Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Against omniscience

I.
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.


II.
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.


III.
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.


IV.
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.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Under the sign of Saturn, a movement is born.

I.
There has been non-stop chaos in the American state since Trump took office. This is partly, but not primarily, a matter of incompetence. There is no doubt that these moves could have been prepared for a lot better by the incoming Trump team. 

Yet, I think it is also a deliberate offensive, the chaos a welcome element in the attempt to disorient enemies within the state apparatuses and, by forcing a rupture in which normal rules are suspended, change the balance of forces condensed in the state. The promotion of Bannon, a mere fascist propagandist before he had Trump's ear, to the National Security Council is an extraordinary manifestation of this. The joint chiefs of staff and director of national intelligence are being sidelined. The State Department has been purged of figures likely to impede Trump's objectives, even at the cost of leaving the bureaucracy dysfunctional. Clearly, the administration inner circle is looking to assemble their allies within the deep state quickly, both to forestall any challenge to their own operations and to advance their countersubversive goals. The New York Post gets the idea: "A clean sweep may mean some chaos — but a new start has virtues of its own."

But planned chaos might still be a strategic blunder. All the signs have been that while Trump is an excellent salesperson and orator, he has none of the qualities one would need to run a capitalist-democratic state. He can't hope to run these bureaucracies like the Trump Organization, relying on a trusted inner circle to advise him. The American state is probably the most bloated, labyrinthine bureaucracy in the whole world. It is necessarily a fissiparous institution riven by factions and the play of opposing forces. While the state is necessarily a state 'under law' (so that a degree of predictability is imposed by judicial reasoning, unfolding from established legal axioms), it must also be a disciplined apparatus. And that discipline comes from the political direction of the executive. Or is supposed to.

In the absence of that, Trump risks a backlash from within the state.


II.
Trump's 'executive actions' were designed as both propaganda and deed. They gave the appearance to his base of decisiveness, of winning, of so much winning that they're going to get sick of winning. They also risked actually winning. There was no guarantee that any significant resistance would appear, and they already began to have a material impact on people rounded up at airports -- which can be quite frightening places in normal times.

And there was certainly no guarantee that any part of the ruling class would lash back. The interesting thing about the US ruling class response to Trump has been its bifurcation. On the one hand, seemingly gracious concession of his legitimacy, pleas to 'give him a chance'; and on the other hand, quite a crazed campaign against (dixit Keith Olbermann) "RUSSIAN SCUM!"  The former, indicated by Clinton and others who cheerfully joined Trump's Imperial Death March inauguration gala, has run out of steam remarkably quickly. Although it was strong enough to ensure that Trump's nominees were voted through, including the extraordinary Betsy DeVos and the very dangerous southern reactionary, Jeff Sessions.

The latter, while popular with certain game theory types, is not the sort of perspective that could sustain a mass movement. In fact, it could be quite ruinous. In the first instance, because it depends on the actions of deep state agencies which are of course utterly untrustworthy, it risks making people passively indignant rather than stirring them to action. Secondly, because it would involve an undemocratic challenge rather than a democratic encirclement of Trump and his Philistine Army, it would likely energise the right-wing, give them reasons to experiment with new tactics of disruption and terror. It would legitimise all that incipient militia-type energy.

And yet, a mass opposition has emerged. The inauguration of Donald Trump was closely followed an unexpectedly huge women's march, maybe including 3 to 4 million protesters across the country. By the accounts of participants, it was energising. It gave people a sense of their power. Millions who would never attend a protest in their lives, suddenly had a sense that they could actually do something about this. And if about this, why not other things? Why not, indeed, Black Lives Matter, as many people have been suggesting?

Now, the implementation of the 'Muslim ban' has provoked protests at airports across the United States. These have been mostly illegal gatherings, act of civil disobedience. They are ongoing today, and there is another protest taking place in the capital. Suddenly, masses of white people are protesting for Muslim Lives Matter. An excellent start. This dynamic has given confidence to the ACLU, which has thrown its clout into a serious legal challenge to the 'Muslim ban' -- ultimately successful

Of course, the effect of the Trump victory can be seen in the fact that some law enforcement officers ignored the ruling and acted on what they interpreted as the effect of Trump's executive order anyway. The re-deployment of legal/police networks, will rely on key actors willing to resist orders from the courts, or at least passively circumvent them. Nonetheless, the attempted blitzkrieg in the apparatuses hasn't stopped bourgeois legality from being effective yet. The Department of Homeland Security has indicated that it will comply with the court's ruling.

This indicates the problem with Trump trying to exacerbate fissures in the state too quickly. He has over-reached. It is not he, but his opposition who now seem most able to exploit these fissures. He also over-reaches in continuing his war with the capitalist media, which are sources of powerful institutional legitimacy, closely looped into the reproduction of the state. (Indeed, following Althusser, we should just say that media apparatuses are state apparatuses.) He behaves as if he has an alternative source of political authority outside the state, an alternative ideological legitimacy capable of rivalling CNN and the New York Times. He doesn't. He is premature in that respect. 

We await the backlash, and there is a degree of unpredictability in this situation. There are fascist potentialities here, and they are alarming in their current proximity to governing power. But thus far, I would suggest that Trump has played his hand badly, not well. If things continue like this, I don't rate his chances of achieving the $10 trillion cuts he is seeking.


III.
There remains the question of Trump's overseas alliances. There is, of course, a global dynamic of which Trump's success is only one part. The latest Salvage perspectives puts it like this:

"Not since 1943 has there been a better time to be a fascist. The ‘liberal order’, the demise of which has been the subject of ruling-class hot takes for some years now, does indeed appear to be in a shabby state. Trump’s election – on which more within this issue – follows on from the vote for Brexit as a body blow to the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ in the very lands in which it was born. Victory for the far-right Freedom party in Austria’s presidential election was very narrowly averted: should Marine Le Pen win the forthcoming French presidential contest, against which no sensible punter would now bet, the resulting scrap of hard-won relief will evaporate. Then the UN security council will be led by the fascist- through hard-right of US, French and British politics, plus the distinct market-Stalinisms of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. In the second rank will be the hard-right Narendra Modi of India, and the Brazilian inheritors of a soft coup for austerity. This is not a world in which it is growing easier for workers to organise economic self-defence, or develop political organisations to achieve class demands."

There are some sources of liberal opposition. Angela Merkel has criticised Trump's 'Muslim ban'. Hollande is critical, though he is almost dead and it won't matter if his successor is Marine Le Pen -- as it probably would be if the choice were between Fillon and her. Justin Trudeau, whose record on refugees is nowhere near as good as his reputation, has been hammering Trump these last few days: and such statements matter. They will matter more so if Canadian social movements compel him to reverse recent policies that would make a nonsense of his promise to take in refugees denied by Trump. Trudeau, notably, is one of the few surviving liberal leaders because he pitched to the left, and spoke in an anti-austerity language. 

Where, though, is Britain in all this? Under May, it is trying to have its Trump and eat it. May, despite flirting with the Trumpian register, is neither a protectionist nor an isolationist. She wants Britain to play its traditional role in supporting global liberalism of the Washington variety, and for that needs the US to continue its role in managing globalisation.  Her plan for hardcore Brexit depends on it, and she cares about this far more than about sentimental ideas of human rights. 

However, while she may have thought she ducked a punch by refusing to comment on Trump's 'relations with Mexico', and tetchily having 'no opinion' on his policy against refugees, she made a big mistake. She invited Donald Trump on an official state visit to the United Kingdom, a chump move that has provoked a gale of fury and a petition supporting Corbyn's demand that Trump be banned for as long as the 'Muslim ban' is in place -- which is currently signed by more than half a million people. If Trump comes to the UK, he will be met by large numbers of protesters, probably anywhere he goes; if the invitation is rescinded, it will be the first victory Corbyn has enjoyed over May. May has been forced to claim she now disagrees with Trump's refugee policy, but has painted herself into an unsightly corner.


IV.
The anti-Trump protests on the inauguration weekend were global in spread, but concentrated in those parts of the world most closely tied to the US through military alliance, trade, political history and culture, above all in Europe and North America. That makes a certain sense. Trump is, as the fatuous phrase goes, "the leader of the free world" now. He has assumed command of a set of global relationships and institutions backed by US political, diplomatic, economic and military power. He leads a state that has penetrated other, allied states across the world. As such, whatever he can get away with is potentially epoch-making for all countries most closely bound up in those relationships -- for the shape of their class politics, the forms of their state legitimacy, the plausibility of racist nationalism and of outright fascist options, etc. 

Still, as we have learned, Trump was actually serious about sending the army to steal Iraq's oil, serious about reconstituting the black sites programme (despite opposition from within his cabinet), serious about his sinophobia, and serious about his flirtation with Putin. This is going to lead, if he isn't deposed in favour of Mike Pence at some point soon, to a serious and unpredictable and dangerous international conflagration. One wonders if, more than even Bush did, Trump will summon into being world public opinion as a genuine counterpower.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Philistine army

In the Book of Samuel, it says that when you hear the sound of marching on the tops of the mulberry trees, you'll know the move is on. Stir yourself, be alert, get ready: you're about to strike at the Philistine Army.
But suppose, instead of stirring themselves, instead of feeling the hair rise on the back of their necks, and their teeth and fists clench in preparation, the people said: "fuck that, your marching is problematic and your whole style is chump"?
In light of some of the 'critiques' of the global women's march that I've seen circulating, I'm minded to return to this theme of "unforbidden politics". Not that there is no room for discussing the limitations and problems of the protests. Uncritical boosterism is no use to anyone, and of course we need to think about how we got to this pass. But so much of it, even where it has some validity, is superego-driven spite, and injured snark. And to that extent, I'm afraid, it is unserious. It doesn't mean business. It has no real killer instinct. It is blind aggressivity. Particularly when it comes to the supposed bad subjectivity of "white women" and the 'problematic' "pussy hats". (It doesn't help that with some of the attacks, if you took the word 'white' out of the formulation, you would just have straightforward misogyny.)
But even if all of the critiques were correct and to the point, one would still have to ask what kind of politics it entails. After all, who starts out in politics with clean hands? Who ever even gets clean hands? Whose life is like that? Does oppression and exploitation lend itself to clean hands? Have you ever met someone oppressed by racism or exploited as a worker or fucked over by sexist men and sexist employers more times than they can count, who doesn't have some scars, some injuries, some resentments, and some evil thoughts? 
Do you make radical politics more, or less attractive if you make it into a guilt function, a forbidding terrain where you will be passive-aggressively hectored and shamed and bullied for being inexperienced or getting it wrong or not having all the answers? Do you change people by starting with how fucked up, complicit and unclean they are? Or, by appealing to their desire to be a better version of themselves, to be part of something bigger than they are, to feel powerful for a change, to extend their sense of themselves as historical subjects, to descend on palaces of real privilege and turn them to rubble?
Do you get people to change, to wonder about everything they've ever taken for granted, to become the kinds of people who can wage the kind of struggle that is needed, by turning politics into an elaborate pecking party? Or do you say to them -- "there's the Philistine Army! Do you want to destroy them or not?"

Monday, January 16, 2017

Seasick, Yet Still Docked

Britain, having gone nowhere as of yet, is queasy. The pound, sacred symbol of British potency, is heaving and diving. Capitalists, usually so resolute, look decidedly pale and fidgety. What's happening?

If you asked me last year, I would have told you, emphatically, that I did not believe that Theresa May was serious about pursuing a 'hard Brexit'. I would have directed you to her pro-business, modernising, Remainer record: she was more John Major than Nigel Farage. I would have pointed out that 'hard Brexit' depended on a Ukip, hyper-Atlanticist fantasy long nurtured by the Tory Right but having zero realistic prospects. The idea that Britain could make up for losing access to its biggest trading partner by swerving into a Nafta-style trade pact with the US and coaxing the ex-colonies into becoming export markets, was bananas, and the British ruling class would not have it. Neither would Theresa May.

Eppur si muove. Donald Trump, using 'the office of president-elect' to intervene in this situation, has offered Britain a fast trade deal once Brexit is completed. And Trump, you know, has mastered the art of the deal: he certainly doesn't mess around with any "one president at a time" rhetoric. Theresa May, gratefully welcoming Trump's intervention, is about to give a major speech indicating that, indeed, Britain will withdraw from the common market rather than give up border controls.

In exchange for the losses incurred to business by hard Brexit, Philip Hammond has offered businesses the enticement of massive tax cuts. Might there also be, as Trump has proposed, a bonfire of regulations? The City of London became known as a sort of Guantanamo of the international financial system during the 2000s, thanks to the things people could get away with. Is the government's dream for the entirety of British capitalism that it be situated somewhere between Guantanamo, the Northern Marianas, and the Panama Papers? Life will become harder for the majority, by every index, even with a 'soft Brexit' short of this structural adjustment.

If so, Corbyn -- who has hesitated to take a hard line on a hard Brexit -- surely now has a clear enemy. It's not even just a hard Brexit that is being openly vaunted. The "red, white and blue" Brexit currently on offer is a red, white and blue dystopia. So this would be the opportune moment for the opposition to define exactly what a left-Brexit would entail, and how it would work.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Mark Fisher

The second time I met Mark was at the University of East London occupation. The Docklands campus was bitterly cold, the winter wind ripping through it, as though, like those other Docklands up at the Isle of Dogs, it wasn't really made for human beings. He was enthusiastic, almost in the religious sense: it was like the spirit had moved him. He wrote about it, about how this moment -- the student movement and the sudden energy everywhere -- was like a depression lifting.

It was like a depression lifting, but was it actually a depression lifting? Classically, depression is linked to mourning, in a way that most modern therapies (drugs or CBT) have tended to forget or repress. In the Freudian view, when we mourn, we bitterly reproach the dead: how could they die? How could they do that to us? The thwarted mourning becomes melancholia: we direct that rage at ourselves, find ourselves endlessly useless, pointless, both incapable and culpable. We can't help being useless, but are to blame for it. Klein thought that this posed the distinction too sharply, and that all mourning has melancholic tendencies and that -- in a sense -- self-formation is a melancholic process, the self being produced out of the traces of objects that we have lost or been separated from.

It's one thing to speak of left-wing melancholia, but what happens to a defeated class, a class that is what it is because of historical defeats? A class that is made by loss and separation? To the extent that we can speak of the working class as a subject, it must be a melancholic subject. Its self-harm and self-medications those of a defeat which cannot be mourned, raged about, because it can't be experienced as such.

Freud used the term 'work' about mourning; the 'work of mourning', suggesting that its cognates were the work of art, the work of analysis, and the work of production.

As if to say, a class that cannot mourn its defeats (much as a stricken soul mourns sins) and put them away (which is to say, make something of them), goes on repeating them.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The fascist superego

There is a traditional way of talking about the fascist superego as, essentially: monarchical, masculine, militaristic. It is the censorship of the id, and the protection the ego from its drives which are canalised into minimal reproductive activity. It is the repression of sexuality and the feminine. Whereas the modern, rational ego would negotiate with the id to allow pleasure its say, the premodern superego can only treat the claims of the id as a threat to be crushed. But if we take seriously the idea that there is an incipient fascist potential in Trumpism, we might want to query this conception, or at least update it. The description above sounds a lot more like a Christian reactionary like Ted Cruz, or perhaps a right-wing Islamist, than a right-wing populist like Trump. The man who brags about pussy-grabbing and 'smart' predatory practices, whose garish casinos and towers exude sumptuary extravagance, is many things, but not a puritan. Indeed, there's a sense in which he is more permissive than his rivals, allowing people to feel less guilty about bigotry, back-stabbing, ecological despoliation, casual sexual assault, and hoarding of property. In fact, even the Nazi regime, despite its sexually repressive propaganda, ran a voluptuary ship, encouraging young men and women and boys and girls involved in the Nazi movement to engage in pre-marital sex. The rate of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies soared. Despite the formal disapproval of sex workers, moreover, it encouraged and protected the existence of regulated brothels and red-light districts on grounds of national health. In crude propaganda terms, fascism extols heroic self-sacrifice over pleasurable indulgence, and directs all of the surplus libidinal energy into paraphilia (fetishism of uniforms and medals), aggressivity (war) and father worship (fuhrer). In its practical record, fascism needed people to fuck for pleasure, as if for the collective pleasure of the nation. From a metapsychological viewpoint, the traditional way of talking about the fascist superego is dependent on the precepts of 'ego psychology' in which the health of the patient depends on the ego being protected against a superego which might otherwise squash the poor ego. Of course, Lacan - in rejecting ego psychology, in claiming that the ego is already too strong, too mortifying in its grip, too voracious in its cannibalisation of the subject - famously assigned the superego to the side of jouissance. Far from crushing your pleasures, it orders you to enjoy. In the juridical sense, to enjoy is to exercise a right, say, to property. Droit du seigneur, for example, refers to a supposed right of feudal lords to have sexual access to subordinate women on their wedding night. In this sense, one's body can come to be inhabited by someone else’s enjoyment, marked as such like someone else’s property. If you're the sort of person who would rather paint than go out on a date, would prefer to go for a quiet walk than attend a raucous party, would rather watch television than fuck, then you can imagine the kind of superego bullying that would make you feel weak and pathetic for such choices. The intimidation that says you have to be enjoying yourself right now (because it's the Olympic Games, or the Queen's birthday, or your birthday, or Christmas), and that you must be enjoying yourself in this particular way (socially, ideally lubricated with libations), is hardly 'fascist'. But it's easy to see it being recruited for a fascist superego. It makes one wonder if the 'fascist strongman' of the future will not be quite extravagantly on the side of (a certain idea of) pleasure and enjoyment, flashing expensive cars and clothes, rioting in public 'debauchery', etc. It will be the promotion of 'vigorous' and very socially regimented kinds of pleasure. It will be 'transgressive'. It will consider withdrawal from these pleasures small, weak and pathetic. It will harness a form of ruthless competitiveness over who is enjoying more than who, to its side. (Isn't one of the possible functions of social media self-display to wage that competition? To say, "I'm very visibly having fun, and thus winning"?) One could try to respond to this by withdrawing from pleasure, but that would simply mean narrowing one's mind and becoming depressed. (Narrow-mindedness might, in fact, be a giveaway of covert depression -- especially among the narrow-mindedly optimistic.) But the answer to the fascist recruitment of one's jouissance, to the bullying fascist superego, might just be to reject intimidation - to figure out for yourself what you might enjoy, and doggedly pursue it. And if you happen to be the sort of person who enjoys what to others is routine, unadventurous, banal and unheroic, whose fondest pleasure is crafting knitwear memes or sending certain Tumblr users shots of your genitalia, you might refuse to feel small and pathetic as a result.