Monday, August 8, 2016

Back to 2000?

published originally on CounterPunch

History, it seems, reached its zenith eight years ago, in 2008, and has been traveling backward since. How else can one account for the fact that, just as in 2000, the incumbent Democrats are running a highly unlikable former senator, who also served in the outgoing administration, and whose major selling point (aside from her gender, that is) is wonkishness and experience?

If we've returned to the year 2000, however, we should recognize that such a recurrence would double (i.e., amplify) any similarities - which may explain why Al Gore's robotic demeanor has returned in the steely unpleasantness of Hillary Clinton, and how the more or less standard falsehoods and exaggerations of the former (his hypocritical environmentalism, for instance) have multiplied into the latter's litany of lies and war crimes.

Hardly limited to the Democrats, though, this distorted, double-effect holds for the challenger, too. Like the nominee in 2000, who was also born into wealth and privilege, the current Republican nominee is also regarded as a monstrous buffoon. Not only do each of these businessman-politicians have highly dubious business records, marked by strings of business failures (as well as by a long history of fraud in the case of the current nominee), like the 2000 nominee, the 2016 nominee has no actual political experience. For while Bush did hold public office, the governor of Texas serves a largely symbolic function, with few real responsibilities. Instead of a liability, and despite the fact that both are members of the rarefied plutocratic class, though, this inexperienced outsider persona provided and provides much of the appeal of each. The correlate of this inexperience, meanwhile, their respective geopolitical ignorance, is accompanied by still other similarities - their name/brand recognition, for example, as well as the aggressive swagger characteristic of their respective campaigns.

Among other places, this swagger manifests verbally, in a constant torrent of inanity. While we may not remember very clearly, the doubles also share a penchant for absurd pronouncements. And, again, we see that, like their other qualities, the malapropisms of one of the doubles is not just present but amplified in the other (in Trump's blatantly racist comments, for instance).

While Trump may lack the chainsaw-lugging approachability that did so much to endear Bush to a sector of the electorate, however, the two nevertheless possess a comparable appeal. In not entirely different ways, each manifests Marshall McLuhan's insight that the medium is the message. That is, it doesn't matter that they utter toxic nonsense (e.g., denying climate change), and often don't know what they're talking about. Their medium, their brute presence, their opposition to the present, is their message.

Irrespective of Trump's contradictions and incoherence, it is his brashness, his big mouth, his embodiment of an objection, that is key. Whether his statements are true or false is irrelevant. As George Bernard Shaw observed, "the moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it." And Trump's followers believe. In this regard, it is hardly coincidental that one of Trump's most repeated phrases is "believe me." Much like McLuhan's example of a light bulb - a medium whose mere presence creates an environment - Trump's indignant rejection of reality is his medium and message. As opposed to the light bulb, though, the medium of Trump doesn't illuminate. Rather, it spreads darkness, and myth. And yet, spreading darkness should not be conflated with creating it. That is, Trump has been politically successful in large part because the reality he rejects (which Clinton promotes) is experienced by more and more people as poverty, and unremitting hardship. The fear he spreads is inseparable from the mounting anxiety (economic and otherwise) of millions.

But if Trump and Clinton amount to hypertrophic versions of Bush and Gore, it is a further irony that Trump and Clinton mirror one another as well. Not only is Clinton regarded by Trump's followers as nothing short of satanic, for instance, while Clinton's supporters characterize Trump as that secular Satan, Hitler; as so many have pointed out, the main source of Trump's and Clinton's appeal is that neither is the other. That is, their identity is their difference, which is the same. It should come as little surprise, then, that alongside Trump's campaign promise to persecute Muslims domestically is Clinton's record of bombing Muslims abroad - and that Trump's anti-immigrant proposals are matched by Clinton's record of supporting mass deportations, too. True, Trump's opposition to free trade agreements and wars of aggression distinguish him from Clinton (as well as from Bush). But, aside from the issue of whether one can believe him, these distinctions are dwarfed by Clinton's and Trump's respective commitments to capitalism and global hegemony which require such interventions.

The distortions of cyclical time, however, contain more doubles than these. Not only do Trump and Clinton mirror one another, and appear (or reappear) as the intensified doubles of Bush and Gore, the conclusion of Obama's administration in many respects appears as the double of Bill Clinton's. With his NATO expansions, his free trade agreements, his continuation of a President Bush's aggression against Iraq, and his Wall Street-friendly policies (not to mention the ridiculous fact that Clinton was also regarded as the first black president), Obama's two terms mirror Clinton's in multiple, amplified manners.

In addition to deeper poverty, increased police brutality, and levels of economic inequality that make the malaise and "jobless recovery" of the post dot-com era look positively rosy, international problems are also intensified in this recurrence. Since it threatens the entire planet, climate change (which Obama successfully ignored for eight years, despite his promises to the contrary) is among the most urgent of these. Another is the threat of nuclear war with Russia, which could easily result from Obama's (and HRC's) ongoing expansion of NATO. Of course, rather than the result of any particular politician's policies, all of these problems (poverty, ecocide, militarism, and police brutality) are nothing but the underside of our political economy itself - that is, its foundation. Trudging about as we are in the fog of class war (a thick fog of pollution, technology, and ideology), it's as easy to overlook these doubles as it is to overlook the degree to which this fog surrounds and influences us.

A novelty in 2000, when few used email and fewer could imagine how drastically the internet would infiltrate and determine our lives, the personalized social and media bubbles that led Mitt Romney to think he had the 2012 election sewn up until the last minute are exponentially stronger today. Built into search engines, which then reproduce and reinforce all sorts of baseless political opinions, the pervasive and invasive influence of these curated political realities is more powerful than ever. Among one of the bigger political myths reproduced by these engines, one taken for a fact by so many these days, is the Nader spoiler myth.

Rather than Ralph Nader, of course, it was the US Supreme Court (not to mention Gore's inability to convince people to vote for him) that decided the 2000 election. Beyond the facts and issues of one of the Court's most infamous decisions, Sandra Day O'Connor not only openly expressed her desire for a Bush victory (which would allow her to retire during a Republican administration), as well as her anger over the initial announcement of a Gore victory, Scalia's son and Clarence Thomas' wife were actively working for Bush - as were Jeb Bush, then Governor of Florida, and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris. These patent conflicts of interest alone should have sufficed to invalidate the Court's decision as well as the election - the results of which (aside from the fact that Gore won the popular vote) remain inconclusive. All of which is to say, in addition to the doubles of Clinton and Gore, and Trump and Bush, the contested election of 2000 may also see its double appear this year - in a proportionately amplified manner, of course. Beyond the role third parties might play, Trump's recent statements predicting a "rigged election," and his former adviser Roger Stone's predictions of a "bloodbath," suggest that the amplified return of a contested election is a strong likelihood.

With months until November, however, everything's still up in the air. And while Trump and Clinton could both drop dead next week, it takes little foresight to recognize that, in such a fraught atmosphere, the subject of voting will remain contentious. Is a vote for Stein, for instance, really a vote for Clinton? With all the neoconservatives supporting her, isn't a vote for Clinton a vote for them? Moreover, how is one to reconcile the contradiction between Emma Goldman's famous declaration that "If voting changed anything they'd make it illegal" and the fact that barriers are set up to block and limit ballot access and voting all over the country? Aren't those who've worked so hard to gut the Voting Rights Act and institute voter ID laws setting up legal hurdles?

Despite the reality that the monumental costs involved in running a competitive political campaign are enough to expose our putative democracy for the plutocratic system it is, and that even winning an election is a superficial victory (since the laws and structures and institutions determining our lives fold our social fabric into a nearly comprehensive, disempowering maze that officeholders cannot meaningfully address); and just as it's the case that this fundamentally unjust structure needs to be dismantled (just as poverty needs to be eliminated, not managed), and that voting generally changes very little, and can arguably even worsen things by strengthening the illusion of democratic legitimacy, when it comes to making a mess of this illusory democracy, the banal act of voting (for a radical alternative, at least) has the potential to be at least as effective as marching in a continent-wide demonstration. For while voting may be merely symbolic, symbols can nevertheless be tremendously powerful.

While it's true that Jill Stein presently has a very low chance of winning - and, even if she were elected, wouldn't be able to accomplish much within this biophagous system - rather than the ecocidal catastrophe of a Hillary Clinton administration, or the monstrous alternatives of Trump or Gary Johnson (the libertarian candidate who, like the others, doesn't challenge the rule of exploitation and plunder), a strong showing by Stein and Baraka would deal a sizable blow to the status quo. However symbolic, and limited, the simultaneous demoralization and encouragement that would accompany such a blow would be real enough. And, as history amply demonstrates, once the illusory invincibility, illusory inevitability, and illusory necessity of an unjust arrangement of the world is exposed, the whole shameful sham can come shattering down.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pseudo-Democracy > Reparations > Actual Democracy

originally published on CounterPunch

It is hardly a coincidence that the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's On the Natural Variety of Mankind were all published within a year of one another, for each supports a necessary aspect of a larger, integrated project. Not only was the rationale for seizing political power (provided by the Declaration) supported by Smith's popular text (which justified rule by the wealthy business class). Because this wealth and power was contingent on slavery, and territories seized by conquest, Blumenbach's theory that the "Caucasian race" (a designation he coined, by the way) was the supreme race was also instrumental in justifying and reinforcing the new political economic order.

Prior to Blumenbach, the Swedish scholar Carl Linnaeus' theory that there were four geographically defined races provided the accepted taxonomical understanding of human diversity. Among his innovations, Blumenbach not only added a fifth race, he arranged the five in an hierarchy, placing the "Caucasian" at the top. And even though this pseudo-scientific theory has been debunked repeatedly over the years, by such mainstream sources as PBS no less, the superstition of racial superiority, inferiority, and genetics continues to influence thought. This, of course, is not to say that a person of African origin, for instance, and a person of European origin have no genetic differences. However, not only are there often greater genetic variations within a so-called race than between people said to belong to different races, what counts as a racial trait or characteristic is completely arbitrary. Indeed, racial classifications changed repeatedly historically according to the need to rationalize political and economic exploitation. Consequently, while there is no such thing as race in an anthropological sense, the concept of race does have a sociological meaning involving socially constructed identities and differences. In addition to Africans and Asians, for instance, the Irish were classified by the British as a different race in order to justify maintaining Ireland as a colony. And, in the 19th century, even the poor (that heterogeneous class) were regarded as a distinct race in the US - as were Italians, and others, who "became white" after World War II.

As such, it is not only the case that poverty and race, like race and wealth, cannot be easily disentangled. This entanglement, and the relations of domination it implies, demonstrates that poverty is, in general, not just a condition marked by the absence of economic power. Poverty refers to a lack – or, more accurately, to a deprivation – of economic and political power. Visible in high rates of incarceration, and epidemic levels of preventable diseases, among other socially produced injuries, in it purest form this weakness manifests as the slave. In light of this, it is no coincidence that the term injury is not just etymologically related but conceptually related to the notion of injustice. And justice, if it means anything at all, requires that the ongoing injuries of poverty be repaired. But how is a society to repair such injuries? What must be accomplished in order to correct the deeply entrenched and entangled injustices of the present social situation? What type of repairs, or reparations, must be made?


The concept of reparations, of course, requires clarification. In certain respects the concept overlaps with the equitable notion of restitution – according to which, if justice is to be effectuated, a party injured or harmed by another must be made whole (repaired) by the injurer. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently argued, there is no question that the African American community has been monumentally harmed by the political and economic institutions of the United States. In addition to more recent forms of racial discrimination (and its obverse, racial privilege) such as redlining and blockbusting, few industries have not benefited, directly or indirectly, from racism. From insurance companies (such as Aetna) who profited enormously from the institution of slavery, to industrial and agricultural companies, not to mention banks, finance, and real estate interests, tremendous fortunes were made – and, importantly, continue to be enjoyed – from the systemic abuse and exploitation of millions of people. Not only did slaves build the White House, as Michelle Obama reminded us earlier this week; the labor of those slaves continues to reverberate in the walls and halls of the White House, and other structures, in the form of value (monetary, and otherwise). Derived from an injustice, this type of enrichment is articulated in the law by the doctrine of unjust enrichment.

Based on the ancient Roman legal maxim nemo locupletari potest aliena iactura, the doctrine of unjust enrichment holds that when one is enriched at another's expense a duty arises to rectify this by disbursing the unjustly acquired enrichment. To take a standard example, if X trespasses over Y's property every day, and saves a hundred dollars over the course of a year because of this, X would be unjustly enriched by a hundred dollars. Even if no concrete harm is suffered by Y, X would have to return a hundred dollars to Y. If we apply the mainstream doctrine of unjust enrichment, then, to the overall social situation, there is no question that the African American community ought to be reimbursed, and not merely for the collective injustice suffered. Those who profited from this suffering (and continue to enjoy the wealth and privilege derived from such suffering) should be dispossessed of their unjustly attained advantage. 

In addition to the African American community, though, we must not neglect to consider the fact that the fields their ancestors slaved over were taken by force. Contrary to legally binding treaties, the conquest and appropriation of the continent not only involved the murder of millions, it continues to harm millions of Native Americans. Therefore, according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, the fortunes derived from exploiting the continent (much of which is also currently accruing interest) ought to also be divested from those unjustly enriched, and returned to those unjustly deprived. 

This, however, does not satisfy a radical interpretation of the doctrine of unjust enrichment. In spite of the fact that African Americans and indigenous people have suffered inordinately, and continue to suffer from poverty and other institutional harms as a result of historical wrongs, immigrants from across the world (Ireland, Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, Western, Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia, and the rest of the Americas, among other places) have suffered generations of exploitation as well. From coal mines, to fields, to countless sweatshops and factories, generations of people have lost limbs, lives, and well-being producing tremendous wealth and power for a small class of people. All of which is to say, when discussing the issue of reparations and social justice, we must address the fact that (according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, at least) most people in this society – the urban poor, the rural poor, the working class, the shrinking middle class – deserve some form of reparation. 

Because money and property wind up spreading poverty far more than wealth, instead of thinking about reparations as the distribution or redistribution of money, or other commodities (which are alienable), we should recognize that actual justice and peace requires a social arrangement that is not regulated by the drive for profit (i.e., actual peace requires non-exploitative social relations). Unlike the racist, sexist, pseudo-democracy of the Founders, an actually democratic society requires not just inalienable rights; the concrete preconditions for the realization of these rights must be inalienable (that is, not for sale), too. So, instead of the distribution of commodities, actual social justice demands that the goal of reparations ought to be the de-commodification of those conditions necessary for an actually just society. Instead of producing conditions (such as housing, nutritious food, water, health care, a healthy environment, education, and other resources and conditions) necessary for the realization of an actually just society in exchange for something else, then, (for profit), these conditions should be produced as ends, for their own sake, unconditionally. 

Beyond calls for the demilitarization of the police (not to mention the abolition of the United States’ metastasizing prison system, debt amnesty, an end to endless war, and environmental justice), actual, concrete peace requires the righting of historical wrongs, and reparations. Instead of redistributing property, however, which only rearranges and reproduces injustice, actual justice (and actual democracy, as opposed to pseudo-democracy) demands freedom from the tyranny of property altogether - i.e., its de-commodification.