Monday, December 9, 2013

Kill the Landlord, Save the Man

originally published on CounterPunch

Some expressions are so familiar, so deeply entwined in our history that, although they are thoroughly racist, even homicidal, they fail to elicit much surprise or shock. Familiar with their presence, we become inured to their depravity. And, because they fail to surprise us, they oftentimes fail to offend us as well. While the degree to which they influence us is subject to dispute, few will doubt that our culture is stitched together by just such threads. Maintaining an infamous position among these is the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Derived from statements delivered by the Civil War hero Philip Sheridan, the notion that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" contributed to not only the justification of the conquest of the continent; it also abetted that which is indistinct from the conquest, the dehumanization and genocide of Native Americans. What deserves to be considered alongside this fact is that, intimately related to Sheridan's phrase is the somewhat more subtle, though no less genocidal, civilizational motto of the founder of the Carlise Indian Industrial School: "kill the Indian, save the man." To be sure, as Ward Churchill, among others, apprises us, the Carlisle School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was designed to assimilate (by force, and with the express intent of eradicating the cultures of) the indigenous people of North America. 
The association and affinity of these two phrases is not subject to contention. The founder of the Carlisle School, Richard Henry Pratt, himself admitted as much. In 1892, in his Official Report of the Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, after referencing the statement attributed to Sheridan that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," Pratt added: "I agree with the sentiment." However, he went on to explain, this agenda can be pursued in a far more effective and profitable manner than Sheridan's. One can "kill the Indian," Pratt continued, and still "save the man."

In light of this, it may come as a surprise to note that, in his time, Pratt was regarded as something of a progressive. Among certain crowds, his position would even be regarded as progressive today (which, obviously, doesn't speak well of today's general social atmosphere). For, in spite of his racism, mingled in with his white supremacism, lurked the fundamentally universalist (even egalitarian) recognition that, when born, each person is, as he put it, "a blank, like the rest of us." That is, contrary to prevalent conceptualizations, Pratt did not maintain that people from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and "races" possessed some distinct essence. Rather, Pratt recognized that, though not exclusively, people are largely products of their environments and cultures. As he put it, "Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit. These results have been established over and over again beyond all question."

Needless to say, Pratt's "open-mindedness" is very much restricted. Not only were Pratt's characterizations of indigenous people (as savages), and of mainstream US culture (as civilization, and superior) unambiguously racist. The violent manner by which students were forcibly removed from their families (a process hardly distinct from kidnapping) evinced a deep lack of respect for his students' humanity. This should not come as much of a surprise since, according to Pratt, the humanity of indigenous people was not so much present as merely potential - a potential to be developed by force. For let's not forget, Pratt's intention was to destroy his students' languages and cultures. His students, and all Native Americans in his opinion, were to be transformed - or deformed, rather - into the "blanks" referred to above. Once blanked out (as cells in the cloning process are flushed of their genetic material), new information - imperialistic US culture - was to be inserted, replacing his students with a type of cultural clone. It is from this perspective that we should read Article 2, section (e), of the Genocide Convention. According to this, the crime of genocide is defined as "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group," "with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, or religious group." And, as the legal scholar Kurt Mundorff argues in the Harvard International Law Journal, it is only by ahistorical circumlocution and dissimulation that the actions of Pratt, and others, can not be recognized as genocide.

Along with outright conquest and murder, the forced removal of indigenous people to reservations, and the removal of children to boarding schools like Carlisle (schools designed to delete a culture, to "kill the Indian, save the man") were part of a sustained effort that, among other harms, reduced formerly economically independent peoples to conditions of utter dependence. As such, there is a heinous irony in the fact that, as Pratt put it, the Carlisle School (and all of the boarding schools participating in these policies) strove to teach its students how to live "by the sweat of his brow." For Native American people already knew very well how to live "by the sweat" of their brow. Before their territory was appropriated (by way of deceptive treaties and fraud as much as by outright force), and before the resources they, for the most part, lived in respectful interdependence with were - like the bison - negligently, recklessly, and intentionally destroyed, First Nations people lived "by the sweat" of their brows very well. Pratt must have known this.

As a career soldier who served as an officer for eight years on the Great Plains, and fought in several campaigns in the so-called Indian Wars, Pratt may be said to have contributed directly as well as indirectly to the destruction of Native Americans' independence. As such, it seems tremendously unlikely that he was unaware that indigenous societies very much knew how to live, and did live, by "the sweat" of their brows. Beyond this, it takes an astounding degree of hypocrisy for Pratt to state that US culture (which is inextricable from the exploitation of slave and "free" labor alike - the sweat of others' brows) could meaningfully instruct a formerly independent people to live by "the sweat" of their own brow. This hypocrisy is only amplified by the fact that the abject poverty and dependence indigenous people were reduced to by the late 19th century was the direct result of the bloody colonization of the US. Insofar as hypo-critical literally means sub-critical, however, it is very likely that Pratt was not even aware of this twisted irony. 

Irrespective of whether or not Pratt was able to recognize this irony, or whether he was aware of the degree of harm he caused, it ought to be remarked that, as the English philosopher Francis Bacon observed in his essay Of Usury, it is the command "in sudore vultus tui comedes panem tuum; not, in sudore vultus alieni ["in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread—not in the sweat of another’s face]" that is "the first law." 

That is, from the biblical exhortation delivered to Adam that "in the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread" (that one must derive one's bread from one's own labor), Bacon infers a deeper truth: that, beyond this, one should not eat, or profit, from the toil of another. And while living off the sweat or toil of others is a clear violation of this "first law," this is precisely the law that both undergirds the US economy historically, and continues to subtend profit-making in general. 

No person (or social role, rather) exemplifies this eating in the "sweat of another's face" as unambiguously as the institution, or arrangement, of the Landlord - the rentier, in general, who simply sits back and lives off of the rents, "the sweat" of others' labor. Some, no doubt, will contend that because the Landlord provides a much needed service (housing, among other things), the Landlord is rightfully entitled to collect this sweat. It takes little scrutiny, though, to see that this claim is hardly more than an unsupported assertion. For what is the service that the Landlord provides? When it comes to housing, the Landlord merely pays other people, plumbers, for instance, to provide services - a payment, by the way, that is always less than the amount of rent the Landlord obtains. Were this not the case, the Landlord would suffer a loss, and would have no incentive to maintain the relation at all. In other words, if the "duties" of the Landlord outweighed the Landlord's "rights," if the Landlord derived no profit, it would be in his or her interest to simply surrender the property, or to evict everyone. The landlord, however, very rarely does this. And this is so because, supported by the police, the courts, and other apparatuses of the state, the landlord is always deriving a profit from this business relationship. That is, the Landlord is always eating from the "sweat" of his or her tenants - in violation of what Bacon referred to as "the first law."
Another argument that people may raise in favor of the Landlord is that, because the Landlord owns the land, the Landlord has a right to collect rent, or sweat, from his or her tenants. Aside from the circularity of this reasoning, however, one should ask how this landlord came into possession of this property in the first place. One person, no doubt, purchased land from another. But how did a piece of land become a piece of property? No one built land. As George Orwell reminds us, the original owners "simply seized it [the land] by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to supply them with title-deeds." And it hardly takes an expert in the intricacies of US History to see that, in the context of the United States (though not only in the United States), all of the land now owned as property was taken by just such force from the continent's indigenous people. As such, property owners do not provide a service so much as profit from a harm. Or, rather, they profit from two harms: the harm of the seizure of the land, and the harm of the ongoing consumption of their tenants' "sweat." Those who regard the nullification of title to excessive real property as a harm simply confuse a harm for a harm's correction.

This argument, however, should not be construed to mean that people should not have the right to be secure in their homes. As George Orwell phrased it in his As I See It column of August 18, 1944, "It is desirable that people should own their own dwelling houses, and it is probably desirable that a farmer should own as much land as he [sic] can actually farm. But the ground-landlord in a town area has no function and no excuse for existence. He is merely a person who has found out a way of milking the public while giving nothing in return. He causes rents to be higher, he makes town planning more difficult, and he excludes children from green spaces: that is literally all that he does, except to draw his in-come."

As more and more people spend ever larger portions of their incomes on rent, and as more and more homes are being foreclosed upon and acquired by hedge funds and banks (which now comprise society's largest class of landlords), and as society continues to polarize into the extremes of rich and poor, it may be time to consider adopting Bacon's "first law." Insofar as this relates to property ownership, by nationalizing, for instance, and then internationalizing real property, land and the resources derived therefrom can be shared among the people of the world - as opposed to being hoarded by the few, as they are today.

Among its other benefits, the elimination of Landlordism (which is nothing short of the legalization of Warlordism) would alleviate up to half, and often more, of people's financial burdens; in so doing, this would free people from unnecessary work - an unburdening that would allow for not only a resurgence of community, but a democratization of society. Additionally, the elimination of excessive work would result in the lessening of the pollution that such work produces - leading to a far healthier environment. That is, in addition to ameliorating social harms, the elimination of Landlordism could also contribute to the correction of climate change.

In light of people's tendency to resort to violence, it must be stressed that the Landlord, as a human being, is not exclusively responsible for the harms reproduced by contemporary socio-economic relations. Though the Landlord profits from exploitation, insofar as this particular political-economic system reproduces myriad social, ecological, and other harms, it is this system that needs to be changed - and such a change is negated to the extent that it involves harm to any person, including the Landlord. Rather than harming the Landlord, the elimination of Landlordism entails simply the vaporization of the excessive advantages the Landlord enjoys, and the concomitant restitution of the land s/he hoards to the community. In other words, a necessary though not necessarily sufficient pre-condition for advancing toward an actually just, actually democratic, actually egalitarian political-economic system requires, among other steps, that we strip the Landlord of the right to gross excess - that we Kill the Landlord, and Save the Man.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Commerce or Community

Originally published on CounterPunch

Because the history of the United States is comprised of contradictions (proclamations of liberty, for instance, are coupled with the practice of slavery), it should come as little surprise to find that the holiday of Thanksgiving – so steeped in hyper-consumerism – itself derives from the rejection of a compelled commercialism. This history is especially relevant today, as we consider how to reconcile another crucial contradiction – the conflict between commerce (the mercenary) and community (the common – that which is shared). 
 Before the Reformation transformed much of Europe, public and private life were in many respects determined by the calendar of the Church – a calendar comprised of, among other things, dozens of compulsory holidays and feast days. Not only were people compelled to attend church services on these days, purchasing those items employed in these holidays’ respective rituals was also compulsory. Candles and knickknacks, and other religious bric-a-brac (the cost of which, in the aggregate, was not insubstantial) had to be purchased, irrespective of whether one wanted these items or not.

Rejecting this compulsory consumption for a life of dogmatic austerity, the Puritans of the time eliminated not only feast days and rituals, but all holidays from their religious practices. Instead of Easter, Christmas, and the rest, simple days of thanks (celebrating propitious events) and days of fasting (honoring the more solemn occasions) were observed. And when they set sail to colonize Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims brought this approach to holidays along.

It is worth remarking that the year 1621, the year of the Pilgrims’ legendary first Thanksgiving dinner, was also the year that the extremely powerful commercial enterprise, the Dutch West India Company (which would begin to colonize, among other places, what now includes the New York Metropolitan region) received its corporate charter. Initially only interested in the region to the extent that it was presumed to provide access to the fabled Northwest Passage, and thereby to the spices and silks of Asia, as the value of the plentiful fish and furs of the New World became apparent, the Company sought to secure it in its own right. When one considers the legendary reputation for natural wealth the region enjoyed, one wonders what took them so long.

Since at least 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor, chroniclers of the region consistently recorded that, in addition to the abundance of fish, and the other riches, one could even smell the sweetness of flowers at significant distances from the shore. Although many would attribute this presence – among other things – to some sort of natural chance, or happenstance, the random richness of the land perhaps, recent studies reveal that what was formerly conceived of as merely natural plenty was, in fact, the result of the respectful economic and cultural practices of the indigenous people, the Lenape.

Although they were distinct from the Lenape, a similar eastern woodland culture – the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts – reputedly shared the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast. And as the centuries passed, and as the indigenous people of the Americas were systematically annihilated or “removed” to reservations, it is interesting to see the degree to which – in spite of their initial antipathy – the Pilgrims’ religious fundamentalism would blend with the commercial aggressiveness of their neighbors into the fundamentalist commercialism, or commercial fundamentalism, that has become hegemonic today. Along with its “Indian removal” policies, and its slavery-based economy, its general exploitativeness, and its array of technical wonders, as this commercial culture developed it managed to transform (or, rather, to deform) the formerly bucolic land of the Lenape, and others, into the toxic sprawl of traffic, industry, and garbage presently polluting the planet. Unlike the mariners of Hudson’s time, those who arrive in New York City these days hardly smell the scent of flowers. Those not already inured to it are often overwhelmed by the blend of car exhaust, and other toxic fumes, blanketing the region.

In light of these consequences of commerce, it is a further irony that the pre-Reformation period’s compulsory consumption (not to mention production) has become, in many respects, the rule today. Instead of candles, and other votive objects, though, the Thanksgiving ritual practiced across the country consists of purchasing thanksgiving-related paraphernalia. Not only does this entail a significant expenditure of money, time, and effort, as Thanksgiving segues into Christmas these are followed by ever greater levels of consumption. Unlike the consumption dictated by the priests of the pre-Reformation world, however, in the post-Reformation world of thePanopticon (manifesting, most notoriously these days, in the NSA’s pervasive surveillance), the agent delivering commands is not only external, like the priest – it is internal as well, often occupying the position of one’s own super-ego.

Following the Reformation-era shift that led from priests serving as intermediaries to the divine, under the constant possibility of surveillance by the all-seeing, people increasingly began to police themselves. Unlike the laws that parceled the world into plots of property (owned by a small number of owners), depriving people of the common land and resources necessary to sustain communities (and consequently compelling people to sell themselves to commerce to survive), no specific law compels people to engage in such rituals as buying and eating turkey. Nevertheless, people are taught, conditioned, and pressured in varying ways, to conform to these standards of behavior. And it is perhaps nothing more than a coincidence (albeit a particularly odd one) that the Greek Goddess of compulsion, Bia, was closely associated with the Greek Goddess Ananke – for Ananke, let’s not forget, also happened to be the mother (the origin) of the Fates. And the tripartite structure of the Fates not only corresponds extremely closely to that of the Trinity, but the spinner, the measurer, and the cutter of the Fates corresponds identically to the US Constitution’s tripartite separation of powers structure, the law of the Order determining us all.

Beyond all of this, however, perhaps the largest irony brought to mind by Thanksgiving (and its shadow, Black Friday) is the fact that all of this buying and selling and consuming – that is, commerce – is inimical to the ideal of community Thanksgiving ostensibly celebrates. For commerce and community are diametrically opposed. Indeed, whereas the former, the commercial, is essentially mercenary (reducing all to buying and selling – to a price – and subordinating all other values to the dictates of the market), the latter, community (exemplified by the radically egalitarian societies of indigenous people) is marked by the opposite of commerce; that is, not by buying and selling but by sharing the common. To the extent that one preponderates, the other is diminished. And as commercial fundamentalism determines the distributions of the world (with its so-called free trade agreements, corporate-bought legislatures, and other apparatuses), nearly all social relations are replaced by commercial ones. Even the concept of ‘neighborhood’ is being privatized and commodified. Although the primary definition of neighborhood is a social relationship (a neighborly, i.e. amicable relationship), its colloquial, everyday meaning has become a section of a city. Influenced by commercial notions of property, the social relationship designated by the term neighborhood has largely been supplanted by commercial relations – neighborhood is conceived of as real estate.

The virtually total subjection of social life to the dictates of commerce has reached a degree of intensity that even the Pope claims to be concerned about it. Of course, from his other remarks it is clear that the Pope is not interested in the dissolution of the superstitious ideologies and hierarchies that this economy depends upon. Though the Pope may not approve of the commanders in your head compelling you to do whatever capitalistic thing it is he disapproves of, he would not eliminate these commanders so much as replace them with his own – with the ministers of the Church. For, let’s not overlook the fact that the Pope’s recent statements are less a departure than a return to earlier Church concerns about poverty – words that, in the pre-Reformation period, consistently honored and exalted the poor, yet nevertheless managed to coexist with feudalism (that is, with lords and landlords) pretty well, reproducing poverty for centuries.

Notwithstanding the above, and though social relations based on mutual aid and trust (community) have been forced to the margins of social life over the past few decades, this forcement has been recently meeting increasing levels of resistance. Inseparable from the legacy of the Occupy movement, the labor strikes and protests planned by Walmart workers for Black Friday comprise just such an instance of community resisting commerce.

Beyond its commercial elements (and the fact that it derives from a rejection of commercialism), and the degree to which it illuminates the conflict between community and commerce, it is also worth reflecting on the genealogy of the word Thank. So central to Thanksgiving, the word ‘thank’ is etymologically rooted in the word Think. And when one thinks about the historical, imperialist horrors associated with Thanksgiving – not to mention the contemporary harms our commercial culture constantly recreates (from the mundane, everyday forms of domination, like police brutality, to ecocide and wars) – one would think that, instead of contributing further to the exploitation and harm of that which we share in common (community), it might make sense to not only refrain from the thoughtless consumption of consumeristic rituals, but to refrain from reproducing the exterminatory commercial political-economy ruling our lives entirely.

Not only should we support Walmart workers and others struggling for a just distribution of the community, we should extend these struggles. Not only should we recognize that the dictates of community ought to restrict and determine the limits of commerce, we should recognize that those things that people need to live well – that are common to and commonly needed by all – should not be privatized. Instead of being deformed into private things, they should be transformed into public, common, community things. Moreover, we should recognize that such things are what a community – a society – has an actual duty of care to provide to itself (not to sell between individuals, but to share among neighbors). If we gave it some thought, we just might recognize that those entities that people need to live well (nutritious food, housing, education, and the ability to govern our own lives, among other things) are so valuable that they should not be for sale at all.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sleepwalkers of the World, Wake Up and Take Over

originally published on CounterPunch

As ever more work’s combined with ever more stress – among other results – people sleep less and less. And, as various spectacular pseudo-events dominate the public’s reputedly shrinking attention span (a phenomenon indistinct from the shrinking span of the reputedly public itself), it should come as little surprise that the Center for Disease Control’s nearly year-old finding that sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions has failed to generate significant public outcry.
To be sure, no small degree of irony inheres in the fact that the people most affected (negatively affected, I should add – since many business interests are indubitably positively affected by this epidemic-cum-business enrichment plexus) are too sleep-deprived to even recognize the gravity of the situation – a gravity determining our mechanical somnambulation toward ever-graver ecological and physiological degradation (the generally unsustainable situation).

Having passed the point where exposure to toxic waste (like lead, radioactive waste, and e-waste – from our designed-to-be obsolete gadgetry/machinery) now comprises as significant a public health menace as tuberculosis and malaria, and the very air we breathe constitutes the single most significant known carcinogen, we nevertheless trudge along, insensate.

These “hidden,” collateral costs, or harms (which are, let’s not forget, part and parcel of profit), are intrinsic to this disposable commodity economy - a political-economic arrangement that, lest we forget, doesn’t just pollute our skies and oceans and stultify our imaginations, but distributes the resources of the world according to an exchange insuring, among others, that ever-increasing amounts of labor receive ever-diminishing levels of compensation; an arrangement that not only deranges the ranges of mountains and reduces the rainforests of the world to pulp, but also degrades and deranges untold lives; for of what else are these lives comprised if not, among other things, time? Indeed, in a manner  analogous to Lavoisier’s law of the conservation of mass, what is somewhere deprived somewhere else comes back. And the aggregate of this abuse of energy and time returns not only as toxic pollution, and poverty, cancer and general immiseration, but also in this epidemic of sleep deprivation.

Symptoms of this disease, of this malaise, include, by the way, degrees of disorientation “equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication” and results in, among others, poor decision-making abilities – i.e. poor judgment – as well as misplaced or unfounded optimism – a process of stupefaction and stupidity that, in addition to theories of cultural hegemony and heteronomy, can significantly contribute to our understanding of that flap where the ideological and the empirical, or physiological, overlap – one of the loci of that dead-eyed and narcotized blitheness with which so many face the waste and haste that these days typifies our culture – or, more specifically, our barbarism.

With respect to these thoroughly diseased conditions, insisting on and then actually sleeping – especially when this involves potentially punitive repercussions – can constitute a genuinely revolutionary interruption. In other words: wake up – and go to sleep.

Friday, November 15, 2013

At the Edge of the Apocalypse

Though severely limited by the vast carnage Typhoon Haiyan spread throughout the region – destroying roads and reducing entire villages to fields of rubble – relief efforts are underway across the devastated islands of the Philippines. And as the Climate Change Conference (the COP 19) proceeds in Warsaw, Poland – and as the representative from the Philippines, Naderev SaƱo, continues the hunger strike he vowed to maintain “until a meaningful outcome [to the ongoing crisis] is in sight”, more and more people across the planet are beginning to recognize that, in order to prevent further ecological catastrophe and misery, radical, structural, political-economic changes need to occur.

As virtually all climate scientists agree, and as report after report confirm, it is a practical certainty that Typhoon Haiyan and other extreme weather events (like last year’s Superstorm Sandy, and Typhoon Bopha) not only result from climate change, climate change is anthropogenic. That is, not only are extreme weather catastrophes caused by climate change, climate change is caused by human activity. What should be added, as well, is that the activity that contributes to climate change is not just any activity. It is human activity of a particular type.

Much of the human activity of indigenous cultures, for instance (which in many respects recognize the degree to which our lives are intertwined in the larger enigmatic world, and consequently exhibit a degree of respect and care for the natural world – one at odds with the efforts of our present economic Order to turn every natural resource into a commodity) do not, in any significant manner, contribute to climate change. To be sure, many of these groups are at the forefront of battling it. Nor do these cataclysmic, extreme weather events result from various forms of sexual activity – as numerous superstitious preachers contend. Rather, these catastrophes are largely the result of activity that is inextricable from an industrial, profit-based, commodity economy. And as economies continue to grow, deforming the forests and mountains and other natural resources of the world into so many plastic cups, and hamburgers, among other things, these extreme weather catastrophes – as a necessary counteraction, or byproduct – are only increasing.

Indeed, even as relief efforts are proceeding in the Philippines, the traffic of the cities of the world, and the CO2 spewed by the meat industry, among other forms of diffused violence, are presently concentrating into entirely new superstorms. As the status quo continues, storms certain to be more massive, and more deadly, than such record-breaking storms as Haiyan and Sandy are being produced. And unlike, for example, the potential destructiveness of nuclear weapons – which only ever manifest by way of some sort of accident, or deviation from a norm – the catastrophes attending climate change will continue, and will continue to grow, unless a genuine change or deviation from the norm transpires.

Alongside the metaphorically and literally toxic commodities this economy produces, and the occupational and stress-related diseases, such as cancer and heart disease – not to mention poverty, malnutrition, sleep-deprivation, police violence, and the other injustices it produces – it systematically produces still more. For these alone this political-economic order should be discarded. When coupled with the recognition that the political-economy responsible for the proliferation of these harms is also causing the deadly weather events witnessed the world over, the existing system should be stripped of whatever vestige of legitimacy it has managed until now to retain. In many respects, this loss of credibility is just what’s unfolding. And it is in this context – the context of the existing Order’s legitimacy, or lack thereof – that we should briefly examine the concept of Apocalypse.

Derived from the Greek term Apo, which means ‘away from’, and Kalyptein, which means ‘hidden’, apocalypse literally means ‘away from the hidden’ – or, in other words, Revelation. But just what is being revealed? And how does this primary meaning of the term apocalypse fit with its secondary meaning – with its identification with the end of the world?

When our very way of life (organized by a coercive, plutocratic political-economic system) is revealed to be the utterly destructive, unsustainable, system that it is – that is, when what is still, to some degree, a secret becomes a broadly accepted fact, the first type of revelation will lead to the second. The revelation of this Order’s fundamental injustice will lead to the dissolution of popular support; and, as history repeatedly demonstrates, when popular support for, and faith in, a given order evaporates, that concrete order quickly collapses. In other words, apocalypse should not be construed to simply mean the end of the world. Rather than the end of the world in general, apocalypse should be understood to refer to the end of a particular type of world: the unjust world. And as we breathe, this unjust, reckless, exploitative world is peeling away; what comes next is as of yet undetermined.

Russell Brand and the Necessary Planetary Adjustment

originally published on CounterPunch

Russell Brand's recent political essay, viral BBC interview, and ongoing comedy tour - The Messiah Complex - raise important political and philosophical questions concerning, among other issues, the nature of justice, the importance of voting, and the need for radical, revolutionary change. These deserve serious consideration.

Since at least the time of the Athenian statesman Solon (c. 638 BC - 558 BC), whose reforms are credited with setting the historical stage for the emergence of democracy in ancient Athens, the concept of law has contained a crucial ambiguity. While the law is rightfully recognized as an instrument of Order - legitimizing and maintaining a status quo - it is not restricted to this function. Beyond this conservative function is its more vital dimension. In addition to its retentive, conservative aspect, Law has a protentive, metamorphic aspect. Law may even be likened, in this respect, to DNA; it not only clones, it mutates. For, along with maintaining Order, law (or, the spirit of the law) is also employed in pursuing that which disrupts Order (that is, Justice). This latter, law-nullifying aspect of Law is what allowed Solon to not only nullify the law of Draco - abolishing people's debts, freeing debt-slaves, and constraining the power of Athens' ancient oligarchy, according to Plutarch - but enabled a relatively egalitarian redistribution of the social world of the ancient Athenians as well. And while it is important to note that this egalitarianism did not extend to women, slaves, and other excluded people, and so exposes the limitations of Athenian democracy, it does not diminish this emancipatory aspect of the law. In many respects, law - as such - is constituted by this very  contradiction. Unstable, it is forever adjusting (a term which, by the way, literally means toward the just). Unlike the dead letter of the law that Order appeals to for support and legitimacy, Justice, the spirit of the law, is the living, vital aspect of the law - the truth of the law as opposed to its mere semblance. 

Among other things, this ambiguity of the law has a corollary in the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ranciere's concept of the political. According to Ranciere, like law, the political has two dimensions. On one hand it is the maintenance of Order - what he terms politics as police. On the other hand, corresponding to justice, is actual politics. Actual politics disrupts the Order maintained by the politics as police. As he defines it in his Disagreement, actual politics only arises when "the natural order of domination is interrupted by the institution of a part of those who have no part" (11). That is, politics proper only emerges with this disruption of Order by this striving toward an egalitarian redistribution of the social sphere - the adjustment toward the Just.

It is in this context that we should situate Russell Brand's recent statements concerning politics and justice in general, and voting in particular. While many have criticized and mocked Brand for dismissing the practice of voting, it is paramount to recognize (that is, to cognize and to re-cognize) that, according to Ranciere's formulation, of itself voting is not necessarily a political act at all. In general it is a function of politics as police - the maintenance of Order. Indeed, insofar as it signals one's consent to be governed, voting is a largely acclamatory gesture - applauding a particular character in what is political theater more than actual politics. While voting is intrinsically problematic, however, this does not mean that it is necessarily or essentially anti-political in Ranciere's sense. In theory, one could acclaim (and go beyond acclamation) an entirely new type of distribution of the world - a distribution of the world according to egalitarian priorities. Instead of the priorities and rules of the inertial Order busy dividing and conquering and distributing and consuming and desecrating the world, in theory voting could acclaim a Just distribution of the world - one that subordinates the dictates of profit to the actual well-being of the people and the environment - an adjustment that does not stabilize into some new inertial Order, but rather is stable only insofar as it continues to adjust. 

Needless to say, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, among the other institutions that represent and manifest the interests of the present Order, are existentially hostile to any meaningful adjustment; for such would involve a significant redistribution of the cultural and physical wealth of the world, produced thus far by humanity as a whole, from their control. In other words, in spite of all the sanctimonious blather regarding Democracy, no such thing exists. In this so-called "representative democracy" a very narrow slice of "interests" is in fact represented. And politics in any meaningful sense is in part dream, in part delusion.

Contrary to the repeated assertions of Jeremy Paxman, Russell Brand's interlocutor, as well as countless others, we do not live in a democracy. We in fact live in a political arrangement more properly described as a plutocracy. Ploutos (wealth), not the demos (the people), is in charge. While this claim may not jibe with the hegemonic doxa, it is a matter of simple observation that one cannot even participate in a non-marginalized manner in the political theater unless one is backed - supported - by the rich. Before votes are ever counted, money determines the outcomes of elections. It acts as a gatekeeper. Excluded from ballots, and debates, third party candidates with millions of supporters are effectively barred from participating. Millions of supporters matter less than millions of dollars. Unless backed by the rich one cannot compete in campaigns that cost fortunes. And once in office, the constant need to raise funds ensures that those who deviate from the desires of the rich are cut off, and cut out.

This is not to say that a sufficiently popular political and social movement could not overcome these barriers. It is placing the proverbial cart before the horse, however, to suppose that such support could be achieved by the ballot. In order to overcome the institutional barriers to the political stage, a person - or group, or party - would have to possess an enormous amount of popular support in the first place. And even if some hypothetical candidate prevailed in some contest for some office, unless enough like-minded people occupied comparable positions, very little could be accomplished. To meaningfully change the design of the existing Order, the laws that function to maintain the Order and preclude the Just need to be changed or dissolved. All of which is to say, if a social movement were large enough to allow for an actual takeover of congress, such a movement would already enjoy a degree of support sufficient to force congress to step down without having to step into congress' shoes - those shoes of the old Order - in the first place. 

If, for example, a political movement enjoyed enough popular support to change the constitution (to include such mild, though necessary, alterations as a positive right to housing, education, a guaranteed universal income, health care, debt forgiveness, not to mention more radical, structural changes) - if such a movement had a measure of popular support sufficient to overcome the onerous hurdles placed before amending the constitution, why even bother? For the sake of tradition (i.e., the old Order)? Why not just write a new constitution altogether? Perhaps this is what Jesus of Nazareth meant when he reputedly said that he would not change a jot of law. Rather than changing the law of Order, he would leave it to rot. The actual law, the law of justice, is a different matter. 

Notwithstanding the above, and in spite of the fact that it has received so much attention, it is important to consider the fact that Russell Brand's main point was not "don't vote." In his New Statesman essay, and in his BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman, Brand's position vis-a-vis voting was ancillary to his main argument: political change must be preceded by a change of consciousness; before an actual politics can even arise a recognition of not only the pure arbitrariness of the existing Order, but its concrete harmfulness and injustice, needs to take place. People must see the cold hard fact that poverty and profit - the infernal conditions of the slums of Kibera, outside Nairobi, not to mention the slums of the Bronx, and the decadent excess of plutocratic luxury - are two sides of the same coin. Each creates, and recreates, the other. Just as profit is not generated without a corresponding loss somewhere, wealth creates poverty and vice versa. Beyond the horrors inflicted by the inertial Order on billions throughout the world, there is also the fact that, in a world with finite resources, it is patently self-destructive to maintain a political-economy based on waste and exploitation. The net result of our collective work, our "economic production," is a world that is being steadily deformed into toxic refuse. And, contrary to the reigning ideology, it does not have to be this way. Existing conditions are neither natural nor inevitable. Slums, poverty, war, third world as well as first world indentured servitude - these things are made by people, and as such can be unmade by people.

Among the many reactions to Brand's argument for revolutionary change, a particularly pervasive one is that revolutions are dangerous and reap more harm than good. In advocating radical change, these people maintain, Russell Brand is little more than a dangerous fool. For example, in Russell Brand: Good Pundit, Bad Thinker, Parker Brown argues in The Atlantic that revolutions are generally accompanied by terrors, and that these terrors tend to leave people worse off. Citing multiple horrors, Brown argues that radical change is too dangerous to seriously consider. Best to forego such radicality. Aside from the esteemed historian Arno Mayer's findings inThe Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions that, more often than not, the resistance to revolutionary change is what heightens violence, contrary to Brown's contention, many revolutions do not experience any terror phase at all. Indeed, the US revolution is only one among many revolutions that experienced no revolutionary terror. Of course, one must not overlook the fact that after the US Constitution was ratified, and the ongoing terror of slavery was cemented into law (a body of law that also paved the way for the systematic removal and annihilation of the continent's indigenous population), terror abounded. From this perspective, "reign of terror" takes on a decidedly different meaning. 

It is a gruesome irony that Brown raises starvation as a key example of revolutionary harms, noting that during the Chinese Revolution hunger was so severe that the exhumation and consumption of corpses was widespread. Because, while horrific levels of starvation did occur in China, as well as in Stalin's USSR, among other places, the spectacular nature of eating corpses should not blind us to the fact that, as these words are being written, extreme starvation is rampant throughout much of the world today - and this is caused, in large part, by the very neoliberal economic Order that people like Parker Brown defend. In Haiti, for instance, systemic famine is so severe that people regularly resort to eating dirt. And though malnutrition has been rising precipitously in Haiti in the years following the massive 2010 earthquake, it remains less severe than in Guatemala, and parts of Africa, among other places. 

As Mark Twain wrote in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, as bloody as the terror of the French Revolution, and other revolutions' terrors, may have been, there is another terror whose horrors far surpass these. Of these two types of terror, one, like that which sprouted from the French Revolution, is short. Lasting months, it claims thousands of lives. The other type of terror is long. Lasting thousands of years, it enslaves and brutalizes and reaps the lives of hundreds of millions. 

While both of these terrors are anathema to justice, Twain raises an urgent point - a point that is largely congruent with what Brand refers to when he writes of his trip to the slums of Nairobi. The long terror that Twain described is by no means over. Neither anomalous, nor an aberration, it is necessarily produced and reproduced along with the rest of our political-economy, and inextricable from the present Order. 

While Russell Brand is by no means perfect, and among other things exhibits a considerable deal of disturbing behavior - rape jokes, and other forms of sexism that both stem from patriarchal privilege, and reproduce the existing patriarchal Order of domination - he is nevertheless entirely correct in pointing out both the need for what the ever-problematic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as a "revaluation of all values," and a radical deviation from the present, ecocidal Order. Though characterized as a sort of simpleton savant spouting the need for violent change, rather than advocating violence, Russell Brand may be more accurately characterized as agitating for the recognition of the need for an end to what the philosopher Walter Benjamin referred to as the systemic "law-preserving violence" of the present violent Order.

Without raising him to the status of anything above a fellow fallible human being, we ought to support Russell Brand's call for replacing the political-economy cannibalizing the planet with an actual politics. While remaining critical of his shortcomings, and the power his celebrity visibility wields, we nevertheless ought to encourage and support the popularization of his call for a radically egalitarian redistribution of the cultural and physical wealth of the world.

Russell Brand and the Leader Question

originally published on CounterPunch 

Russell Brand’s recent calls for revolutionary change (in his BBC interview and in his article in the New Statesman) have raised a considerable degree of discussion and controversy. Predictably enough, those on the right have reacted by generally dismissing the message. Not only do they characterize its substance as unrealistic, they question the capacity of the messenger; that this is an ad hominem is neither discussed nor, apparently, comprehended.

Although largely agreeing with the message, those on the left tend to either uncritically root for the messenger, or fall into arguments over leaders and structure and organization, not to mention what the parameters of an international revolutionary subject would encompass. This is not to say that these general tendencies of the left and right are rigid or not fluid. Plenty on the radical left are criticizing Brand. Among other things, his objectification of “beautiful women” is – as Musa Okwonga, among others, have pointed out – patently sexist. (That the name New Statesman is patently sexist as well is, as far as I know, not under discussion.) 

In the end, however, Brand’s character flaws have little to do with the validity of his arguments. Though they may mitigate his persuasive “power” – and point to weaknesses in his thinking – they in no way diminish the need for the elimination of, among other injustices, global pollution, poverty, inequality, and the other systemically produced conditions Brand argues should be eliminated. His character flaws, however, are relevant to the extent that they cast light on the claims of proponents of “leaderless” social movements. For in invoking Brand’s flaws, some proponents of leaderlessness – like Natasha Lennard (who, ironically, has over 7,000 Twitter “followers”) – undermine their own positions. Writing in Salon, Lennard asks that “we temper our celebrations of [Brand] according to his very pronounced flaws.”

Yet the argument against celebrating and raising people to the status of leaders has little, if anything, to do with a person’s “pronounced flaws.” Even flawless people should not be leaders. According to the anti-leader argument not even gods, those flawless beings, should be leaders. “No gods, no masters”, right?Among the more problematic aspects of the Political Leader Question is the fact that the term “leader” is particularly ambiguous. Does it mean ‘one who gives commands’ (i.e., a dictator)? Or is it limited to the sense of “spokesperson” (which means dictater in a more benign, but still problematic, sense)? Or does it simply mean one who “leads by example”? Or one who influences by charm and guile? Or does it mean “organizer”? 

For their part, pro-leader people don’t seem to see how one could even have a political movement without leaders. Meanwhile, anti-leader people seem incapable of recognizing the clandestine leaders influencing strategies, priorities, agendas, etc., within their own ranks. Neither side seems to discuss what Jean Baudrillard, in his essay The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media, described as “the modern enigma of politics”: the 16th century thinker Etienne de la Boetie’s insight that political leaders derive their power less from taking it from those they rule over than by the subjected population’s own renunciation of their own power.

In other words, the Leader Question is the Power Question (not to mention the ideology question, the hegemony question, the autonomy/heteronomy question, and the coercive versus non-coercive power question, inter alia). Leaders and followers not only simultaneously reproduce one another in a mutually reinforcing dynamic, this dynamic arises whenever a person has influence over another. And Russell Brand, with his eloquence and celebrity visibility, has no small measure of influence over millions. That is, at least for the time being, he is already a type of leader.

To be continued…

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Fetishization of Voting

published originally on CounterPunch

Walking past a polling site election night, I spotted one of my neighbors standing by the entrance. Dressed in a traditional outfit, he was easily recognizable as a member of a particularly conservative religious sect. Most noticeable, though, was the sign he held admonishing people not to vote. As far as I could tell, the gist of his argument was that the laws, because of their secular nature, are immoral; and since they are immoral, one should abstain from voting. It constituted a breach of the moral law to participate in an immoral system. Needless to say, it struck me as particularly telling that his message was so similar to that of many secular people who admonish others not to vote. Indeed, though he recently changed his position, the comedian Russell Brand recently stated more or less the very same thing: because by voting one tacitly consents to a wildly unjust system, voting inculpates the voter as much as the system. The religious man's message struck me as curiously similar to these apparently secular, religiously-inflected (faith-based), political philosophies.

This, however, should not come as much of a surprise. With their hierarchies and traditions, politics and religion are very much alike. To the extent that they are based on dogma - as opposed to critical thought - and rely on theatrical displays, ritual, and other types of pomp, they are hardly distinct at all. In this light, it is worth considering the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorism that "there is not enough religion to destroy even religion." Rather than some simple contradiction, Nietzsche's insight is that there is not enough genuine awe in the face of the bewildering mystery of Being to destroy the arrogance of dogmatic rigidity. This humility, in turn, gives rise to a radical skepticism - of a sort leading one to critically evaluate the surrounding world (that is, to inspect, and then to re-spect, the world, as opposed to cowardly fearing it) - which is the opposite of simplistic, religious thought. Of course, fear and respect are very closely related. And the degree to which they blend into and out of one another not only allows for their frequent conflation, it allows as well for rampant manipulation. Like religion, politics possesses this ambiguity, this double meaning. As such, this leads to the question: if religion in its truth destroys religion, is there a comparable political corollary? Is there not enough politics to destroy even politics?

The contemporary philosopher Jacques Ranciere's distinction between 'politics as police' and an actual politics is relevant here. For what passes for, or appears to be, politics is often 'politics as police.' More interested in maintaining Order than pursuing justice - more concerned with dogma than critique - this type of politics is very much like religion in Nietzsche's latter sense. And among the dogma, the assertions and articles of faith, and the rituals of this faith-based politics, one finds the institution of the vote. Fetishized, the vote is transmogrified into, and treated as, an idol. Emanating its mysterious powers, the fetish intoxicates those among the political left and right alike. 

To be sure, too often one encounters the fallacious argument that one cannot criticize the system if one fails to vote. Just vote, these people plead. It doesn't even matter what you vote for, they beseech. Just vote. Participate. If you don't, in their eyes, you have waived your right to have a political opinion at all. You have no right to complain. Others, meanwhile, hold to the opposite position. Those consenting to a murderous war machine are in part culpable. Even protest votes legitimize a thoroughly harmful system. One should abstain. Yet, though the vote as an instrument does possess a variety of problematic associations and connotations, plutocratic determinations and limitations, one is nevertheless guilty of the genetic fallacy in insisting that these are not ultimately invertible. For, at least in theory, if a preponderance of people voted for a genuinely revolutionary proposal - or transfused the federal, state, and local representatives of the business class with representatives of a genuinely egalitarian, emancipatory politics - the system would be radically altered, and could be radically transformed. If one had sufficient representation, the constitution could even be fundamentally changed, or rewritten altogether; obstructionist judges could be handily impeached. Basic rights to housing, education, health care, nutritious food, leisure, and a healthy environment, among other things, could be instituted. Poverty and homelessness could be eliminated. The wars - the drug war, the class war, and the war against the environment - could be ended. The hypertrophic military could be withdrawn from the rest of the world. Brought back to the US and fundamentally altered, stripped of its weaponry, it could be put to work farming, as well as repairing and building public transportation systems, sanitation systems, and cleaning up the mess made of the environment. Among other infrastructural projects, community colleges could be built in every neighborhood across the continent. These campi, in turn, could develop into interdependent loci of participatory political and economic democracy. 

In cooperation with other community college departments, locally run agriculture departments, for example, could produce food. The colleges' engineering departments could handle local engineering, transportation, communication, and other projects. In collaboration with these, architecture departments could attend to housing needs and housing problems. Medical schools and their clinics, freed from the compulsion to garner profits, could contribute to the actual health and well being of communities. Film schools, art schools, music schools, and athletic programs could flourish, competing among one another in regional, continental, and global festivals. Developing the human potential that the commodification of social relations today so brutally deforms, US society could be transformed into one that is actually just. 

The word vote, let's not forget, derives from the Latin votum, which means wish, or hope (not to mention the religious notion 'prayer'). And as the philosopher Ernst Bloch argued in his The Principle of Hope, hope itself is ultimately a utopian concept. As such, utopian tendencies are latent in the concept of the vote. Indeed, it is just this aspect that confidence men like Barrack Obama (with his Romneycare health care law, written by the right wing Heritage Foundation, and his unprecedented aggrandizement of power - via NSA spying, drones, and his disposition matrix, to name just a few) continue to exploit.

And though it may be obvious that politicians such as Obama are hypocritical in the commonly accepted meaning of the word, it is less apparent that they are hypo-critical in the more literal sense - that is, they are sub-critical.

While the Democrats (who in fact are plutocrats) and the plutocratic Republicans (whose name ironically means 'the public thing') cannot be expected to alter the collision course toward ecological catastrophe that their policies are creating, one can't help but look at the vote and regard it as a tool, as opposed to an idol, and wonder - can an actual, radical politics arise from this?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On the Concept of the Crisis

published on CounterPunch

Whether it's the most recent financial scandal, political calamity, or environmental catastrophe, social life these days is presented - if not experienced - as a succession of crises. Indeed, the ongoing economic crisis alone has generated its own considerable brood of sub-crises: the foreclosure crisis, the jobs crisis (aka the unemployment/poverty crisis), not to mention the health care crisis, and the perennial, ideologically distorted, debt crisis are accompanied by still others. And with the government shutdown here in the US, and the related debt ceiling crisis, we encounter this succession of crises' latest incarnation - one that, no doubt, will provide yet another pretext for the privatizing classes, and their acolytes, to further realize their longstanding dream of totalized privatization (eliminating the public wherever it appears: in public schools, social security, medicare, public lands, etc.). In light of all this, a consideration of the concept of the crisis may not only contribute to a clarification of the present political-economic situation, but may aid in our shaking free from it as well.

While the word 'crisis' is rooted in the Greek term krinein - which means to separate, distinguish, critique, or judge - by the time the Hippocratic Corpus was assembled in the beginning of the fifth century BCE, the concept had acquired an important place in ancient medical theory. According to this, a crisis is a turning point in the development of a disease - a point at which a patient's disease begins to either intensify or diminish. Because Hippocrates, among other ancient thinkers, held that the organism possessed an intrinsic healing capacity, he argued that the job of the physician was to pay attention to such crises (thought to occur preponderantly on what were termed "critical days"), adjusting the patient's treatment to facilitate this natural healing process. According to the theory, successful interventions in crises allowed the patient to recover her or his health.

Elaborating upon this, the legendary Roman physician, philosopher, and medical theorist Galen made significant  contributions to the development of the theory of the crisis. Writing and practicing in the second century of the common era, Galen's theories would spread throughout the Roman Empire, influencing the practice of medicine in much of the world until well into the 19th century. And while much of Galen's work would be superseded by ensuing medical discoveries, his theory of the crisis is considerably contemporary. Indeed, insofar as this theory of the crisis is comparable to a notion of a rupture or break in the causal chain of history - enabling an intervention into, and an alteration of, what would otherwise have been a more or less predetermined sequence - the classical concept of the crisis finds curious analogues in early 21st century political and philosophical thought. In some respects it is inseparable from the French philosopher Alain Badiou's concept of the Event. Roughly defined as a moment of truth that emerges from a more or less predetermined "situation," an "event" is contingent upon that disruption, interruption, or other type of rupture of the inertial "situation" that allows the event - the genuinely new - to emerge. Comparable to just such a rupture, the classical medical notion of a crisis in many respects amounts to an event's precondition. For what is a crisis if not a gap in the regular advance of a disease that allows for the turn to not only the patient's recovery, but for a new health - not just a new life, but a better life - to emerge?

Among other things the present shutdown "crisis" (and contemporary crises in general) conforms to this classical, medical definition. For a crisis is just such a turning point from which things can improve or worsen - a point from which the otherwise determined chain of events becomes indeterminate. Since the crisis is the point from which recovery can begin, Galen and Hippocrates would likely agree with the US politician Rahm Emanuel's well-known statement that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." However, while Galen and Hippocrates might agree with Rahm Emanuel's position concerning the importance of crises, it seems exceptionally unlikely that they would agree with Rahm Emanuel's prognoses, or recommended course of treatment.

Before discussing crises further, it is crucial to distinguish between what are, ultimately, deeply political and ideological categories: critical notions of health and non-critical notions of health. Among other forms, the latter tend to manifest as fetishizations of health. Marked not only by a narrow focus on superficial or one-sided aspects of overall health (obsessive exercise regimens, for instance, or a hyper vigilance concerning matters of nutrition), these practices tend to amount to decidedly unhealthy compulsions. Practiced in generally toxic social and physical environments, these generally relate less to actual health than to what are more often than not pathological concerns with purity. Literally dis-easing (disrupting ease), such non-critical practices and regimens prove themselves to be not actually healthy so much as health's mere semblance. A critical notion of health, on the other hand, concerns itself less with individual health than with the distributions of the concrete social conditions and social practices requisite for the realization of an egalitarian society and general social (and individual) well being.

That said, though such politicians as Rahm Emanuel may recognize that crises are important for advancing the goals of their political-economic class, the policies they advance do not lead to anything more than the most narrow notion of health. Among other things, these lead to not only disease in the literal sense of a (general) diminution of ease; they also contribute to and perpetuate disease in the more chronic sense; for their economic policies are inextricable from occupational and social stresses which lead directly to heart disease and cancer, not to mention poverty and homelessness, among other ills. Moreover, endless production also results in ever more pollution, resource destruction, ecocide, and global warming (and, consequently, droughts, malnourishment, famine, and war, to name just some of the more prominent manifestations of socioeconomic disease endemic to this political-economy).

Although people are in many respects aware of the fact that the present manner of organizing society is destroying the planet (along with our lives) the inertial situation continues. And while these potential turning points (these crises) come along regularly, for  various reasons no salutary intervention seems possible. Instead of actually salutary, emancipatory interventions, various short-term treatments are distributed by the present Order to maintain social stability. Rather than treating the root of the problem, the existing Order treats its symptoms. In general, this treatment proceeds by way of the extremely profitable sale of pain-killing and sleep-inducing anesthetics. Beyond the more conventional aspects of the anesthetics industry (represented traditionally by alcohol, street drugs, TV, and religion), with the advance of the general algia over the past few decades, new anesthetics have gained prominence. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Klonopin have become top-selling pharmaceuticals. Along with the other 'opiates of the masses', smart phones, endless television channels, and other forms of entertainment ensure that people are properly entertained, maintained, and contained. And as the general algia (which includes the sickness of the ecosystem) grows ever more extreme, more and more extreme forms of anesthetics are developed simply to keep up. Such practices as extreme sports, and the concentration of sex into extreme, unlimited amounts of pornography, as well as the intensification and proliferation of street drugs, chart this progress.

If anesthetics and the anesthetics industry is as prevalent as it is, though, it is important to note that the opposite of anesthetics is aesthetics. Defined broadly as the critical examination of art, culture, and nature, more than just the opposite of anesthetics, aesthetics may be regarded as its corrective. As opposed to the practice of a narrow, uncritical aesthetics (which tends to spend its energy pondering the latest series of dots, installation of wires, or other such derivative anesthetic consumer items) a critical aesthetics not only analyzes the relationships and intersections between  "culture" and "nature." In addition to paying attention to, and participating in, the arrival of crises, a critical aesthetics  recognizes that it redirects society to the extent that it reinterprets it; redirecting it from the general algia - from a world of generalized disease - to one of radical Ease.

Concerning Ease - and returning to Hippocrates and Galen - it is important to consider the fact that what Hippocrates and Galen most often prescribed for their patients was not medicine so much as rest. Believing that the organism's innate healing power (thevis medicatrix naturae) allowed it to heal itself, and that rest enabled this best, they maintained that ease was required to overcome disease. According to this view (supported by contemporary medical research, incidentally), the physician's role is to create the conditions that allow the body to heal. With this in mind, it should not be too difficult to imagine Galen or Hippocrates prescribing just such a treatment for this society.

As anathema as it may be to the capitalist Order - which requires unlimited expansion and work - health and crises demand just the opposite. For although it is necessary for health, rest is opposed to the economic functioning of capitalism. In spite of the harms its deprivation causes, rest is systematically subordinated to the dictates of the economy. Absent certain environmental crises, not even the sky is afforded any rest. To be sure, it is worth recalling the fact that the April 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland led to the grounding of thousands of air flights. Though less discussed than the economic loss engendered by the cancellation of so many flights, the cessation of air traffic also resulted in the elimination of an estimated 1.3 to 2.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions - contributing to less pollution as well as to less disease. Likewise, the general strike in Spain in late 2012 led to decreases in Spain's national energy consumption, with accompanying decreases in pollution, stress, and dis-ease. And while a critical health recognizes that energy must to some degree be consumed, the critical judgment of a meaningful aesthetics, among other disciplines, must consider that - among other things - the bulk of the energy and work undertaken in present economic production and distribution results less in goods and services than in atrophied health on one end, and hypertrophied illness on the other.

As we consider this latest crisis, and contemplate the various measures policy-makers hope to leverage into being with it (of which the gutting of social security is only the most obvious of the continuing efforts to completely privatize the globe), it is particularly ironic that the implementation of Obamacare is the ostensible precipitant of the shutdown. For let us not overlook the fact that Obamacare does not promote a critical health so much as it allows for the maintenance of a system of normalized disease. That is, Obamacare represents not health so much as its semblance - the Order of the general algia. And the conditions required for justice (which in many respects are articulable as the conditions required for a critical health) demand not the counterrevolutionary austerity of work, production for exchange-value, and dis-ease, but the radical 'austerity' of rest, and critical ease. If our consideration of the classical, medical concept of the crisis elucidates anything, it should lead us to  recognize the degree to which a crisis is, at least potentially, a turning point toward such a critical ease - and that another term for such an actual turning is revolution.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Order and Conquest - The Spirit of Columbus

published originally on CounterPunch

Officially celebrated in the US on the second Monday of October, Columbus first made landfall in the Americas, in what is now the Bahamas, on October 12, 1492. And though, in his eyes, he did stumble onto the shores of a new world, what is more important for the present inquiry is the fact that Columbus immediately imposed the Order of the old world upon the one he invaded. The law of force (articulated in the European legal tradition's Doctrine of Conquest, which grants invaders legal title to the lands they conquer) was subsequently imposed throughout the Americas and beyond. Though this doctrine was formally abolished by the UN in 1974, insofar as it continues to determine the distribution of the planet's resources, the right of conquest in many respects continues to  determine the course of our lives. And while it is crucial to remember the atrocities that Columbus and his successors committed throughout the world during the so-called Age of Discovery, it is equally important to recognize the fact that, though its forms may have changed, the underlying Order that Columbus initiated (with all of its violent implications) continues to operate in politics, economics, and law - that is, systemically - throughout the world today.

It is said that events occur in groups of three. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the fact that Christopher Columbus was born in the year 1451 - in the year of the death of the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, and the ascension of the sultan's son and heir, Mehmed II. In the following year, 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued his notorious Dum Diversas, the papal decree declaring war against all of the world's non-Christians. Thirdly, one year later, in 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered  Constantinople, delivering the terminal blow to the 1500-year-old Eastern Roman Empire. Among the results of their military triumph in Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks made significant geopolitical inroads into Christian Europe. Importantly, this included wresting control of the invaluable overland trade routes to India, China, and the other lands to the east from the Europeans. The subsequent influx of Byzantine refugees into Christian Italy, with their classical texts in tow, contributed to the flourishing of learning and secularism that marked the Italian Renaissance. And it is likely that this proliferation of classic Greek and Roman texts, many of which treated the sphericity of the world as an ancient and uncontentious theory, contributed to Columbus' adoption of this topographical notion. Among its other consequences, the Turk's capture of Constantinople led the banking centers of Europe to shift from the markets of the eastern Mediterranean to the ports of the west, whose sea-routes now allowed traders easier access to the Indies. And it was from just such a port along the Spanish coast that the Christian from the Italian city of Genoa would embark in search of a western sea-route to Asia, spreading - whether willfully or not is unimportant -  Christian and Roman political, economic, and theological institutions (the old world) to the Americas.

While they were to some degree mediated by Christian influences, Roman forms of power and institutions of governance were to take firm root in the so-called new world. As the historian Gordon S. Wood informs us, the founders of the United States themselves consciously modeled not only their political, but also their social projects on Classical Roman forms. Today, few places evince this more strikingly than what is arguably the most politically powerful city in the Americas - a city that, not coincidentally, couples the name of George Washington, that admirer of Roman thought and virtue, with Columbus'. Beyond the classical appearance of Washington, D.C.'s buildings and monuments, the political institutions they house are also heavily indebted to Roman models. To cite probably the most obvious example, the main legislative body of the US, the senate - Latin for council of elders (and etymologically related, incidentally, to the word 'senile') - is derived from the Roman institution of the same name.

Regarding governmental, administrative, and economic forms of power persisting from Rome to the present, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben observes in his treatise on political power, The Kingdom and the Glory, that the constitutional separation of powers schema of the US Constitution, among others modeled on Montesquieu's tripartite division, can be traced directly to the Christian Trinity and the administrative apparatus of the Church. To be sure, it is not difficult to see the father - god, the creator of law - as an analogue of the legislative branch. Moreover, the son, Jesus, often referred to as the one who judges, may be seen to correspond to the institution of the judiciary. Lastly, the Holy Spirit - defined by the Fourth Lateral Council of 1215 as that "who proceeds" - corresponds to the executive branch. Insofar as the transitive verb 'to execute' means to carry out fully, the executive branch of government conforms to this notion of one "who proceeds" quite closely.
Yet while the correspondence between the separation of powers and the Trinity is very close, today's constitutional schema and the theological and ideological justifications that accompany it can be traced to structures of power that significantly predate the Trinity. Beyond the mixed constitution Aristotle described in his Politics, there is a Hellenic progenitor to the Trinity - itself an echo of paleolithic religious structures - that predates the Trinity by many centuries. And not only does the structure of the Greek Moirai, or Fates, predate the Trinity, it also matches the US Constitution's separation of power schema with uncanny preciseness.

Like the Trinity and the three branches of government, the Fates (the three daughters of Necessity) are one power that has three distinct aspects. Corresponding to the legislature, Clotho, the spinner, spins the thread of life. Corresponding to the judiciary, Lachesis, the measurer, measures this thread. And Atropos, the cutter, cuts the thread of life. Curiously, in describing his job as "the decider" - which literally means 'to cut’ - George W. Bush confirms this correspondence between the executive and Atropos.

Among other things, it is important to point out that in Greek myth the Fates were more powerful than all of the gods - even Zeus, who alone was more powerful than all of the other gods combined, could do nothing but adhere to the dictates of the Fates. As such, it seems appropriate that Law should mirror their form. Yet the general rule of the Fates' supremacy had one exception. Asklepios, the son of the god Apollo, and a powerful healer (who, in addition to other feats, could raise the dead), was through his healing power able to overrule the Fates' Order - demonstrating that what appeared to be a necessary power was, in fact, not necessary at all. Threatened by his incursion into their monopoly over divine power, the Fates soon determined that Zeus would destroy Asklepios with a bolt of lightning. Shortly after his death, Asklepios was resurrected as a god and raised into the heavens. It does not take a terribly keen eye to see in this a likeness to another son of a god who raised the dead, healed the sick and the lame, was killed for threatening power, and was resurrected as a god himself. In fact, in many respects Asklepios is a prototype of Jesus of Nazareth - at least one aspect of Jesus. For while Jesus is represented as both a healer and a shepherd (the latter role, as Michel Foucault informs us in his elaboration of the notion of pastoral power, is a dominating, oppressive force), Asklepios is only a healer. And just as the healer Asklepios is able to overrule the Fates (as justice, or the spirit of the law, is said to prevail over its dead letter), Jesus (in his role as healer and champion of the poor and oppressed) stands opposed to not only his shepherdly role, but the pastoral, dominating power that manifests in the Trinity and the institution of the Church as well.
In light of the above it is revealing that, in his oft-quoted diary entry of 1498, Columbus wrote: "let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold." That is, it is the pastoral power of the administrative body of the church - the power of law, of violence, sanctioned by the papal decrees of 1452 and 1493 - that Columbus is referring to and conspiring with, and decidedly not with the healer. Indeed, the enslavement, murder, and other atrocities committed by Columbus over the course of his conquest may be viewed as the very opposite of healing.

This tension between Jesus the healer and Jesus the shepherd/the Trinity (which matches the opposition between Asklepios and the Fates, and between the spirit and the letter of the law) makes another important appearance in the Americas. Three centuries after Columbus' voyage this same dynamic appears in the US Constitution. As with the Fates, a dominating power is "separated" into three parts - into the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. And just as the Fates are not only opposed, but neutralized, by Asklepios, it is important to recognize that the Constitution's Power is at once opposed and legitimated by a notion of justice that (in addition to the "general welfare” of the people) is intimately related to the concept of health. To be sure, it is no small coincidence that Asklepios' daughter - the Greek goddess of healing - was known to the Romans as Salus; and Salus, the Roman goddess of health, in turn pops up in the ancient Roman legal maxim salus populi suprema lex esto. Translated as the health of the people is the supreme law, the maxim has been interpreted to hold that laws and practices that are hostile to the health of the people (however defined) are devoid of legitimacy altogether.

Absorbed into ancient Roman Law as a constitutional metanorm, the maxim spread throughout the legal systems of Europe, and across the globe. And though it has been subjected to diametrical interpretations (for health is often conflated with not only mere strength and power, but with an obsession with purity which leads to oppression and, ironically, dis-ease), and has bolstered the regimes of tyrants, it is vital to note that the maxim has been employed just as frequently in efforts to liberate people from the domination of tyrants. For instance, while common lands were being privatized in England during the enclosure period, the Levellers employed the maxim to justify their efforts to wrest land from dominating powers and distribute land in an egalitarian manner. Though authoritarian thinkers like Thomas Hobbes would use the maxim to justify absolutism and domination, it was the emancipatory, "Asklepian" interpretation of the maxim that would become most influential in the British colonies. It was just this interpretation that the North American colonists repeated in their efforts to legitimize their struggles for liberation from the British Crown (while, at the same time, using the Hobbesian take on the maxim in their relations with indigenous people, women, and slaves, among others). The health of the people is the supreme law, they argued; and because domination by the British Empire (not to mention any other form of domination) is hostile to people's health, this rule lacks legitimacy and must be dissolved.

While the emancipatory spirit animating the employment of the maxim may have been frustrated by the re-emergence of dominating power (one that manifested in the US Constitution, with its enshrinement of slavery, among other economic institutions), just as the figure of Asklepios would counter the dominating power of the Fates, the maxim salus populi suprema lex esto would continue (in limited ways) to be employed to combat harms perpetrated against the health of the people - condemning noxious industrial enterprises, for example, and nullifying debts, among other things. Though shrouded in myth, this is not purely happenstance. An important  equivalence exists between actual justice and actual health. In many respects the conditions necessary for health – the freedom from conditions of disease and domination, and the freedom to access all the resources health requires – are indistinct from the concrete conditions of justice. One may even argue that the maxim provides a basis for positive rights to housing, health care, and other elements of health. For if the health of the people is the supreme law, that which is hostile to the health of the people is against the law. As such, conditions that are hostile to health must be corrected - corrected by supplying those conditions necessary for the actual health and well being of the people of the world - such as housing, nutritious food, a healthy environment, etc. This ought to be the top social and economic priority of any society that claims to respect justice. And because we redirect our society to the extent that we reinterpret it, such a reinterpretation of the maxim - among other things - is crucial today.

In a world in which harms are systematically reproduced (from wars, global warming, and the ongoing catastrophe at Fukushima, to the more mundane epidemics of poverty, occupational disease, and police brutality), and the political-economy of domination - of which Columbus was as much an effect as a cause - continues to plague the health of the people of the world, it is important to recognize that embedded within the power-structure that Columbus conveyed to the Americas is the germ of its destruction. Implicit in the dominating power of the Fates (law as mere Order) is the liberating power of Asklepios (law as Justice), and the potentially emancipatory constitutional metanorm that the actual health of the people should be the supreme law.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Surprise Party

published originally on CounterPunch

The federal government has been shut down, and the Tea Party crowd (who make no bones about wanting to both shrink the fed until it's small enough to fit in a bathtub - to paraphrase Grover Norquist - and to drown it in there as well) is thoroughly enjoying the situation. Indeed, for Tea Partiers, among the many other minions of the business class, it's a veritable dream come true. All those regulatory agencies that interfere with business (yet, in quasi-dialectical fashion, preserve them all the same) are now out of the way. With the EPA and OSHA shut down, worker safety and the environment, among other aspects of the common good, will no longer interfere with the accumulation of private goods (not that these agencies were such effective impediments to begin with).  Furthermore, and in demonstration of the fact that the market only functions with the aid of state force, "essential services" (which, in turn, confirm that the essence of the state is not security, per se, but security in the sense of force) are still very much in effect. As such, the business class can work its workers and drill and mine and otherwise ransack the planet as much as it likes.

Insofar as it relates to the ostensible elation of Tea Party types, it is interesting to reflect upon Barack Obama's recently articulated plan to neither budge nor otherwise give in to Tea Party pressure. For if the Tea Party is enjoying the present situation, and if their constituency is pleased - which they all appear to be - it is difficult to see why the Tea Party would have any interest in budging either - especially when they can "drill, baby, drill." Indeed, rather than persuading the Tea Party to relent, intransigence on the part of Obama would result, it would seem, in little more than mutual catatonia.

That said - and though proclamations such as Obama's shouldn't be taken at  face-value - it takes little to recognize that a standoff involving doing nothing is particularly advantageous for the Tea Party, and disadvantageous for Obama. For if catatonia prevails, the federal government will remain shut. And though Obamacare (the ostensible cause of the shutdown) is already being rolled out, such a setup could very well prove to be a merely pyrrhic victory for Obama. Among other outcomes, the upcoming debt ceiling deadline could not only tank the economy. Just as dramatically, Obama, (blatantly encouraged to do so by the New York Times already) could equally disastrously resolve the upcoming funding crisis by becoming a "sovereign dictator" - in the classic Schmittian sense - outright. Yet (in spite of its counter-intuitiveness) none of this should deflect from the fact that, when it comes down to brass tacks, Obama and the Tea Party aren't really all that different in the first place. 

To be sure, though Paul Krugman has likened the Tea Party to a monster a la Frankenstein's - created by the .01% and now rampaging out of control - the real out-of-control monstrosity, it must not be overlooked, is the ecocidal capitalist economy that Obama and the Tea Party - in their own privatizing ways - each so zealously champion. That is, their merely quantitative differences mask their actual, qualitative sameness.

Whether their respective efforts to wholly privatize the public sphere is advanced through charter schools, or giveaways of public land to private interests, both are in agreement. The world must be divided - ordered - into commodities - irrespective of the objective harm such a paradigm provokes. And though it may be the ostensible trigger of the present shutdown, we should not forget that - irony of ironies - Obamacare is itself, in fact, a product of the same ideology, and of the same business class, that produced the Tea Party. Not only did the Right Wing Heritage Foundation essentially write Obamacare (as an alternative to Clinton's paltry healthcare efforts) the primary aim of Obamacare is not the distribution of healthcare. This is apparent even in Obamacare's official name. As rising health costs began to threaten the stability of the status quo (of the overall stability of the existing Order) the Affordable Care Act was produced to deliver "affordable" healthcare to the uninsured. Delegated to the insurance industry via Obamacare, the provision of health care has nothing to do with providing health care as a basic human right, but serves the double function of distributing commodities - for the purpose of deriving profit - and maintaining the general Order. 

In spite of the fact that there is a patent conflict of interest between providing care and reaping profit (and despite the fact that - in any conflict in a profit-based system - profit prevails over care as a matter of law) business is still in charge of the distribution of care, reaping profits from a complex of social relations and obligations that by all rights should not be determined by business priorities in the first place. This dynamic will only be amplified once the "individual mandate" is in place, compelling people to purchase this "product" - under penalty of law - from the monopoly.

What's more, even the Affordable Care Act's notion of affordability is stilted. Though premiums are unknown at this point, as an example of what a good deal people can expect, we are told that a 27 year old, in good health, making 25,000 dollars a year (a near poverty income in many parts of the country, by the way) will still have to pay close to 10 percent of his or her annual earnings to the industry to secure care; this amount will be higher, of course, should this hypothetical patient ever fall ill and receive actual treatment. And this is an example of a particularly affordable plan. The healthy young must subsidize the infirm old, we are told. That the healthy young, and everyone else for that matter, must also subsidize the wealthy is something that is less frequently discussed.

Defenders of Obamacare will object. Important reforms have been made, they will argue. Obamacare in fact ameliorates some of the grosser inequities of the insurance industry (allowing people with pre-existing conditions, for instance, to secure care). And look at how the Health Exchanges are being gobbled up.

Bandwagon fallacies aside, the putative  popularity of Obamacare derives less from its merits (unknown and untested) than from the fact that people in the US have been starving for access to health care for generations. As is well known, starving people will not only eat rotten cabbages, or boiled shoes, they will be grateful for the opportunity of feasting on such rubbish. What's more, they'll even pay for it. Deprivation (either real or imagined) does this to people; treatment that might otherwise elicit disgust elicits praise. And with the health exchanges open for business, and some seemingly able to receive care, it is only one irony that the government shutdown provoked by Obamacare should threaten the larger Order Obamacare was designed to reinforce. Another one is that this order - insofar as it is based on varieties of exploitation that systematically reproduce all types of disease (from sleep deprivation to cancer) - is itself a grave threat to the health of the people of the world.

With respect to all of these facts, and because the shortcomings and benefits of Obamacare remain obscure, it is little  wonder that people from across the political spectrum (excluding those zealots of banality - the Democratic Party partisans) remain dubious about the insurance industry's new compulsory monopoly. Rather than Obamacare, poll after poll reveal that a single-payer system (medicare for all - universal healthcare) is consistently most popular - as much as it was when Obama unilaterally removed the "public option" from the so-called bargaining table prior to the negotiations that would lead to the ACA. Confirming the notion that those with the power to define what is possible define reality as well (and much to the insurance industry's presumed pleasure, and the majority's chagrin) we now have Obamacare - as well as, for now, the shutdown. 

As both Tea Party adherents and Obama, Democrats and Republicans, pursue generally unpopular policies - and as the Obama regime, with its wars, mass surveillance programs, drone strikes, and Romneycare/Obamacare demonstrates the interchangeability of the two hegemonic parties - the present shutdown may lead some to consider how the general public would respond if a party pursued such a tactic (akin in some respects to a general strike) not in furtherance of the demented populism of the Tea Party, but in furtherance of a genuinely popular politics. For lest we forget, when we hear the blather about how the shutdown is just part of the messy project of a functioning democracy, we should remember that Republicans and Democrats combined comprise less than a majority of the people.

That said, it is interesting to consider how public opinion would respond, say, to a government shutdown, and/or a  general strike, that aimed to secure, for instance, a single payer health care system, or an end to the wars. Not merely the wars in Afghanistan, among other places, mind you, but the so-called War on Terror in general, and the War on Drugs as well; one whose goal included not only shutting down Guantanamo, among other black site prisons, but sought to shutter our extensive domestic prison system, too, and shutdown the government to do so. One can already hear the predictable,  pseudo-working class argument that this would destroy jobs. And indeed it would. Moreover, these jobs should be eliminated, for a just society should neither reproduce such practices, nor have an economy that is dependent on them. When confronted with the follow-up that asks how people would pay for rent, among other necessities, one could envision such an imaginary party responding by remarking that the transition to a just society (in which positive rights to not only housing and health care, but education, and leisure, among other conditions, would be realized) could proceed by way of the institution of a Guaranteed Livable Income, not to mention a ten-hour work-week. Further, one could add that student, consumer, and other debts would be eliminated, too. To be sure, the decrease in production involved in this is not only necessary to combat global warming and environmental degradation, but for the sake of well-being. In other words, not only would the War on Terror and the War on Drugs be concluded, but the Class War itself - which subsumes these lesser wars - would be ended. Along with other systems of domination, capitalism (the sine qua non of which is domination and exploitation) would be phased out; and political and economic power, as well as political and economic rights and duties, would be redistributed according to the demands of justice.

While people criticize the Occupy movement for not congealing into such a party - providing a counterweight of sorts to the Tea Party - such criticism betrays a deeply flawed analysis of the Occupy Movement. Notwithstanding the problem that inheres with parties in general (which is a problem of dogma, and hierarchy, among other things, and is found even in consensus-based organizational approaches), among its other weaknesses the Occupy movement could not fully embrace such positions owing to a fundamental split between its anarchistic, emancipatory elements, and its very large contingent of pro-business libertarians and liberals - libertarians and liberals whose fundamentally reformist, pro-market sensibilities were, and are, not only at odds, but irreconcilable, with the critical requirements of a genuinely emancipatory politics. In spite of the good intentions of many in the Occupy movement, this inability to not only fail to recognize the need for, but the reasons for, decapitating capital (as well as the state) brought it to a theoretical and practical impasse.

As the federal government remains shut, and the NSA, among other "essential" agencies, continues to function, and Fukushima continues to release its lethal radiation, and the September jobs report, when corrected for population growth, will most likely show virtually no sign of jobs, and global warming continues apace, and the distribution of wealth polarizes ever further into extremes of rich and poor, it seems as vital as it seems unlikely that a "party" championing the above positions will arise; which means that, should it appear, it would come as something of a Surprise - a Surprise Party. Don't tell anyone.