Sunday, April 23, 2017
Mourning is movement; melancholia is stasis.
We live, supposedly, in an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth politics’. This is a misunderstanding. ‘Pre-post-truth politics’ includes the era of the ‘war on terror’ and its deceptions, and the orthodoxies and falsehoods which led to the elite debacle of the credit crunch. It is technique, not truth, which has been found wanting. That is, the idea of a ‘fact’ as an objective measurement of reality, is losing ground in the post-credit crunch era.
‘Post-truth politics’ is what, until now, we have been living under: technocracy, in a word. The “monstrous worship of facts”, as Wilde called it, is nothing other than an avoidance of the question of truth. The category of ‘fake news’ describes a fusion of infotainment, propaganda, public relations and churnalism which has been long in the making, now accelerated by online advertising revenues. The moral panic which blames ‘fake news’ for the rise of fascism and right-wing populism misses the point that these degraded ecologies of information have triumphed in the vacuum of political possibilities produced by the post-Cold War consensus.
What the moral panic also obscures, by displacing it, is the fact that ‘fake news’ is just one symptom of the breakdown of the near ideological monopoly previously enjoyed by large commercial and state media outlets. The fragmentation of content, the rise of ‘narrowcasting’ on social media, the proliferation of producers — more people are published authors now than ever before, rewarded in ‘likes’ rather than cash payment — produces as many opportunities as pathologies. New types of information and new ways of sharing it, new literacies, new modes of writing, are becoming possible.
The problem is that we grope toward these opportunities in the shadow of catastrophe. The fall of the USSR didn’t signal the defeat of socialism so much as confirm it, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, curdles and turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
- [ ] In the beginning was the lie. Freud points out that it is a condition of our autonomy that we can successfully lie: once we know mum and dad can’t read our minds, we can think freely and rather subversively. Milan Kundera argues that the injunction not to lie is one that can never be made to an equal, because we have no right to demand answers from equals. Adorno argued that, “the injunction to practice intellectual honesty usually amounts to a sabotage of thought.”
- [ ] And if I’m top-loading this talk with quotes and intellectual armoury, it is because I’m aware of how merely common-sensical is, what Wilde called “the monstrous worship of facts” — exactly what we have been living under. A politics exclusively consisting of facts is a tyranny of technique and an avoidance of truth. The relationship of lies to truth turns out to be rather more interesting than we would assume.
- [ ] So when we talk of “post-truth politics”, with the implication that we have just departed from an era of unalloyed truth-telling, from Iraq to the credit crunch, we might be making a huge category error. In truth, it is not truth, but facts, which have been found wanting; facts, as somehow purely objective measurements of social realities which, because intrinsically relational, can never be purely objective. Expertise, as Michael Gove reminds us, has made us sick; its seeming commonsensical neutrality exposed as merely the prestige of the ruling ideology. Sir Humphrey Appleby can sound like a technocrat only for as long as the ends to which techniques are crafted are taken for granted.
- [ ] Those blaming the internet for this state of affairs run up against the difficulty that the internet doesn’t exist. It is by now a cultural commonplace that the Internet, as Internet jargon has it, it isn’t “a thing”: jokes about the internet in South Park and The IT Crowd make light of the tendency to reify the internet by representing it as a single broadband router. And we get the joke, because we know that what we call the internet is a series of processes and relations mediated by its technological bases and protocols. But we forget it, too, if we succumb to either cyber-idealism or cyber-cynicism, by reinforcing too strict a demarcation between the online and the offline.
- [ ] I think it would be useful, therefore, to start with the kind of activity that is involved in the internet, and particularly in social media: that is writing.
- [ ] We are all authors. Interrogate that we: the differential access to the internet is obviously raced, and classed, and in an interesting way, gendered -- it isn't just about affordability and bandwidth, it is about how much work you have to do. A consequence of the internet is that, we all write, and we are all published. Because of email, social media, and instant messaging services, we now spend more of our lives writing than we ever have. We are acquiring new literacies at a ferocious rate. We have yet to grasp the full significance of this vast expansion of literacy, this democratisation (and further commodification) of writing. One thing we do now is that we are all becoming amateur hermeneuticists, scanning quickly through acres of text, learning to discern, quick sharp, how to discern trolling and ‘fake news’, paid advertisements, charlatanry, and scams. We’re also learning the whereabouts of all kinds of invisible and rapidly shifting cultural thresholds; things that can and cannot be said and in what way.
- [ ] We are all, putting it slightly differently, artists of the self. When you write, you invent yourself, give yourself a specific embodiment. By putting some part of your being into the form of words, you're giving it a corporeal shape that it would not otherwise had. You are not just 'expressing' something that was already there, but creating something new. And you're doing this every day, all the time. The format in which you can do so matters. Rather than keeping diaries, many of us now metabolise our lives online, for a public. Our pets, our dating mishaps, our family lives, our jobs, our accidents, the quiddity of experience is inscribed in a public realm in the heavily stylised format of tweets and posts, with current moods, filters, hashtags, emojis, stickers and the rest affording us a convenient short-hand to make ourselves conformable to our peers.
- [ ] Of course, there is another form of writing that is achieving a degree of autonomy from human creators, and that is computer programming and script. It is completely non-phonetic writing which reminds us that writing began with the knot or quipu, read through touch, and it does as much to give us embodiment as what we may write in our phonetic alphabets.
- [ ] Social media is not new -- non-commercial leftwing popular newspapers in the past operated as a kind of social media -- but capitalist social media arguably is. The social media formats in which most of us do most of our writing is so structured as to make petty entrepreneurs out of us. Our writing becomes a form of corporate personality, a sales pitch seeking to attract eyeball attention and 'followers'. This both a democratic opening, and a property-based closure; both an unprecedented opportunity, and an acceleration of the ‘culture of narcissism’ that Christopher Lasch worried about. It supports to an extent Manuel Castells’ argument about ‘creative autonomy’, since it breaks the ideological monopoly of the broadcasters and print media; but it also supports the argument of Philip Mirowski and to some extent Evgeny Morozov that in its networked individualism (or entrepreneurialism), it is a playground for neoliberalism.
- [ ] Technologies are not socially and politically neutral. If nuclear power tends to support hierarchical, secretive structures, social media tends to support the opposite: a panopticon effect. Individually, this has both opportunities and costs.
- [ ] The internet is a rigged lottery. If our capitalist social media accounts are indeed set up like enterprises competing for eyeball attention, then going viral or 'trending' is like winning the lottery. And in principle, anyone can win. The potential audience for your writing literally is the entire internet. In practice, of course, the lottery is mostly won by well-placed media corporations and public relations firms dominating the terrain.
- [ ] Even if we do win, it can be the worst thing that happens. While most of us dream of going viral with that one insightful tweet or post, few of us are equipped to maximise any opportunities that arise from positive publicity, or to cope with the costs of negative publicity — which might include shaming or trolling campaigns, themselves a devolved form of tabloid expose and bottom-feeding culture. We may be treated as if we're small enterprises, but since we are not corporations with public relations budgets, we are vastly under-resourced to handle the attention we may potentially receive.
- [ ] Far from simply challenging the ideological power of the old media, moreover, at critical moments it arguably amplifies and exacerbates it. The rise of narrowcasting and the proliferation of content producers helps to disperse the concentrated spectacle of broadcast news into the diffuse spectacle of Twitter and Facebook. This can even be more effective in securing consent, as Guy De Bord pointed out, because it works through seduction and commodity competition, rather than simple top-down violence. This is to stipulate a different form of presence of violence within the organisation of consent, rather than a withdrawal of violence.
- [ ] This is in part because capitalist social media isn’t an organised opposition or alternative to the mainstream but a formal extension of it looped into new economies of attention. If one thinks of the England riots and the role of social media in allowing certain points of view to be ‘spontaneously’ organised — pro-police and counter-subversive attitudes and campaigns — one can also call to mind those attitudes which were more effectively identified and punished, by looking at the case Azhar Ahmed, the #twitterjoketrial or any number of instances wherein social media users have been prosecuted under public order legislation.
- [ ] Whence then the fear of post-truth politics? And the moral panic about ‘fake news’? The category of ‘fake news’ starts to collapse from the inside when you examine it up close. The Washington Post, in its war against Russian-inspired fake news stories, has repeatedly published untruthful claims about Russian subversion in the US. It would be stretching credulity to say that Post’s falsehoods are less fake because well-intended: as if the newspaper of the DC establishment doesn’t have its own propaganda goals, or its own record of disseminating intelligence falsehoods. In truth, what we call ‘fake news’ is often either infotainment, PR, rumour, celebrity gossip, military or state propaganda, churnalism, or a combination of all of these — tendencies that were already well underway in the old media. So in what sense are we ‘post-truth’?
- [ ] We could start with the lies we tell, and the truths they inadvertently tell. Why should it be that the shift in political imaginaries means that people are more likely to be taken in by the idea that Mexican immigrants are rapists, than by fuzzy satellite imagery of weapons laboratories? Both of these lies displace colonial desire in different ways, but the shift almost repeats the shift from global white-supremacy to defensive white nationalism: each different ways of preserving racial distinction organised around the signifier of whiteness, as a signifier of limitless being, omnipotence and plenitude.
- [ ] And we could go back to Freud here: because lying on the couch, one can’t help but tell the truth one way or another. Indeed, it is when the patient stops reeling off the banal facts, whatever status they may have, and starts to lie, that the truth of her desire begins to emerge. The lies we are prepared to speak, and believe, says a lot about our desires, often thwarted and displaced: and that is why correcting a lie, fact-checking and all the rest of it, is often useless by itself. Though necessary, it does nothing to get to the other place, the place of desire, which is the place of political truth. That is how a well-informed but politically inept Nick Clegg could be so comprehensively defeated by a facile liar attuned to the dreamwork of politics named Nigel Farage.
- [ ] This place of desire is the nocturnal side of reason, on the side of what Adorno referred to as “pleasure and paradise”. But if desire is excluded from politics, if it becomes simply a matter of management of the status quo, and of assembling coalitions to prevent major changes, then desires which might project into the future, curdle and turn nostalgically reactionary.
- [ ] That is the real relationship of post-truth politics to the new far right. Post-truth politics is the triumph of managerial politics, of a politics in which after 1989 the long-standing defeat of communism was finally registered, with an immediate drastic contraction of the horizon of possibility. As Enzo Traverso put it, “an entire representation of the twentieth-century”, in which the disasters of the age were also the ground for revolutionary hopes, fell apart.
- [ ] One reason why social media couldn’t ever the Shangri-la of a new radically horizontalist activism predicated on a democracy of writing, is because of what it does to our writing. Twitter, for example, aims to mimic in some ways the patterns of speech, especially with its multimodal, digressive tendencies -- ironically, it is the non-phonetic aspects of writing that come to aid here, above all the emoticon. But of course, it also reduces speech to its tiniest molecules, 140 characters, and generates such a rapid turnover of content that it produces a tremendous pressure to fire off concise, immediate tweets and replies. And since the only incentive to participate in a conversation like that is because of the likes and retweets, attention and approval, this tends to mean that to an extent, people are only paying attention to what you are saying insofar as it gives them something to say, for the likes. This results on an insidious barbarisation of discourse, fractured, ungenerous, unrigorous, grandstanding, bullying, trolling, performances of whiteness, masculinity, repetitions of trauma -- if we are artists of the self, think what selves, personal and collective, this kind of writing permits us to fashion. We somehow have to be both in and against (capitalist) social media, somehow swimming against its currents, it's timelines, its temporalities and tendencies.
- [ ] But even if its protocols and structures had anything horizontal about them, even if they didn't favour marketing and accumulation, it emerged in the shadow of catastrophe. The eclipse of socialism was confirmed, at just the point at which it is clear that the persistence of capitalism means possible species death. Parties, publications, union membership, ideological affiliations, confidence and self-organisation dwindled and fragmented into the scale of atoms. And politics without the possibility of a liberated future, turns reactionary. New forms of antisystemic politics are emerging to take advantage of new forms of social media, but they can’t by themselves replace what has been lost. Without acknowledging what we have lost, we cannot creatively adapt to what we have left. We need, as Douglas Crimp wrote, “Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Letting go posted by Richard Seymour
— John Berger, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, p 55
“This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –”
— Emily Dickinson, After a great pain, a formal feeling comes.
Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks is a “counter-desecration phrasebook”: a vocabulary for valuing what we have just as we are about to lose it, just as we are losing it, just as we have already lost it.
It is as if the living world, of shivelight and suthering tides, of desire lines and whale’s ways, of glaise and drindle, sumping sea-lochs and high headlands, could be saved through re-description. As if it wasn’t already too late.
The last fourteen months have, one after another, broken global temperature records. Floods and droughts begin to assume Biblical proportions. Thousands of species disappear, forever, each year. Even on the mildest prognostications, they will disappear faster and faster.
With a 1.5 degree temperature increase above pre-industrial levels, 20-30 per cent of species risk extinction. With a 3.5 degree increase, the range is 40-70 per cent. We are already at 1.3 degrees, and 4 degrees is the current projected temperature by 2050, even if the Paris Agreement survives.
As the rate of acceleration increases, so does the probability of chaos. Scientists use the metaphor of ‘uncharted territory’ to describe this, since all we know for sure is what we are losing. What will never, ever be seen again.
Walking, in this way, becomes an urgent voyage, a pilgrimage, a visit to a dying patient. A stolen glimpse of what might have been won, had the earth ever been a common treasury.
But as Christopher Bollas points out, what we find in the environment is our own unconscious life — not in its narrative, nor in its scenery, but in keywords, objects. The more abstract, nonsensical and formless the terrain, the more we can project into it, and the more evocative it seems. Nothing is more evocative than what theologians, following Psalm 22, call ‘the night season’.
What you find in the burnt edge of a cool morning, the summer shimmer of riparian wetlands, clouds the size of cities soaking in a blue pool, or even in the literary outdoors, the cold mountains of Han-Shan, the freezing Yukon of Call of the Wild — is unconscious meaning.
Worlds of independence, adventure, possibility, decivilization, worlds teeming with potential, closer to birth than death. Oceanic immersion, the feeling of being held, protection. Phobias and anxieties. Screen memories. These private meanings always open out into public meaning. What Renee Lertzman calls “environmental melancholia” begins with lost worlds. Melancholia is a kind of freeze. Mourning is movement, and if you can’t mourn, you gather frost.
One of the biggest obstacles to mourning is that we can’t face our ambivalence: the extent to which we hated the lost object of our love. The ambivalence is complicated. On the one hand, it seems, no matter how much they meant to us, we’re always in some part of us glad to be shot of them. On the other hand, we also hate them for no longer being there. And there are the unconscionable pleasures and benefits that accrue from their absence.
We can hardly help being ambivalent about what we call ‘nature’ and its nemesis, fossil capital. The former means desperate, hard, labouring lives and early deaths. The latter, to the extent that it is coextensive with industrialisation, means comfort, central heating, celerity.
So what is the greenhouse defrosting of arctic sea ice, the bleached death of a coral reef, and the disappearance of thousands of species every year compared to air travel, moon voyages, genetic science laboratories, and the internet. What is the silence of the remote croft, or the murmur of the forest, compared to rising life expectations and falling infant mortality?
The other side of this ambivalence, the nocturnal side, is the knowledge — because this is no mystery, and anyone who wants to know already knows — that we are preparing a mass wake for the human species. It is a planned obsolescence. There are some hubristic billionaires who, by investing in survivalist Xanadus, fancy they will survive the collapse of the food chain and the destruction of habitable territory. Few have the luxury of that conviction. So, put another way, the questions above become: what is species death compared to another fifty years of life for capitalism?
It is useless to berate the insufficiently woke. We are all sleep-walking, and all half-dreaming, even if we dream of being awake. We are all hastening toward the last syllable of recorded time. And the point of melancholic subjectivity is that we are already berating ourselves. Our experience of powerlessness in the face of loss, and isolation before gigantic, tectonic forces, has already become our mantra of self-hate. Adding reproach in the name of the future would only accentuate our resentment of future generations, and our desire to punish them.
But if mourning is movement, it is also work. The work of mourning is not the same thing as the sharp, icicle stab of grief one might feel, while walking, when you suddenly realise that some day and soon, nothing that looks like this world will exist. It is the painful, laborious task of revisiting each memory, each thought, each impression, of what has been lost and, like Poe’s raven, meeting it with the judgement, “nevermore”. Mourning is not an uplifting process. It is a kind of despair, because it means giving up. First chill. Then stupor. Then the letting go.
Only when we can separate the object that has been lost, from what has been lost in it, do we recover. In other words, we give up without giving up. We fully and relentlessly recognise the loss, but we hold onto the qualities we saw in the lost object, because we think we can find a way to revive them in a new passion, a new attachment. We despair, but we do not submit.
“Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat,” Berger called it, speaking of the Palestinians and their Nakba. “Undefeated despair.”
Thursday, April 13, 2017
Against nature posted by Richard SeymourWe are being asked to believe. That is the first thing to take note of. We are exhorted to put aside doubt in the existence of human nature, and believe. The very fact that the argument is put in these terms is surely no accident. If 'human nature' were a self-evident reality that we could all agree on, there would be no need to believe. I don't "believe" in water, or air, or the colour blue; I can only believe in things that I can't know. Belief, in a sense, belongs to the register of certainty, but not knowledge.
Now the article goes on to claim that 'human nature' is something that we can know, but the conception that it offers is comparable to that other chestnut of contemporary discourse, 'British values'. Humans need to eat. Well, what's so special about that? Lots of animals need to eat. Humans need warmth. So do cockroaches. Humans are vulnerable to disease and organic decay. So is vegetation. Humans need to drink. So does Nigel Farage. That isn't 'human nature', that's just 'nature'.
The argument only really becomes interesting, and germane to the human, when it claims the existence of a human need, rooted in nature, for 'dignity' and 'autonomy'. But these are surely not needs in the sense that food and air are needs. They are the names for preferences, or desires, which are proper to linguistic creatures.
But once we are talking about language and desire, we are no longer strictly speaking talking about nature, because language and desire are historically and socially produced. Language marks the point at which the human animal makes a half-leap from nature to culture. In other words, as soon as you get to the characteristic that makes us properly human -- the fact that we are linguistic creatures -- you're already no longer in the domain of nature (indeed, you were never really in it).
And it is just as well to recognise this, because otherwise the argument becomes terribly tricky for socialists. Since the terms 'autonomy' and 'dignity' are glittering generalities which everyone is supposed to believe in (if only for themselves), having no intrinsic, uncontested, unhistorical, natural, given content, you have to engage in some logical gymnastics.
You can try to give these terms some content, at which point you risk bumping into all manner of phenomena which contradict them. For example, you might find that some people (maybe some Trump voters) will give up what you have defined as 'autonomy', in order to deprive others of it. Having done that, you can then try to question-beggingly define all apparently unavailing phenomena as a thwarted, deflected attempt at achieving these ends. It becomes even more complicated if you do try to relate the more unsavoury aspects of human behaviour to 'human nature'.
Suppose we abandon the distinction between need and desire, and concede that we do indeed have a need for 'autonomy' and 'dignity', howsoever defined, because of 'human nature'. Shouldn't we also make space for such needs as aggression, violence, domination, sadism, and omnipotence? On what ground do we insist that these are not needs while autonomy and dignity are? Eventually, if we were to proceed like this, we could end up with a concept of 'human nature' that covered every possible type of desire by redescribing it as a 'need', and every possibly type of action by redescribing it as an attempt to realise a 'need'. But then it would just be tautologous rather than informative. We would 'believe' in human nature, but to no avail.
A lot of the persuasive power of these types of argument derive from the idea that to doubt the existence of 'human nature' is to subscribe to a "blank slate" thesis. This is an idea shared by Steven Pinker and the author of this piece. Of course, even a "blank slate" is never really blank. It must have certain active qualities which enable/constrain inscription. But the real problem with a "blank slate" thesis, is that a slate is fairly limited in what it can be. It is there to be written on, or not.
As the biologist Steve Rose puts it, humans are 'radically indeterminate'. In part, this is because it is in the 'nature' of living systems to be like that, but language opens up a new kind of indeterminacy. To say that we are radically indeterminate does not entail that we have no organic constitution, but that this does not determine whether we are 'good' or 'bad', kind or selfish, nurturing or violent, sexist or egalitarian, or whether we prefer protection to autonomy, or domination to dignity, and so on. These things, the desires and behaviours which are characteristically human, are the contested product of history.
This brings us back to the major problem with speaking about 'human nature', which is that humans are distinctly unnatural creatures. Indeed, the very separation of nature and culture becomes problematic once humans enter the frame (meaning, it has always been problematic, since this conceptual cleavage is a human invention). As soon as human beings learned to make fire, they became co-constituted by technology (the body being nourished and reproduced by digesting cooked food). There is not a single human organic capacity that is not intricated with technology, culture and political power. Haraway's term "natureculture" is a more apt way to describe the material realities of human bodies and their relevance to politics.
'Human nature' is a contradiction in terms.
Monday, April 10, 2017
The terrifying story of Assad's chemical attack on Syrian civilians, wrenched his soul. That, the paper says, is why he sent aloft a few dozen Tomahawk missiles, and bombed a half-deserted Syrian airfield. Love Trumps Hate, after all.
The collapse of the alt-centre media into adulation of a president who has waged merciless war on them, is stunning to behold. But at least now, the demented conspiracy theories and anti-Russian nationalism, can cease. Keith Olbermann can stop bellowing about Russian scum. Whatever else Trump is, he is not Putin's pet.
So what is he?
When it comes to foreign policy, he talked like a Bannonite. America First, bash China, smash Islam. Now, he is sounding a bit more like his Vice President, Mike Pence. There is even talk from his UN representative Nikki Haley, though quickly rebutted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, of prioritising the overthrow of Assad. That is unlikely to bear fruit, at least in the short term, because what is happening for now is not about Trump's heart, or convictions.
The bombing in Syria is not a significant departure from existing policy. That is because Trump's policy is the one left by the Obama administration. When he came to office, bragging that he had a great plan to destroy ISIS, what he meant was that he would tax the generals with producing one, and would support it. The plan they gave him, within his 30 day deadline, was one devised by the previous administration, and included a number of lines of escalation and expansion within the terms of the existing strategy.
That strategy, with regard to Daesh, can be summarised as: medium footprint, with aerial bombardment supporting local auxiliary forces. In relation to Syria, the Obama policy was what the 'Realists' of the Pentagon would call offshore balancing. In this context, it means supporting the weaker side just enough to prevent it from collapsing, thus allowing both sides to bleed one another to death. It also means, of course, tolerating Russian support for the regime, which may be the only thing keeping it alive. And in the context of the rise of Daesh as a parasitic factor on the military stalemate, it means a de facto military alliance with Russia, a multilateral bombing campaign targeting Daesh (and also Jaish al-Nusra). Thus, the Syrian revolution has been drowned in blood and reduced to brutal struggle for survival led by reactionaries, but Assad's army has also been decimated, and is almost entirely dependent on outside forces. Trump hasn't broken with either, thus far.
The only major difference is that Trump has relaxed the fairly exacting political oversight exercised by the Obama administration on the military's actions. He has loosened constraints on targeting, which were already abysmal, with the recent major bloodshed in Al-Yakla, Mosul and Raqqa being notable byproducts. He has expanded the war along lines indicated by his predecessor, in Somalia and Yemen, and has changed the rules of engagement so that parts of these countries are deemed 'war zones' which can be targeted under the laws of war.
The major significance of bombing the airfield is that, by punishing Assad, it is a slap in the face to Russia -- although a very gentle one, it seems, since Russia was carefully warned beforehand. There is a risk that the neo-Cold War hawks will start setting the tone and, in the context of Syria, prepare the ground for a dangerous and potentially disastrous inter-imperialist confrontation. Naturally, this would be less of a surprise if so many people hadn't inhaled the laughing gas about Trump being Putin's puppet. In fact, whatever connections he has to Russian capitalism (on this, see Jordy Cummings in Salvage) his amateurish pre-inauguration diplomacy with Russia seems to have been an ineffectual attempt to get Putin to relax support for Iran and Syria, and enlist him into a confrontation with North Korea. Indeed, though it is not widely reported, it is North Korea that has been the subject of Trump's rhetorical escalation in recent months. There is a reason why the Chinese government regards the Syria strike as a form of sabre-rattling against North Korea, and Rex Tillerson has been explicit about the connection.
The shift in register and rhetoric, however, is also linked to the resistance to Trump coming from within the state, 'deep' or otherwise. First, they engineered the ousting of General Michael Flynn, who was responsible for the organisation of the National Security Council which included Bannon as a permanent member and demoted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence. Briefing and leaking against Flynn ultimately ensured his resignation, even though the charges seem relatively trivial. The old military and intelligence leadership regained their dominance. This decisive change also led to Steve Bannon's departure from the National Security Council, and the tempering of some of Trump's rhetoric -- his acceptance of the Iran deal for example.
Many mandarin liberal pundits talked, in the early days, about a possible military coup against Trump. Such a move would have reflected sheer panic, indicating a complete breakdown of the embedded knowledge, cohesion and technological sophistication of the old state elites. Now, the foreign policy commentariat speaks of Trump 'learning' -- and that is the correct term. The pedagogy has been crude in some ways: a ferociously alarmist media campaign fed by intelligence leaks and more or less open dissent in the apparatuses of state. But it has still showed far more patience and guile than a simple coup, and there is probably more afoot. So, what has been achieved on the empire front is not the recomposition of forces at the top that Bannon et al were aiming for, but a consolidation of the Pentagon's priorities.
The empowerment of the military elite is, in itself, dangerous enough -- particularly if it is linked to the creation of new far right networks within the state. Add to it the fact that this is the Trump administration. This is not business as usual, and it won't be until it is effectively a lame duck administration. The military establishment has succeeded in reining Trump in for now, but Bannon is still his chief advisor, and his team is still dominated by lunatics of various stripes. Such an administration, I suggest, is almost definitionally a war administration.
The obvious thing to do, as their agenda falls apart on a number of fronts, and domestic support collapses, would be to organise a major war. That would consolidate the chief executive's authority. It would give an organising impetus to the administration, cohering the apparatuses of the state and, if done well, summoning a degree of popular support. It would license a major augmentation of repressive capacities, and justify renewed aggression against the media: 21st century fascism finds the diffuse spectacle superior to the concentrated spectacle. And, of course, it would filter new loads of racist ideology into civil society. Syria may not be the front in which they choose to embark on that war, given the range of state and other agencies already embroiled in that situation, and the huge potential for calamity.
So what is Trump, if not a Russian puppet? He is a pure, concentrated expression of the culture of US imperialism.