Friday, December 7, 2012

Drive, Baby, Drive! - Pearl Harbor, Global Warming, and the Apocalypse

On the anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, with typhoon Bopha having just spread vast carnage throughout the South China Sea, it is interesting to consider the parallels that exist between the Japanese attack and such global warming-caused weather events. Among their other similarities, both the attack on Pearl Harbor and global warming-caused disasters result from the industrial, imperialistic scramble for, and exploitation of natural resources. And though the Japanese bombardment surprised many, but was not unanticipated, likewise the typhoons, hurricanes, and other disasters increasing in intensity and frequency throughout the world might come as something of a surprise, but are not unanticipated in light of what we know about climate change. Furthermore, if the Japanese attack led to an alteration in the world social order, the ravages attending global warming-caused events threaten a change of an even more radical magnitude. 

Remarkable for striking a region that does not usually suffer from such storms, Typhoon Bopha is in this respect similar to Hurricane Sandy - whose destruction has yet to be corrected. Indeed, though it's been nearly six weeks since Superstorm Sandy's landing, and one might think that the situation is returning to normal (whatever 'normal' means these days), in actuality the weather-caused displacements have yet to subside. For the tens of thousands of people who have lost their homes, or are still living without electricity or heat in these days of advancing winter, not only do these conditions persist, recovery may still be months away; there is not even any certainty that former conditions will ever be recovered. 

While it may be attributable to the neo-liberal program that neglects collectively owned resources in order to induce their privatization, it is nevertheless a fact that the State these days is hardly able to maintain even its more mundane infrastructures (like bridges, roads, sewage and public transportation systems, and nuclear power plants) without the additional stresses wrought by "extreme weather" events. As such, it doesn't seem too contentious to suggest that, as these hurricanes and typhoons (as well as tornadoes, floods, fires, droughts, and other harms) deliver their unrelenting combination blows in the months and years ahead, the State's already limited capacities to prepare and respond will become only more circumscribed. Inadequately attended to, the wreckages wreathing Staten Island, Queens, and the Jersey shore, among the other places hit by Sandy - not to mention the places struck by Bopha - will not only fester, but will degenerate further, adding inexorably to the planet's growing slum population.

Though some will no doubt attribute such a conjecture to the unreasonably fearful, or to the unreasonably hopeful (eager for the collapse of the usurious system), the recognition of the advancement of catastrophic environmental conditions by the infamously conservative insurance industry, and the World Bank, ought to do much to deflect charges of well-intentioned, but ultimately misled, alarm. The World Bank's November, 2012 report, Turn Down the Heat, for instance, warns that rising temperatures pose an imminent peril to not only its investments, but to civilization itself. Current trends, their conservative report warns, will likely lead to a temperature increase of four degrees centigrade "as early as the 2060s." Such a rise in temperature would be nothing short of cataclysmic for all but jellyfish. To be sure, most climate scientists maintain that temperature increases above 3°C would precipitate mass die-offs.

In some senses, then, the coming "unprecedented heat waves, severe droughts, and major floods" warned of in the World Bank's report, along with their attendant famines and epidemics, may be likened to some sort of armada of hostile ships approaching the planet. Landing singly for now, dispersed in time as well as space, if drastic action is not taken it won't be long before their masses land constantly, overwhelming efforts to resist. And while the approach of such an armada, or any such assembly of threats, would elicit alarm in any reasonable person, or government, the US government, and the business powers it overwhelmingly represents, repeatedly demonstrate their utter lack of 'reasonableness' by continuing to practice their particularly venal brand of denialism. And though some in power - like the World Bank, and various congresspersons - at least recognize that there is a serious problem, aside from conceding that "serious policy changes" need to be implemented, and that harms indeed need to be "mitigated," such phrasing implies that they don't think their economic system needs to be extirpated. Yet, it does; for capitalist forms of economic and social organization not only obstruct efforts to correct harmful conditions (of all sorts, including global warming), but their normal functioning creates these very conditions in the first place. That is, the armada of hostile ships referred to above is not simply coming to attack us; its materials were mined, and refined, and their parts were designed and built and launched by us as well, in order to reap profits. And though many of these "ships" have already been launched, stopping not only production, but changing the system that compels people to produce unnecessary, harmful things in order to simply survive, would not only limit the multiplication of such disasters, and reduce the severity of those already on their way, it would be a step in the direction of a just world as well.

While in general public opinion is largely supportive of economic models that halve - or even quarter - the length of the workweek, resistance to the notion of abandoning cars, among other things that give rise to ecocide, often elicit apoplectic reactions. Related to outbursts such as these, it deserves mention that while they're predictably quiet regarding his Disposition Matrix, and other actual abuses, the sensationalistic denunciations of Republicans regarding Barack Obama's economic measures (in spite of the latter's deep conservatism) veer into just this type of reaction. Indeed, it is so vitriolic - insisting, among other things, that his tepid health care reform would initiate so-called 'death panels' - that in denouncing him in such a manner one would think that Republicans would have used up their biggest rhetorical weapons. By painting Obama not merely as a wild extremist, but as the Antichrist himself, it is difficult to imagine what they could come up with that's any worse. And should an actual radical political organization come along at some point - with a truly radical platform - it leads one to wonder what Republicans could offer in terms of denunciations that they haven't already. 

Beyond mirroring 'the boy who cried wolf', by pursuing such an extreme type of rhetoric, it seems the Republicans may have created a type of drama around 'No Drama Obama' which has induced a type of Aristotelian catharsis among its audience. By allowing audiences to purge their fears and passions in the safe and abstract realm of fantasy, Aristotle maintained that drama prepared audiences for an encounter with comparable events in reality. As such, by way of just such a cathartic process, the Republicans may have, ironically, to some degree, come to terms with the future arrival of a radical, socialist government.

Democrats, on the other hand, exposed to an entirely different narrative, see a wholly different picture. According to their story, Obama is a reasonable - even wise - leader whose efforts at establishing "a more perfect union" are repeatedly stymied by obstructionist Republicans - even when Democrats held a supermajority in congress. In addition to overlooking the peculiar fact that the two parties share virtually identical world views, this story also fails to consider that reasonable persons would not only not ignore the cataclysmic ecological exigencies confronting us, but would actively pursue energy and economic policies designed to correct these. Yet Obama, who neglects to pursue such an agenda, and actively abets the business community's worst practices, somehow continues to present himself as a reasonable person (just as he misrepresented himself as an agent of change) and somehow manages to be taken seriously. Indeed, his (and the Republicans) neglect of advancing ecological catastrophe is of such severity, and such a breach of responsibility, that it ought to be indictable as a crime against humanity. However, Obama and company no doubt sleep well, aware that the International Criminal Court in The Hague, along with the rest of The Netherlands, will most likely be well under water in no time. In spite of all of this, as it is spelled out over much of the mass media, the Democrats' political fantasy regarding Obama's reasonableness is not so easily dispelled.

So, though Republicans' hyperbole couldn't grow more volatile (what is worse than charges of Hitlerism?), and couldn't impede Obama more than they already do, it seems the actual obstacle to a more progressive Obama - as has been apparent all along - is not the unreasonableness of the Republicans, but the very unreasonableness of Obama and the Democrats. And though the Democrats would rejoin that they are being entirely reasonable, they seem to be unable to comprehend that their particular variety of reasonableness is itself subordinated to the overarching unreasonableness involved in organizing the world according to the priorities of business interests.

To some degree this dynamic may be elucidated through reference to Freud's Reality Principle. Unlike thinkers from Spinoza to the Marquis de Sade, and beyond, who maintained that human behavior is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure (what Freud called the Pleasure Principle), and the avoidance of what causes pain, Freud maintained that something else is involved. Like the Old Stoics of the Hellenistic period, who held that people are not motivated so much by pleasure as by the pursuit of a greater harmony, one in which suffering is sometimes necessary, Freud maintained a similar thing (although his notion of harmony is of a particularly bourgeois cast). Because the unrestricted pursuit of pleasure ultimately leads to pain, he argued, it too had to be limited - by what Freud termed the Reality Principle.

Among other stories, Aesop's fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants illustrates this dynamic. An arguably more sophisticated telling of this, however, is rendered in the story of The Three Little Pigs. Readers may recall that the little pigs who pursued pleasure most - slap-dashedly constructing their homes from straw and sticks - saw their homes destroyed by the predations of the wolf. Meanwhile, the more responsible pig, who had internalized the Reality Principle, who deferred pleasure in order to build a sturdy house of bricks, not only prevailed over, but succeeded in eating the wolf.

While it may be a shortcoming of these stories - which instruct children on the merits of being good ants (workers), and pigs (consumers) - in their ascriptions of reasonableness, or of a Reality Principle, to Obama, his proponents reveal a profound one. For the purported Reality Principle of Obama is in actuality subordinated to the system's incessant drive for growth and consumption - a drive leading not only to the world-wrecking ravages of global warming, but to epidemics of stress, heart-disease, cancer, famine, war, and other ills. That is, while the moderation, and thrift of the historical middle classes may continue to function ideologically (as internalized domination), these are firmly in the service of what Freud would describe not even as the Pleasure Principle, but what in his later writings he termed the Death Drive.

Opposed to survival, and the other creative drives, according to Freud the Death Drive is "an urge in organic life to restore an earlier [inorganic] stage of things." In dominating the natural, as well as the social world, deforming the living and natural world into inorganic commodities and waste, rather than exemplifying the Pleasure Principle, or the Reality Principle, contemporary social organization seems to be manifesting the aggressive destructiveness wrapped up in just this urge.

And though Freud held that the aggressive destructiveness of the Death Drive was an innately human phenomenon, he nevertheless contended that it could be overcome by way of a type of social Reality Principle, one rooted not in the destructive power of Thanatos, but in the generative, healing force of Eros. Indeed, it is interesting to point out that in addition to representing Armageddon, or the end times, the notion of apocalypse also means revelation, or unconcealment. As such, one may argue that the revelation, or unconcealment of the actual, ecocidal harms attending the present socioeconomic system (concealed by the culture industry) would instantiate apocalypse not in the sense of ending the world in general so much as contributing to the end of this particular form of social organization.

As this Death Drive hurtles us toward ecological holocaust, it is interesting to consider that rather than by opposing it by force - which only ever enhances its strength - we can deprive this drive of its power not so much by working (like the dead), but, rather, like Eros, by playing dead. For, though the forces of domination are far more dangerous than, say, a bear, or a bee, by playing dead, by refusing to participate - by removing our bodies from the gas pedal, withdrawing not only our 'moral' support, but our actual physical energy and labor from its reproduction of harms - by not paying our bills, among other things - like a fire deprived of its fuel, this system of death will soon slow and expire. And the armada of disasters advancing toward us - whose attack should not come as any surprise - will by and by dissipate. What do we have to lose, but our diseases?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Zombie Vampire Industrial Complex

published originally on counterpunch

As Obama celebrates his reelection, and his supporters find themselves in the odd position of planning how to fight the man they helped reelect in the first place, it is worth reflecting on the fact that Obama was able to prevail in the presidential election by receiving a preponderant number of ballots - and that these ballots (a term derived from the word 'balls') in many respects represents the surrender of his supporters' symbolic balls - not only their symbolic heads, and minds, but also their actual autonomy to the ruler whose power they simultaneously support and decry.

What is interesting, as well as relevant, is that this dynamic of surrendering autonomy shares a substantial resemblance with features of the fictitious, yet symbolically loaded, figure of the zombie and its relationship to political power. Appearing in countless books, movies, tv shows, video games, and advertisements, the zombie has arguably attained the high level of popularity it has in recent years on account of the fact that, as a society, we relate to these undead creatures in more ways than we might initially suspect.

Indeed, who doesn't from time to time, when commuting to and from work each day, for example, feel like one of a veritable army of zombies? Or, deprived of energy or power at the end of a day of work, who doesn't find themselves shuffling about like a member of the "living dead"? Among other things, just looking about at the crowds surrounding them, who doesn't ever think of altering the famous words of the late June Jordan and reflect - only half-facetiously - that, in certain respects, "we are the zombies we've been waiting for"?

Yet, if the powerless, half-dead zombie may be said to represent one end of the spectrum of political power, the other extreme is arguably occupied by another popular, undead figure. In contrast to the speechless, decaying slob of the zombie, at the other end of this spectrum of power one may not be too surprised to discover the stylish, aristocratic, and generally articulate, vampire.

While living people occupy the midsection between these two undead extremes - and are under attack at each end by these vampires and zombies - in one sense the zombie may be seen to be the product of vampires. For, among other things, zombies are generally produced by a parasite or some other life-depriving agent; and this is just what the figure of the vampire represents.

Whereas the zombie is a relatively powerless walking corpse, it should be remarked that their lost power does not necessarily merely evaporate. Rather, it may be seen to concentrate in the agent or parasite that so deprived it in the first place - i.e., in the vampire. In this respect, then, we can view the figure of the vampire as - to some degree - symbolic of the owners of the world, and the zombies as their exploited underclass. For just as Marx opined concerning capitalism, it is "vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks." Zombies, as the nonthinking result of this deprivation by the owners of capital, are for their part the living dead whose life force has been sucked out.

However, as physically (and metaphysically) powerful as the vampire is, with its capacity to fly, and its ability to defy age, among other powers, the vampire is at the same time in certain respects profoundly weak. For like any parasite who dominates its host, yet is at the same time utterly dependent on it, the vampire's power is restricted by this dependency. And the host, strangely, who is depended upon - who in fact is the source of the parasite's power - is the one who is in turn dominated.

To some degree this parasitic relationship of powerless dominator and powerful dominated is formulated by the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. As he elaborates it in his Master-Slave Dialectic, in the Self-Consciousness section of  his Phenomenology of Spirit, the host or slave can ultimately come to live without the master, but through their exploitative relationship the master becomes unable to live without the slave.

Dominated by the master and forced to work, the slave, according to Hegel, winds up becoming creative, and consequently attains self-consciousness. The master, meanwhile, becomes ever more dependent on the slaves' output. Yet, as a result of the slaves' emerging self-consciousness, the slave comes to demand independence from the master, and the dialectic continues from there.

So, in spite of its similarities, the so-called Master-Slave dialectic is distinct from the dynamic between the vampire and zombie. For, whereas the master's slave ultimately achieves self-consciousness, and freedom through his or her creative labor, insofar as the vampire deprives people of their blood and energy through mindless work, the vampires (unlike the Master) succeed in creating zombies who, instead of attaining self-consciousness, become a member of the living-dead without seeming to notice or mind much at all.

Insofar as it contributes to an understanding of the speculative relationship under consideration between vampires and zombies, Friedrich Nietzsche's master and slave morality schema - as elaborated in his Genealogy of Morals - deserves consideration alongside Hegel's theory. However, like Hegel's theory, Nietzsche's also ultimately fails to capture the complex dynamic at play.

To be sure, although the vampire possesses a type of nobility (in the aristocratic sense of a nobleman, or noblewoman) and may be said in this respect to embody the morality, or ethos, of the master in Nietzsche's Genealogy, the other aspect, that of slave morality, does not in the end arise.

Among other things, because the zombie is not especially vindictive or resentful, the zombie may be said to lack a slave morality. Unlike Nietzsche's slave, who schemes to destroy the master, zombies don't want to bring the vampire down at all. They are more than happy to simply eat vast quantities of brains and watch American Idol. In spite of this, however, one can attribute a type of cowardice and resentment (which Nietzsche argues characterizes slave morality) to the zombie. This sentiment (or, rather, resentiment), is not directed toward the vampire, however. Rather, it is directed at those who critique the vampire. Zombies seem to truly hate such tiring exercises in critical thought.

Among other characteristics of slave morality, Nietzsche argues that the slave possesses a desire for equality. The contemporary zombie, however, to the degree that s/he considers this notion at all, tends to think of equality in only the most superficial, regressively egalitarian ways. The championing of the elimination of public sector employee benefits, based on the rationale that all are not fairly suffering the effects of an austerity economy - all the while neglecting to consider the excesses enjoyed by the rich (vampires) who created the wretched conditions in the first place - provides just one example of such invertedly resentful zombie "thought."

However, while Nietzsche's theory may not fit the relationship between vampires and zombies very tightly, certain similarities are still worth considering. For instance, like Nietzsche's master, the vampire may be said to be - in Nietzsche's words - "value-creating." This is the case insofar as the vampire creates social norms. However, this value can also be viewed as the "value" that the businessperson creates in degrading the living world to an assortment of lifeless commodities. This "value" of the master, or vampire, and its attendant norms, which Nietzsche's slave emphatically rejects, are, however, uncritically embraced by the zombie.

Moreover, rather than resenting the vampire, the contemporary zombie often aspires to become just like one of them - just as the well-known Joe the Zombie Plumber aspired to become a vampire, a la some Bloomberg. Indeed, unlike the slave, the zombie does not villainize its oppressor at all. Like those afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome, who come to care for their tormentors, or the host possessed and deformed by a parasite, the zombie more or less willfully sacrifices itself to the vampire.

Though Nietzsche is often presumed to support a version of a master morality, a careful reading of his  works leads to the conclusion that Nietzsche in the end rejects slave morality as well as master morality. This position finds considerable support in Nietzsche's consistent, tireless argument for not master morality at all, but for "a revaluation of all values."

Relatedly, the term Value derives from the Latin Valere, which means wellness and health. Considering this fact, it is especially noteworthy that the opposition of class interests, or values, is complemented by the phenomenon that the health of one class in today's world is generally dependent on the diminution of the health of the class they exploit. That is, just as the vampire extracts one form of value (health) from its host, it is significant that it then replaces this with its own (ideological) values. And because the zombie seems to accept the values of the vampire, rather than Hegel's Master-Slave dialectic or Nietzsche's master slave morality, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony may at this point help to elucidate the relationship between the vampire and the zombie.

According to Gramsci, cultural hegemony occurs when one social class successfully imposes their values on another social class - justifying the status quo's contingent constitutions and institutions and distributions of power and resources as inevitable, natural, and just - in spite of the fact that such values are not only contingent, but operate to the detriment of the oppressed classes.

Trained in the masters' schools, raised on the tv shows the masters create, which reflect their cultural norms, reading the newspapers the masters run, and generally swallowing the predominant ethos, culture, and tastes of the ruling classes, it should come as little surprise that the zombified host (who, as living dead, lost his political resistance along with his pathogenic resistances) should come to esteem the enterprising vampires.

(That these parasites should be portrayed as sexy aristocrats, ought to yield little surprise either. Meanwhile, unlike the sexy, aristocratic vampire, the proletarian zombies - sapped of all elan vital - are rarely portrayed as anything aside from the thoroughly repulsive creatures they have been deformed into. Indeed, no one ever wants to touch, let alone sleep with any of these shuffling, rotting corpses.)

But the correspondence between vampires, parasites, and hegemony does not stop there. Insofar as the dominant classes' values tend to produce behavior among the dominated that is to their detriment, there is an interesting - albeit highly problematic - parity between cultural hegemony and the biological, deterministic dynamic inherent in parasitism.

That parasites change their hosts behavior to the detriment of the host, and to the benefit of the parasite, is a well-established neurobiological fact. In the article How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy, which appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, a number of examples of this phenomenon are examined. Among others, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is quoted discussing a parasitical flatworm that turns its host - an ant - into its slave. Although uninfected members of this particular ant species normally hide underground at the approach of sheep, when infected with the parasitical flatworm the ants exhibit apparently self-destructive behavior. Exposing themselves to the sheep by climbing to the tips of blades of grass, they attach themselves there and are consequently eaten by the sheep. While this behavior may be regarded as harmful for the ant, it is vital for the parasitical flatworm. Swallowed by the sheep, the parasite is thereby able to reproduce and thrive in the sheep's digestive system.

Beyond these examples, parasites and viruses have been shown to alter human behavior as well. As cited in the same article, behavioral biologists and biomedical anthropologists at Colorado State University, and SUNY Binghamton, have discovered social behavior in humans that is influenced by pathogens. When infected with the flu, for instance, and the virus is at its most contagious, otherwise unsociable people have been observed to experience highly increased desires to socialize with others, going so far as to throw parties when they otherwise only rarely hosted such activities. It goes without saying that this type of behavior is not beneficial for the host, who needs rest to recover from his or her illness. However, it is quite advantageous for the parasite to be exposed to new hosts in which to spread. Additionally, people infected with herpes, syphilis, and AIDS have all been found to express an enhanced desire for sex when their respective virus is most contagious.

While there is no evidence to support a correlation, it is intriguing to reflect on the similarities that exist between these biological, parasitical relationships, and the antagonistic relationships that exist between social classes which result in a dominated class exhibiting apparently self-destructive behavior vis-a-vis their exploiters. To be sure, there may even be a biological homology between parasitism and cultural hegemony.

However, though one may be tempted to find a cause for the zombification of people within biological processes, we must nevertheless resist the temptation to attribute contemporary zombie-ism to such environmental, genetic or strictly neurological factors. For as much as biological and subconscious determinants may be at play in the reproduction of ideologies, we must not overlook the fact that for the most part the things which influence our thoughts are, overwhelmingly, things we can control - and things which we are, therefore, responsible for. That is, the things that most influence us are not so much microscopic organisms, but those things which are - more than merely learned - intentionally taught (not least of which are floods of advertisements, ideology, and propaganda). Surrounding and immersing us in so-called consumer culture, this dogma is all around us. And, among other things, it is this dogmatism - and its corresponding lack of skepticism - that ensures that zombie and vampire "thought" is not able to rise much beyond the level of distraction and reflex - i.e., it hardly attains the level of thought at all.

Furthermore, it is vital to stress that everyone has a tendency, at least from time to time, to become a zombie, or a vampire (or, for those for whom being a zombie or a vampire is their primary mode, to from time to time become "human" - that is, to become not undead, but alive). In other words, though we have been distinguishing between the undead monsters and living humans, the zombies and vampires under consideration are still, after all, human beings. And not only is it a constitutive part of being human to at times become a monster, with even the most sensitive among us possessing the potential to at any moment carelessly slip into some monstrous extreme, humans may in fact be the only actual monsters anywhere.

Being sentient, however, and not being some member of the living dead, arguably means being able to catch and preclude this proclivity - just as it also means becoming cognizant of one's ability to disrupt the causal, inertial chain of everyday life and determine our own fate. In spite of this, however, our power and ability to determine ourselves is itself severely limited by the present political-economic system, which concentrates and attenuates power to monstrous degrees, deforming people into zombies and vampires.

In other words, irrespective of one's social role, no one is in essence a monster. However, the monstrous forms of work, among the other relations which possess us, deform us, and destroy our dignity and our health - not to mention the health of the world - is the vampire which reproduces vampires and zombies alike.

While we cannot at present explore all of the implications raised by the attempt to distinguish the vampire and the zombie from the human (such as responsibility, dignity, and many others), we can at least provisionally remark that the vampire and the zombie may be said to represent the extreme concentration, as well as the extreme lack, of social, economic, and political power. Considerations of the zombie and the vampire must lead us, therefore, to recognize the monstrous injustice that inheres in a system whose necessarily inequitable distributions of social, economic, and political power concentrates in one monstrous extreme what it deprives in the other.

That is, the problem of zombies and vampires is ultimately a problem of justice. And like the term value, which is related to health, it bears mentioning that justice - insofar as it is intrinsically related to balance - is also intimately related to the concept of health. Indeed, in many respects the concrete conditions of justice are even articulable as concrete conditions of health. Moreover, like the balance of health, which is not the balance of mere cancellation, justice requires the balance of distribution.

The corrective to the extremes of power that result in vampires and zombies is not, then, humanity (which, since we're all human, is effectively a meaningless term) but the elimination of both of the extremes of the dead, through the equitable distribution of the world of the living. This parasitic relationship of zombies and vampires has its corrective, then, not in the destruction of the parasite or the elimination of the host but, rather, in the replacement of the capitalist system (along with the other relations of domination) with not parasitic relations, but with a symbiotic social arrangement in which all may benefit - and justice, which is always possible, can be made actual.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Superstorm Sandy's Submerged Social Antagonisms

In spite of Barack Obama's prognostication that future generations would look back at his 2008 nomination as the very point in history at which the (industrially-induced) rising levels of the oceans began to slow, as the 2012 presidential election draws near it is difficult to miss the fact that the opposite is happening. Indeed, as economic activity continues to heat the planet, and as polar ice and glaciers continue to melt, the oceans are not only not slowing their rise - as witnessed most dramatically over the past week, they are rising ever higher, swallowing significant portions of New York and New Jersey, among other places. And though his general rhetoric may suggest otherwise, the policies that Obama has pursued since assuming office have led to these very conditions. For, among others, his economic and energy policies, which lead to the drilling and fracking and ceaseless burning of fuels, introduces millions of tons of deadly toxins into the sea and air and soil of the world, raising temperatures, melting polar ice caps and glaciers, and thereby leads to - among other things - flooding and rising sea levels.

As these capitalistic economic policies and practices grow and spread throughout the world, we witness only the rising prevalence of these so-called extreme weather events. Indeed, not only does each summer bring monumental heat waves, wildfires, and droughts, the increased volatility of the weather has also resulted in the greater frequency and destructiveness of tornadoes. In New York City alone, where tornadoes have historically been rare, and were not seen in the city throughout the course of the 20th century, since 2006 one has touched down in the city every year.

To be sure, while this Halloween's hurricane and flooding was unprecedented, New Yorkers will recall that there was an unusually severe storm last Halloween as well. In addition to Hurricane Irene last August, in October a freak snow storm blanketed the region in over a foot of snow, downing trees, and causing power outages. And while this Halloween's storm is certainly more destructive, it is but one more example of the regularity of so-called extreme weather. Like heatwaves in March, and hundred year floods that occur every other year, this has become more or less accepted as the - somewhat paradoxically - strange new normal.

In spite of the more spectacular dimensions that attend such extreme meteorological events, a careful analysis of their full social import must not neglect to consider the more mundane aspects of such events - in particular, that the colorful days leading up to Halloween are followed by the relatively drab ones marking the beginning of November. Along with the fact that the beginning of the month brings with it another job report showing, once again, population growth outpacing job creation (jobs, it should be noted, that are marked by longer hours, less pay, and fewer benefits, among other symptoms of a declining quality of life) the beginning of the month brings other things as well. For example, although public transportation systems are down throughout the region, gas stations are running dry, and people are hard-pressed to get to and from the jobs they precariously hold on to, the monthly rent that tenants must pay to their landlords is still due all the same.

At this point it might be helpful to reflect upon the fact that, in general, socioeconomic conditions that are made more difficult than they could conceivably be for some people are often accompanied by a corresponding diminution in difficulty for other people. In other words, the ease with which some people negotiate the social world is made possible by the destruction of the ease with which others are able to maneuver through the world. When this ease (which also means well-being, and wellness in general) is so obstructed, it takes little insight to observe that a form of dis-ease results. Among other things, it must be pointed out that this disease is antithetical to the health of the people. Because the maxim salus populi suprema lex esto (which is not only a basic, foundational metanorm subtending the US Constitution, but has been cited by jurists throughout history as a primary basis of a social order's legitimacy) holds that the health of the people is the supreme law, it must hold as well that practices that result in the obstruction of the ease of the people - producing the disease of the people - are contrary to the supreme law as well. That is to say, contrary to appearances, such general practices are against the supreme law. As it is based on a dynamic wherein some people (tenants) are compelled to surrender their ease, their energy, and their lives, so that this energy may be concentrated as wealth in the hands of a few (by the landlords, among others), the landlord-tenant relationship provides but one stark example of this relationship of disease. Because everything that is given to the landlord that is in excess of what is required for the maintenance of the property (that is, that which constitutes the landlord's profit) is made possible by an excessive difficulty imposed on tenants, and because this is antithetical to the health of the people, it must be illegal for landlords to collect rents in excess of what is required for building maintenance. Moreover, because obstacles interposed between a person and what s/he requires for optimal health (such as housing) is violative of the health of the people in general, any demand of rent at all may be said to violate the just.

As we recover from the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy, considerations of justice ought to lead us to not only abandon the use of the toxic materials and technologies that give rise to environmental degradation and global warming in the first place (which reproduce such destructive weather conditions), it must also lead us to recognize that justice cannot be realized without abandoning the toxic social relationships and institutions that are inseverable from these conditions, of which the institution of rent, with its accompanying concentrations of wealth, comprises just one instance.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Underside of Energy Independence

originally published on counterpunch

Among the social, political, and economic issues that Obama and Romney seem to have no difficulty agreeing upon is the notion that the United States needs to achieve "energy independence." Arguing that its reliance on the importation of sources of fuel puts the US in a vulnerable geo-strategic position, advocates of energy independence not only maintain that the US must pursue an energy policy involving the extraction of oil from such ecologically sensitive domestic areas as the California coast, and the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, among other places, but must also develop other sources of energy domestically, including - but not limited to - the oxymoronic clean coal, natural gas obtained by the monstrously destructive practice of fracking, and nuclear energy – a source of energy which (despite the potentially world-ending cataclysm that continues to unfold in Fukushima) these "policy makers" view as simply another resource from which to draw from their "toolkit.”

However, while they agree that the US must not be energy dependent, Obama and Romney seem to overlook the substantial inconsistency involved in championing "energy independence" while at the same time maintaining an economy, and society, that is completely dependent on massive amounts of energy in the first place. Indeed, not only do energy independence proponents ignore the fact that the US consumes twice the per capita level of energy that, for example, the nation of Germany does (with no corresponding improvement in quality of life indices to show for it), they also ignore the fact that such high levels of energy consumption result in the diminution of a population’s quality of life in multiple respects - not only by way of the introduction of millions of tons of toxins per year into the ecosystem, and the subsequent costs and harms such pollution generates, but also by the significantly greater numbers of hours US workers are required to work per year. These examples, of course, are only two among the many harmful realities that are inseparable from the conjoined phenomenon of massive levels of energy consumption, nonstop work, and endless, senseless production (senseless, that is, for all but those who reap the profits generated by this burdensome excess) that characterize our economic system. In other words, even if the US had unlimited sources of so-called clean fuels, the arguments of so-called “energy independence” proponents still ignore the fact that the use of massive amounts of energy itself, and its attendant stresses, constitutes a far-reaching problem with deeply reaching ramifications.

A critical examination of the notion of energy independence will not only point out the inconsistency involved in calling for "energy independence" while maintaining a dependency on domestic energy, but will point out, as well, that beyond the dubious need for independence from foreign fuels is the need for independence from the use of so much fuel in the first place. For not only are vast amounts of oil, coal, ethanol, and other sources of fuel being burned up into tons of toxins every day in order to satisfy the market's unslakable demand for energy, people are being burnt up and burnt out as well in the never-ending work cycle of the new economy.

As many are no doubt aware, the most commonly traded commodity in the world today is crude oil. The second most traded commodity in the world, however, is coffee. This should not come as too much of a surprise, for just as oil is an indispensable component of our machine and computer-based global economy, coffee is no less vital to this economy's functioning. To be sure, insofar as it fuels our very bodies - aiding in the extraction of productivity from bodies whose limited energy levels would otherwise render them fatigued, and unconscious - it is absolutely central. Obviating this natural barrier, the availability of coffee (as well as tea, and other caffeinated beverages) allows for a cheap leap across the obstacle of sleep and assists in compelling desired levels of productivity, and profit.

While it might be the second most traded commodity in the world, coffee is by no means alone in the stimulant sector of the economy. Not only does it share its niche with an endless profusion of sodas, teas, and energy drinks (whose sponsorship of extreme sports mirrors their encouragement of comparably stupid wastefulness in the more mundane sphere of work) coffee is also accompanied by the presence of a variety of ever more powerful stimulants. For example, at one end of the spectrum of economic production one encounters professional athletes, such as the seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, engaging in some variety of performance-enhancing doping. While at the other extreme, one encounters what is becoming the new norm for primary and secondary school children: receiving prescriptions for Ritalin, among other amphetamines, in order to more effectively function and be “productive” in one of the most basic institutions of power (what the philosopher Louis Althusser termed the ideological state apparatus par excellence), the classroom. In between these two extremes, college students, corporate managers, and corporate lawyers comprise just a slice of the growing class of people who feel compelled to ingest prescription stimulants to not merely excel at, but to simply keep up with the demands of their respective jobs. Indeed, a critical inquiry into the notion of "energy independence" must extend beyond the issue of being free from coffee or gasoline, or even amphetamines per se, and recognize the deeper need for independence from the systemic compulsion to buy and ingest these things in the first place.

Insofar as energy is in many respects equivalent to power, the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s distinction concerning types of political power may elucidate the matter involving energy and the notion of energy independence somewhat. Writing in the 17th century, Spinoza distinguished between the type of power one wields to effectively dominate another (which he termed Potestas), and the power one has over one's own person, or Potentia. To be sure, the seminal sociologist Max Weber's definition of violence may be seen to involve both of these notions. For in his Politics as a Vocation, Weber defined violence as that which occurs when I “assert my own will against the resistance of others." That is, in this formulation violence is indistinct from potestas, or coercive power, whereas resistance, or liberating power, is equivalent to potentia. This resistance of which Weber writes, however, should not be understood or confused with a mere counterforce that reproduces the dominating power it opposes and thereby maintains in a reciprocal relationship, for there is another resistance at play. This other form of resistance is a type of incidental resistance, which resists only secondarily, incidentally to its distinct self-movement or activity. Resistance in this latter sense, which Marx may have likened to labor power, may also be described as the generating power of health, or healing. Indeed, health is already in many respects equivalent to the strength of one’s resistance to hostile forces. However, in order to avoid confusion it is important to distinguish between what may be deemed a superficial, bourgeois form of health – which is inseparable from the bourgeois tendency to work, and is reflected in the compulsive notion of ‘working out,’ among other things – and a more radical notion of health as freedom, autonomy, and the flourishing of liberating power. This is a vital distinction since, insofar as it attempts to merely attain a superficial degree of health, and does not meaningfully challenge the fundamental conditions of domination that are inimical to actual health, and are part and parcel of an economy of disease, bourgeois forms of health not only coexist with dominating power but generally succeed in reproducing relations of domination. Moreover, as opposed to work, and to working out, a radical type of health realizes itself  not through work but through play. Not imposed by dominating forms of power in order to attain profit, or compelled by one’s own conditioned affects, play is pursued for its own sake. Although its divisions are never entirely clean cut, and even a basketball “game” can become tedious work after a certain point, the distinguishing characteristic of art, music, sports, and the pursuit of knowledge, among other human - as opposed to strictly economic - activities, is that they are pursued, in spite of market compulsions, outside of economic production concerns, largely voluntarily and for their own sake.

Insofar as proponents of “energy independence” demonstrate that their goal is the perpetual extraction of energy from not only the “natural world,” but from human beings' labor power as well, one must recognize that this notion is indistinct from coercive, dominating forms of power. In spite of this, however, the idea of “energy independence” does contain within it a radical kernel; for embedded within it is the emancipatory idea that our energy – our lives, and our health – must be independent from those who merely want to extract our energy from us, as though our bodies were merely millions of tiny oil wells from which to generate profit. In light of such an interpretation of the term, we should also demand “energy independence” – but an “energy independence” of a decidedly different stripe: the independence from being compelled to sell our energy, our labor, and our health, in the first place. Indeed, if the health of the people is the supreme law, as countless proclamations contend, the compelled desecration – and energy dependence – of the health and energy of the people of the world must not be tolerated. Instead, it ought to be rejected as the crime against humanity that, in actuality, it is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ballots, Bullets, Balls, and Brains

 published originally on CounterPunch

As the presidential election approaches, and many are already casting their votes, a consideration of the multiple meanings of the concept of the ballot may offer some measure of insight into the current political, ideological, and historical situation.

Currently constructed out of paper and - as electronic voting becomes more and more widespread - from digital signals, it is noteworthy that the term ballot derives from the word for ball, and the historical practice of casting variously colored balls into a box in order to determine the victor of electoral contests. This origin is significant in several respects. Among other things, balls are not only etymologically, but also physically, related to bullets. And in an electoral contest in which the majority is supposed to prevail and instantiate law - that is, in a process in which Might Makes Right - one is confronted by a particularly intimate conceptual link between bullets and ballots, with the latter substituting for the violence of the former.

It ought to be noted, however, that this form of politics - democracy - does not achieve its legitimacy from majority rule as force, as 'might makes right,' per se. Indeed, in many respects force is antithetical to democracy's professed purpose. For the democratic form, and its attendant institutions and laws, find justification and legitimacy insofar as they are perceived to realize the democratic form's implicit content - that is, justice.

As it turns out, however, justice is more often than not diametrically opposed to law. Among other things, the rigidity of law is in many respects inimical to the flexibility that justice requires - a characteristic reflected in the verb 'adjust,' which means, literally, "toward the just." In addition to being distinct from justice on account of its rigidity, it is notable that law has only force at all insofar as it threatens violence (a threat which is generally sufficient to guarantee the obedience of the people over whom it rules). To be sure, where this threat is insufficient, obedience does not result, and law, as such, may be said to not exist.

The recognition of this disjuncture between the order of justice and the order of law leads us to another meaning of the concept of the ballot, one that functions generally but is especially significant in the context of a presidential contest. For it is worth considering the fact that in casting a ballot for a president, the voter gives that candidate her or his balls. While psychoanalysts may contend otherwise, balls in this context do not necessarily represent merely testicles or ovaries - as it concerns the political power of women, however, it is highly relevant that the surrender of their balls (control of their ovaries) leads to the loss of autonomy vis-a-vis the encroachment of dominating, coercive power into reproductive rights. Aside from this fact, however, because people are supposed to possess only one vote - one ball - it should not be too contentious to posit that the balls we give away to not only a candidate, but to the system in general, are our heads.

This phenomenon of giving away one's balls (or heads) very closely corresponds to Thomas Hobbes' insight regarding political power in his Leviathan. In his classic political treatise, Hobbes points out that political power accrues not merely through its seizure. Rather, coercive political power requires the participation of those who will become its subjects - a participation that occurs primarily by the surrender, or abdication, of the "natural" power, or autonomy, that people possess in, among other forms, the so-called right of resistance. In other words, it is only once the dispersed non-coercive, generative power which all possess (which, in growing, unfolding, and radiating, resists that which would obstruct it) is abandoned by the many that dominating power can be concentrated in the hands of a few. The quasi-political practice of giving away our balls (ballots) reflects this political and social fact - that through this pseudo-participation we are surrendering our heads, our minds, and our autonomy, to rulers and leaders - a fact which is altogether incongruous with the notion of democracy as self-governance.

Concerning the work of Thomas Hobbes, it is relevant to note that the name Hobbes imparted to his absolutist government is the Leviathan. And it is arguably less of a coincidence than a submerged symbolic plexus that, in addition to its identification with demonic powers, and with sea creatures in general, the leviathan bears a particularly strong association with the whale. Not unrelatedly, the Greek term for whale is phalle. And the term phalle, in turn, is etymologically related to the term 'phallus.' Moreover, just as Hobbes' Leviathan is but one form of dominating, coercive political power, it just so happens to be the case that the phalle, or phallus, has from time immemorial been symbolic of this law, of the spirit of the law - the nomos - as opposed to justice.

To be sure, insofar as he replaced one phallus with another, Zeus' castration of his father (the tyrannical titan Cronus, who had himself castrated his own father in order to assume power) provides but one of a plethora of examples of the recurring symbolism connecting the phallus (and castration, or beheading) with law-giving and dominating power.

In order to continue with this examination of the veiled meanings of the concept of the ballot and its relation to justice and law, it is crucial to remark at this point that the word nomos, the spirit of the law, is itself derived from the Greek word nomeus, which means shepherd. The shepherd, of course, performs the function of the law insofar as he not only leads, but orders, and rules, the social order of his flock. In acquiring their obedience - cutting off their symbolic heads, and thereby vitiating their autonomy - the nomeus creates subjects in two respects: not only does the nomeus, as the one who imposes the law, produce the subjects of the law; in defining and determining their acceptable limits - not to mention the limits of the social order itself - the nomeus/nomos, produces the subject as the individual as well. Beyond the general intersection of these symbols, the confluence of the phallus, law, and shepherd can be seen with particular clarity in the appearance of the biblical figure of Moses.

Returning to Egypt after working as a shepherd in Midian, Moses steps upon the historico-symbolic stage as the liberator of his people. Exemplifying the movement from liberating, law-nullifying power and justice, to coercive, dominating, law-creating power, it is vital to note that, beyond his other attributes, the miraculous powers that Moses displays are invariably mediated by his staff, the phallus. In wielding his rod before the pharaoh, and the Red Sea, among other things, Moses destroyed a law, or order - liberating his people from bondage. Importantly, however, with this same staff he would soon subordinate the Israelites to another law. And, in so doing, Moses represents the unification of the phallus, the shepherd, and the nomos.

In addition to the shepherd Moses, there is another influential shepherd in the annals of law and power worth considering: the figure of Jesus. To be sure, the relationship between the law (nomos) and its identification with the shepherd (nomeus) persists with considerable strength in the Christian Church, particularly in its institution of the pastorate. For instance, in The Rule of Saint Benedict, two chapters are devoted to the pastoral duties of the abbots. Not unrelatedly, in defining the attributes of a good monk, Benedict writes in his Rule that good monks "no longer live by their free will." Indeed, "they always desire that someone should command them." This symbolic self-decapitation of the good monk (evidenced strikingly by the peculiar hairstyle of the tonsure) is entirely consistent with the obedience that the law continues to demand of its subjects – along with the renunciation of their balls.

Concerning Canon Law, it is crucial to remark that the doctrine of the trinity - upon which Canon Law rests - was not developed until well into the second century of the Common Era. Among other things, it must also be noted that the trinity was initially adumbrated, and then later elaborated, by Ignatius of Antioch, and Theophilus of Antioch, respectively. That the city of Antioch was founded and ruled by Alexander the Great's general Seleucus, and was for centuries a center of Hellenistic culture rivaled in importance only by Alexandria and Rome, is extremely relevant here. For not only does the doctrine of the trinity arise from the Hellenistic city of Antioch, the tripartite structure of the trinity (the nomos) is itself derived from a Hellenistic progenitor - the Greek Fates.

Undergirding the structure of the trinity, as well as the separation of powers scheme of Montesquieu's influential treatise The Spirit of the Laws (which manifests in the US Constitution as the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government) the three Fates are one power with distinct functions. The spinner, who spins the thread of life, corresponds to the father, or legislature; the measurer, who measures this thread, is in turn analogous to the judiciary, the judge, or Jesus; and the cutter, who cuts the thread, mirrors the executive, "the one who proceeds," or the holy spirit. That the Fates are the daughters of Necessity, who herself is closely associated with the goddess of violence, Bia, further substantiates the intertwinement of the nomos with dominating power. And while the Fates provide the prototype of the structure of the US Constitution's separation of powers, as well as the structure of the trinity, it is significant that the examination of the Fates leads us to the exception to the nomos.

For though the Fates' rule was insuperable, and none could defy it, it is vital to note that the healer Asclepius, through his generative, healing powers, had the exceptional ability to, among other things, raise the dead, and thereby nullify the Fates' rule. For this transgression, Asclepius (who was the son of the god Apollo) was killed, subsequently resurrected, and transfigured into a god himself. That this son of a god, a healer who raised the dead, resembles Jesus of Nazareth is unmistakable. Indeed, in many respects Asclepius is a forerunner of Jesus. However, while Asclepius may resemble Jesus in the latter’s capacity as a healer (the Jesus who is constantly harassed by the teachers of law), Asclepius has little in common with Jesus the shepherd – that is, while Jesus contradictorily manifests both the dominating power of the shepherd, as well as the liberating power of the healer, Asclepius only represents the healer. And it is the healer, or health, that allows for an articulable liberation from the dominating power of the nomos; for in many respects the concrete conditions of health (nutritious food, salutary housing, clean air, adequate sleep, and freedom from coercion generally, not to mention the freedom to develop one's potentiality, among other things) are indistinct from the concrete conditions required for the realization of a just social order.

The relationship between dominating power and law, and liberating power and justice, however, does not end here. The identification of justice and health is passed down to Asclepius’ daughter, who in turn imparts it to contemporary legal systems. For just as Asclepius was capable of defying the dominating power of the nomos, his daughter - known to the Romans as the goddess of health, Salus - is incorporated into the nomos-defying legal maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto. Translated as 'the health of the people is the supreme law,' this particular legal maxim subtends contemporary constitutions as a law-nullifying metanorm - one that, importantly, allows for considerations of justice and health to void laws that are seen to deviate from the just or otherwise infringe upon the health of the people.

In light of all this, and insofar as he represents health and liberating power, it may seem suspicious that, among his other attributes, Asclepius is generally depicted as carrying a staff. Though to some degree this rod resembles the staff of Moses - the phallus of coercive power - Asclepius' rod is distinguishable from Moses' staff insofar as it is encoiled by a serpent. Symbolic of wisdom, and of the regenerative, liberating power of health, the serpent, however phall-ic, should not be confused with the phallus. For, unlike the rod, which – like law itself – is defined by its rigidity, the serpent is flexible, responsive, and able to adjust to its environment. Indeed, rather than symbolizing the phallus, and the dominating power of the nomos, one may see the serpent - flexible and wise - as symbolic of justice and of liberating power.

As such, a more persuasive interpretation of the symbolic import of the serpent-encoiled rod of Asclepius’ may be that it is a phallus (dominating power) that is constrained by wisdom, health, and liberating power. In other words, the rod of Asclepius may be seen to represent justice prevailing over law. Incidentally, it is interesting to point out that the staff of Moses was itself at certain points transformed into a serpent. This transformation, however, strictly occurred while Moses was acting in the capacity of a liberator, nullifying law and initiating the just - not in his role as lawgiver. Insofar as he was a lawgiver, Moses’ rod was a rigid phallus. And in his capacity as shepherd, this phallus functioned to symbolically decapitate his flock, deforming their heads into mindless balls (or ballots).

As we approach the presidential election, it is important to consider this dimension of the ballot, and its involvement in the abdication of our collective, generative, liberating powers to rulers whose allegiance is, beyond any fidelity to actual justice, to the aggrandizement of political, social, and economic forms of dominating power. As such, rather than surrendering our balls in this quasi-political practice, and empowering the nomos and the shepherd (which Michel Foucault has demonstrated continue to function as dominating power within contemporary biopolitics) the interests of justice and an actual politics - one that lives up to the radical notion of democracy as self-government, justice, and autonomy - demands the pursuit of the concrete conditions of justice, arguably articulable through a consideration of the concrete demands of health. In a world growing ever sicker, such a project ought to be our top political, economic and social priority.

And while we must cease our symbolic, collective self-decapitation (and, indeed, must not behead anyone, for such practices merely perpetuate the violence of dominating power) in order to realize the conditions of justice, there is at least one head that - insofar as it reproduces far-reaching, systematic harms - must be decapitated. Its name, derived from the Latin, is capital.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The American Johnson

published originally on State of Nature

Many are no doubt familiar with the fact that the Phallus is symbolic of, and is associated with, fertility and generative power. However, that the Greek word for phallus is related to the Greek word for whale – phalle – is not as well known. This should not come as much of a surprise, though, when one considers the fact that the phalle, or whale, is but another designation for the biblical Leviathan. And the leviathan, beyond its association with the satanic, is also the term that the great defender of political absolutism, Thomas Hobbes, used to designate the absolutist political structure intended to safeguard coercive political power.

The connection between the phallus and political power, however, does not begin with Hobbes. Indeed, one can trace the imbrication of the two concepts well into prehistory. Nor does this connection between political power and the phallus end with Hobbes. To be sure, Freud would link the phallic, by way of the Oedipal Complex, with socialization in general, as well as with coercive, dominating power. More recently, Jacques Lacan aligned the phallic with the symbolic realm, power and desire, as well as with law and language.

In light of the relationship between the phallic, language, and law (which is always rooted in violence) it should come as little surprise that the presidents of the United States, those manifestations of law and power, should consistently reveal a relationship to the phallus. Beyond the more obvious examples of the priapic Washington Monument, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick diplomacy, one finds a slew of nicknames attached to US presidents whose phallic nature is difficult to dispute. Aside from the relatively subtle nicknames attached to Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Franklin Pierce – all of which involve the term Hickory, which is not just a tree, but one known for its exceptional hardness – one finds the somewhat more overt Abraham ‘The Rail Splitter’ Lincoln, not to mention Tricky Dick Nixon and Slick Willie. Among the US presidents associated with the phallus, however, one stands out beyond the aforementioned. In addition to the fact that his actual, legal name is a popular term for penis, Lyndon Baines Johnson in many respects exemplifies the relationship between the phallus, desire and power.

Although Lyndon Johnson was a complex person, and a considerable degree of study is necessary to arrive at anything approximating a meaningful understanding of his life and work, it is nevertheless undeniable that certain traits predominate throughout his political career and illustrate the degree to which Johnson embodies the phallus. For example, in addition to the historical fact that LBJ had a penchant for giving all of his children (and even his dog, Little Beagle Johnson) names containing his selfsame initials – illustrating the affinity between the phallus and name-giving – Robert Caro, LBJ’s biographer, observed that “Johnson’s ambition was uncommon – in the degree to which it was unencumbered by even the slightest excess weight of ideology, of philosophy, of principles, of beliefs.” From his earliest years in politics, more than any particular goal or notion of justice, Johnson single-mindedly pursued power for its own sake, manifesting the Johnson.

Elected to the US Congress as a Democrat in 1937, Johnson served as a U.S. Representative for the 10th congressional district of Texas. Reflecting his party, he supported the New Deal, and the Democratic platform. By 1948, however, Johnson was running for the US Senate. Struggling for power in an extremely close race, he abandoned a significant component of his constituency in order to garner more political support. Turning against organized labor, Johnson voted in favor of the notorious Taft-Hartley Amendment to the Wagner Act. Known by its opponents as the slave labor bill, the Taft-Hartley amendment sought to place serious limits on the power of labor unions. Not only did it outlaw secondary boycotts, and wildcat strikes, it also made it illegal for labor unions to contribute financial donations to federal election campaigns. Passed by congress, the bill was vetoed by Truman. However, joining with congressional Republicans, Johnson successfully worked to overturn Truman’s veto and pass the law.

The contest for Johnson’s senate seat was renowned for its fraudulence. Hundreds of people who were dead at the time of the election somehow managed to cast votes for Johnson – and LBJ went on to win his senate seat by 87 votes. In spite of the narrowness of his victory, however, once in the senate Johnson would become one of the most powerful and effective senators the institution has seen. Aside from advancing his own power, though, it never did become entirely clear what his political convictions really were.

Among other things, Johnson’s role during the Suez Crisis of 1956 may shed light on his later foreign policy. Following the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Israel, France and Britain attempted to retake control of the canal by military force. And while the U.S. president, Eisenhower, tried to prevent larger regional unrest by placing economic sanctions on Israel, Johnson – who was by then the Senate Majority Leader of the Democrat-controlled Senate – would not allow the imposition of sanctions. While Eisenhower would ultimately prevail in his attempts to end hostilities, it is noteworthy that in order to do so he had to go over the Congress’s head. Significantly, unlike U.S. presidents do these days, Eisenhower did not bypass congress extra-legally. Rather, he went to the United Nations, and sought an international resolution. If Johnson had had his way, however, he would have extended U.S power, penetrating the American Johnson even further into the world.

In 1957, following ongoing unrest in the Jim Crow southern United States, with racist southern politicians refusing to desegregate its “separate but equal” institutions following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Eisenhower administration attempted to pass a civil rights bill to compel desegregation. While it would seem to be out of character for Johnson, considering the Great Society legislation he would be renowned for, as senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson opposed the civil rights bill. While it is unclear as to what his true feelings were regarding the legislation, it is undisputed that Johnson was concerned that the bill would alienate his racist constituency in Texas, and weaken the Democratic Party by dividing its anti-civil rights southern bloc from its pro-civil rights northern bloc. Although it would be signed into law in September of 1957, Johnson succeeded in weakening the bill to such an extent that it would have little power. Rather than seeing Johnson’s opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Bill as inconsistent from his civil rights legislation in the 1960s, however, there is an overriding consistency at play: Johnson’s fidelity to his own aggrandizement of power.

By 1960, John F. Kennedy defeated LBJ, among others, in the Democratic Party primaries and was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president. Kennedy’s subsequent extension of the vice-presidential candidacy to Johnson apparently bewildered Kennedy’s supporters. Among other things, Johnson was regarded as a conservative politician, and an obstructer of the relatively liberal Kennedy agenda. While Kennedy’s staff opposed the choice of Johnson as a running mate, historians maintain that JFK felt that having Johnson on the ticket would not only help him secure the support of conservative southern voters, but that removing Johnson from the senate would also remove a potential impediment to the Kennedy agenda. As such, once Kennedy was in office Johnson was relegated to more or less marginal duties. As it turned out, among these was a principal role in the development of the space program. While many people expressed surprise at the amount of enthusiasm and energy Johnson dedicated to the somewhat subsidiary assignment, it is not at all inconsistent with his fidelity to the phallus and power. For if Johnson had been eager to penetrate much of the world with the American Johnson, it is not at all surprising that he should be just as eager to extend this phallus, by way of rockets, not only into space but into the moon – a heavenly body associated, among other things, with menstrual cycles and femininity in general.

Upon Kennedy’s assassination, many thought that LBJ would not continue to pursue the Kennedy Administration’s policies. That he did, however, again should not come as a surprise. Even the largest whales (phalle) can do little against the ocean currents. Moreover, because his fidelity was to power, more than to any particular political goal, what he was pursuing mattered less than the fact that he was pursuing something at all. Indeed, one can even reconcile the apparent contradictions between Johnson’s Great Society programs and his phallic penetrations into the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam pretty easily. The function of the phallus, after all, is to exert power, and to control the world. Johnson’s foreign policy – extending the phallus into the big, red V, as well as into the Dominican Republic – in addition to his general support of right-wing dictators in opposition to popular political movements internationally, are just such attempts at controlling the people of the world. In this respect his Great Society program was similar. That he would control his own people by giving them a welfare state is not inconsistent with control and what Foucault termed pastoral power. While he may have provided material resources to people – ruling over the people as a beneficent ruler – it is significant that he did not let people have any serious amount of power themselves. To be sure, if he had been interested in empowering people he could have made efforts to undo the Taft-Hartley legislation that enfeebled – and continues to restrict – organized labor. Instead of supporting people’s ability to meaningfully govern their own lives, the American Johnson merely granted people an attenuated form of political participation via electoral politics and voting reform. In the light of this, rather than anything significantly beneficent, the Great Society may be viewed as an attempt to construct a lasting monument – something akin to the great pyramids.

Lyndon Johnson’s final political act, his resignation from office, is often regarded as an act of political protest, a rejection of an intrinsically unjust system. The prevalence of this view, however, does not make it true. Rather, Johnson decided to not seek a second term as president because, in addition to being ill, he had come to the conclusion that he would not be able to prevail in such a contest. Like his other political acts, this one can be understood as something that resulted predominantly from his interest in power.

Beyond the above instances of the relationship between Johnson and the figurative phallus, it is noteworthy that LBJ had a penchant for literally exposing his penis to not only his colleagues, but to journalists as well. As outrageous as it may sound, it is well documented that Johnson repeatedly engaged in such practices. In addition to referring to his penis as “Jumbo,” his biography is replete with instances of his urinating in the presence of others, as well as – at least once – on the leg of one of his secret service agents. Accounts abound of his urinating over the edge of his boat on fishing trips, flourishing his member for all present to see. Additionally, he was apparently given to micturating during meetings with the door to his bathroom open. Having completed urinating, he would regularly turn around to address his interlocutors with his penis still withdrawn from his pants. And on one much discussed occasion, in the course of an interview with a journalist, Johnson was asked why he was in Vietnam. By way of a reply, he removed his penis, proffered it, and rejoined, “This is why.”

But this phallic, coercive, or dominating form of power – of which the American Johnson provides such a rich example – does not occupy the full spectrum of political power. As Pierre Clastres points out in his Society against the State, in addition to what he terms coercive political power, there is also something called non-coercive power. Among other things, non-coercive power manifests in non-coercive persuasion, as well as in the power one has to simply move about – to determine oneself. As Thomas Hobbes, and Etienne de la Boetie, among others inform us, political power in general does not become concentrated into coercive, dominating forms merely as a result of its appropriation and concentration. Rather, coercive power can only accrue and dominate others, as well as the material world, when non-coercive power is given away, or abandoned. As such, if we are to ever remove the American Johnson, or any other Johnson, from the “body politic,” we will have to stop abandoning this non-coercive power in the first place.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Reimagining Austerity

originally published on counterpunch

Though their conclusions are specious, the proponents of economic austerity programs are in one crucial respect entirely correct: the present economic system is pathologically dysfunctional and, as such, requires a radical transfiguration. Indeed, along with the growing dead zones of the oceans, and the spreading war zones accompanying the resource depletion intrinsic to our political-economy, we are also daily savaged by the far more mundane, though just as endemic, pathologies of cancer and obesity epidemics, widespread malnutrition, and countless car wrecks and occupational hazards, along with the many other institutionally-created harms that our economy reproduces – its daily tons of ground beef, bacon, paper coffee cups, and other innumerable, though far less visible, toxicities.

And though proponents of austerity measures contend otherwise, it cannot be reasonably maintained that the austerity measures being imposed on national economies throughout the world do anything at all to ameliorate these actual harms we collectively face. On the contrary, insofar as they increase economic production, waste, pollution, and widespread precarity, these austerity programs only exacerbate our actual – as opposed to our merely apparent – problems.

As a matter of fact, because they require perpetual economic growth, it must be conceded that what their boosters propose are not in any meaningful sense even austerity programs at all. For rather than sacrificing anything, the wealthy classes are only engorging themselves further on opulent luxuries. And the laboring people, meanwhile, daily bombarded by advertisements and disinformation, are encouraged to spend ever more on poisonous, disposable garbage.

Among the symptoms of general environmental degradation attending this economic pathology, even our most vital resource – fresh water – is throughout the planet being destroyed. Hardly an anomaly, this as an entirely foreseeable consequence of this economy's normal functioning. And as aquifers the world over are being pumped dry, and tons of pesticides and other pollutants are daily discharged into the hydrosphere as a result of market forces, and climatic changes wreak havoc on snow packs, among other sources of water, the situation is only worsening. In fact, the United Nations estimates that by 2025 nearly 2 billion people "will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity." Instead of confronting this crisis, which is already unfolding in much of the world, mainstream political-economic thought engages only in exercises in denial, coupled with speculation in the burgeoning water market.

But these quantities of pollutants that are poisoning our water – and all of our bodies besides – are but one effect of a general design whose index of value is markedly divorced from the actual well-being of people – one that, for example, demands that most people receive inadequate levels of necessities (like sleep, and water, and food) in order to satisfy the indolence and utter inausterity of a relative few. In spite of all this, as mentioned above, the proponents of austerity do raise an important point. Standing on the precipice of ecological holocaust, we really ought to embark upon an austerity program. For it to alleviate, and not exacerbate, the serious harms we all confront, however, it must be an austerity of a radically different type than those under our current hegemons’ consideration.

Rather than privatizing such things as public schools, water supply systems, and other publicly owned enterprises – which are only ever pretexts for the aggrandizement of the wealthy – a critical austerity would instead halt altogether the far from austere economic practices proven to be polluting and otherwise destroying the planet. Indeed, because the overall costs they exact are far too high, those industries found to be not only unnecessary, but hostile to human and environmental health as well, should be phased out of existence entirely.

So, for example, since the fast food industry, along with the disposable paper and plastic container industries, produce harmful products, they should be shuttered. Many, of course, may find such a view of austerity unsavory. However, just as at one time in history people found it necessary to make sacrifices by slaughtering animals, today it is necessary to make sacrifices by not slaughtering animals. Beyond its cruelty, and its attendant environmental harms, the intensive demands on grain and water supplies required to feed these animals imposes a tremendous strain on our ability to satisfy our collective food requirements.

Moreover, if billions of people throughout history, and today as well, have found it possible to forsake the slaughter and consumption of cows and pigs, among other animals, because of the proscriptions of their faiths, our knowledge of the concrete harms attending these practices ought to lead us, though for different reasons, to comparable interdictions.

Another significant source of harms is the energy industry. Any meaningful notion of austerity should not only curtail the tremendously wasteful overuse of energy, and the damage it causes, but would impose a moratorium on the destructive extraction of resources as well. Of course, the elimination of harmful industries, such as those named above, whose purpose is the generation of profit rather than any salutary use, will no doubt contribute a great deal toward the reduction of the harms accompanying the present modes of energy production.

Perhaps the most harmful industry of all, though, is the military industry. And while the transformation of the military industry will no doubt be met with a great degree of resistance, it must nevertheless be accomplished in order to realize an austerity program worthy of the name. Rather than viewing the military as an obstacle to austerity and a reasonable economy, however, we ought to recognize that the military has the potential to contribute greatly to the implementation of just such an austerity program.

Beating its spears into pruning hooks, so to speak, the military could be employed in building public transportation systems to replace the automobile industry, salutary, publicly-controlled energy systems, and communications systems, as well as retrofitting sewage and waste treatment facilities, and other infrastructural projects like the construction of schools and community health clinics. Furthermore, the military could be directed to clean up the monumental mountains of toxic garbage littering the world and swirling about throughout the seas.

With the elimination of all of these industries, and the jobs attached to them, people will no doubt inquire as to how they will be expected to pay for food, and rent, among other things. The simplest solution to this problem is by the adoption of a basic income law. To be sure, the entire purpose of such an austerity program is to mitigate harms. So it would be absurd to propose that people incur harms to their health in effectuating such austerity. As such, a basic income must be available to all people – irrespective of whether or not they work – to pay for rent, food, transportation, communications, and other things necessary for optimal health – at least, that is, until a more democratic economic system is devised.

Concededly, many will be less than thrilled by the prospect of having restrictions imposed on their ability to consume all of the bacon that they want, and to drive around in their cars to their hearts' content, jet about the planet at will, drill oil wells wherever they like, and extract rent from the tenants of the world. But this is, after all, an austerity plan that's under discussion.

For those who will argue that such an economic program would require an impossibly difficult political fight, we would do well to pay attention to the words of the great Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, who informs us in his Art of War that, while it is good to win a battle by fighting, it is best is to win without fighting at all. To this end, and with all due respect to Walter Benjamin's insight concerning the engine of history, we don't need to pull the emergency brake on this runaway train of an economy so much as we need to endeavor a more modest, practicable thing – to remove our collective foot from the gas pedal – to rest it, before its engines trash the rest of the planet, and we all choke to death in the gas chamber we've made of the world. And if, as countless thinkers and jurists and judges have insisted since the time of Cicero, the health of the people really is the supreme law, then the law must recognize not only the legitimacy, but the physiological necessity, of such a type of critical austerity as well.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

On the Villainization of Teachers and Muslims

originally published on counterpunch

Among the issues raised by the Chicago teachers' strike is the one involving the villainization of labor. Yet, while teachers have been shamelessly conflated in the corporate media with the very gluttons who are in fact fleecing the teachers of their pensions and other benefits, it is important to bear in mind that teachers, and labor in general, are far from the only ones being villainized in the ongoing efforts to privatize what were until relatively recently socially - rather than privately - controlled resources. Indeed, a far broader, and deeper, historical phenomenon is at play. In addition to the ongoing villainization of organized labor appearing and reappearing in the press, as well as in popular films and other media, social welfare recipients have also been subjected to villainization recently, as well as over the past few decades. To be sure, who is not familiar with consumer society's archetype of the 'welfare queen'? Beyond its misogyny (who ever hears of welfare kings?), and the lopsided classism that villainizes welfare recipients while simultaneously accepts the common-sensical naturalness of, for example, agricultural policies that subsidize millionaires' and billionaires' dairy empires, it completely distorts social reality. Still, one finds no dearth of stories villainizing food-stamp beneficiaries. That this villainization does not end there seems widely understood. However, in order to arrive at anything beyond a superficial understanding of villainy, it is important to acknowledge that it does not start there either.

For a better understanding of the phenomenon of villainization - which is a historical no less than a criminological phenomenon - it is instructive to consider the meaning of the term villain. Long before it designated a criminal, the term villain, or villeiny, referred specifically to the peasantry. Though generally forgotten, during the centuries-long period of enclosure acts that began in the late Middle Ages, the lands that the peasantry had historically lived off of - and, importantly, enjoyed rights to under feudal era law - were commodified and sold. As a result of this shift in property relations, the peasantry/villeiny was kicked off their land and into a world of increasingly privatized social relations. Deprived of their former resources, many could only offset starvation by theft, among other petty crimes. And herein lies the origin of the term villain as a designation for a criminal.

 Expelled from their homes, this freshly created class of poor people was treated with extreme harshness in England. From the reign of Henry VIII and well into the eighteenth century, any person caught begging would be deemed a vagabond and sentenced to six months imprisonment. A second violation received a two-year prison sentence. And a third violation earned its perpetrator a sentence of death. Thefts, as well, were punished with death - and to such an extent that in the reign of Henry VIII alone (1509-1547) “72,000 great and petty thieves were put to death.” That is, about 1,900 people a year were killed for 38 years simply for theft. Throughout the period following the mass privatization of formerly collective lands, multitudes were sent off to the colonies to further privatize the world. Resistance to these conditions was met with not only swift and violent punishment, but as a preventative measure to such breaches of the new security, new institutional and ideological apparatuses were constructed. Not only did prison and poorhouse populations explode during this time, new notions of identity and morality were constructed, securing the new system.

For, not only were those resisting these new social arrangements branded (often literally) as criminals, further blurring the distinction between the villeiny and villainy, it would not be long before a pseudo-science sought to explain and naturalize this criminality - deflecting people's attention from the actual, historical causes of these conditions. At the same time that Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations, and the Declaration of Independence was being penned, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was writing his treatise On the Natural Variety of Mankind, in which he established the concept of race which deemed much of the world's people inferior to "caucasians," one of the founding studies of what came to be known as Criminal Anthropology was composed. In his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Bef√∂rderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–1778), the Swiss deacon Johann Kaspar Lavater presented arguments linking physical characteristics to crime, further justifying the dominant position of those in power. By the 19th century, in French studies of the social origins of disease, the poor were identified as “a race apart,” a barbarian, uncivilized multitude - that is, "science" not only established that the former villeiny were villains in the criminological sense, but that their condition was physically unavoidable as well. Unsurprisingly, within a few hundred years of the enclosure acts, these new historical conditions were taken for natural normalcy. As Karl Marx put it, “By the nineteenth century, the very memory of the connection between the agricultural laborer and community property has, of course, vanished.”

Additionally, as kidnapped and exported Europeans and Africans were being villainized, and the concept of race was being concocted from a blend of superstition and science to justify the colonization and privatization of the world, these lands' indigenous inhabitants were being villainized as well. Under the imperialistic dogma holding that their ways of life were obstructing progress and civilization, native peoples were increasingly criminalized for merely existing in ways that did not conform to this privatization of the frontier. Of course, there are some exceptions. However, it is important to note that, while in England the peasant/villein became the villain, in what was to become the US it was the Native American whose land was taken. As such, in some respects the Native American, as an obstacle to capitalist "development," assumed the position of iconic villain in the United States. To be sure, today's privatization of a new international frontier calls to mind just this earlier period's villainization of natives.

For beyond the ongoing villainization of organized labor and the poor, people of color, the homeless, debtors, immigrants, and political activists, not to mention whistleblowers and journalists like Wikileaks' Julian Assange, there is an international correlate to this villainization of people in, perhaps most visibly these days, the villainization of Muslims. Just as Native Americans were deemed to interfere with progress and productivity on the frontier of capitalism and privatization, and those who merely sought to live in their own way were marked as villains - a designation which justified their destruction, the appropriation of their land, and the extraction of its minerals - there exists today a comparable relationship internationally between the US' and Muslims. Tellingly, Muslims are even referred to as (American) "Indians" in US military operations along this new frontier. This designation itself, however, has a considerable history.

For example, in one of its earliest overseas wars of conquest in the Philippines, US soldiers not only villainized Filipinos, they referred to them as "Indians." During the Vietnam War, as well, the Vietnamese were referred to as "Indians." Moreover, war zones were described as "Indian country." When the first Gulf War broke out, these designations also recurred. And they are still employed by US soldiers and officers. Like others before them, Iraqi and Afghan belligerents are not only seen as obstructing the privatization of the new frontier (let's not forget, the very first thing US forces did upon invading Afghanistan was to secure an important oil pipeline), they are referred to as "Indians," too. In light of this, it seems almost predictable that the code-name for the mission to assassinate Osama Bin Laden was Operation Geronimo.

Whereas Native Americans, and natives in general, however, were deemed to be villains, perhaps owing to an inflationary rhetoric Muslims are branded as super-villains - that is, as terrorists. Muslims, though, are far from the only ones being defined as terrorists. The super-villain category of terrorist is applied domestically, too. While white militia types aren't generally so designated, activists involved in direct-action political activities in defense of the environment, who directly interfere with the privatization of the earth, are so labelled - as eco-terrorists. That is, just as it was during the period of the enclosures, it is the interference with the efforts of privatization and capitalist expansion that in the end determines who the label of villain will be applied to. But if Muslims, activists, teachers, journalists, whistleblowers, and others obstructing the privatization of the planet are being villainized, and villainization, related to criminalization, is in many respects a criminal justice issue, a consideration of villainization's relationship to notions of justice may further clarify the situation.

While political and social theorists largely agree that a given society's success can be measured by the degree to which justice is achieved, few agree on what justice in fact means. Recent efforts at articulating a lucid conception of justice have resulted in many overlapping, and at times conflicting, notions. These range from justifications for revenge - referred to as retributive justice - to theories of justice that concentrate on preventing injustices from arising in the first place, creating the conditions which justice requires in order to be realized. An example of this latter notion of justice is distributive justice, which seeks to distribute resources in a  just manner.

Somewhere between retributive justice and distributive justice theories rests the theory of restorative justice. Restorative justice sees justice arising from the restoration of a wronged party's pre-wronged position. And while distributive and restorative justice tend to be viewed as distinct notions, a critical look at the former reveals that in at least one crucial respect theories of distributive justice are highly flawed to the degree that they neglect to consider a certain restorative justice dimension.

Advocates of distributive justice argue that a society's resources ought to be distributed in an equitable manner. Beyond taking the position that people have an ethical duty to help one another, these advocates tend to contend that there is a human rights aspect to this as well: all people have a right to a certain basic level of welfare. As such, resources need to be distributed in such a way as to allow all people to benefit. This is objectionable only to the degree that the historical dimension just discussed is overlooked. That is, there is considerably more to this 'injustice which demands correction' than the moral issue of inequitable resource distribution. Beyond the wrong inhering in the situation which finds some having so much food that, for example, it rots before they can even use it - or they destroy it intentionally to  keep up its exchange-value, while people are starving to death the world over - lies the wrong of how they acquired control of so many resources in the first place. The obverse of this, of course, is how the rest of the world lost control of these resources.

Unlike their ideology has it, the few did not come into possession of the majority of the world's resources by virtue of a more successful cultivation of the land, or a greater work ethic. Rather, the historical fact is that this acquisition was carried out by means of a conquest that itself constitutes a monumental series of harms. As the paraphrase to Balzac's remark in his Pere Goriot puts it, behind every great fortune there lies a great crime. And the great fortunes deriving from the enclosure, privatization, and sale of what was formerly commonly owned land in Britain and Europe, among other places, not to mention the genocidal conquests of the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia, among the other former colonial possessions of the modern empires, are not excepted from Balzac's observation. Indeed, the persuasiveness of distributive justice theories lies not so much in the recognition that the great majority of the resources of the world are held in a very few hands and that an equitable distribution of these would contribute to a just world. This is only part of these theories' persuasiveness. The other part rests in the recognition that these very resources were once - and not very long ago, either - more or less held in common by most people in the world, and were only concentrated into extreme wealth by way of a series of murderous expropriations - privatizations - coupled with the villainization - then as now - of the victims of these acts. As such, the redistribution of the world's wealth is not simply a matter of distributive justice, it is a matter of restorative justice as well.
In light of the above, one may wonder whether we ought to deepen and expand the debate concerning the villainization of the world's people, and the privatization of the world's resources, to encompass a discussion of the legitimacy of property laws, among others, as well as of the legitimacy of the capitalist economic system as a whole. Furthermore, one may want to consider whether villainization, which involves turning peasants into criminals no less than it accompanies policies that turn people into industrial and post-industrial peasants, has still further meanings. Indeed, the villainization of the rich, of the owners of the world, may mean more than merely regarding, or charging, the rich as criminals. It may also be interpreted to mean transforming the rich as well into peasants. And, perhaps, if all are villeinized, we will finally be through with villeins, and a just society (not just a more just society) may emerge from the shadows of the past.