Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Cosmopolitanism contra Empire

Originally published on CounterPunch 

Though Tiberius died, and the ancient Romans have all faded away, the empire has not. As a political form the empire not only remains, it is still very much alive. Just look outside at the various senates, and capitol buildings dotting the landscape. Though Rome may have left more remnants of its reign, however, Alexander the Great's empire may provide a better example - not only of the empire as such, but of that which opposes and resists it.

Beyond Hellenizing much of the world (to some degree laying the groundwork for subsequent empires), Alexander of Macedon served as well as a symbol of imperialist aspiration. From Pompey the Great, who actively emulated Alexander's hairstyle and dress, to Julius Caesar and Napoleon, the figure of Alexander exemplified (and in many respects continues to exemplify) not only an unparalleled model of martial excellence (as well as a warning of the hazards of decadence and violence); Alexander symbolized the particularly imperialistic characteristics of ambition, drive, and sovereign power - the supreme power to command - not to mention heteronomy.

If we are willing to accept the proposition that Alexander is symbolic of empire (of domination and heteronomy), however, it ought to be added that the Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, may be regarded as the antithesis of Alexander (and, by extension, as the antithesis of empire, heteronomy, and domination as well). For while Alexander may be regarded as a singular manifestation of coercive power - as military force - Diogenes, aside from his own self, commanded nothing. Owning nothing and according to legend living in an upturned tub, as opposed to the grandeur of Alexander, Diogenes championed the simple life. Moreover, contrary to the coercive, dominating power of Alexander, Diogenes may be said to manifest a non-coercive, emancipatory power - the power to control oneself. Autonomous as opposed to exposed to heteronomy, Diogenes was able to exert influence through reasoning, without dominating or harming (although he did not entirely abstain from harassing) others.

According to various sources, including the historian Plutarch, Alexander and Diogenes even met. While Alexander was still a prince he visited Corinth and sought the company of the famous philosopher. When Alexander told the latter that he would grant the philosopher anything he'd like, in a demonstration of audacity the Cynic famously replied that he would like Alexander to move, as the prince was blocking his sun. As the contemporary philosopher Peter Sloterdijk remarks in his Critique of Cynical Reason, this encounter demonstrates, among other things, the "sovereign spirit" of the philosopher. Inhabiting not a truer world, but a truer life, the critical thinker is (to some degree) free from intimidation and coercion. Beyond the sovereign power of Alexander, which requires subjects to dominate and lord over, Diogenes was strikingly autonomous.

The opposition between Alexander and Diogenes, heteronomy and autonomy, becomes even more pronounced when one considers Diogenes' legendary response to a question concerning his citizenship. Asked from where he came, Diogenes reputedly replied: I am a cosmopolite - a citizen of the cosmos. In addition to putatively coining the term cosmopolitan, Diogenes to some degree defines the notion of the cosmopolitan - as that which, among other qualities, stands opposed to the heteronomous logic of empire, not to mention the nation-state. For what, after all, is the nation-state, in the end, but the manifestation of the imperial logic on a less extensive scale? Both operate according to the same principle - sovereignty over a territory and over a population - Alexander's coercive power, as opposed to the non-coercive power of Diogenes. Indeed, whereas the imperialist and/or nationalist adheres to an ultimately anti-egalitarian ideology rooted in force/coercion, the cosmopolitan may be said to eschew national or imperial myths and justifications of power in favor of a skeptical, flexible, critical thought - one that embraces difference, yet recognizes the invariable, universal human qualities and vulnerabilities (e.g., our common need for water, among other vital resources) that supersede national, ethnic differences. Because the cosmopolitan is said to be a "citizen" or member of the cosmos, or universe, it is entirely consistent that the cosmopolitan should not only recognize but prioritize the universal among all creatures.

Insofar as it relates to cosmopolitanism, it is worth noting that, like other diasporic communities (which have been, usually violently, dispersed across the world), the Jewish people, historically at least, have been regarded as particularly cosmopolitan. To some degree this characterization (as it generalizes an entire community) is a stereotype. However, because marginalized communities exist in relation to, and in contrast with, a mainstream, hegemonic culture, greater opportunities often do arise for a relativistic, cosmopolitan outlook to develop among marginalized communities. We see this consistently, with all sorts of marginalized, excluded communities. And it is worth consideration that cosmopolitan Jews (like Spinoza, and more recently Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others) tend to reject nationalistic politics. The ongoing emigration of the more egalitarian-minded Jews from Israel only affirms this. The cosmopolitan, anti-imperialistic, anti-nationalistic Jew is as opposed to the logic of empire and heteronomy as the nationalistic Jew (the Zionist - who is just as often also an imperialist) is opposed to a meaningful cosmopolitanism - a cosmopolitanism, and supra-nationalism, that, in the end, is the way toward a meaningful peace. For, rather than the violence of force or command (of sovereignty), the cosmopolitan position may be said to reflect Emmanuel Levinas' notion of care and responsibility toward the Other - a responsibility that, as he put it, "is an act of anarchic right that exists as outside the state."

In light of the above, the solution to the unconscionable violence in Gaza and beyond can neither be a one-state nor a two-state solution. Rather, actual peace requires a no state solution. For what is the state (what is this machine designed to exercise sovereignty over a territory and over a population) but an instrument of war? And because the state is an instrument designed to fight wars - both interstate wars (with other, rival states) and intra-state wars (class and civil wars), actual peace can never arrive in the guise of the state.

If an actual, supranational, cosmopolitan peace is to manifest in the world, not only must the state be dismantled; peace requires not just (as Kant expressed it in his essay Perpetual Peace) the total abolition of standing armies. Actual peace requires the provision of concrete, objective conditions as well (the material preconditions for concrete peace, such as nutritious food, water, housing, leisure, health care, a healthy environment, among other conditions necessary for human flourishing, not in exchange for money, but unconditionally - that is, these conditions must be as inalienable as the political rights they subtend). These conditions, however, are objectively precluded by the institutions of the contemporary state (e.g., militaries, banks, and real property, among others).

Accordingly, the state as a political form must be superseded. To propose that the State of Israel must be destroyed, then, should not be construed in the nationalistic sense that merely the State of Israel must be destroyed, or superseded. If actual, concrete peace is to manifest in the world, all states (not communities, or people, but the agglomeration of institutions - such as borders, and war machines - that comprise the state) must be destroyed. This should in no way be understood to mean that only states need to be destroyed, or that communities should be harmed, or that governments should be destroyed. Governments and states, it is important to note, are distinct entities. While the latter manifest sovereignty and heteronomy, and perpetuate monumental harms, the former carry the potential to manifest autonomy in the form of self-government - the democratic ideal par excellence.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Fourth Horseperson

The Fourth Horseperson

A play in one act

(Three bearded men - Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses - are standing about on an unadorned stage)

Muhammad: Maybe today will be the day.

Jesus: Oh, I hope so. I can't wait to start revealing the truth to all of these people. Can you believe what they're doing? Starting wars and starving the poor, and claiming to respect me at the same time? I totally want to see them repent!

Moses: Yes, I know what you mean. I feel very passionately about clarifying the law I brought down from Sinai.

Muhammad: I am so impatient for the arrival of the fourth horse person. When do you think she or he will arrive?

Jesus: Soon, I hope.

Moses: Well, I've been doing some reckoning. It seems Jessie here came about 1,500 years after I arrived. And then you came about 600 years later... So... The fourth horse person really should have come along... by my calculations... almost 200 years ago.

Muhammad: 200 years ago?

Moses: Oh my god...

Jesus: What?

Moses: (Rolls his eyes)

Moses: I think I know who it is.

Muhammad: Who?

Jesus: Here he comes!
(A fourth bearded man enters)

Karl: Hello! Are you three wise men ready to become... horsemen?

Moses: Welcome!

Karl: Thank you! It's an honor -

Muhammad: Where have you been? We've been waiting for you so we can start apocalypsing.

Karl: Well, I apologize for the delay. But I wanted the people to get their production and distribution technologies a little bit better built - so they can support a world of concrete peace.

Moses: And?

Karl: I think it's all just about ready.

Jesus: Awesome!

Muhammad: So... What do you think we should do first?

Karl: I've been giving this some thought. I think we should spread out and hit them all at once. Muhammad, you should go somewhere like... I don't know, Pakistan, or Indonesia, where a lot of your followers are. Moses, you should go to Israel - either there or New York -

Jesus: Wait a minute. Don't you think we'd be more effective if we stuck together?

Moses: You know what would really get people? A burning bush -

Muhammad: Please. That's a little old fashioned. We need to take advantage of social media!

Karl: Hmmm... That might be a good idea. But Moses has a point. We need to interrupt the normal everyday functioning -

Jesus: Yes! Yes!

Moses: But what will we say?

Karl: Well, I've been thinking about that, too. There are certain contradictions between, say, the law that Moses talked about, and the Grace Jessie discussed, and the submission Muhammad talked about - but these can be reconciled.

Muhammad: So... I've got a question... What about the Chinese?

Karl: We'll get to that later. I think, for now, we should work on a press release.

Moses: Yes... That's a good idea.

Muhammad: A manifesto?

Karl: Did I say anything about a manifesto? I said a "press release."

Jesus: You know, I'm afraid that some people won't be very responsive to the message.

Muhammad: That's a fact -

Karl: I'm sure you're both right. We just have to somehow address our... constituency... as it were.

Moses: We should do something... spectacular! Like part the sea!

Jesus: I like it!

Muhammad: (Rolls his eyes)

Karl: What do you think?

Muhammad: Me? Well, I think we should just tell it straight - say: look, things are a mess. Most of you agree it's a mess, but you don't agree what, in particular, is the problem - or what the cause is. But we're going to reveal - revelation, right? - what the problem is, and what to do about it. And what to just leave alone.

Moses: Right! For one thing, the law is all wrong! I mean, even the pharaohs had laws, right? But the laws today aren't doing anything but maintaining an unjust order.

Jesus: You know who we should talk to?

Muhammad: Who?

Jesus: Noadiah.

Muhammad: You have no idea?

Jesus: Noadiah! She's a prophet!

Moses: What about this press release?

Karl: Yes, what do you think?

Moses: Well, I'm not so sure - my brother, Aaron, always helped me with speeches...

Karl: Yes, but, let's just ask ourselves: what's the point?

Muhammad: Peace! Justice and peace!

Karl: Exactly.

Jesus: Yes, peace - that's so true -

Karl: But there are obstacles to peace, right? And we need to remove these obstacles, as well as build the infrastructure, so to speak, for peace.

Muhammad: You're not making an essentialist argument, are you Karl?

Karl: Did I finish? Can I finish?

Muhammad: By all means -

Karl: These obstacles are not - as I may have been misunderstood to profess - merely external, objective obstacles. There are subjective obstacles as well.

Jesus: Like hatred?

Moses: (Rolls his eyes)

Karl: Exactly! So... We must remove these obstacles. We can't really take on the subjective obstacles in a concrete way - but the objective obstacles -

Muhammad: The objective obstacles are our objective!

Karl: And what are the main objective obstacles to peace?

Moses: The law!

Karl: Well... the law's a part of the main obstacle -

Jesus: The church!

Karl: Well... that's a part of it, too -

Muhammad: A part of this, a part of that - yes, everything's a part of a part with you -

Karl: Will you let me finish?

Muhammad: Please do -

Karl: Can I finish?

Muhammad: Go ahead -

Karl: Where was I?

Moses: You were talking about the main obstacles to peace.

Karl: Right. And the main obstacles to peace include profit -

Jesus: Isn't that what I said? With the camels and the eye of the needle and the rich people and everything?

Muhammad: Indeed you did. But it must be revealed. That is the point. The hidden must be unhidden – people must see it – they must recognize that their misery - and the misery cast on all our fine feathered friends as well - is the direct result of rigid belief, excess, and fear - and the institutions that perpetuate these things. It's absurd. When they see this perhaps people will snap from their trances and learn to respect and care for one another - and we can all live together, as neighbors, in peace.

Jesus: Revelation... 

Karl: Revolution! 
Muhammad: Yes -

Moses: So... Where do you think I should I set up the bush?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fighting Without Winning, Winning Without Fighting

published originally on CounterPunch

The supreme art of war consists in subduing an enemy without fighting.

- Sun Tzu

As military and paramilitary forces (and the institutions they serve) continue to bombard and maim the people of the world - and as the death tolls in Gaza, Congo, Iraq, and other war zones, continue to rise - one cannot help but wonder whether the relatively voiceless, seemingly dis-empowered, people of the planet are really unable to do anything - beyond offering largely symbolic condemnations and demonstrations of solidarity - to halt these monstrosities.

The not just political, but physiological, fact of the matter, of course, is that, though the people of the world may not possess the coercive, violent power of the state (of the police and the military, for instance), there is another dimension of political power extant in the world - one that we already possess.

Rather than any coercive power (what the philosopher Spinoza referred to as potestas - the power to command and force others to obey), the "little people" of the world already possess non-coercive power - the power to command ourselves, to determine ourselves (what Spinoza referred to as potentia).

This non-coercive power, of course, is not un-problematic; it is itself limited, and can be deformed (by social norms, and coercive institutions - in short, by ideology) beyond recognition. Despite this problematicity, though, to some degree we enjoy this immanent, non-coercive power already (what can be thought of as "labor power", among other notions, or as that which the poet Dylan Thomas referred to as "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower"). As such, the issue should not be whether we need to seize power, or not. The issue, rather, is how to employ this non-coercive power in a strategic manner - to bring about peace.

In light of this, it is worth considering the fact that Dylan Thomas' generative metaphor (of the force that drives the flower) shares a number of qualities with the generative power embodied by the mythic Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter. One of the principal Greek deities, Demeter not only caused food to grow, she was the source of the force animating the life cycle itself in ancient Greek myth. And, just as she gave life, Demeter could also easily withdraw this vital force. For instance, when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and abducted to the underworld (to cite the most well-known example) Demeter reacted with a radical passivity. By shutting down, by ceasing to cooperate, Demeter caused the world to wither, its grains and grasses to shrivel. And none of the gods could do anything but entreat her to revivify the world.

Analogous to Demeter's radical passivity, by ceasing to cooperate, the people of the world could stop the global economic system - a system which the various war machines are dependent upon and cannot function without (they cannot, for instance, function without state aid, etc.). In other words, by withdrawing, by radical non-cooperation in general, and by means of a general strike in particular, the people of the world can stop the war machines of the world from inflicting their various harms.

Although any attempt to counter the coercive power of police and armies on their terms, on their terrain, would only lead to "fighting without winning," a critical mass of people figuratively walking out of this system (shoplifting ourselves, so to speak), depriving the hegemonic, ecocidal political-economy of the energy it requires to function, could just as likely lead to winning without fighting. 

How does Monday work for you? 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trickle Down Civil War

originally published on CounterPunch

For those who haven't heard, a major offensive is being planned in the ongoing war between the classes. While the poor, and what remains of the middle and the working classes, suffer defeat after defeat, the wealthy are hammering out yet another "free trade agreement." Memorably described by Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach as "NAFTA on steroids," the Trans-Pacific Partnership - or TPP - is the largest such agreement to come along since the creation of the WTO in 1995.

Negotiated in secret between the US and 11 other Pacific nation-states (including Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan), the deal is regarded as central to Obama's economic agenda (as well as ancillary to his "pivot to Asia"). And yet, despite its list of horrors (which include the predictable assaults on labor, and the further desecration of the global environment, along with the virtual enclosure and privatization of the public domain via patent and copyright protections), the further aggrandizement of corporate power, and the further privatization of the commons, doesn't seem too novel; perhaps because corporations already pretty much run the political-economic show.

After all, though those objecting to the TPP warn that its passage will weaken governments' ability to regulate corporations and constrain corporate abuses, as it presently stands the corporate interests behind the TPP are already powerful enough to keep the agreement's contents (aside from a few leaks) virtually secret. The few politicians privy to the deal's contents are effectively banned from discussing its substance with their constituencies. And, as we've time and again witnessed, widespread public dissent is simply ignored. In other words, so-called "national sovereignty" (which many TPP protesters fear is being undermined) in many respects does not risk taking a backseat to corporate interests - for the very reason that they aren't distinct to begin with.

Let's not forget, although many of us have had it hammered into our heads that we live in a democracy, the fact of the matter is that we live in a "representative democracy" - one that represents the wealthy - in which money is equated with political speech - i.e. a plutocracy.

In addition to the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties are corporate parties through and through (who represent the interests of the rich nearly exclusively), those decrying the loss of national sovereignty sound particularly absurd considering the fact that they echo throughout a political context characterized by extreme abuses of sovereign power - abuses such as Obama's "disposition matrix" (which, for those who haven't been paying attention, allows the Executive to assassinate anyone s/he likes, without any meaningful due process of law). In light of this, perhaps, we should take a moment to briefly examine the concept of sovereignty.

As Carl Schmitt, the notorious Nazi jurist - whose thoughts on sovereignty are among the most influential of the past century - pithily put it: "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." That is, the sovereign is the person able to decide what the law is by deciding what and where the law's exceptions reside, and has the capacity to declare a "state of exception," suspending the law entirely.

The sovereign is s/he "who decides on the exception." Given this, it is highly revealing that, in discussing his official function, George W. Bush described himself as "the decider" - the one who decides. And when Obama assumed Bush's office, this baton of sovereignty - this power to decide - passed on to him. Now Obama decides. He decides, for instance, that certain practices (targeting people for assassination without due process of law, or indefinitely detaining people without charging them with a crime, or killing people with drones throughout the world) are exceptions to the law. As such, demands for the protection of sovereignty (of "the ultimate power to command") sound confused at best.

Rather than lamenting the loss or diminution of national sovereignty to corporate hegemony, then, we should instead consider the thoughts of the late Zapatista Comandante Ramona who maintained that, instead of seizing power, emancipatory political movements ought to break power into little pieces so that all can exercise some degree of (noncoercive) power - and that none will be subject to (coercive) power. That is, corporate sovereignty ought to be rejected, but not in favor of national sovereignty. National sovereignty ought to be rejected too.

In light of the above, some of those protesting the TPP to some degree (to me, at least) resemble the subculture of people obsessed with so-called "chemtrails." This, of course, should not be construed to mean that TPP protesters are conspiracy theorists. What's commensurable is just the utter superfluousness of their respective concerns.

Chemtrail enthusiasts, let us recall, who are disturbed by lingering condensation trails left in the sky by passing jets, believe that a government plot to control the weather is poisoning the world with various pollutants. Yet, while chemtrail theorists excite themselves over what may not even exist, mountains of firmly established factual reports point to the prevalence of actual pollutants in the environment causing epidemic rates of cancer, not to mention global warming, and the acidification and death of the ocean, among other actual, factual problems. Why don't chemtrail obsessives concern themselves with these firmly documented harms?

Likewise, TPP protesters (like Ralph Nader, and other liberals) ought to recognize that though the harms expected to accompany the TPP are projected to exceed those that accompanied NAFTA, the TPP is itself just a symptom, a product, of the capitalist system subtending it. For even if the TPP is defeated, capitalism will just produce more trade agreements like it. That's just what capitalism does. In addition to producing high-tech gadgetry - not to mention wars, ecocide, and widespread poverty, along with extreme concentrations of wealth - capitalism produces these inequitable trade agreements. So why not just go to the root of the problem - the radix (from which the word radical - as well as the word rational - derives)?

Some, of course, may object to this characterization of capitalism as an economic system that (re)produces poverty. But capitalism is hardly the efficient system its profiteers, and their minions, insist that it is. Just consider the relation capitalism has to the most basic economic product there is: food.

Most would probably agree that an economy's purpose is the production of basic services and goods. Within capitalism, however, this is not exactly the case. The primary purpose within capitalism is the extraction of profits. Goods, or commodities, are produced for exchange (exchange-value) rather than for use (use-value). And since goods are produced not for their own sake, but as a means to acquire money, one encounters a fundamental conflict of interest in the capitalist production process. For instance, farmers who produce enough crops to feed their communities ultimately find themselves forced out of business in a capitalist system. Though successful in the sense that they produce a large amount of food, and provide sustenance, in a capitalist system this very productiveness renders them failures. For, within the upside-down logic of capitalism, a too-productive farmer, by lowering demand (by satisfying a need) leads the price of his or her product to drop. And the more the farmer produces, the less valuable the food becomes. This valuation/devaluation ultimately renders the farmer both unable to pay her debts and forced out of business. This is why millions of tons of perfectly good food are intentionally destroyed each year - not only is food sacrificed to profit, in a commodity economy food items become instruments of a low-burning civil war. (Of course, by decommodifying food - by treating it as a commons - this problem could be corrected. Yet, decommodification is anathema to capitalism. Capitalism runs in the opposite direction, attempting to privatize and commodify - and thereby profit from - everything).

Rather than meeting human needs directly, then, capitalism meets (some of) these needs incidentally - actively undermining human well being in the process, by artificially maintaining scarcity. This is why Henry Ford, faced with the problem of having new models of cars to sell to a public unwilling to trade in their perfectly functioning Model-Ts, contributed to the development of what has come to be known as planned obsolescence. That is, he developed cars that would break down and need to be replaced after awhile. Commodities (like computers) that aren't rendered obsolete by technological advances are designed to break in a capitalist society. To be sure, manufactured scarcity, as well as planned obsolescence, and other strategies designed to create demand and profit, are integral to capitalism; these do little, however, to provide goods and services.

Capitalism's general tendency to deprive (some degree) of goods and services from all but the wealthy is illustrated by another example. Due to the rising price of real property, the owner of a senior residence home in Brooklyn - which provides housing for vulnerable members of the community - is evicting this population, rendering them homeless. Why? In order to transform this necessary housing into luxury condominiums, of course. In other words, necessary housing for a vulnerable population of elderly people is valued less than, and subordinated to, luxury housing (which by definition is unnecessary). It is this upside-down system of values (which is anti-democratic - subordinating basic housing for the many to luxury housing for the few, for instance) that needs to be corrected.

While it may be counter to the reigning ideology, it is nevertheless the case that, rather than being a democratic political-economy (animated by a concern for the well being of all) capitalism is actually a highly aristocratic economic form, concerned with what is best for those it considers the aristos, the best (which, within a system that values things according to their monetary worth, turns out to be the rich). This is precisely the aristocratic logic undergirding "trickle down" theories. What is in the interest of the best, the theory holds, is in the interest of the many as well - as it will "trickle down" to the rest.

Unlike (aristocratic) capitalism, however, a society aspiring to actually democratic social relations ought to concern itself not with what is in the interest of the "best," or even with the "majority," but with the flourishing of all people. As long as an economy functions according to the demands of exchange-value, instead of use-value, though, we will wind up not only subordinating the well-being of all to the luxury of some, we will continue to produce avoidable harms such as global warming, famine, and poverty, along with trade agreements like the TPP. Rather than narrowly focusing on the TPP, then, we ought to direct our attention to developing an actually egalitarian, critical democracy. Unlike the capitalistic system, which regards everything as alienable (i.e., for sale), such a project would not only recognize, for instance, that political rights must be inalienable (not for sale); it would recognize that the preconditions for these rights (such as food, and housing, among other conditions necessary for human flourishing) must be decommodified and inalienable as well. Humankind may yet have time to recognize this.

City Summer Swimming

originally published on CounterPunch

New York City’s municipal swimming pools will open their gates, and their blue, chlorinated depths to the public in a few weeks. And while local and even national papers will report the advent of the city’s swimming season, the conduct of the crowds, the (overwhelmingly petty) crimes that tend to arise when so many people are concentrated into such tight confines, and (to a lesser degree) the ongoing privatization of the public realm that is limiting these spaces ever further, as so often happens the real issue will hardly be discussed at all – the real issue being: why is it the case that in a city that is almost entirely built on islands – a city literally surrounded by water – are there so few places to swim and cool off in the first place?
Though billions of dollars were recently spent refurbishing some of the city’s municipal pools, such as the McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, these pools can only accommodate a fraction of the overheated. All the while, the potentially refreshing waters of the Hudson and the East River – among other bodies of water which could radically improve people’s quality of life – are treated less with respect, and more with sewage and toxic runoff. Notwithstanding the occasional, anomalous swimming events (such as the annual Brooklyn Bridge Swim) and the accommodationist efforts of advocates of pools designed to float in the East River and filter the river water – the city’s natural waterways are practically unswimmable. Why?

Anyone who takes a not-so-short view of the city’s (and the world’s) history will quickly recognize the answer to this only apparently beguiling question; the present political-economic system, today’s exploitative, exchange-value economy (capitalism), has deformed the once bucolic harbor and rivers – not to mention the land and its inhabitants – into their present carcinogenic configurations. Indeed, in their descriptions of the region, early European chroniclers (such as Henry Hudson) without fail called attention to not only the salutary beauty of the harbor, and to the abundance of fish, but to the intensity of the sweetness of the air as well.

It takes little to see, and smell, that these conditions no longer prevail. And just as early explorers (blind to the indigenous inhabitants’ cultural practices) erroneously attributed this apparent pristinity to untrammeled nature, they raise a question as important as it is elementary: What is the point of an economy, and of technological prowess, and of society itself? Is it to create good swimming conditions – and, by extension, a healthy, peaceful world? Or is it to destroy these things?
As the planet continues to heat up (limiting places to cool off while creating greater demand for such places), and as the writing drips from the storm-washed walls, it is only becoming more evident that radical, transformative political and economic changes need to be enacted to keep cities, and the rest of the world, from growing ever more unlivable. Radical (and critically rational, as opposed to merely instrumentally rational) political and economic changes cannot take place, however, before a deeper shift occurs – one in which, among other reprioritizations, exchange-value and profit are subordinated (normatively and, ultimately, legally as well) to use-value and the well-being of the people, animals, and habitats of the planet.

As New York City’s municipal pools prepare to open for the summer season, many will no doubt dismiss projects designed to create a genuinely healthy environment, and to renew swimmability to New York City’s waterways, among others, as utopian and misguided. Yet such a project – which demands the correction of vast social and ecological harms – really ought to be regarded as what it in fact is: one of the most crucial social, economic, and practical questions of our time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Welcome to the Planet of the Frankensteins

It seems these days that the name Frankenstein is used to designate not only the scientist Victor Frankenstein, but also the monster he created in Mary Shelley's early 19th century novel. Rather than reflecting a mistake of some sort, however, this may reflect the recognition of a deeper, underlying truth. For while both creator and creation are monstrous in the novel, in many respects it is the creator who is the more horrible. As such, it seems entirely appropriate that his name should come to designate not merely the monster, but the monstrous. 


Among other things, it is especially noteworthy that the man who would end up creating the now legendary monster was not only a scientist; he was a rich scientist working in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Obsessed with electricity – that is, with the union of technology and power – he employed this electrical power to realize his dream of creating a 'life form.’ That he should do so at the very historical moment that new and horrible 'forms of life,' or ways of life, were being shocked into creation throughout the world by the Industrial Revolution and European imperialism – and that these newly created ways of life of the colonized, enslaved, and industrial working classes were indeed monstrous – seems hardly coincidental, irrespective of Shelley's intent. (Also worth noting here is the fact that the quality of the monstrous – in its association with the sublime, as well as in its opposition to beauty – is not restricted to the sphere of aesthetics. Indeed, to the extent that it is opposed to beauty – to fairness (which designates both harmony and that other variety of fairness, justice) – the monstrous also represents the ethical and political concept of injustice.)

Shelley, of course, was not unaware of the fact that she was writing her novel at the beginning of a new historical period. Frankenstein's subtitle, after all, is The Modern Prometheus. Moreover, beyond the notion of modernity, Prometheus himself is symbolic of historical ruptures. A trickster who challenged Zeus’ omnipotence, Prometheus was the Titan who transgressed the rules of the gods to bestow fire (and, more generally, technology) to humanity – mythopoeically representing a moment in the history of humanity that is rivaled in importance by the Industrial Revolution itself.

Following Prometheus’ theft, and his gift of fire, Zeus punished the former by chaining him to a rock on top of Mount Kazbek (where, each day, an eagle would tear out Prometheus’s ever-regenerating liver). Zeus, however, was not content to merely punish Prometheus; he would also punish those who benefitted from Prometheus’ crime. Commissioning the god of technology, Hephaestus, to fashion a woman from clay, Zeus would set Pandora (and her jar of misfortunes) to the world to punish humankind. Indeed, it was by way of her notorious jar that not only disease, but work itself was introduced into reality. That is, prior to Prometheus's theft, there was no disease or work in the world. Relatedly, across the planet that industrial imperialism was increasingly subjugating during the period of Frankenstein's creation and publication, work and disease were being introduced with great rapidity. As Karl Polanyi describes it in his seminal The Great Transformation, European colonizers often introduced work to the natives they conquered. Unwilling to toil for those colonizing their homes, Polanyi relates that the natives would remark that there was no need to work and earn money since there was plenty of food growing more or less wildly for them to eat freely. The colonizers’ response to this was to destroy the freely growing food, creating a state of dependency, compelling the conquered people to work[1] – creating work and disease, just like what resulted from the theft of Prometheus. It was not simply imperialism, though, so much as a new type of industrial imperialism that was transforming the world in the early years of the 19th century. And it is primarily this industrialism – marked by its particularly monstrous electrical, economic, and political power – an electrical power that, like fire (and like capitalism itself) requires the perpetual consumption of fuel – that is represented by Dr. Frankenstein.

Dr. Frankenstein, then, is a monster who creates monstrosities. But not only were conquered natives being monstrously subjugated by the British Crown, and their lands turned into monstrosities; the industrial working class was also being created during this time, and being subjected to monstrous conditions. As such, just as we can see Dr. Frankenstein as symbolic of the forces of science and industry, we can see Frankenstein's monster as symbolizing to some degree the industrial working class and the slaves and other subjugated peoples of the empires - the poor in general who threaten and frighten the dominating classes. These monstrous forms of life, however, are not limited to people. The monster that Dr. Frankenstein created, which becomes hostile and harmful to people, can also be regarded as the natural environment itself. To be sure, with its increasingly destructive hurricanes, floods and other 'extreme weather events', and with its polluted toxicity, all caused by Prometheus/Frankenstein/Industry, much of the natural world today is being monstrosified. 

But the monster-making of the combined forces of science, industry, and empire did not by any means end in the 19th century. The 20th century's biopolitical monstrosities are far too numerous to list. Aside from the monumental horrors of concentrated violence witnessed in genocides and nuclear bombings, and the more quotidian forms of diffused violence endemic to modern life, a new technology would find itself attached to the term Frankenstein toward the end of the 20th century: frankenfoods. Combined, like Frankenstein's monster, from sundry parts, frankenfoods are distinct from the monster insofar as they are the result of not so much anatomical, but genetic engineering. And closely related to Frankenstein and genetics, or epigenetics, rather, is Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

While it may be a coincidence that an actor named Franco plays the Dr. Frankenstein character, the scientist Will Rodman,
[2] other structural similarities abound. Indeed, beyond sharing characteristics with Dr. Frankenstein, Will Rodman is also much like Prometheus – for the technology he sacrifices so much to convey to humanity directly creates world-changing disease. 

In developing what he hopes will be a cure for Alzheimer's, Will Rodman conducts series of drug tests on a number of apes. But while his experimental drug increases the research subjects' intelligence by extraordinary bounds, the drug also has a deadly side-effect – an infectious disease that, by the end of the film, gives rise to a pandemic wiping out much of humankind – allowing the apes to rise to global hegemony in this Planet of the Apes origin story.

After an accident leads to the cessation of Rodman's medical research program at the beginning of the film, Rodman is forced to euthanize his lab animals. One infant chimpanzee, however, is spared. Although he could have just as easily been named Moses, the infant chimp is named Caesar. Brought to Rodman's Bay Area home, Caesar is raised in Rodman's house like his own child. Possessing an intelligence more powerful, we are told, than that of most humans, Caesar learns sign language, communicates linguistically, and develops into a sophisticated 'person.' In one pivotal scene involving a leashed dog barking at Caesar (who is also on a leash) a distressed Caesar asks Rodman if he is also a pet. And if he is not a pet, what is he? With his unique capacities, assembled by a scientist, this creation of Frankenstein/Rodman – Caesar – is a type of Frankenstein's monster. But unlike Frankenstein's monster, who was entirely alone and alienated in the world, Caesar is not completely unique. There are others, other apes, who are like him. Caesar is not only a type of Frankenstein's monster; he will become a type of Dr. Frankenstein as well. 

When a violent incident results in his banishment from Rodman's home to a primate refuge, Caesar learns to live among other apes – and, as befits his namesake, he attempts to organize these apes into an army so that they may resist the abuses to which they are submitted.
However, and to some degree illustrating Spinoza’s observation that “Subjection to domination impedes the subject’s ability to use reason correctly,”[3] the other apes are a mostly thoughtless and bestial lot. So, to aid the raising of their 'class consciousness,' Caesar decides to expose them to the Alzheimer drug under renewed development in Rodman's lab. Shortly after the apes' exposure to this drug, their intelligence greatly enhanced, they begin to understand Caesar's plan for liberation. And it is not long before they have exacted revenge on their jailer and climbed out of the compound. 

Having freed themselves from the primate refuge, the apes proceed to Rodman's lab where the drug is being studied. Liberating the test apes there, they then head en masse to release the apes trapped at the zoo. And from the zoo, Caesar decides to lead his army to Muir Woods on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is not long, however, before the police are on their trail. Cutting them off, what results is an exciting battle in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge – one that calls to mind Occupy Wall Street protesters' attempted occupations of bridges. Rather than marching right into the arms of the police, though, as Occupy protesters often did, Caesar directs his troops to climb over and under the bridge, avoiding and then surrounding the police and ultimately prevailing over their adversaries. And while it may not be fair to expect Occupy protesters, or others, to be able to climb as well as CGI orangutans and chimpanzees, it may not be entirely unrealistic to expect present-day political protestors to employ something approximating Caesar's tactics and strategies – tactics that could have just as well been gleaned from studying Sun Tzu.

At any event, Caesar – the monster of Frankenstein who becomes a type of Dr. Frankenstein himself – winds up leading his wounded army to Muir Woods and safety. And while their freedom might have been only short-lived otherwise, the pandemic that was only flaring up when they were making their escape from the primate refuge has, by the movie's end, engulfed the globe, ensuring that their freedom (from humans, at least) will be a lasting one.

This conclusion, in some respects, mirrors the end of Shelley's novel – for Frankenstein's monster escapes as well, banishing himself to the arctic at the end of the story. The story in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, leads one to wonder whether Frankenstein's monster would have risen in revolt had he had the company and support of an army of monsters. To be sure, unlike his cinematic depictions, Frankenstein’s monster was in possession of an intelligence comparable to what Rodman's intelligence drug provoked in the apes. Had he had the company of other monsters, who knows, they might have revolted actively (as opposed to revolting merely passively, committing the daily mini-sabotages people tend to commit in workplaces and other locations across the world
[4] – for, just like in Shelley's time, most people today are Frankenstein's monsters of sorts as well). Of course, even though we are told, by enemies and allies alike, that we are all 'singularities,' we are not alone like Dr. Frankenstein's sui generis freak of a monster. We may all be Frankensteins, but in this respect we are less like Dr. Frankenstein’s singular creation and more like Caesar and the apes, together in our alienation. What we lack is their consciousness of their Frankenstein condition(s).

Perhaps the most important question raised by the problematic film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, is whether one can free oneself from Dr. Frankenstein (i.e. capitalism and its ideology, and dominating forms of power generally) without becoming a Dr. Frankenstein oneself. And whether, relatedly, we are all, to varying degrees, hybrids of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation.

[1] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Boston, 1944, p. 164
[2] A name, by the way, comprised, of the phallic “rod,” not to mention the problematic “will.”
[3] Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

[4] See James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University Press, 1985.