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.