Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Against omniscience posted by Richard Seymour
There is a style of political reasoning which the Trump moment lends itself to, which can be called conspiracism.
The Trump base is itself galvanised by some quite outre conspiracy theories -- Obama the secret Muslim, covert socialism in the highest reaches of government, cosmopolitan elites screwing over American workers to fund the rising Asian middle class, and so on. And at times of crisis, this paranoid style can seep into all political tendencies.
Is this because, during a crisis of politics, all tendencies undergo a crisis in their forms of reproduction, and in their modes of representation? What happens, after all, when the old ways of doing things, and saying things, no longer work? We struggle for coherence, try to reassemble the pieces to make sense, to orient ourselves in action. This struggle lends itself to abbreviation. We move too quickly to totalisation, to forcing events into a coherent framework. We lose sight of the necessary openness, indeterminacy and opacity of political situations. We forget that there is always an element of chance in everything that happens, and that not everything that goes on is legible.
I have written elsewhere about the logic of conspiracism, so I will only offer a précis of the argument here. To wit, conspiracism is a way of reading the tea leaves and devising patterns such that everything seamlessly fits together. And the problem with conspiracism is not that it involves 'conspiracy theories' -- everyone has their favourite conspiracy theory, and some of them are even well-founded -- but that it collapses politics into conspiracy. The networks of conspiracy do all the explanatory work, and the colossal, embedded, structuring role of social, economic, political and cultural systems are at best raw material for the conspiracy.
As such, conspiracism enacts a displacement and an externalisation, allowing us to explain complex processes, usually involving the breakdown of an old order, by reference to a simple scapegoat, which acts as a metaphor for all that has gone wrong. Unsurprisingly, this sort of thinking is classically situated in reaction -- the Spanish response to Dutch iconoclasm, Burke's response to the French revolution, endless antisemitic conspiracy theories about the Russian Revolution, Cold War paranoia about Russia, and so on. Yet, as I say, in worlds of breakdown and chaos, the tendency spreads.
We have already had, as one expression of this tendency, what Sam Kriss dubbed the "alt-centre". Unable to apprehend Trumpism by the usual expedients, many liberals adopted a Manchurian-style approach, attributing extraordinary powers to the intervention of Russia, an economic basket-case that is far weaker than the United States. Rather than bespeaking the fragility of the old political order and its complex fall-out, the weakness of the nascent Left and the exhaustion of managerialism, Trump's victory tokened a Russian coup -- a comical reiteration of Cold War paranoia. And there is a danger of "the resistance" to Trump forming an "alt-" wing.
Here are two popular recent articles which, lucidly enough, ultimately boil down to this case: the Trump administration is playing us all for suckers. They expected these protests and the judicial opposition. They are testing the ground, seeking out their allies and smoking out enemies, exhausting public opposition, exaggerating their objectives in order to beat a safe retreat. We, pawns in their little game, are giving them what they want by demonstrating and raising as much vocal opposition as we can.
This style of reasoning is problematic for many reasons. Not the least of these is that it can be politically paralysing. Resistance is taken to be already seamlessly factored into the strategy of the Trump administration, and yet there is no obviously concomitant strategy for circumventing this. But that is a reason why the conclusions following from the argument are problematic, not an explanation of why the argument itself is flawed.
The more substantial problem with the argument is that it makes an assumption of omniscience. You may well claim that sizeable demonstrations and judicial and legislative opposition were a predictable response to hastily imposed executive orders, introduced without any consultation with state actors, and without even providing them with the information they needed to actually implement the policy effectively. However, no one anticipated that three to four million would protest during the inauguration weekend, nor that there would be protests (in many cases illegal) at airports all over the country. To have foreseen all this would indeed be to experience a kind of omniscience, accessing a total reading of all the tendencies, subjective and objective, unfolding at breakneck pace now, in a vast, intricate and unusually unpredictable social order.
It might be argued that I'm straw-manning here. That these pieces concede that the administration acted as it did precisely because it lacked important information, and has been engaging in an elaborate, carefully phased experiment with the American political system to get this insight. This seems more superficially plausible, but only until you ask how Bannon and the Trump inner circle were supposed to be able to calibrate everything such that the opposition would fall out exactly as they needed it to. This necessarily implies a degree of legibility in societies that cannot be assumed. It would be as if American (and therefore global) politics were basically an elaborate three-dimensional chess game, in which all the information needed to calculate is all there for those sharp enough to read it.
It is because we don't have omniscience that we need the guidance of theory. We need to have some criteria of interpretation, axioms against which to judge concrete situations. That is why we should pay close attention to the theories of the "alt-right".
Just to take one example, Bannon subscribes to a peculiar theory of American history according to which, for reasons which are unclear, it experiences a major crisis every eighty years or so, in which it is possible to radically remake the social order. The current crisis of politics, coming roughly eighty years since the New Deal era, is thus read as the proof of that theory. (Alarmingly enough, Bannon, now freshly ensconced in the National Security Council, takes this to mean a major global war, bigger than the last world war.) This is the basis for Bannon's confidence in action, but also his urgency -- since there is only a limited historical window in which to act before the initiative passes to someone else, or the crisis runs out of steam.
This makes Bannon, not a master manipulator, but a dangerous mystic and a gambler. He might as well base his actions on the idea that the crisis betokens Rapture. This is not to say that he is stupid. The obverse of conspiracy theory is the complacent view that the Trump team are straightforwardly incompetent. Their lack of professionalism by the usual standards of statecraft, from this perspective, allows one to think that they must not know what they are doing, and will destroy themselves with their own hubris. This misses the fact that all political intervention involves a roll of the dice somewhere, and the metapolitical assumptions guiding every wager are usually founded on a faith of some kind. The very fact that mass protest, acting on and exacerbating divisions in the ruling class and state elites (as occurs with all successful social movements), could not be anticipated means that it was not inevitable.
It is to say that any account of politics that does not make room for the aleatory, that is for the encounter between fortune and a politician's virtù, will either tend to collapse into fatalism or conspiracism, or some combination of the two. Either way, we will not see what tremendous risks the Trump administration is taking, or understand why they've raised the stakes so high, so early.