I’m the mean guy,” Sands told ThinkProgress. “It’s definitely my personal style, but nobody told me to be mean.”

Sands said part of his job is tracking down stories that include inaccuracies about Alberta government policies. He said he’s the only one in his department with the specific mandate to do so.

Still, many have criticized Alberta for the number of people they’ve employed to hunt down stories. According to documentsobtained by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation in April, Alberta employs 214 communications professionals at a cost of $21 million per year, a number that the National Post noted “far outstrips” the number of reporters who cover government.

Sands rebutted that story too, saying communications staff span a range of departments — healthcare, education, law enforcement — that are not all dedicated to attacking journalists.

“It’s sort of an enjoyment of the media to say we have 214 communications people who are all dealing with the media,” he said. “When reporting is challenged, people take it very personally.”

The Strategy Is Working — Or Is It?

Thus far, government push-back against environmental journalism seems to be working. As a recent survey of Canadian journalists showed, many environmental and climate stories about the tar sands often go unreported. That survey, titled “The Alberta Oil Sands, Journalists, and Their Sources,” questioned 20 reporters with extensive daily experience reporting on the tar sands.

Of the 20, 14 said stories about the tar sands were not being told, and seven of those 14 said environmental issues were the main ones untouched. Environmental damage done by leaking tailings ponds and bitumen waste; toxic contaminants leeching into the water; the impact of excess sulfur produced in the mining process — all of those were included in the issues journalists perceive as under-reported.

“I hate this story,” one reporter who participated in the study said. “It’s important, but there’s no direction or progression.”

As for activist groups, Ben West of ForestEthics said the hostility has actually been helping his group’s efforts. And it’s not just the group itself. As the government’s attacks have become more and more public, West says his and other environmental advocacy groups have been obtaining record-breaking donations from individuals — what he calls a “clear sign” that Canadians want to protect their environment from the tar sands.

“I actually kind of welcome these attacks from the federal government in a sense, because they are a great opportunity to highlight how crazy our government’s acting, and use it as a reason to ask people for more support,” he said. “Many Canadians feel strongly about this. Let the government create their own disincentives.”

Link: Don't Look Gay: Why American Men Are Afraid of Intimacy with Each Other

Why do adolescent boys often leave empty seats between each other when they go to the movies? It’s a product of the culture of male homophobia in America which pushes men to avoid intimacy and gay stereotypes.

On Saturday afternoon at the Cineplex you can see them: adolescent boys, there to watch one of the action films that Hollywood makes with an audience of young males in mind. What’s distinctive is where the boys sit in the theater. Though they might’ve come to the movie together and might even be close friends, they’ll leave an empty seat between them.

Just where the empty physical, as well as emotional, space between men comes from has been the essential subject of my research as a scholar of American culture. My work has culminated in a recent book, Picturing Men: A Century Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography.

What accounts for that space? A short answer, something academics like me are notoriously reticent to provide, is that countless American boys and the men that they become are afraid of intimacy with each other, fearful of how intimacy might be construed — of what others and maybe even they themselves might decide that the closeness suggests. What I’m alluding to, of course, is homophobia.

I have examined the shifting history of intimacy among American males, charting the role that homophobia has played in the shifts that men’s intimacy has experienced over the last century and a half. What are the implications that my historical work might have for two matters prominent in contemporary public debate: first, the so-called “boy problem” in the United States, and secondly, whether persons of the same sex should be permitted to marry?

At Cal State Fullerton, I teach courses called The American Male and Sexual Orientations in American Culture. In some ways these classes occasionally overlap, as my students and I discuss the differences and the similarities between men who consider themselves gay or bisexual and those who think of themselves as straight. Though of course widely accepted today in the United States, the idea that one’s own identity is grounded in the sex of those whom one desires sexually, that the sex of the object of yearning identifies the yearner, rather than simply defining his desires, is a comparatively recent cultural notion.

But it isn’t a universal way of thinking about human sexuality. Scholars too rarely ask if what we know as “sexual orientation” is a fundamental distinction between human beings, or instead is less significant, perhaps much less significant, than gender distinctions.

My students and I often consider whether various kinds of fuss over sexual orientation actually are indirect ways of addressing more basic issues of gender, the ways that a particular society defines the appropriate behavior of males and of females. We examine the ways that negative stereotypes of gay men, for example, not only stigmatize those males considered gay, but also coerce all men to stay within the boundaries of culturally prescribed “male behavior”, lest they be thought queer. It’s common in our culture for a gay male to be thought “unmanly,” but it’s not inevitable that this equation be in force, or even that sexuality be viewed as a simple question of one or the other, gay or straight, with bisexuality in the middle ground.

Such, however, has been our society’s obsession with sexual orientation — and with “appropriate” manliness — that an association with gayness came to include certain occupations, words, gestures, and items of apparel, as well as one male’s willingness to express intimacy with another. The greater the scorn heaped upon gay males, the more that all males have been discouraged from displaying behavior associated with gayness — with anything resembling intimacy heading the list of taboos.

Reflecting the powerful significance of gender in our society is the fact that lesbianism functions quite differently in the culture than does male homosexuality. Though lesbians and gay men are subjected in common to certain forms of discrimination, lesbianism is both stigmatized in some segments of “straight” society and powerfully eroticized in some “straight” quarters as well, a largely unknown occurrence with male homosexuality.

One hardly need suggest that life is easy for lesbians to observe that gay men seem to trouble straight people more, to observe that gay men are more associated with “perversion” than lesbians have been. A tomboy, revealingly enough, is often thought appealing or amusing, qualities never attributed to sissies.

This situation, rather than suggesting that lesbians (often stereotyped as the ultimate tomboys) have it easier, probably attests instead to the fact that the doings of men are simply paid more attention in our society. With male behavior mattering more, those who deviate from the strictures of manhood, then, are singularly bothersome. For those who believe in traditional gender distinctions, females whose behavior is thought to mirror that of males would be considerably less annoying, disgusting, laughable, or even noteworthy than that of “effeminate” men. Whatever the reason, a dislike of lesbianism did not bring about severe restrictions on displays of intimacy among all women in any way analogous to how homophobia prompted distancing between all American men.

For many centuries, various societies in various ways have differentiated between same-sex and different-sex activity. But the word “gay” and, according to many historians, even the very notion of sexual orientation on which it’s based, are of comparatively recent vintage. “Heterosexual” and homosexual” were coined, initially in German, less than a century and a half ago, a simple fact that should give pause to those who speak as if everyone everywhere has always been subject to inborn biological imperatives directing their sexual attention.

Societies may vary in terms of how sexual activities between persons of the same sex are scorned, ignored, or endorsed, but about the existence of oriented sexuality — even the existence, some suspect, of a gay gene — there is rarely any doubt. Those who expect to discover a “gay gene” may be just as wrong-headed as those who believe that they have discovered a Biblical injunction against homosexuality.

My own belief, by contrast, is that sexual meanings do not travel well across time and space, that history suggests that “sexual orientation” may be more of a recent human contrivance than a timeless biological phenomenon. Yet one doesn’t have to solve or even directly address the nature versus nurture riddle to simply observe that belief in an oriented sexuality brought with it a fear of male intimacy.

In the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, as Americans increasingly came to believe that “homosexual” was both an adjective and a noun, and that the word referred to something highly undesirable, men became much more hesitant to express, and even perhaps to feel, intimacy toward one another. In what might aptly be called a lost world of American men, it once was different. Other scholars, notably E. Anthony Rotundo in his 1993 book American Manhood, have shown that intimacy between men was once so encouraged and so widespread in our society that we may accurately speak of “romantic friendships” between males of the nineteenth century.

While others have relied on traditional historians’ sources, letters and diary entries, to document nineteenth-century comfort with male intimacy (elaborate terms of endearment and unselfconscious physical closeness, for example), my own documentation of the lost world has been with everyday photographs of two or more American men together. With these photographs we can literally see the lost world as it existed, as it later began to disappear, and as it then reappeared with revealing intensity in a particular moment and setting, only to disappear yet again with stark finality.

After systematically reviewing many thousands of images, as well as more conventional sources, I write in Picturing Men that American males, together in pairs and larger groups, once had professional portraits of themselves taken with a revealing frequency, in dramatic contrast to the virtual lack of the practice today. The poses they once commonly struck were even more revealing than the fact that the portrait was taken. With notable nonchalance, they might hold hands, sit on a companion’s lap, share a chair, drape their arms around each other, or perform for the camera what I’ve termed a “pageant of masculinity,” perhaps dressing up as cowboys or striking a frivolous pose that often included a “token of manhood” such as a cigar, liquor bottle, or firearm. Official athletic team portraits were once especially common scenes of closeness among males, with teammates sometimes lying atop each other. When George Eastman’s introduction of roll film in 1888 made it easier for amateurs to take pictures, the earliest snapshots also often showed males, boys and men alike, posing very close together, obviously delighting in one another’s company.

With a distancing and stiffness of pose in team portraits, the first widespread signal of a change, males began slowly but quite surely to move apart in photographs as the twentieth century progressed. If there was to be any more hand-holding, lap-sitting, or chair-sharing, there would usually be an exaggerated facial expression or some other gesture, reassurance to the observer and the observed alike that this was all purely in fun, with no genuine intimacy involved. The contrast between earlier and later poses of men together in photographs is striking, charting an increasing discomfort with closeness to each other’s bodies. The practice of males having their studio portraits taken together, once such a common token of association, was by comparison virtually extinct by the 1930s.

The closeness of old, and even studio portraits of men together, survived, however, even thrived, in the military, particularly in wartime. So common were poses of obviously tender affection between servicemen during the Second World War, and so extensive was men’s participation in that war, that one can speak of no less than a widespread revival during those years of romantic friendships among men.

Some of the wartime photos displayed in Picturing Men may well be of those who discovered other men with same-sex yearnings during the War, a development analyzed well in Allan Berube’s 1990 book, Coming Out under Fire. But the everyday photos that I have studied, unless there is some explicit inscription on an image, cannot document a sexual relationship between the subjects. The presence or absence of intimacy is another matter, and is something to which an everyday photo can sometimes eloquently attest.

Revealingly enough, the ubiquitous intimacy of wartime was conspicuously absent among male civilians in photographs taken during the early postwar years. Even young boys, who, in contrast to older males, had shown more closeness in everyday photos before the War, posed in the 1950s with a formality and lack of closeness that mirrored the poses older males had been striking for decades. The fear of intimacy that would account for the empty theater seat had triumphed, commonly inhibiting the relationships of American males of all ages. Though Picturing Men ends with the 1950s, I believe that the distancing and fear of intimacy that was intensified and became so widespread during those years continues to vex American males in our own time.

The price paid for the fear of men’s intimacy is high for all males, not just those who yearn for each other sexually. William Pollack, Jr., in his Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood , and Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, in their Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys , have been foremost among those contemporary analysts looking at how lonely and emotionally inhibited the world of boys can be. They have shown how an intense fear of being thought gay can lead to various forms of overcompensation with cruel consequences. For many American men, this overcompensation does not cease with the end of boyhood.

Because men’s doings have been given more weight, deviations from the culture’s prescriptions for men are particularly troubling for many Americans, with displays of intimacy between men arousing much more scorn than similar displays among women. For example, with a tiresome, utterly predictable, yet highly revealing frequency, the lead actors in Brokeback Mountain were asked what in the world it was like — implicitly how they could possibly have endured — kissing another guy. You’d have thought that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal had climbed Everest. Culturally speaking, for male leads in a major American film, apparently that’s just what they’d done.

It seems plausible, therefore, to propose that some of today’s opponents of same-sex marriage are more bothered by men marrying than by weddings for women. My argument for a gendered approach to sexual orientation does not imply that lesbians have it better. If this must be made a contest, it might be said that, as women, with their doings trivialized, lesbians actually have it worse. What I am suggesting is that some opposition to “gay marriage” is animated by tremendous discomfort with the love, tenderness, and intimacy between men that their marrying each other implies. Notions of men having furtive sex with multiple male partners with whom they are not in love or lastingly involved might be considerably less disagreeable.

Apparently thanks to the cynical design of Bush partisans, debates over same-sex marriage, usually focused on proposals to ban the practice, have in recent years aroused the Bush political base, sending the president’s supporters to the polls in numbers larger than might have been the case without a “gay marriage” controversy. However, the recent Democratic electoral successes suggest that many voters weren’t as distracted by the sexual orientation of their fellow citizens as they had been in 2004. This allowed attention to be turned to more pressing concerns.

It might be well if sexual orientation were less of a distraction for us all in other aspects of American life beyond politics. We would be a considerably healthier society were we to see sexuality as a matter of much more nuance than a simple gay-straight dichotomy implies. And American men, whoever their sexual partners, would surely have a better time of it if they were able to restore some of that world lost to homophobia. At its heart, history teaches us that little in life is inevitable or immutable, that things surely don’t have to stay the way they currently are. In looking at the quite different way that things once were, Picturing Men reinforces that lesson.

Link: On Elliot Rodger — ‘Nothing’s that simple, not even things that are simply awful.’

As a historian, I seek truth and sense in documents. Some make it harder than others to find.

On Saturday Elliot Rodger, a twenty-two year old boy living in California killed four men and two women in the student community of Isla Vista. Three of the men were his room-mates, whom he stabbed to death, Cheng Yuan ‘James’ Hong, 20; George Chen, 19; and Weihan Wang, 20. He then drove to a sorority house, intending to kill women. There he shot and killed Katie Cooper, 22, and Veronika Weiss, 19 and injured another as yet un-named female. The other male was Christopher Michaels-Martinez, aged 20, killed in a shooting at a deli. In the police chase that followed, Rodger hit two cyclists, one of whom put in the car’s windscreen in the impact, and a second, the accident which effectively ended the car chase. Rodger was shot in the hip, it has been reported, by police, but died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. In the car were three semi-automatic weapons, and in excess of four hundred rounds of ammunition, all purchased legally by Rodger.

Elliot Rodger had a long history of mental health problems. His aunt is reported as having said, ‘He was always a disturbed child. I don’t know how he was allowed to get a gun’.

That Elliot Rodger was a disturbed child is evidenced by the video he made and released onto YouTube before embarking upon the killings. It is further evidenced by the 137 page ‘memoir’ entitled My Twisted World, which he sent to a news station and which you can read here. I am unsure if another such document left by a mass-killer exists and it is a detailed record of his early life and the journey towards Saturday’s killings. On a preschool field trip he gets lost and and rushes around asking strangers for help. It’s tough when his parents separate and his dad gets a new partner who goes on to have baby Jazz. He spends what seems like a serious amount of time playing World of Warcraft, where he ‘felt safe’. When in middle school he comments on his experiences of being bullied: ‘I never knew how to gain positive attention, only negative’. On the 4th of the July, aged fifteen, he pulls his by-now toddling brother Jazz from a swimming pool at a party, jumping in fully-clothed to haul him out, and ‘The only person who saw this happen was a little girl swimming in the shallow end’. Sometimes, he dabbles in online pornography. He records his bafflement when his father turns up on a Harley Davidson, presuming it to be ‘some kind of midlife crisis’, and his envy aged sixteen, seeing his twelve year old nemesis, Leo, French kissing a girl; it was everything Rodger ‘longed for’, ‘to be worthy of a girl’s attraction’.

Rodger’s life changes at seventeen, which he recognises clearly. He is hideously lonely. ‘I began to have fantasies of becoming very powerful and stopping everyone having sex…I saw it as an evil and barbaric act, all because I was unable to have it’, yet still ‘walks around my mother’s neighbourhood in the desperate hope that someone would befriend me or a girl would talk to me’. He dreams often about empowering himself through being rich, and plays the lottery. By this time, both his parents are aware he needs help, and attempt to get it for him, through stricter regimes and a counsellor. Aged nineteen, he reads and thoroughly enjoys Game of Thrones. Also when aged nineteen, his only long term friend, James, becomes frightened by Rodger and his ‘fantasies’ and breaks off contact.

Elliot Rodger moves, aged nineteen, to Isla Vista to study at Santa Barbara City College. By this stage he recognises his views as ‘fascist’. His first week is marred when a friend of his room-mates’ visits and talks of his sexual conquests and Rodger flies into a temper and douses him with orange juice. Rodger describes him in his memoir as ‘ugly black filth’. He begins to believe women’s ‘minds are flawed’ because they will consent to sex with men he viewed as ‘beneath’ him. He also begins to believe that there is a ‘flaw in the foundation of humanity’. He becomes increasingly racist, commenting seemingly without exception on the race of any boy dating ‘a hot white girl’. Yet Elliot Rodger was mixed race, describing himself as ‘half white, half Asian’. He begins to rely on alcohol to engage in any social situation, often with unfortunate consequences. He meets James again, behaves badly and James is once again frightened of him. They will not see each other again. Rodger describes James as ‘a weakling’.

The fixation with sex is worse by now, and conflated with notions of love. He wants to experience love, be loved, to love. His fantasy of the perfect night is to dress up with a girlfriend, take her to parties, then to make ‘passionate love’ to her before falling asleep, ‘snuggling into her sexy warm body’. Socially, he becomes angrier, using small acts of petty aggression on people he believes have slighted him, or are experiencing happy relationships. On page 101 he first uses the phrase ‘the final solution’ and ‘Day of Retribution’: ‘I didn’t want to to do it. I wanted to live.’ He is frightened of himself. He goes to the Hunger Games premiere (his father was assistant director) and refers to ‘some cunt actress’, while feeling ‘so pathetic for not having a date’. James Ellis will not speak to him or meet him.

That summer he sees a group of college students messing about in the sun in Girsh Park. He buys a super-soaker from K-Mart, fills it with orange juice and returns to the park, firing it at them before running away to his car and escaping.

He fails to win the lottery again, breaks his laptop and thinks he will go to a shooting range. As he fires the first few rounds, he feels sick. ‘I questioned my whole life…”What am I doing here? How could things have led to this?”’

‘I will never have sex, never have love, never have children. I will never be a creator, but I could be a destroyer.’

He is seeing a psychiatrist. His parents are worried about him. He buys a handgun, a Glock 34 semi-automatic pistol.

‘Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?’

Still playing the lottery, Rodger is convinced money will fix his problems. He spends thousands of dollars on tickets, driving to Arizona to buy them. He spends $1100 on a Sig Sauer P226, more ‘efficient’ than the Glock.

‘My hatred and rage toward all women festered inside me like a plague.’

In the Spring of 2013, Rodger finds a website forum for ‘sex-starved’ men. It confirms his prejudices of ‘how wicked and degenerate women really are’ although he finds most of the men on there ‘stupid’. He sends a link to the website to his parents. His parents and his psychiatrist arrange for him to spend time with a 25 year old counsellor who will try to befriend him and enable him to engage in ordinary social situations. He likes Gavin. He goes to lunch at the Four Seasons with his father and enjoys it.

‘I realized that I didn’t want to give up on life in this world. I wanted to live a happy life, a life in which I could have a beautiful girlfriend and experience this amazing world with her.’

His parents hire two social skills counsellors, with Gavin’s help. One is a girl Rodger’s own age: Sasha. He likes her but feels even more pathetic at his parents having to ‘hire’ friends for him. In July 2013 he gets drunk in order to go to a party, falls from a roof from which he had tried to push some of the girls, snaps his ankle and is beaten up by a group of boys. As he recovers from surgery to pin his leg, he makes more plans.

‘The plan was to destroy the entirety of Isla Vista, and kill every single person in it, or at least kill as many popular young people as possible before the police arrive and I’d have to kill myself.’

The broken leg is a set back. He will have to wait until Spring 2014 to carry out the Day of Retribution. His psychiatrist recommends Risperidone, defined on Wikipedia as ‘an antipsychotic drug mainly used to treat schizophrenia (including adolescent schizophrenia), schizoaffective disorder the mixed and manic states of bipolar disorder and irritability in people with autism’. He refuses to take it. His eighteen year old sister gets a boyfriend, Samuel, who is mixed race. Rodger listens to ‘the sounds of Samuel plunging his penis into my sister’s vagina through her closed room door’. It is the most explicit description of a sexual encounter in the text. He decides to buy a third handgun.

‘Even in the first months of 2014…the little twinge of hope inside me never faded. It remained as if [it] were the tiny, flickering flame of a candle in a dark room.’

Elliot Rodger plans the massacre in three stages. The first, two days before the Day of Retribution, he will lure as many people to his apartment as possible, torture them and behead them. The following morning he will kill his brother Jazz, and his stepmother as ‘she will be in the way’. He plans the attack so that he will not have to kill his father, who will be absent. The second phase will be an attack on the sorority house with the most attractive girls. The third will be a massacre on the streets and a dumping of the heads of his victims, so that ‘everyone will fear me for the god I am’. He decides on Saturday the 24th of May as the Day of Retribution.

He uploads videos onto YouTube asking why girls don’t like him. His mother sees them and contacts the police. Seven police officers visit him but do not search his apartment, where the guns were stored. They leave. Rodger writes the epilogue to his memoir.

‘The ultimate evil behind human sexuality is the human female.’

He fantasises about starving almost all women to death in vast concentration camps. Some would be kept for breeding, by artificial insemination. ‘Sexuality will completely cease to exist. Love will cease to exist.’ He writes of his belief that he is the victim.

‘I will punish everyone.’

Six people are now dead and eight people wounded at the hands of Elliot Rodger. Four others were hurt by his car. The Internet is alight with opinion. Misogyny is being blamed for what is described as Rodger’s ‘sense of entitlement’ to sex. The #YesAllWomen hashtag is dominating Twitter and moving across other social media platforms, detailing thousands of women’s experiences of male entitlement and rape culture.

Why have I written this? Yesterday morning, after reading Rodger’s memoir, I posted a tweet: Elliot Rodger is not a symbol of rape culture. He was a mentally ill, underdeveloped young adult. His delusions do not equal ‘what men really think’. I was partly wrong; Elliot Rodger has, in one day, become a symbol of rape culture. But Elliot Rodger never raped anyone, nor tried to. He craved sexual intimacy and affection to the point of insensibility and ultimately, madness, but he did not sexually assault anyone. According to his memoir, he never touched a woman, any woman, in a sexual manner. In his own words he was ‘a kissless virgin’. His sexual fantasies, as far as they are described, are adolescent and even romantic. He wasn’t without money and could certainly have purchased a sexual encounter which would have rid him of the intolerable burden of his virginity, but he didn’t want to. He was desperate for love, acceptance and a relationship, ‘…I felt depressed because I wanted sex, yet I felt I was unworthy of it’. This is not the language of sexual entitlement. It is the language of inferiority and misery.

Did Elliot Rodger hate women? Yes. By the time he made that video, with its frightening, misogynistic language, he did hate them. He hated everyone. He wanted to punish everyone. He was going to kill his own brother. He had assumed a god-like identity that would allow him enough confidence to carry out his vengeance on ‘the popular kids’.

Since posting that tweet, I have been described, variously, although with a remarkable consistency in lack of punctuation, as an ‘apologist’, a ‘bitch’, a ‘cunt’ and been told I am victimising mentally ill people who don’t murder (yes, really — might have that one framed). I’ve had three very interesting debates with highly articulate students aged 15, 18 and 20, two female, one male. I’ve read lots of #YesAllWomen tweets and read hundreds of sad and vile things done to women by men. I have read tweets about how pervasive misogyny is to blame for his crime by a woman who terms herself ‘Khaleesi’ in her profile. If you don’t know who Khaleesi is, she’s the raped-but-learns-to-like-it princess from Elliot’s favourite book Game of Thrones, a book so spectacularly rapey I read it, poured lighter fluid on it and used it as a firelighter. When I pointed out how confused this was, I was informed (by someone else) that this was only because the woman in question had learned to internalise misogyny, as indeed had I, along with every other woman. And I have been told I don’t understand because I’ve ‘never been a victim’, by someone searching keywords and who knows absolutely nothing about me.

How did that woman know I have not been ‘a victim’? Because it’s not in my profile? Because I’m not writing hashtagged tweets about my experiences? Is this what it’s come to? Squabbling over who’s the bigger victim? I wish any of the hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram had the ability to put their experiences to a hashtag. But they can’t, can they, because they’ve been kidnapped by self-serving bestial rapists justifying their sexual desires as religion and will be living in the reality of sexual slavery. I wish girls in Somalia and the Sudan could post on Twitter about how they are going to have their clitorises cut out by the village ‘auntie’ so we could stop FGM forever.

I don’t expect this post to be popular. But I believe and hope that feminism can and must remain a force for good, not become a divisive, petty circus where everything is a ‘culture’ or an acronym or an attack. Just because someone doesn’t agree with you, it’s not an attack. There is no competition for Best Feminist. A better and more equal world will be built on discourse, debate, engagement and on enabling those without a voice to find and embrace it, not anger and paranoia and certainly not on ‘radicalisation’, which appears to be increasingly acceptable when applied to feminism and totally unacceptable when applied to any other cause.

The basic truth of feminism is that each woman who has a voice must use it, to speak for herself and her beliefs. Which is why I object to the title of the hashtag #YesAllWomen — none of those tweets speak for me or any other woman than the author. However, the power of the #YesAllWomen hashtag lies in this outlet for traumatic individual experience and as such, is hugely valuable to those contributing and reading. It also proves, without a doubt, that female experiences, particularly the grim or even just tawdry ones at the hands of men, are often tediously and sadly similar. The patronising, the groping, the catcalling, the leering, the abuse, the assaults, the rape. But Elliot Rodger didn’t, as far as we know and certainly from his own testimony, do any of these things. Elliot Rodger wanted to ‘make passionate love’ and then ‘snuggle’.

Does this sound as if I feel sorry for Elliot Rodger? Am I trying to excuse his behaviour? Am I trying to blame mental illness — his family’s lawyer has stated he was diagnosed as ‘high-functioning’ and ‘Aspergic’ — for what he did? Am I a rape apologist? I’m not, and no, no, no. I have not included him in the dead, because he does not deserve to be numbered with them. I am sorry for his victims and their families. I am sorry for Elliot Rodger’s family, who, in his own words, appear to have tried for the past eight years to help him and to get him help. I have read that memoir and written this post because making Elliot Rodger the dartboard poster boy for rape culture and misogyny is not borne out by the account he has left. And people whipping themselves into a frenzy of outrage about a self-entitled, rich, white kid, haven’t even bothered to see that he was mixed-race. It’s lazy and shouty and dull. And it’s glorifying a cause over the people who were killed by a mixed up, unstable young man.

Finally, all men are not self-entitled potential rapists looking to catch women out. They’re just not. A vast number of men across the world respect women, value them, and support the fight for equality. Yes, misogyny is a powerful thread running throughout global cultures, affecting everything from pay gaps to being kidnapped from school. This must change. Yet things are changing rapidly in Western civilisation and not always for the better: the sexualisation of children by the media and fashion industries needs to be stopped, and the proliferation of an increasingly violent porn culture is blurring lines of healthy sexuality and consent for a whole new generation. One of the biggest selling English language books of all time is about the saviour of a rich, broken and sexually violent man with mummy issues, who is saved by a virgin who before meeting him has never experienced sexual desire, let alone orgasm. It was published in 2011. Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon, both in print and on screen. People want this shit. That needs to change too. It will take a long time.

But what needs to stop right now is ascribing simplistic, headline-grabbing motives to the actions of fragmented and troubled individuals such as Elliot Rodger just because they suit an agenda, no matter how worthy that agenda might be. The evidence left by the killer himself indicates that no one thing or incident led to Saturday’s events but an awful maelstrom of mental instability, social and sexual conditioning, loneliness, basic human cravings and rejection. And as Rodger said when he made the decision to plan his Day of Retribution, his words echoing other college killers of the last few decades, ‘I was tired of being the invisible shy kid. Infamy is better than total obscurity.’

The injustice and the legacy of what is already known as the Isla Vista Massacre does not belong to Elliot Rodger, nor to the media, nor any of us. It belongs to the families of Cheng Yuan ‘James’ Hong, 20; George Chen, 19; Weihan Wang, 20; Katie Cooper, 22; Veronika Weiss, 19, and Christopher Michaels-Martinez, 20.

Link: Life After Work

This article is from Issue 56 of Soundings and is available online exclusively at New Left Project.

Jo What are the main problems with work today?

Nina We have high unemployment, a massive increase in very low paid work, expanding hours, zero hours contracts, unpaid internships, exploited grey-market labour and prison labour and so on. At the same time, there’s a cultural fetishisation of work, with TV programmes suggesting that getting into work is all about improving your attitude, cutting your hair, trying harder, believing in yourself. The rhetoric is that work is a moral individual responsibility. If you’re not in work or trying to get work it’s a sign of moral failing: you’re somehow a lesser individual, especially if you’re on benefits.

It could be asked why you would even question work, when so many are unemployed. Shouldn’t we simply acknowledge that it’s clearly not healthy for people to be out of work? But there are serious questions to pose about the alienation and exploitation that people experience. Why shouldn’t we question what work is today, especially in such difficult circumstances? We need to have a discussion about work, in all of its aspects, simultaneously. I want to think more deeply about what is being sold and who gets a profit. Can we think about human activity beyond work: ‘non-alienated labour’, in old Marxist terms?

A lot of my interest in work comes from feminist debates about how different types of work are valued in relation to production and reproduction; about unpaid labour and the Wages for Housework Campaign. My book One Dimensional Woman partly came out of my experience working in job agencies and observing the feminisation of labour. I really hated having to be friendly when cold calling. There is a particular liberal feminist argument that says that more women in work is objectively a good thing: it is good for the economy, for women, for their visibility. But perhaps we need to go beyond that argument. What if work is part of the problem? What if work does not solve the obvious problems of gendered labour? We have to think about this alongside the fact that issues around childcare are not going to be solved by employers, because employers do not have a vested interest in solving them.

Anne The Precarious Workers Brigade is a group of mainly cultural and education workers organising around issues of precarity.[1] We came out of a smaller group called ‘The Carrot Workers’ Collective’, which was more concerned with free labour, particularly internships. We’re still dealing with those issues - they’re a significant pressure point - but the group wanted to broaden out to address systemic problems. We began by conducting a ‘People’s Tribunal on Precarity’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) two or three years ago, organised as part of its ‘Season of Dissent’. (This became problematic because there was actually rather a lot of dissent amongst workers at the ICA; they’d just undergone major restructuring and many people had lost their jobs.) The tribunal format derived from the People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War, and it was designed to shine a spotlight on a particular issue. We collected testimonies from groups of precarious workers, including ourselves and ex-workers at the ICA, and invited ‘expert witnesses’ to speak on the impact of precarity. We identified four main areas: migration; no pay, underpay and working conditions; institutional precarity; and ‘affect’ - addressing how precarity affects the mind and body, particularly in the long term. The audience developed lists of culprits, remedies and demands.

Barbara Out of that tribunal we formed working group models. One focuses on letter writing, especially to cultural institutions, as there’s a loophole in the law here. If an intern works unpaid for six months, four days a week, in a private institution then HMRC can crack down on that organisation for not paying them. But charities are a real grey area: they’re allowed to have volunteers and not pay them. And a lot of cultural institutions are charities, even though they are often semi-commercial. So you have to make the moral argument.

Anne This group seems to ruffle a lot of feathers. Just writing a chirpy letter to a gallery seems to get a lot of people upset! We also have an educational group, which has been writing what we call an alternative curriculum - a pack for people teaching work placements, for example, or careers offices, to help them raise these questions.

We collaborate a lot with the University of the Arts Students’ Union and the Devil Pays Nadacampaign to draw attention to free labour problems. Most universities no longer officially circulate information about unpaid positions through their careers offices, but lots of individual course leaders do. But there is also a demand for work placements, and we need to think about where that comes from.

Barbara We talk to students, particularly on courses relating to cultural industries, about how desires for control and flexible working on your own terms can get conflated with arguments about demands for flexibility on the market’s terms. Passion for your work can open up too much space for being exploited.

Nina That point is so important, because it is historically so clear that demands for flexibility, for part-time work, for a work/life balance, for autonomy, for self-organising, have been noted but then co-opted and given back to people in an exclusively negative way.

Barbara It’s also often very obvious that people are working for cultural capital, just for a label to flash on their CVs. I was talking to students recently who pointed out that they could go in anywhere and mop the floor – all that seems to matter is that they can say that they have worked there.

Anne And with ‘creative labour’, the difference between the work that gets paid as opposed to the work that does not get paid seems entirely nebulous. A tiny bit of pay is supposed to cover a vast amount of preparation.

Barbara Non-alienated work, like childcare, creates excuses not to pay people; there’s an opening for exploitation and self-exploitation. So when you organise around work, you’re aware of a lot of feminist history. You also have to avoid reducing everything to demands for wages, as they’re already alienated. A wage is a concrete concept, but it should actually be just atransitional demand, because you don’t want to become a wage slave either. It’s a complicated space to occupy.

Nina Questioning work always inevitably raises questions about money: what would it mean to live in a moneyless society? What would unalienated labour look like if you went back to the general ideology of communism? Of course it’s something of a joke now … but what really would it be like if we truly lived according to the idea of from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs? Debates around work, as in Kathi Weeks’s work, often end up with quite reformist demands.[2] Requests for a guaranteed basic income are clearly very radical - you can’t imagine this happening any time soon - but even they rely on the same basic structure of money. Thinking beyond the division of labour and the wage is speculative and utopian and idealist, but it’s important to start from there and then track back. It becomes an important ‘thought experiment’, if not exactly a political demand.

Barbara Michael Denning’s article ‘Wageless Life’ highlights how three quarters of the economy around the globe is not generated through paid work.[3] ‘The economy’ is not produced just in formal economies but outside, be this subsistence labour, housework, etc. Therefore Denning argues you always take a conceptual and strategic gamble when you organise around the figure of the male, nineteenth-century, industrial worker - which Britain is very wedded to.

Jo How do you get ‘unpleasant jobs’ done in a wageless society?

Nina Historically that’s precisely the right question. Early twentieth-century projections about work in relation to technology raised the almost reasonable expectation that work could be done by technology. People would not necessarily have to do the jobs that are traditionally valued less and associated with low wages, with migrant labour and with women. Silvia Federici says that one of the limits of mechanisation and technology is that you cannot outsource care; a robot is not going to look after you in the same way that another human can. So perhaps there’s another integral suggestion here: that we should start with care, and make care the most valued thing in the world, rather than the least valued in terms of economics and in terms of status.

Anne We also have a working group on the corporatisation of the arts, although working groups are not entirely separate. At the Whitechapel Gallery Samantha

Cameron and Nick Clegg were asked to curate the Government art collection and open it to the public while simultaneously cuts to the arts were being announced. So we dressed up as washerwomen, washed dirty laundry outside the Whitechapel and gave out pamphlets about whitewashing.

Jo That makes me think of Mierle Ladermans Ukeles’ 1969 work ‘Maintenance Art’, when she scrubbed the steps of a New York gallery to draw attention to how different types of work is valued and gendered; and how the feminist art-activist group the Guerrilla Girls often critique the galleries that host them.

Barbara Yes, a lot of us are artists and we often get invited to do a relational art project within an institution. We say no to ninety per cent of them, but occasionally we do say yes, and obviously we then have to raise questions about the extent of our engagement with the institution. It’s clearly problematic that the issues that we work on are questioning the structures of the institutions themselves, while they simultaneously want us to produce something radical within the content of those structures. We haven’t yet figured out exactly how to negotiate this. We keep experimenting with different ways of trying to be both inside and outside the institution, but it’s extremely difficult. So this particular working group focuses on interventional strategies and power games.

Nina It’s important to do that with all cultural institutions. Mapping where the money is and where it goes is essential. We also need to differentiate between people who are able to say no and those who aren’t. If you are a young struggling artist and you get an offer from an institution that is morally and financially dubious (and let’s face it, they all are), you are in a very different position to someone who is well established. This is also a question about accepting money for the work that you do; I sometimes offer articles to newly set up magazines for free, but you have to consider it on a case-by-case basis. There’s a huge difference between providing free labour for companies that can afford to pay you but don’t want to, and working for free for companies that just can’t afford it.

Anne The other working group is solidarities. We do not want to be a single-issue group protecting its own interests. We try to work with other groups, such as the Latin American Workers’ Association, with whom we created a card giving advice about UKBA raids, and which now has a life of its own and has been published in many languages. We’re also part of an International Coalition for Fair Internships, and we’ve worked with cleaners’ campaigns and Boycott Workfare.

Nina Some of the most important work that you are doing is pointing out that these different issues with work are related. How do you think it relates to housing? The statistics make it very clear how expensive renting and buying is, and no social housing is being built. The relationship between working for free and actually staying alive is becoming even more untenable for more and more people.

Barbara This is one of the reasons we really liked the word ‘precarity’ - we felt that it included wider questions about work, housing and general life conditions. Several people in the group are active in housing campaigns. This is what’s nice about The Common House (a new common activist space in Bethnal Green); we have freedom to converse with others, so, for example, someone joined our meeting last week from Tower Hamlets Housing Action. We’re very aware that all of the ways that people used to use to survive are disappearing: for example, the chances of getting a council flat now are extremely slim. The ways that people used to have to piece together a living out of very little are now gone.

Jo This also connects to the rising cost of living, to increasing food and energy costs.

Nina It’s a horrible ideological paradox: it’s increasingly difficult for everyone to stay alive, particularly through creative work and cultural life, but at the same time, that’s what’s being celebrated. The implication of the 1990s Cool Britannia fetish was that we were post-industry, and focused on pop music, culture and fashion, so everybody was told that they should come and study in London because it was such a cool place. But all the ways in which that lifestyle could be possible for an individual to experience are being stripped away, unless you’re really rich.

Barbara That moment made the cultural sector less middle-class, because it was seen as a viable moment for all kinds of people to enter it. But there was also a huge sense of let-down. It increased aspiration towards the cultural sector and closed opportunities down at the same time.

Jo What impact do you think your campaigns have had?

Anne The most obvious impact has been on internships. As it’s so specific it’s an issue people can really take hold of. The debate has increased dramatically. The Arts Council even published a set of guidelines on internships last year.

Jo Internships are on the radar of the mass media and on the public agenda in a way they simply weren’t five years ago. There are grassroots campaigns like yours, the TUC Intern Awarecampaign, books like Intern Nation getting a lot of press, and now government clampdowns and politicians supporting the case for paid internships.

Barbara Unpaid internships are definitely starting to become taboo: it’s gradual, but it is a shift. It’s good that there has been a tax clamp down on it through parliament. It’s no longer possible to advertise unpaid internships through universities officially, even though they still do under the table. When we first started working on this issue we were under New Labour, and you had to tread very softly with regard to how you talked about it. But now people are much more confident about saying unpaid internships are a bad thing. The recession has also hit the middle class: suddenly the parents of kids at Goldsmiths were aware of it in a way they weren’t before. We get interns talking about sitting in an office having not even been paid their fare to get there, and they will be putting in an order for £2000 of champagne. They suddenly have this very sharp, very intense experience of class.

Jo Do you think that creates solidarity between middle-class people on internships and people on workfare?

Barbara In our group it has. But Intern Aware wouldn’t join with us in putting their names on a naming and shaming campaign we ran jointly with Boycott Workfare on Oxford Street because they wanted it to be single issue. It’s an interesting question though: what’s the difference between working in Poundland for free and being an unpaid intern?

Nina It’s important to point out the similarities. I’m very worried about this general tendency amongst employers to want to pay everybody nothing. It’s obvious when you think about it: as an employer, as a corporation, why wouldn’t you want people to work for you for free? How do we give value back to workers and rethink how different work could be? I’m having some conceptual difficulties beginning my current project and thinking about how you translate these transitional and current demands to bigger structural questions. Of course insofar as I can’t imagine the end of wage labour for the time being, we need to campaign to make sure that people are being paid a wage that at least approximates to an amount that can keep up with living standards and housing. But it’s also about bigger issues than the wage. I’m not always sure how to link the more utopian anti-work demands in a useful political way.

Barbara The new campaigns around work have been many people’s first experience of collective organising. There’s something profoundly transformational about that. The moment where you get extra credit, or convince a company to pay for your lunch for a week, are small wins. But they can make a huge difference to people. Campaigners often have the realisation that if they work collectively, they can actually change things, they can ask for more.

Nina The living wage campaigns that have been small and tightly organised often seem to have been the most successful in getting answers to their demands. They have forced Vice-Chancellors to concede and so on. It clearly works.

Jo Also, politicians are today often very keen to be seen to approve of campaigns like that, even if they have little intention of following through.

Barbara Exactly. These arguments have the moral high ground.

Nina It goes back to the paradoxical arguments about the moral ideology of work that are being forced down people’s throats. I grew up in the 1990s and there was a rhetoric that suggested that women and men were equal, everyone could do work where they wanted to, that no one was held back by their gender. But the concept of what that employment was was never questioned. The other side of the rhetoric was that a job for life no longer existed, and you had to learn to be flexible. The one thing that you could not say was that you did not want to work. To my parents’ generation, work was everything; they worked solidly for forty years. When my mum lost her job having worked for twenty years, she became incredibly depressed and even suicidal, because her entire identity was tied up with being a worker. We really need to consider why that image of work has such a hold over people. Apart from the instrumental aspect of needing to stay alive, is there an ideology that if you do not work you’re not as good a person as someone who does?

Barbara Does that ideology affect you?

Nina I think so. I do work very hard and the idea of it irritates me.

Jo We’re talking about the relationship between gender and the transition between stereotypically Fordist and post-Fordist labour. Today the standard British response to the question ‘who are you?’ is to answer with your job description: it’s supposed to be your main source of identity and your sense of self. A lot of the feminist activity of the 1960s and 1970s was about the desire to open up a wider range of potential selves, especially through work. But many of these feminist demands made in the 1960s and 1970s around identity politics and on making work better, more interesting and more accessible to women, have been remodulated by post-Fordist capitalism into a hideously exploitative entrepreneurial ideology.

Barbara That’s where micro-political work becomes increasingly important. You have to be careful to not denigrate people’s desires. If somebody wants to be an artist, it is still a romantic and fantastic desire for self-expression and creativity. It’s an internal double bind that puts a social frame on your desires; but we need to question what would happen if we took our desires seriously instead of feeling guilty about them, or feeling that they will always be co-opted.

Jo On the one hand, working culture has forced many people to work longer and longer hours, on the other hand, many people can’t find work. How do we deal with this? One answer seems glaringly obvious: why can’t we just share it around more?

Nina There are obviously serious questions about global markets in relation to equal opportunities. Right-wing free marketeers have allowed the market to dictate where labour should go. This is a consequence of the idea that, for the benefit of capital, labour should be allowed to move freely.

We have talked about this stereotype of the industrial worker – in the British context a white man. But at the same time, so much of this country was built on the badly paid work of non-white people. The waves of migration have often been around specific areas of work, particularly transport, including the construction of motorways and the London Underground. The people at the bottom, doing the cleaning, are the ones sitting on the buses at 4.30 in the morning, who have to get to the offices to get them cleaned before the office workers arrive. And these people are primarily non-white migrants. Yet part of current anti-immigration ideology is trying to revert back to the idea that the British worker is white - despite the fact that this hasn’t been true for a very long time. Perhaps the best way to counteract that narrative is to say that everyone who works here is from here, adopting the pro-immigration French slogan.

Jo It becomes palpable to me when reading media articles worrying about how the national birth rate is declining, panicking that we won’t have enough workers to look after people when they are older, and discussing how to encourage women to have babies. Then, unconnected, beside those articles, they’ll be another article about the ‘problems’ of immigration. And sometimes another about a global crisis of population expansion and how the planet has too many bodies! But these different narratives will not be connected up in any way. There will not be a hint of how one problem could help the other; that the problems caused by a declining birth rate in some parts of the world might be helped by opening borders. Moving on to a different issue - do you see anything progressive in union activism at the moment?

Nina The spectre of them breaking from Labour would be interesting. There’s an endless problem about union bureaucracy. I’ve interviewed Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, and found that there’s a permanent mismatch between the militancy of the rhetoric and what’s actually achieved. I did think the TUC march was great and there’s some interesting activities, such as the idea to have a £1 per week subscription for an unemployed union. Although they weren’t very successful, they at least tried to break with the fantasy of the full-time employed unionised worker - that’s just not the reality for a great number of people. We have to think about who’s being excluded. I don’t want to be overly critical of unions in general, but we do have to ask questions about what very low union membership means. Unions are still very important, but they’re not the powerful force that they once were.

Jo The difficulty of unionising temporary and ‘portfolio’ workers who are employed across a range of sectors is a big problem. Carl Roper from the TUC suggested to me that one of the most interesting models is Equity, the actors’ union. They’ve always had to work with people who are in and out of work, whose positions are precarious - and they’ve been very experimental and successful in dealing with this.

Barbara We have been discussing the challenges around organising – particularly through our work with x:talk and the Sex Workers’ Union – and trying to suggest alternative forms of coming together. Maybe the meeting, as a form, is not the best method, for example. A friend of mine worked with the Migrants’ Association in Queens in New York, and they always have an after-school club, so the mums would be there, picking their kids up from school, and they’d then go for a meal together that was strictly limited to an hour, because everyone needed to get home afterwards. These were added incentives for people to attend the meeting. The Sex Workers’ Union organised language classes, which became a vehicle for organising because they happened in the brothels, in the workplace. Denning also discusses self-employed unions in India organised by people doing informal piece work on the streets. These unions are a much more self-organised, co-operative model, and make it easier for people to bargain for cheaper fibres, for example. So there are many different models around which it is possible to organise, and people might be able to learn from each other.

Anne We get a lot of emails asking for help with problems in the workplace. Of course, the first thing we ask them is if they have a union they could join. Because despite all the problems we’ve been talking about, if you’re a union member there is still someone who can fight your corner a bit.

Barbara There are still problems with the top-down system used by union campaigns. Partly the problem is they simply announce what needs to be done. And there’s another major problem: if you start with an assumption of identification as a worker, you lose half of your audience from the outset.

Jo That brings us back to gender and work. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is currently inciting women to embrace or ‘lean in’ to corporate culture in order to achieve, presumably so corporations can ‘lean out’ of their social responsibilities. And at the same time another very different right-wing discourse says that being in the workplace becomes more difficult for women after they’ve had kids, so women shouldn’t try to be like in the 1980s, and try to ‘have it all’, instead they should just relax into part-time work, and become what Rebecca Asher terms the ‘foundation parent’. I’m also interested in how flexibility is critiqued so much today as a tool of corporate culture. This is of course true; but sometimes on the left it goes hand in hand with an implicit nostalgia for Fordist culture that I find really problematic, given the place of women in the mid twentieth century. Why can’t we reclaim flexibility for the left instead? I think that should be on the agenda. For instance, it’s necessary for parents to be flexible because children are often ill, but I sometimes feel critiqued by a left position on work for even wanting that.

Anne I suppose the point is: flexibility on whose terms? You have to distinguish very carefully between those two things. Is it the workplace that requires you to be flexible or is it according to your needs?

Nina The implicit assumption that it is the woman’s responsibility to be the ‘foundation parent’ discounts the role of another parent or person in that scenario. And it hasn’t really been adequately politicised; since the 1970s, the politicisation of that question has just disappeared. Reproduction is considered to be a private choice that you can’t talk publicly about, it’s just thought to be a personal decision. That means that it is thought of as an individual family question rather than a wider social question.

Jo You can see that clearly in the implicit downgrading of the cultural status of nurseries and wider systems of socialised childcare. There’s been some interesting academic work by Glenda Wall tracking how, over the past thirty years, mainstream US media representation increasingly depicts nursery and social childcare provision as less desirable, even dangerous. This is in contrast to how the option for the upper-middle-class entrepreneurial family unit - that of privatised childcare, of nannies - has been rendered increasingly desirable and aspirational. It’s very different from the popular 1970s demand for collective childcare.

Nina It was really important in the Black Panthers. Part of the reason they were shut down was because they were doing the ‘breakfast-included’ version of care and community work. They were providing meals, doing breakfast clubs and so on; it was a vision of a social, co-operative world where everyone looks after each other. The critiques of nurseries are perhaps designed (in the same way as the attacks on the Black Panthers) to brutally shut down anything that has a collective, social dimension.

Barbara Any discussion about this leads onto the realities of employment inequalities as well. If you are in a heterosexual couple, the chances are that the man is earning more, so his wage would be the bigger sacrifice for that leave. And in that period of leave, the woman is established as the ‘foundation parent’. And that is actually legislated for. Where is the flexibility in that? The father has two weeks off and becomes the person who comes home at 6pm. It seems so easy to walk into that stereotype of gender relations. It’s a stereotype that is dictated by work: work policies and values.

Barbara One problem is that ‘social reproduction’ is a very difficult thing to organise around because no one really understands what it means - they just think it is about making babies!

Nina Going back to the beginning, we were talking about what it would mean to value care, or rather reproduction, in the broadest sense. These things are cut across by wage labour in very negative ways and we have to find a method for starting thinking from there. We need to value those things instead.

Barbara But what would that mean? Would that be a drive for payment? In Venezuela they’re paying housewives now.

Nina I went to see Selma James the other week, and they have the Venezuelan constitution on the wall. It is clearly very significant. Their ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign was very much an anti-work position. It was misunderstood very badly, deliberately I think, by a lot of British feminist leftists, who took it as middle-class women demanding to be paid for washing dishes. It was never that, although the phrase ‘wages for housework’ didn’t help. Instead it was about how we politicise the question of value and what we mean by work, as a means to destroy this entire edifice of work as it currently exists. One way of doing that positively is to think about what we should value that is devalued at the moment.

Jo Littler, the convenor of this discussion, is a Soundings editor. The other participants are Nina Power, who is writing a book on anti-work, and two members of the Precarious Worker’s Brigade, which campaigns against unpaid internships in the cultural industries alongside wider issues of precarious labour. The latter prefer to remain anonymous and have therefore been given the pseudonyms of Anne and Barbara.

Link: Mapping a New Economy

The geographer David Harvey says fixing inequality will take more than tinkering.

David Harvey would implore you to imagine life without capitalism—that is, if you can. Chances are, even if you’re puzzled by the manipulation of phantom money on Wall Street, troubled by society’s growing inequality, or disgusted with the platinum parachutes of corporate executives, you probably still conceive the world in terms of profits, private property, and free markets, the invisible hand always on the tiller.

To Harvey, a professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, that world is coming to an end. In Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford University Press), Harvey examines what he sees as the untenable elements of capital, and he analyzes how they can produce an unequal, destructive, crisis-prone system. The book represents a distillation of Harvey’s 40-year study of Karl Marx, and in its own way a bid to change the conversation about what’s not working and what’s possible—especially when many have consigned Marx to history’s dustbin.

"I was tired of hearing Marx quoted in ways that struck me as completely wrong," Harvey says in his office at CUNY, around the corner from the Empire State Building. "Who I am writing for is, in a sense, anybody who says, Who is this guy Marx? I wanted to make it simple enough so that people could get into it, without being simplistic."

The new book follows a career of scholarship that has not only helped define the study of geography but ranged across other disciplines as well. J. Richard Peet, a professor of geography at Clark University, says Harvey played a central role in enlivening a “decrepit” discipline in the 1960s and 70s, and helped establish geography as one of the most left-leaning fields in academe. His Explanation in Geography (St. Martin’s Press, 1969) was the “main positivist textbook” of the field, Peet says. He followed with The Limits to Capital (University of Chicago Press, 1982), an analysis that has been widely translated and reprinted, and The Condition of Postmodernity(Blackwell, 1989), a multidisciplinary examination of contemporary sensibilities and practices that propelled him to international prominence.

Trained in geography at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s and early 60s, Harvey discovered Marx in 1970, after landing in Baltimore, at the Johns Hopkins University. He already felt confined by the traditional social-science theory in which he had been trained, and Charm City—a racially segregated, impoverished factory town, still recovering from the 1968 riots—proved to be the environment for an awakening. “When I came to Baltimore from Britain, it was a bit of a shock to be plunged into what was going on in that city,” he says. “I looked at it and thought, ‘I can’t see how I am going to understand all of this, given the techniques that are available to me, and maybe I should look for something else.’ That is when I started to read Marx, just to see if something was there.”

He sat on a university commission analyzing housing problems in the city, and in writing the report for city leaders, borrowed ideas from Das Kapital. He found resonance in Marx’s analysis of the conflict between use values (the value of, say, a home as shelter) and exchange values (its value as a property to buy and flip), and in the notion that capital moves problems around (as when blight and gentrification drift through neighborhoods) but never solves them. Harvey says the city leaders—no matter their politics—thought the report was perceptive. “I didn’t tell them I was getting it out of Marx,” he says. “The more it worked for me and worked for other people, the more confidence I got that this was not a crazy system, but was actually quite interesting.”

In the years since, his work has focused on urban issues, politics, economics, and capitalism. Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has assigned his students Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2005), which recounts the 40-year political project to replace Keynesian economics and its notion of public-sector limits on private enterprise with the free-market ideologies that prevail today.

"From my perspective, he is a giant," Pollin says. But his regard for Harvey is unusual in the more conservative discipline of economics. Most economists I contacted gave one of two responses when asked about Harvey’s work: They knew he was important but had never read him, or they had never heard of him at all.

That’s a sign of the inward focus of economists, not a condemnation of Harvey’s work, says Pollin: “There is no question that Harvey is a major thinker.” But in the supercharged capitalist culture of the United States, being a Marxist intellectual—even, according to Thomson Reuters, as one of the most frequently cited academics in the world—means often being overlooked in the public square. While Harvey draws big crowds and mainstream news media during appearances in Europe and South America, in this country his name appears mainly in small leftist outlets.

"I get on the BBC, but I don’t get on NPR," he says. "There is a kind of taboo in the mainstream media of taking any of this seriously."

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism may be the book that introduces Harvey to a wider audience. After all, it lands at an auspicious moment. Dealing with income inequality is at the top of President Obama’s agenda for the year. Since the Occupy movement’s stand in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the public has had more awareness of the consolidation of power among the “1 percent”—a term the protesters popularized. Marx has made a comeback among young intellectuals, who came of age during the economic meltdown; Benjamin Kunkel, in Utopia or Bust (Verso Books), his new exploration of contemporary Marxism, spends his first chapter discussing Harvey.

"If you had to pick one person who is the expositor of Marx for this generation, it would be David Harvey," says Timothy Shenk, a doctoral student in history at Columbia University who has studied prominent Marxists and recently wrote about "millennial Marxists" for The Nation. “It’s his gift for lucid prose that distinguishes him. I can’t think of anyone who is better at laying out, clearly and crisply, a distinctive interpretation of Marx.”

The American stage has recently been set for questioning capitalism, with the U.S. tour of academe’s rock star of the moment, Thomas Piketty. The French economist’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has highlighted capitalism’s drift toward inequality and criticized economists’ focus on pure theory.

While Harvey appreciates the way that Piketty has “brought back some of that humanistic tradition” in economics, he believes the book focuses too much on the social inequities that capital produces, not the complicated root causes of its problems.

"Piketty has a fantastic source of information in terms of the history of inequality of wealth and income, and that is very useful, but you could read that book and have no idea what happened in 2007 and 2008—why Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, where crises come from," he says. "What I tried to show in Seventeen Contradictions is that capital is a multifaceted system, with interlocking contradictions that are very rich.”

The book begins with the very thing that sparked the 2008 crisis: the conflict between use values and exchange values, particularly in housing, and the way that people have been deprived of homes because real estate has become a speculative investment. Increasingly, he points out, more necessities are defined and dominated by their exchange value, as capital looks for new fields in which to play. “For this reason, many categories of use values that were hitherto supplied free of charge by the state have been privatized and commodified—housing, education, health care and public utilities have all gone in this direction in many parts of the world,” he writes. “The political choice is between a commodified system that serves the rich well enough and a system that focuses on the production and democratic provision of use values for all without any mediations of the market.”

The rest of the contradictions unfurl from there: For example, the value of money, especially when it is not tied to any tangible metal standard; the relationship between capital and labor, in which capital is trying to increase profits and productivity while labor seeks to increase its standard of living; capital’s rhetoric of freedom versus reality, in which it dominates labor and the poor.

Toward the end, Harvey explores the “dangerous contradictions”: capital’s requirement of endless compound growth, the ecological destruction it wreaks, and, in the last chapter, “universal alienation,” in which he explores the forces that hamper meaningful work and promote vapid consumerism. Capital can survive its contradictions, he writes, as long as it heaps more burdens—in the form of class inequality, degradation of the environment, and curtailing of human freedom—on the people and institutions already holding it up.

The key question is, where do things go from here? Harvey calls for a “revolutionary humanism that can ally with those religious-based humanisms … to counter alienation in its many forms and to radically change the world from its capitalist ways.” He asks readers to imagine an economy in which the necessities of food, housing, and education don’t go through a profit-maximizing market system; in which money “rots,” so it can’t be hoarded; in which the pace of work slows down to accommodate creative endeavors and social life; and in which a “zero growth” economy is a desirable stasis, not a national emergency.

It might sound far-fetched, and Harvey does not offer a road map for setting up such a world. Pollin, the UMass economist, says this is one of his main frustrations with Harvey’s work: “He is much like Karl Marx in that he is much stronger on the critique than he is on thinking through viable paths forward. If you truly care about solutions, you should not just write your treatise and not think seriously about what is to be done.”

Harvey, for his part, says that any revolution would have to start by “changing mental conceptions of what the good life is,” and that you do so in part by changing the language. Occupy started this work by defining the “1 percent.”

"We saw it in the civil-rights movement and in the gay-and-lesbian movement," he says. "When you change the language, you can change the way people think and their mental conceptions. And when that changes, you can start to push in new politics."

But he acknowledges myriad challenges. Most of us, he says, have been “neoliberalized”—we have come to believe the tenets of a well-funded campaign that exalts the individual, privatizes social services and public institutions, and scorns the potential of government. The left, he says, deals in “a politics that rests on narratives of victimization,” which doesn’t inspire solidarity. Nongovernmental organizations, a main tool now used to address inequities, are supported by the rich and therefore cannot criticize the wealth and accumulation of wealth that feeds them.

Personal debt, which has emerged as a major burden in recent decades, may be the most crucial challenge. “One of the things about debt is that it tends to foreclose the future—you have already spent the future,” Harvey says. “It is very difficult to have an imagination of something radically different when your future is already pinned to some continuation of capital.”

At some point, he believes, the system can’t continue. In the final pages ofSeventeen Contradictions, he raises the specter of violence as a potential response to the inequities of capital—the riots and protests in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, and Sweden last year “look more and more like the prior tremors for a coming earthquake that will make the postcolonial revolutionary struggles of the 1960s look like child’s play.”

"The longer it goes on," Harvey says quietly in his New York office, "the less I think that there is a possibility that it will be a peaceful transition."

Link: Herbert Marcuse: "Liberation from the Affluent Society"

1967 lecture in London.

I am very happy to see so many flowers here and that is why I want to remind you that flowers, by themselves, have no power whatsoever, other than the power of men and women who protect them and take care of them against aggression and destruction.

As a hopeless philosopher for whom philosophy has become inseparable from politics, I am afraid I have to give here today a rather philosophical speech, and I must ask your indulgence. We are dealing with the dialectics of liberation (actually a redundant phrase, because I believe that all dialectic is liberation) and not only liberation in an intellectual sense, but liberation involving the mind and the body, liberation involving entire human existence. Think of Plato: the liberation from the existence in the cave. Think of Hegel: liberation in the sense of progress and freedom on the historical scale. Think of Marx. Now in what, sense is all dialectic liberation? It is liberation from the repressive, from a bad, a false system - be it an organic system, be it a social system, be it a mental or intellectual system: liberation by forces developing within such a system. That is a decisive point. And liberation by virtue of the contradiction generated by the system, precisely because it is a bad, a false system.

I am intentionally using here moral, philosophical terms, values: ‘bad’, ‘false’. For without an objectively justifiable goal of a better, a free human existence, all liberation must remain meaningless - at best, progress in servitude. I believe that in Marx too socialism ought to be. This ‘ought’ belongs to the very essence of scientific socialism. It ought to be; it [p. 176] is, we may almost say, a biological, sociological and political necessity. It is a biological necessity in as much as a socialist society, according to Marx, would conform with the very logos of life, with the essential possibilities of a human existence, not only mentally, not only intellectually, but also organically.

Now as to today and our own situation. I think we are faced with a novel situation in history, because today we have to be liberated from a relatively well-functioning, rich, powerful society. I am speaking here about liberation from the affluent society, that is to say, the advanced industrial societies. The problem we are facing is the need for liberation not from a poor society, not from a disintegrating society, not even in most cases from a terroristic society, but from a society which develops to a great extent the material and even cultural needs of man - a society which, to use a slogan, delivers the goods to an ever larger part of the population. And that implies, we are facing liberation from a society where liberation is apparently without a mass basis. We know very well the social mechanisms of manipulation, indoctrination, repression which are responsible for this lack of a mass basis, for the integration of the majority of the oppositional forces into the established social system. But I must emphasize again that this is not merely an ideological integration; that it is not merely a social integration; that it takes place precisely on the strong and rich basis which enables the society to develop and satisfy material and cultural needs better than before.

But knowledge of the mechanisms of manipulation or repression, which go down into the very unconscious of man, is not the whole story. I believe that we (and I will use ‘we’ throughout my talk) have been too hesitant, that we have been too ashamed, understandably ashamed, to insist on the integral, radical features of a socialist society, its qualitative difference from all the established societies: the [p. 177] qualitative difference by virtue of which socialism is indeed the negation of the established systems, no matter how productive, no matter how powerful they are or they may appear. In other words - and this is one of the many points where I disagree with Paul Goodman - our fault was not that we have been too immodest, but that we have been too modest. We have, as it were, repressed a great deal of what we should have said and what we should have emphasized.

If today these integral features, these truly radical features which make a socialist society a definite negation of the existing societies, if this qualitative difference today appears as Utopian, as idealistic, as metaphysical, this is precisely the form in which these radical features must appear if they are really to be a definite negation of the established society: if socialism is indeed the rupture of history, the radical break, the leap into the realm of freedom - a total rupture. [quoted by Alexander Cockburn in a Dec. 2007 Nation column]

Let us give one illustration of how this awareness, or half-awareness, of the need for such a total rupture was present in some of the great social struggles of our period. Walter Benjamin quotes reports that during the Paris Commune, in all corners of the city of Paris there were people shooting at the clocks on the towers of the churches, palaces and so on, thereby consciously or half-consciously expressing the need that somehow time has to be arrested; that at least the prevailing, the established time continuum has to be arrested, and that a new time has to begin - a very strong emphasis on the qualitative difference and on the totality of the rupture between the new society and the old. [audio excerpt ends here]

In this sense, I should like to discuss here with you the repressed prerequisites of qualitative change. I say intentionally ‘of qualitative change,’, not ‘of revolution’, because we know of too many revolutions through which the continuum of repression has been sustained, revolutions which have replaced one system of domination by another. We must become aware of the essentially new features which [178] distinguish a free society as a definite negation of the established societies, and we must begin formulating these features, no matter how metaphysical, no matter how Utopian, I would even say no matter how ridiculous we may appear to the normal people in all camps, on the right as well as on the left.

What is the dialectic of liberation with which we here are concerned? It is the construction of a free society, a construction which depends in the first place on the prevalence of the vital need for abolishing the established systems of servitude; and secondly, and this is decisive, it depends on the vital commitment, the striving, conscious as well as sub- and un-conscious, for the qualitatively different values of a free human existence. Without the emergence of such new needs and satisfactions, the needs and satisfactions of free men, all change in the social institutions, no matter bow great, would only replace one system of servitude by another system of servitude. Nor can the emergence - and I should like to emphasize this - nor can the emergence of such new needs and satisfactions be envisaged as a mere by-product, the mere result, of changed social institutions. We have seen this, it is a fact of experience. The development of the new institutions must already be carried out and carried through by men with the new needs. That by the way, is the basic idea underlying Marx’s own concept of the proletariat as the historical agent of revolution. He saw the industrial proletariat as the historical agent of revolution, not only because it was the basic class in the material process of production, not only because it was at that time the majority of the population, but also because this class was ‘free’ from the repressive and aggressive competitive needs of capitalist society and therefore, at least potentially, the carrier of essentially new needs, goals and satisfactions.

We can formulate this dialectic of liberation also in a more brutal way, as a vicious circle. The transition from [179] voluntary servitude (as it exists to a great extent in the affluent society) to freedom presupposes the abolition of the institutions and mechanism of repression. And the abolition of the institutions and mechanisms of repression already presupposes liberation from servitude, prevalence of the need for liberation. As to needs, I think we have to distinguish between the need for changing intolerable conditions of existence, and the need for changing the society as a whole. The two are by no means identical, they are by no means in harmony. If the need is for changing intolerable conditions of existence, with at least a reasonable chance that this can be achieved within the established society, with the growth and progress of the established society, then this is merely quantitative change. Qualitative change is a change of the very system as a whole.

I would like to point out that the distinction between quantitative and qualitative change is not identical with the distinction between reform and revolution. Quantitative change can mean and can lead to revolution, Only the conjunction, I suggest, of these two is revolution in the essential sense of the leap from pre-history into the history of man. In other words, the problem with which we are faced is the point where quantity can turn into quality, where the quantitative change in the conditions and institutions can become a qualitative change affecting all human existence.

Today the two potential factors of revolution which I have just mentioned are disjointed. The first is most prevalent in the underdeveloped countries, where quantitative change - that is to say, the creation of human living conditions - is in itself qualitative change, but is not yet freedom. The second potential factor of revolution, the prerequisites of liberation, are potentially there in the advanced industrial countries, but are contained and perverted by the capitalist organization of society.

I think we are faced with a situation in which this [180] advanced capitalist society has reached a point where quantitative change can technically be turned into qualitative change, into authentic liberation. And it is precisely against this truly fatal possibility that the affluent society, advanced capitalism, is mobilized and organized on all fronts, at home as well as abroad.

Before I go on, let me give a brief definition of what I mean by an affluent society. A model, of course, is American society today, although even in the US it is more a tendency, not yet entirely translated into reality. In the first place, it is a capitalist society. It seems to be necessary to remind ourselves of this because there are some people, even on the left, who believe that American society is no longer a class society. I can assure you that it is a class society. It is a capitalist society with a high concentration of economic and political power; with an enlarged and enlarging sector of automation and coordination of production, distribution and communication; with private ownership in the means of production which however depends increasingly on ever more active and wide intervention by the government. It is a society in which, as I mentioned, the material as well as cultural needs of the underlying population are satisfied on a scale larger than ever before - but they are satisfied in line with the requirements and interests of the apparatus and of the powers which control the apparatus. And it is a society growing on the condition of accelerating waste, planned obsolescence and destruction, while the substratum of the population continues to live in poverty and misery.

I believe that these factors are internally interrelated, that they constitute the syndrome of late capitalism: namely, the apparently inseparable unity - inseparable for the system - of productivity and destruction, of satisfaction of needs and repression, of liberty within a system of servitude - that is to say, the subjugation of man to the apparatus, and the inseparable unity of rational and irrational. We can say that [181] the rationality of the society lies in its very insanity, and that the insanity of the society is rational to the degree to which it is efficient, to the degree to which it delivers the goods.

Now the question we must raise is: why do we need liberation from such a society if it is capable - perhaps in the distant future, but apparently capable - of conquering poverty to a greater degree than ever before, of reducing the toil of labour and the time of labour, and of raising the standard of living? If the price for all goods delivered, the price for this comfortable servitude, for all these achievements, is exacted from people far away from the metropolis and far away from its affluence? If the affluent society itself hardly notices what it is doing, how it is spreading terror and enslavement, how it is fighting liberation in all corners of the globe?

We know the traditional weakness of emotional, moral and humanitarian arguments in the face of such technological achievement, in the face of the irrational rationality of such a power. These arguments do not seem to carry any weight against the brute facts - we might say brutal facts of the society and its productivity. And yet, it is only the insistence on the real possibilities of a free society, which is blocked by the affluent society - it is only this insistence in practice as well as in theory, in demonstration as well as in discussion, which still stands in the way of the complete degradation of man to an object, or rather subject/object, of total administration. It is only this insistence which still stands in the way of the progressive brutalization and moronization of man. For - and I should like to emphasize this - the capitalist Welfare State is a Warfare State. It must have an Enemy, with a capital E, a total Enemy; because the perpetuation of servitude, the perpetuation of the miserable struggle for existence in the very face of the new possibilities of freedom, activates and intensifies in this society a primary aggressiveness to a degree, I think, hitherto [182] unknown in history. And this primary aggressiveness must be mobilized in socially useful ways, lest it explode the system itself. Therefore the need for an Enemy, who must be there, and who must be created if he does not exist. Fortunately, I dare say, the Enemy does exist. But his image and his power must, in this society, be inflated beyond all proportions in order to be able to mobilize this aggressiveness of the affluent society in socially useful ways.

The result is a mutilated, crippled and frustrated human existence: a human existence that is violently defending its own servitude.

We can sum up the fatal situation with which we are confronted. Radical social change is objectively necessary, in the dual sense that it is the only chance to save the possibilities of human freedom and, furthermore, in the sense that the technical and material resources for the realization of freedom are available. But while this objective need is demonstrably there, the subjective need for such a change does not prevail. It does not prevail precisely among those parts of the population that are traditionally considered the agents of historical change. The subjective need is repressed, again on a dual ground: firstly, by virtue of the actual satisfaction of needs, and secondly, by a massive scientific manipulation and administration of needs - that is, by a systematic social control not only of the consciousness, but also of the unconscious of man. This control has been made possible by the very achievements of the greatest liberating sciences of our time, in psychology, mainly psychoanalysis and psychiatry. That they could become and have become at the same time powerful instruments of suppression, one of the most effective engines of suppression, is again one of the terrible aspects of the dialectic of liberation.

This divergence between the objective and the subjective need changes completely, I suggest, the basis, the prospects and the strategy of liberation. This situation presupposes [183] the emergence of new needs, qualitatively different and even opposed to the prevailing aggressive and repressive needs: the emergence of a new type of man, with a vital, biological drive for liberation, and with a consciousness capable of breaking through the material as well as ideological veil of the affluent society. In other words, liberation seems to be predicated upon the opening and the activation of a depth dimension of human existence, this side of and underneath the traditional material base: not an idealistic dimension, over and above the material base, but a dimension even more material than the material base, a dimension underneath the material base. I will illustrate presently what I mean.

The emphasis on this new dimension does not mean replacing politics by psychology, but rather the other way around. It means finally taking account of the fact that society has invaded even the deepest roots of individual existence, even the unconscious of man. We must get at the roots of society in the individuals themselves, the individuals who, because of social engineering, constantly reproduce the continuum of repression even through the great revolution.

This change is, I suggest, not an ideological change. It is dictated by the actual development of an industrial society, which has introduced factors which our theory could formerly correctly neglect. It is dictated by the actual development of industrial society, by the tremendous growth of its material and technical productivity, which has surpassed and rendered obsolete the traditional goals and preconditions of liberation.

Here we are faced with the question: is liberation from the affluent society identical with the transition from capitalism to socialism? The answer I suggest is: It is not identical, if socialism is defined merely as the planned development of the productive forces, and the rationalization [184] of resources (although this remains a precondition for all liberation). It is identical with the transition from capitalism to socialism, if socialism is defined in its most Utopian terms: namely, among others, the abolition of labour, the termination of the struggle for existence - that is to say, life as an end in itself and no longer as a means to an end - and the liberation of human sensibility and sensitivity, not as a private factor, but as a force for transformation of human existence and of its environment. To give sensitivity and sensibility their own right is, I think, one of the basic goals of integral socialism. These are the qualitatively different features of a free society. They presuppose, as you may already have seen, a total trans-valuation of values, a new anthropology. They presuppose a type of man who rejects the performance principles governing the established societies; a type of man who has rid himself of the aggressiveness and brutality that are inherent in the organization of established society, and in their hypocritical, puritan morality; a type of man who is biologically incapable of fighting wars and creating suffering; a type of man who has a good conscience of joy and pleasure, and who works, collectively and individually, for a social and natural environment in which such an existence becomes possible.

The dialectic of liberation, as turned from quantity into quality, thus involves, I repeat, a break in the continuum of repression which, reaches into the depth dimension of the organism itself. Or, we may say that today qualitative change, liberation, involves organic, instinctual, biological changes at the same time as political and social changes.

The new needs and satisfactions have a very material basis, as I have indicated. They are not thought out but are the logical derivation from the technical, material and intellectual possibilities of advanced, industrial society. They are inherent in, and the expression of, the productivity of advanced industrial society, which has long since made [185] obsolete all kinds of inner-worldly asceticism, the entire work discipline on which Judaeo-Christian morality has been based.

Why is this society surpassing and negating this type of man, the traditional type of man, and the forms of his existence, as well as the morality to which it owes much of its origins and foundations? This new, unheard-of and not anticipated productivity allows the concept of a technology of liberation. Here I can only briefly indicate what I have in mind: such amazing and indeed apparently Utopian tendencies as the convergence of technique and art, the convergence of work and play, the convergence of the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. How? No longer subjected to the dictates of capitalist profitability and of efficiency, no longer to the dictates of scarcity, which today are perpetuated by the capitalist organization of society; socially necessary labour, material production, would and could become (we see the tendency already) increasingly scientific. Technical experimentation, science and technology would and could become a play with the hitherto hidden - methodically hidden and blocked - potentialities of men and things, of society and nature.

This means one of the oldest dreams of all radical theory and practice. It means that the creative imagination, and not only the rationality of the performance principle, would become a productive force applied to the transformation of the social and natural universe. It would mean the emergence of a form of reality which is the work and the medium of the developing sensibility and sensitivity of man.

And now I throw in the terrible concept: it would mean an ‘aesthetic’ reality - society as a work of art. This is the most Utopian, the most radical possibility of liberation today.

What does this mean, in concrete terms? I said, we are not concerned here with private sensitivity and sensibility, but [186] with sensitivity and sensibility, creative imagination and play, becoming forces of transformation. As such they would guide, for example, the total reconstruction of our cities and of the countryside; the restoration of nature after the elimination of the violence and destruction of capitalist industrialization; the creation of internal and external space for privacy, individual autonomy, tranquillity; the elimination of noise, of captive audiences, of enforced togetherness, of pollution, of ugliness. These are not - and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough - snobbish and romantic demands. Biologists today have emphasized that these are organic needs for the human organism, and that their arrest, their perversion and destruction by capitalist society, actually mutilates the human organism, not only in a figurative way but in a very real and literal sense.

I believe that it is only in such a universe that man can be truly free, and truly human relationships between free beings can be established. I believe that the idea of such a universe guided also Marx’s concept of socialism, and that these aesthetic needs and goals must from the beginning be present in the reconstruction of society, and not only at the end or in the far future. Otherwise, the needs and satisfactions which reproduce a repressive society would be carried over into the new society. Repressive men would carry over their repression into the new society.

Now, at this farthest point, the question is: how can we possibly envisage the emergence of such qualitatively different needs and goals as organic, biological needs and goals and not as superimposed values? How can we envisage the emergence of these needs and satisfactions within and against the established society - that is to say, prior to liberation? That was the dialectic with which I started, that in a very definite sense we have to be free from in order to create a free society.

Needless to say, the dissolution of the existing system is [187] the precondition for such qualitative change. And the more efficiently the repressive apparatus of the affluent societies operates, the less likely is a gradual transition from servitude to freedom. The fact that today we cannot identify any specific class or any specific group as a revolutionary force, this fact is no excuse for not using any and every possibility and method to arrest the engines of repression in the individual. The diffusion of potential opposition among the entire underlying population corresponds precisely to the total character of our advanced capitalist society. The internal contradictions of the system are as grave as ever before and likely to be aggravated by the violent expansion of capitalist imperialism. Not only the most general contradictions between the tremendous social wealth on the one hand, and the destructive, aggressive and wasteful use of this wealth on the other; but far more concrete contradictions such as the necessity for the system to automate, the continued reduction of the human base in physical labourpower in the material reproduction of society and thereby the tendency towards the draining of the sources of surplus profit. Finally, there is the threat of technological unemployment which even the most affluent society may no longer be capable of compensating by the creation of ever more parasitic and unproductive labour: all these contradictions exist. In reaction to them suppression, manipulation and integration are likely to increase.

But fulfillment is there, the ground can and must be prepared. The mutilated consciousness and the mutilated instincts must be broken. The sensitivity and the awareness of the new transcending, antagonistic values - they are there. And they are there, they are here, precisely among the still non-integrated social groups and among those who, by virtue of their privileged position, can pierce the ideological and material veil of mass communication and indoctrination - namely, the intelligentsia. [188]

We all know the fatal prejudice, practically from the beginning, in the Labour Movement against the intelligentsia as catalyst of historical change. It is time to ask whether this prejudice against the intellectuals, and the inferiority complex of the intellectuals resulting from it, was not an essential factor in the development of the capitalist as well as the socialist societies: in the development and weakening of the opposition. The intellectuals usually went out to organize the others, to organize in the communities. They certainly did not use the potentiality they had to organize themselves, to organize among themselves not only on a regional, not only on a national, but on an international level. That is, in my view, today one of the most urgent tasks. Can we say that the intelligentsia is the agent of historical change? Can we say that the intelligentsia today is a revolutionary class? The answer I would give is: No, we cannot say that. But we can say, and I think we must say, that the intelligentsia has a decisive preparatory function, not more; and I suggest that this is plenty. By itself it is not and cannot be a revolutionary class, but it can become the catalyst, and it has a preparatory function - certainly not for the first time, that is in fact the way all revolution starts but more, perhaps, today than ever before. Because - and for this too we have a very material and very concrete basis - it is from this group that the holders of decisive positions in the productive process will be recruited, in the future even more than hitherto. I refer to what we may call the increasingly scientific character of the material process of production, by virtue-of which the role of the intelligentsia changes. It is the group from which the decisive holders of decisive positions will be recruited: scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers, even psychologists - because psychology will continue to be a socially necessary instrument, either of servitude or of liberation.

This class, this intelligentsia has been called the new [189] working class. I believe this term is at best premature. They are - and this we should not forget - today the pet beneficiaries of the established system. But they are also at the very source of the glaring contradictions between the liberating capacity of science and its repressive and enslaving use. To activate the repressed and manipulated contradiction, to make it operate as a catalyst of change, that is one of the main tasks of the opposition today. It remains and must remain a political task.

Education is our job, but education in a new sense. Being theory as well as practice, political practice, education today is more than discussion, more than teaching and learning and writing. Unless and until it goes beyond the classroom, until and unless it goes beyond the college, the school, the university, it will remain powerless. Education today must involve the mind and the body, reason and imagination, the intellectual and the instinctual needs, because our entire existence has become the subject/object of politics, of social engineering. I emphasize, it is not a question of making the schools and universities, of making the educational system political. The educational system is political already. I need only remind you of the incredible degree to which (I am speaking of the US) universities are involved in huge research grants (the nature of which you know in many cases) by the government and the various quasi-governmental agencies.

The educational system is political, so it is not we who want to politicize the educational system. What we want is a counter-policy against the established policy. And in this sense we must meet this society on its own ground of total mobilization. We must confront indoctrination in servitude with indoctrination in freedom. We must each of us generate in ourselves, and try to generate in others, the instinctual need for a life without fear, without brutality, and without stupidity. And we must see that we can generate the [190] instinctual and intellectual revulsion against the values of an affluence which spreads aggressiveness and suppression throughout the world.

Before I conclude I would like to say my bit about the Hippies. It seems to me a serious phenomenon. If we are talking of the emergence of an instinctual revulsion against the values of the affluent society, I think here is a place where we should look for it. It seems to me that the Hippies, like any non-conformist movement on the left, are split. That there are two parts, or parties, or tendencies. Much of it is mere masquerade and clownery on the private level, and therefore indeed, as Gerassi suggested, completely harmless, very nice and charming in many cases, but that is all there is to it. But that is not the whole story. There is in the Hippies, and especially in such tendencies in the Hippies as the Diggers and the Provos, an inherent political element - perhaps even more so in the US than here. It is the appearance indeed of new instinctual needs and values. This experience is there. There is a new sensibility against efficient and insane reasonableness. There is the refusal to play the rules of a rigid game, a game which one knows is rigid from the beginning, and the revolt against the compulsive cleanliness of puritan morality and the aggression bred by this puritan morality as we see it today in Vietnam among other things.

At least this part of the Hippies, in which sexual, moral and political rebellion are somehow united, is indeed a nonaggressive form of life: a demonstration of an aggressive non-aggressiveness which achieves, at least potentially, the demonstration of qualitatively different values, a transvaluation of values.

All education today is therapy: therapy in the sense of liberating man by all available means from a society in which, sooner or later, he is going to be transformed into a brute, even if he doesn’t notice it any more. Education in [191] this sense is therapy, and all therapy today is political theory and practice. What kind of political practice? That depends entirely on the situation. It is hardly imaginable that we should discuss this here in detail. I will only remind you of the various possibilities of demonstrations, of finding out flexible modes of demonstration which can cope with the use of institutionalized violence, of boycott, many other things - anything goes which is such that it indeed has a reasonable chance of strengthening the forces of the opposition.

We can prepare for it as educators, as students. Again I say, our role is limited. We are no mass movement. I do not believe that in the near future we will see such a mass movement.

I want to add one word about the so-called Third World. I have not spoken of the Third World because my topic was strictly liberation from the affluent society. I agree entirely with Paul Sweezy, that without putting the affluent society in the framework of the Third World it is not understandable. I also believe that here and now our emphasis must be on the advanced industrial societies - not forgetting to do whatever we can and in whatever way we can to support, theoretically and practically, the struggle for liberation in the neo-colonial countries which, if again they are not the final force of liberation, at least contribute their share - and it is a considerable share - to the potential weakening and disintegration of the imperialist world system.

Our role as intellectuals is a limited role. On no account should we succumb to any illusions. But even worse than this is to succumb to the wide-spread defeatism which we witness. The preparatory role today is an indispensable role. I believe I am not being too optimistic - I have not in general the reputation of being too optimistic - when I say that we can already see the signs, not only that They are getting [192] frightened and worried but that there are far more concrete, far more tangible manifestations of the essential weakness of the system. Therefore, let us continue with whatever we can - no illusions, but even more, no defeatism.

Link: Existence without Essence under Capitalism

I. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maxim

In October of 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a speech at the Club Maintenant. His remarks would become the basis of his next book, Existentialism and Humanism, published in 1946. In it, he establishes the idea of “existence precedes essence,” which would become the maxim of successive existentialist thought. This statement was a reversion of previous Christian arguments on existence, which argued God crafted an essence before one’s actual birth through a divine plan. Sartre recanted this idea and instead inverted it – rather than preceding existence, each individual is responsible for subjectively crafting one’s own essence, where he defines himself to his own liking. Thus, true “freedom” is the ability to authentically craft our own individual essence.

Sartre makes these claims of “defining our own essence” within a capitalist framework. In retrospect, our “essence” cannot be autonomously defined in an environment which manipulates desire. In other words, in order for our desires to be authentic, our environment must, too, be authentic. Capitalism maintains its hegemony through a production of desires which manifests itself through our consumption. Therefore, since consumers – which is all we are reduced to, consumers – exist in an artifice, their essence is also artificial. Sartre’s maxim would be unequivocally true if a coercive environment did not precede our existence. However, the truth in his statement is only partial. Rendered inauthentic by mass consumerist society, we are left with merely just existence without essence. As Oscar Wilde put it half a century beforehand, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” [1].

II. Marx’s Conception of Alienation 

Philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century described a phenomenon known as proletarianization. It is a form of downward mobility, where the working class grows larger through increasing levels of capital accumulation. As a result, wealth becomes transferred to fewer and fewer hands as the individuals who were once employers now are demoted to mere workers with labor power. And with this transformation, more individuals are coerced into selling their work for a wage. It through proletarianization that an increasing number of individuals experience “subjectivity without essence” – in Marxist terms, alienation.

In modern late capitalist society, this idea has been pushed to its very extreme. Contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek argues that the current historical situation should push us to radicalize the idea of proletarianization further, since its use has expanded far beyond the confines of the industrial setting [2]. Proletarianization is much more than a reference to a growing working class; it is a condition where an individual is ripped of his/her product, that which is naturally theirs. Therefore, Zizek argues, capitalism embraces this as an end far beyond thebase of production. The current ecological crisis is yet another attempt to separate us from our environment. Similarly, intellectual property is a way to separate us from collective ownership, ripping us apart from our substance. In an effort to compartmentalize every aspect of life, capitalism detaches man from his surroundings and creates separation where there was previously none [3].

Thus, given these efforts to fundamentally alter human relations, can Sartre’s conception of essence truly exist in any authentic sense? If essence demands subjectivity than we cannot call anything contemporary “authentic” since our subjectivity is constantly being created for us rather than by us. As Zizek calls it, capitalism leaves us “subjectivity without substance,” in that it leaves us with constant displacement beyond our personal control.

III. Existing within the Simulacra

Now, how does freedom fit into this end? It simply cannot. True freedom cannot coexist with institutions which subjugate, separate, and alienate individuals. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation denounces contemporary society as merely an artifice masquerading as the Real by eliminating any alternatives to its hegemony. He writes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” [4]. Therefore, contemporary capitalist society – the simulacrum – attempts to normalize exploitative relations in an effort to make them appear universal. Because of this, we oftentimes assume liberal conceptions of liberty are the only form of liberty. In retrospect, this is the only form of liberty that can exist within a capitalist framework. Since systemic forms of oppression are cyclical in capitalist systems, they become normalized and expected. Therefore, commonplace conceptions of “freedom” are skewed and limited to the current economic paradigm and fail to transcend it.

Because liberal freedom is mainstay, proletarianization is seen as complementary to liberty in contemporary Western society. It is not seen as a menace; rather, it simply is. It is this acceptance and rationalization of oppression which prevents freedom from expanding. Worse so, it makes individuals hesitant to even accept greater conceptions of freedom. Again, it all relates back to Baudrillard’s conception of the artifice – the simulation becomes the only reality, while the Real is nonexistent. And it is within this artificial framework that radical freedom, free of institutional oppression and real autonomy, cannot exist.

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation derives much of its theories on artifice from the French Situationist school of thought, particularly Guy Debord. He writes in Society of the Spectacle, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing” [5]. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of the artifice as symbols; these symbols reaffirm themselves and the existing artifice they create. Most importantly, such an environment induces individuals to uphold the artifice as if it were the Real. As Debord argues, “The more powerful the class, the more it claims it does not exist.” Because the Real can never be acknowledged, subtle censorship is crucial to maintaining its hegemony; and it is within this paradigm that freedom cannot exist in any complete context.

While we continue to exist in the artifice, individuals cannot achieve their essence. Hence, Sartre’s maxim is incomplete. Since human agents are victim to their circumstances, hierarchies of oppression hamper any realization of true freedom. These systemic imbalances in in class, race, sex, and gender maintain themselves by merely being viewed within liberal capitalism, rather than through the Real. Freedom is unable to be fully realized with this intact. In order for real freedom to be actualized, man has to transcend efforts of marginalization in order to complete the second half of Sartre’s phrase – and it begins by dismantling the institutions that constrict individual autonomy and liberty.

Link: Beyond True and False

Western philosophers have not, on the whole, regarded Buddhist thought with much enthusiasm. As a colleague once said to me: ‘It’s all just mysticism.’ This attitude is due, in part, to ignorance. But it is also due to incomprehension. When Western philosophers look East, they find things they do not understand – not least the fact that the Asian traditions seem to accept, and even endorse, contradictions. Thus we find the great second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna saying:
The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.

An abhorrence of contradiction has been high orthodoxy in the West for more than 2,000 years. Statements such as Nagarjuna’s are therefore wont to produce looks of blank incomprehension, or worse. As Avicenna, the father of Medieval Aristotelianism, declared:
Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.

One can hear similar sentiments, expressed with comparable ferocity, in many faculty common rooms today. Yet Western philosophers are slowly learning to outgrow their parochialism. And help is coming from a most unexpected direction: modern mathematical logic, not a field that is renowned for its tolerance of obscurity.

Let’s start by turning back the clock. It is India in the fifth century BCE, the age of the historical Buddha, and a rather peculiar principle of reasoning appears to be in general use. This principle is called the catuskoti, meaning ‘four corners’. It insists that there are four possibilities regarding any statement: it might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.

We know that the catuskoti was in the air because of certain questions that people asked the Buddha, in exchanges that come down to us in the sutras. Questions such as: what happens to enlightened people after they die? It was commonly assumed that an unenlightened person would keep being reborn, but the whole point of enlightenment was to get out of this vicious circle. And then what? Did you exist, not, both or neither? The Buddha’s disciples clearly expected him to endorse one and only one of these possibilities. This, it appears, was just how people thought.

At around the same time, 5,000km to the west in Ancient Athens, Aristotle was laying the foundations of Western logic along very different lines. Among his innovations were two singularly important rules. One of them was the Principle of Excluded Middle (PEM), which says that every claim must be either true or false with no other options (the Latin name for this rule, tertium non datur, means literally ‘a third is not given’). The other rule was the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC): nothing can be both true and false at the same time.

Writing in his Metaphysics, Aristotle defended both of these principles against transgressors such as Heraklitus (nicknamed ‘the Obscure’). Unfortunately, Aristotle’s own arguments are somewhat tortured – to put it mildly – and modern scholars find it difficult even to say what they are supposed to be. Yet Aristotle succeeded in locking the PEM and the PNC into Western orthodoxy, where they have remained ever since. Only a few intrepid spirits, most notably G W F Hegel in the 19th century, ever thought to challenge them. And now many of Aristotle’s intellectual descendants find it very difficult to imagine life without them.

That is why Western thinkers – even those sympathetic to Buddhist thought – have struggled to grasp how something such as the catuskoti might be possible. Never mind a third not being given, here was a fourth – and that fourth was itself a contradiction. How to make sense of that?

Well, contemporary developments in mathematical logic show exactly how to do it. In fact, it’s not hard at all.

At the core of the explanation, one has to grasp a very basic mathematical distinction. I speak of the difference between a relation and a function. A relation is something that relates a certain kind of object to some number of others (zero, one, two, etc). A function, on the other hand, is a special kind of relation that links each such object to exactly one thing. Suppose we are talking about people. Mother of and father of are functions, because every person has exactly one (biological) mother and exactly one father. But son of and daughter of are relations, because parents might have any number of sons and daughters. Functions give a unique output; relations can give any number of outputs. Keep that distinction in mind; we’ll come back to it a lot.

Now, in logic, one is generally interested in whether a given claim is true or false. Logicians call true and false truth values. Normally, and following Aristotle, it is assumed that ‘value of’ is a function: the value of any given assertion is exactly one of true (or T), and false (or F). In this way, the principles of excluded middle (PEM) and non-contradiction (PNC) are built into the mathematics from the start. But they needn’t be.

To get back to something that the Buddha might recognise, all we need to do is make value of into a relation instead of a function. Thus T might be a value of a sentence, as can F, both, or neither. We now have four possibilities: {T}, {F}, {T,F} and { }. The curly brackets, by the way, indicate that we are dealing with sets of truth values rather than individual ones, as befits a relation rather than a function. The last pair of brackets denotes what mathematicians call the empty set: it is a collection with no members, like the set of humans with 17 legs. It would be conventional in mathematics to represent our four values using something called a Hasse diagram, like so:

{T}
↗ ↖
{T, F}{ }
↖ ↗
{F}

Thus the four kotis (corners) of the catuskoti appear before us.

In case this all sounds rather convenient for the purposes of Buddhist apologism, I should mention that the logic I have just described is called First Degree Entailment (FDE). It was originally constructed in the 1960s in an area calledrelevant logic. Exactly what this is need not concern us, but the US logician Nuel Belnap argued that FDE was a sensible system for databases that might have been fed inconsistent or incomplete information. All of which is to say, it had nothing to do with Buddhism whatsoever.

Even so, you might be wondering how on earth something could be both true and false, or neither true nor false. In fact, the idea that some claims are neither true nor false is a very old one in Western philosophy. None other than Aristotle himself argued for one kind of example. In the somewhat infamous Chapter 9 ofDe Interpretatione, he claims that contingent statements about the future, such as ‘the first pope in the 22nd century will be African’, are neither true nor false. The future is, as yet, indeterminate. So much for his arguments in the Metaphysics.

The notion that some things might be both true and false is much more unorthodox. But here, too, we can find some plausible examples. Take the notorious ‘paradoxes of self-reference’, the oldest of which, reputedly discovered by Eubulides in the fourth century BCE, is called the Liar Paradox. Here’s its commonest expression:
This statement is false.

Where’s the paradox? If the statement is true, then it is indeed false. But if it is false, well, then it is true. So it seems to be both true and false.

Many similar puzzles turned up at the end of the 19th century, to the dismay of the scholars who were then trying to place mathematics as a whole on solid foundations. It was the leader of these efforts, Bertrand Russell, who in 1901 discovered the most famous such paradox (hence its name, Russell’s Paradox). And it goes like this:

Some sets are members of themselves; the set of all sets, for example, is a set, so it belongs to itself. But some sets are not members of themselves. The set of cats, for example, is not a cat, so it’s not a member of the set of cats. But what about the set of all the sets that are not members of themselves? If it is a member of itself, then it isn’t. But if it isn’t, then it is. It seems that it both is and isn’t. So, goodbye Principle of Non-Contradiction. The catuskoti beckons.

Here you might wish to pause for a brief sanity check. Do scenarios such as thesereally break the chains of Aristotelian logic? Well, an increasing number of logicians are coming to think so – though matters remain highly contentious. Still, if nothing else, examples of this kind might help to remove the blinkers imposed by what Wittgenstein called ‘a one-sided diet’ of examples. We’ll need to keep those blinkers off as we return to those tricky questions that the Buddha’s disciples asked him. After all, what does happen to an enlightened person after death? Things are going to get only more disconcerting from here on in.

The Buddha, in fact, refused to answer such queries. In some sutras, he just says that they are a waste of time: you don’t need to bother with them to achieve enlightenment. But in other texts there is a suggestion that something more is going on. Though the idea is never really elaborated, there are hints that none of the four possibilities in the catuskoti ‘fits the case’.

For a long time, this riddle lay dormant in Buddhist philosophy. It was only around the second century CE that it was taken up by Nagarjuna, probably the most important and influential Buddhist philosopher after the Buddha himself. Nagarjuna’s writings defined the new version of Buddhism that was emerging at the time: Mahayana. Central to his teachings is the view that things are ‘empty’ (sunya). This does not mean that they are non-existent; only that they are what they are because of how they relate to other things. As the quotation at the beginning of this essay explains, their nature is to have no intrinsic nature (and the task of making precise logical sense of this claim I leave for the reader to ponder; suffice it to say, it can be done).

The most important of Nagarjuna’s writings is the Mulamadhyamakakarika, the ‘Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way’. This is a profound and cryptic book, whose principle theme is precisely that everything is empty. In the course of making his arguments, Nagarjuna often runs through the four cases of thecatuskoti. In some places, moreover, he clearly states that there are situations in which none of the four applies. They don’t cover the status of an enlightened person after death, for example.

Why might that be? Nagarjuna’s reasoning is somewhat opaque, but essentially it seems to go something like this. The language we use frames our conventional reality (our Lebenswelt, as it is called in the German phenomenological tradition). Beneath that there is an ultimate reality, such as the condition of the enlightened dead person. One can experience this directly in certain meditative states, but one cannot describe it. To say anything about it would merely succeed in making it part of our conventional reality; it is, therefore, ineffable. In particular, one cannot describe it by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuskoti.

It is striking how useful his invention proves in the context of Buddhist metaphysics, though Buddhism played no part in inspiring it

We now have a fifth possibility. Let us write the four original possibilities, {T}, {F}, {TF} and {}, as tfb and n, respectively. The way we set things up earlier, value of was a relation and the sets were the possibilities that each statement might relate to. But we could have taken value of as a function and allowed tfb and n to be the values that the function can take. And now there is a fifth possible value – none of the above, ineffable, that which lies beyond language. Call it i. (Strictly speaking, it is states of affairs that are ineffable, not claims, so our values have to be thought of as the values of states of affairs; but let us slide over this subtlety.)

If something is ineffable, i, it is certainly neither true nor false. But then how does idiffer from nneither true nor false? If we are looking at individual propositions, it is indeed tricky to discern any difference. However, the contrast comes out quite clearly when we try to join two sentences together.