Mesocosm

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“A Brief History of Inequality” by Thomas Piketty

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Rodin's Burghers of Calais
Burghers of Calais, Rodin

In A Brief History of Equality, Thomas Piketty reviews the distribution of wealth over the last few centuries and draws practical lessons that we can use to shape an agenda for moving toward a more just and equitable world. 

Piketty called his Capital in the Twenty-First Century “as much a work of history as of economics,” and this shorter volume is also deeply informed by historical research. This focus helps explain the author’s surprising popularity – unlike many economists who trade in esoteric equations, he keeps both feet firmly on the ground. 

One danger of ignoring history, he argues, lies in taking our particular forms of economic and political life as timeless and unchangeable. This can lead to the feeling that we’re trapped in a situation of spiraling inequality from which there is no escape. But in his survey of the last few centuries, he shows just how much progress has already been made. 

This is not to deny there is more work to do – far from it. As shown in his Capital, current levels of wealth and income inequality are bad and are getting worse, largely because the historical returns from investment always outpace the growth of an economy. This sets up a feedback loop where the people who have money to invest earn more money more quickly than those who don’t. In the absence of counter-balancing forces like effective progressive taxation and inheritance taxes, wealth tends to accumulate into larger and larger fortunes. 

This may be a natural tendency of growth, but we have more options for dealing with problems like this than we may think, and this is where Piketty kicks into high gear.

The nature of property ownership is not delivered from on high as a kind of natural law, even if that’s how it’s sometimes characterized in legal codes. For example, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is the basis for the French legal understanding of property, states: 

The goal of any political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance against oppression.

The French definition naturalizes its conception of property, declaring ownership to be a universal right that is beyond the reach of political deliberation. Following this definition, French legislatures and courts have tended to favor a strong, expansive reading of property rights, which has limited the reach of redistributive policies.

But not all societies see it this way. For example, Article 14 of the German constitution declares: 

Property and the right of inheritance shall be guaranteed. Their content and limits shall be defined by the laws. Property entails obligations. Its use shall also serve the public good.

This formulation explicitly sets a context and limits for property ownership – it is not an intrinsic, inalienable right, but is legitimate only insofar as it serves the public good. This has shaped the German conception of ownership, sometimes in profound ways. For example, it forms the constitutional basis for laws requiring medium- and large-sized companies to set up a Betriebsrat, or worker’s council, which shares governance rights with shareholders. Imagine how Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would have been dealt with in a world where that company had such a council that looked after the interest of the company and the workers, and not just the shareholders.

As a matter of history, it is plainly true that “property” is not absolute. Ideas of ownership do not exist in the abstract, but consist in the historically-determined and changing frameworks of laws, norms, and power relationships without which the term has no meaning. How could we otherwise account for the fact that soon after the the Declaration was written and then for many decades, women did not have the right to inheritance or to open a bank account in France?

He doesn’t use the term, but I believe his thinking here is informed by the Marxist critical concept of reification, which refers to the distortions that occur when we view social relations or manufactured objects as though they have no history. It generally serves the interest of the status quo to naturalize certain fundamental conceptions – that is, to treat them as timeless truths, like the law of gravity. That is, of course, why people whose interests are served by the status quo tend to describe property rights as sacrosanct. But a study of history opens up a range of actual possibilities for reshaping these principles when it’s in the greatest common good to do so.

When Piketty looks at the last few centuries of inequality, a lot of the news he finds is good. This is why he called this book a history of “equality.” As he said in a recent New York Times interview, “I’ve always viewed my work and conclusion as relatively optimistic. And I was a bit sad to see that some people had a different reading.” 

I think relatively optimistic is a good way to put it – you could perhaps say, based on his findings, that the global story of equality has gone from “terrible” to “pretty bad.” If we go back to the period beginning with the earliest useful financial records that we have, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we find that the vast majority of people all over the world owned almost nothing. In Europe during this time, for example, the majority of the population did nearly all of the productive work, had no real political power, and paid most of the taxes. 

But progress has been made. Today, a far greater share of the world’s wealth is owned by a middle class, though the bottom half of the world’s property owners still collectively own virtually nothing, and wealth is still largely owned based on gender and national origin. But the key lesson of the past is that real change is possible. Sometimes even policies that were considered impossible for a long time can be achieved, like the progressive federal income tax in the United States.

A useful illustration that Piketty examines is Sweden, which showed extremely high political and economic inequality for all of the nineteenth century. But in the early twentieth century, the situation reversed, and Sweden built a successful welfare state. It in fact became one of the most egalitarian countries in Europe for the next century, and a number of related positive outcomes followed. If you had lived in Europe in 1900, you might well have believed that inequality in Sweden was simply a historical fact that would probably never change. But things did change, and they can change now. 

Piketty is under no illusions that a policy will save us. The major changes that have brought real progress have rarely come about by the smooth operation of the system. Progress is largely associated with the major shocks that create windows of opportunity. Some of the key shocks in our recent past have included the Great Depression and the World Wars. Ultimately, the role of the kind of policies he proposes is to inform public debate and to help shape the strategy of political actors. This is the focus of the second half of his book. 

The two primary problems he wants us to take on are economic inequality and sustainable development, both products of our newly-global economy. Under the current regime, both problems are extremely difficult to get a handle on, because our economic tools are not set up to address them.

With respect to inequality, the chief culprit Piketty focus on in this book is the lack of monitoring and controls on money moving across borders, which has dramatically increased since the triumph of neoliberal policies in the 1980s and 90s. Similarly, our ability to handle climate change effectively is limited by the fact that our economic systems are not set up to capture or reflect the social and economic costs of climate damage in any meaningful way. For example, climate-polluting industries like steel and cement manufacturing, which create more greenhouse gases per year than any other sector, themselves pay no direct costs for any adaptation or mitigation efforts that societies make.

Dealing with these issues will take novel solutions which may very well require that we fundamentally rethink our current economic framework, but we have good reason to do so. Unlocking our borders to capital flight has led to a situation in which many developed countries are wealthy but their governments are poor. Many of the largest fortunes evade representative taxation by shady dodges such as incorporating offshore. Companies like Apple or Facebook are able to benefit profoundly from the technical and human infrastructure of the United States, such as its major investments in education, while giving little or nothing back by way of taxes, preferring the favorable tax rates of havens like Ireland.

At the same time, individual fortunes are amassed and cached overseas in offshore accounts, allowing the wealthiest individuals and families to put enormous fortunes beyond the reach of taxation. As he discussed in his Capital, the economist Gabriel Zucman conservatively estimated that 10% of the global GDP is currently stashed away in such havens – this amount is greater than the total official foreign debt of all wealthy countries. 

In order to address such abuses, countries must be able to to effectively monitor and control money flowing out of its borders. This would allow for measures like the exit tax recently proposed by Bernie Sanders, which would assess a tax on assets moved out of the country.

In Capital, Piketty suggested creating an international framework for implementing a nominal global tax on wealth, which would require that we set up a standardized international accounting scheme to monitor such flows. A step like this would go a long way toward cutting down on flagrant abuse.

In this book, he develops a similar idea, but from a national, rather than an international, perspective. He recommends that each country insist on its sovereign rights to manage money as it comes and goes, and to create their own systems for dealing with the problem.  

PIketty suggests a number of additional strategies for dealing with these issues, but his goal is not to provide a manifesto, but to consider a variety of options and to offer them up to feed the conversation. It is ultimately a matter for for democratic deliberation to determine which options to try. He broadly characterizes his framework as democratic socialism, with a strong redistributive welfare system, but without the state ownership and controls found in communist countries, which led directly to terrible authoritarian abuses. 

There is a lot more in this book than I can meaningfully cover in a short review, but this at least suggests some of the major arguments. I found it extremely useful and persuasive, and, like his other works, very well written.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Piketty but were daunted by the subject matter or length of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this might be a better way to check out his thinking. It is written with the layperson in mind in articulate, accessible prose. And if you’re daunted by the scope of challenges facing the world, it is refreshing to get a sense of how far we’ve already come, and to take stock of what we’ve already managed to do. 

As a final personal note, I’ll say that the challenges posed by inequality and sustainability are severe, but they’re the right problems for our historical moment, because ultimately they are problems about how we exist together, for the first time, as a global community. In a very real way, these problems amount to how we are going to treat each other and the world we live in. There is an opportunity here for us to collectively create an unprecedented framework for co-existence with an emphasis on fairness and stewardship. And if that sounds impossible, well, the progressive income tax was once thought impossible, too. 

Written by Mesocosm

July 13, 2022 at 5:44 am

Posted in History, Politics

Tagged with ,

January 6 and Mythological Rupture

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Joseph Campbell defined ritual as the collective reenactment of a myth. The myth that the mob that stormed the Capitol was collectively reenacting is the inaugural myth of the United States, which they construe to be its consecrating moment – a collective rejection of the old oppressive powers, and a high-minded and principled seizure of the reins of destiny.

Rituals reach into the very deepest centers of human motivation and belief. The ritual we saw performed on January 6 is as profound to those who participated as the breaking of the Host during the Eucharist. It is a recapitulation of a fundamental and meaning-giving mystery.

All the years people have been gathering in public squares dressed in tricorner hats with signs proclaiming “WE are the people” have been preparatory to what we’ve recently seen. They are inscribing themselves inside a myth.

If there is one thing the 20th century taught us, it’s that the confusion of myth with history is one of the defining characteristics of fascism. (For one of the countless instructive examples available, see the late works of Ezra Pound, who slowly moved from “Died some, pro patria, non dulce et non decor” to “The Federal Reserve is a Jewish plot.”)

The gulf between how I see the world and how this fellow sees the world is literally unbridgeable.

Written by Mesocosm

January 11, 2021 at 12:38 am

Posted in Politics, Psychology

Wendy Brown’s ‘In the Ruins of Neoliberalism’

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After decades of conflict, democracy had emerged by 1992 as the undisputed winner of the Cold War, holding a position of dominance so universal that the term “democracy” became synonymous with political legitimacy. Even authoritarian states often imitate its discourse to justify rule, using sham elections and fraudulent polls to shore up their legitimacy. 

Theo Balden's sculpture "Newspaper Reader"
Newspaper Reader, Theo Balden

Yet a few decades later, despite the complete absence of any serious external challenge or internal crisis, democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and France are awash with anti-democratic popular movements. Some of them openly flirt with abandoning democracy altogether, others have already done so. 

In the United States, the Republican party has openly embraced an anti-democratic platform on the national level. To take one of countless examples, in October 2020, GOP Senator Mike Lee from Utah tweeted “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

“Rank democracy”? 

Yet this statement from a US senator, which would have recently been regarded as inflammatory and shocking, provoked no controversy whatsoever. The question a lot of us are asking with increasing urgency is: “How the hell did this happen?” 

In seeking to provide a social-theoretical account of the historical process that led us to our current situation, Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism; The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West offers an indispensable contribution to the growing body of literature on the subject. I believe this important book deserves careful consideration and discussion, and I recommend it very highly. 

Brown’s argument is complex and wide-ranging, so in this review I will restrict myself to highlighting some of its principle features. 

Brown begins by sketching a typical account of the process leading to the 2016 election, highlighting factors like racial resentment, the government’s failure to redress inequality and misconduct following 2008 economic crisis, and the growing gulf dividing a globalized, urban, highly-literate majority from a displaced rural minority. She* argues that while such an account is useful, it has important omissions that fail to account for the novel characteristics of what we are seeing now.

The current wave of reactionary politics does not always accord with familiar political categories. Indeed, many of its features are difficult to account for with any coherent ideology, and as such, they have defied analysis and frustrated opposition: 

Failure to predict, understand, or effectively contest these developments is due partly to blinding assumptions about perduring Western values and institutions, especially progress and Enlightenment and liberal democracy, and partly to the unfamiliar agglomeration of elements in the rising Right – its curious combination of libertarianism, moralism, authoritarianism, nationalism, hatred of the state, Christian conservativism, and racism. These new forces conjoin familiar elements of neoliberalism (licensing capital, leashing labor, demonizing the social state and the political, attacking equality, promulgating freedom) with their seeming opposites (nationalism, enforcement of traditional morality, populist antielitism, and demands for state solutions to economic and social problems). They conjoin moral righteousness with nearly celebratory amoral and uncivil conduct. They endorse authority while featuring unprecedented public disinhibition and aggression. They rage against relativism, but also against science and reason, and spur evidence-based claims, rational argumentation, credibility, and accountability. They disdain politicians and politics while evincing a ferocious will to power and political ambition. Where are we?

Where, indeed? 

Cold-War-era tools of political analysis are insufficient to account for this nihilistic witch’s brew of characteristics, and understanding why that is so is an urgent task of theory, for the conventional responses that the left has reflexively relied upon have been ineffective. The rhetorical appeal to a putative sense of shared values of a kind exemplified by the editorial missives of Dan Rather have fallen on deaf ears, as have charges of hypocrisy leveled against the evangelists who enthusiastically support a man who has illegally misused campaign funds to silence a porn star with whom he had an affair. Countless attempts to replicate the moment of Joseph Welch’s “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” have failed, and we need to understand why. Specifically, we need to understand the ways in which such appeals no longer connect with their audience, psychologically or ideologically. 

It is this gap in understanding that Brown endeavors to fill, so that we can, at last, identify the real ideological battleground, and shift our focus there. Otherwise we will be left to ask Senator Lee in disbelief, “Surely you can’t be saying that democracy is secondary!” But he can, and he did, and we need to understand why. 

Democracy is the foundation of Brown’s analysis. Her initial salvo on this point neatly suggests the conceptual clarity and rhetorical precision that typifies her book: 

Political equality is democracy’s foundation. Everything else is optional – from constitutions to personal liberty, from specific economic forms to specific political institutions. Political equality alone ensures that the composition and exercise of political power is authorized by the whole and accountable to the whole. When political equality is absent, whether from explicit political exclusions or privileges, from extreme social or economic disparities, or from the manipulation of the electoral system, political power will inevitably be exercised by and for a part, rather than the whole. The demos ceases to rule.

The importance of political equality to democracy is why Rousseau insisted that differences in power among a democratic people must “not be so great that they can be wielded as violence” and also that none may “be so rich that he can buy another and none so poor that he is compelled to sell himself.” Rousseau’s point was that more than a matter of injustice or suffering, systematization of group violence or destitution puts an end to democracy. 

In Brown’s account, the novel attack on democracy that we see today is largely the unanticipated consequence of neoliberal economic theory, which she primarily interprets through analysis of the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Neoliberalism refers to a nebulous branch of social and economic thought associated with economists such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and exemplified in the political arena by the anti-regulatory regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The movement is also associated with reduced government and laissez-faire economic policies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, with globalist policies intended to reduce international barriers to trade. 

In Brown’s analysis, two distinct features of Hayek’s neoliberal theory pave the way to today’s populist authoritarianism: his attack on the concept of the social as such; and his desire to drastically curtail the reach of the state as much as possible. Through aggressively promoting these viewpoints, neoliberalism has substantially helped to foster a social and economic climate that Hayek himself would have despised, in which the government is largely captured by economic titans, rather than markets and government functioning independently and autonomously. 

Hayek directly opposes his conception of freedom to the very idea of the social. Any situation in which individuals are “compelled” by the state to act against their will (or “against their interests” as he put it) is eo ipso a curtailment of their liberty. The concept of the social gives rise to a kind of tyranny of the majority. In his view, the only free society is one in which individuals are bound only by the traditional moral codes to which they voluntarily adhere. 

Neoliberalism, then, is not economically liberal, in the sense of advocating for state regulation of markets, it is politically liberal in the sense of aggressively seeking to curtail the reach of the state to intervene in individual choice. 

Like libertarian economic theory, an account of freedom that focuses exclusively on the individual right to chose completely disregards the problem of externalities. That is to say, my freedom to dump toxic chemicals into the river curtails your freedom to grow crops and to live cancer-free. When people share resources or a physical environment, it is not so easy to disentangle where one peron’s zone of autonomy ends and another person’s begins. 

This obvious fact can only become obscured by a willful act of ideological repression, which, in the case of neoliberalism, occurs largely by automatically resisting any act of mediated social compromise as transgressive against liberty as such. In the light of a neoliberal theory, the need to mediate competing rights and claims in the spirit of compromise is simply excluded, and, as a consequence, the realm of the social is abandoned. Attempts to appeal to the interests of society appear to be nothing more than content-free complaints by “social justice warriors.” As Brown put it: 

If there is no such thing as society, but only individuals and families oriented by markets and morals, then there is no such thing as social power generating hierarchies, exclusion, and violence, let alone subjectivity at the site of class, gender, or race. Outside of a neoliberal frame, of course, the language of the social is what makes inequalities manifest; the domain of the social is where subjugations, abjections, and exclusions are lived, identified, protested, and potentially rectified.… As every serious student of inequality knows, the social is a vital domain of justice because it is where the potted histories and hierarchies of a particular region, nation, or civilization are reproduced. Appreciation of social powers is the only way to understand ‘taking a knee’ or the claim that black lives matter, the high suicide rates among queer teens, or women working more for less. Moreover, the social is what binds us in ways that exceed personal ties, market exchange, or abstract citizenship. It is where we, as individuals or a nation, practice or fail to practice justice, decency, civility, and care beyond the codes of market instrumentalism and familialism. And it is where political equality, essential to democracy, is made or unmade. 

If we want the social to exist as a meaningful framework for understanding and evaluating experience and action, we are now in a position in which we have to explicitly defend it as such. Welcome to our wonderful future. 

As with the social, Hayek repudiated the concept of the political as such. Grounding political legitimacy exclusively in a concept of individual freedom constrained solely by voluntarily-accepted traditional moral codes and free markets, Hayek distinguishes between “liberal democracy” and “social or totalitarian democracy” and regards the concept of popular sovereignty as a “ nonsense notion.” To “protect democracy against itself,” the powers of “so-called legislators” must be restrained, and the coercion of individuals by the state must be absolutely minimized. Indeed, Hayek identifies an inherent paradox in the notion of a liberal democracy, as liberalism is concerned with “‘limiting the coercive powers of all government’ while democracy limits government only according to majority opinion.” 

It may be hard to believe that the near-equation of any legislative act with totalitarian coercion has much traction in society at large, but Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom sold more than two million copies, and both Hayek and Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their theories. 

Now we are at a point where we can begin to understand how an anti-regulatory and anti-government political theory such as neoliberalism can help explain the seemingly-contradictory co-occurrence of anti-government and authoritarian ideologies in contemporary right-wing movements. 

Above all, Hayek argues, democracy and liberalism have radically different opposites. Democracy’s opposite is authoritarianism, concentrated but not necessarily unlimited political power. Liberalism’s opposite is totalitarianism, complete control over every aspect of life. This makes authoritarianism compatible with a liberal society – freedom, traditional morals, a protected private sphere. And totalitarianism can be brought into being and administered by democratic majorities. 

Senator Lee’s opposition of “rank democracy” to “liberty” now makes more sense. We can also understand why so many appeals to shared values falls on deaf ears. The terms “freedom” and “liberty” mean substantially different things to different people, and the consensus on the essential nature of the American political system has fractured between the left and the right to a degree never seen since World War II. 

With a critique of the social and the political in hand, the neoliberal is in a position to argue that the sole legitimate spheres for deliberating and adjudicating values are the domains of the family and of the individual, and not in any kind of larger interpersonal domain, which has been rejected as such. This conception of values and their proper domain has increasingly become the basis for attacking laws or policies intended to redress inequalities or protect minorities. Such attempts are framed as an encroachment by the tyrannical majority into the private conscience of individuals, and are treated as an intolerable violation of the sanctity of moral, and, especially, of religious freedoms.

In one of the most disturbing sections of the book, Brown analyzes how this theory has been developed into a novel legal strategy which has been designed to advance a dangerous new legal framework, as seen in two cases that recently appeared before the Supreme Court: Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and National Institute of Family Life Advocates, DBA NIFLA, et al. v. Becerra, Attorney General of California

In the former case, a baker in Colorado claimed that a combination of his rights to free speech and his right to free exercise of religion excuse him from being compelled to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. 

In the latter case, a network of so-called Pregnancy Crisis Centers sued the state of California, which passed a law requiring such institutions to post notices stating that they are not medical centers, and to refer people to nearby free and low-cost reproductive medicine facilities. This law was passed in response to the fact that Pregnancy Crisis Centers, according to their own unambiguous claims, attempt to confuse pregnant woman into thinking they are neutral providers of health services, when they are in fact conservative Christian organizations that exist for the sole purpose of persuading women not to have abortions. 

Brown’s full analysis is essential reading, but the upshot is this – both cases were carefully designed by the claimants to provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity to affirm a novel reading of free speech and free exercise which would dramatically curtail the government’s ability to enforce a wide range of laws and regulations intended to protect vulnerable populations. As with Citizens United, the very concept of speech has been expansively redefined not just to include corporate political contributions, but the baking of cakes and the freedom not to post legally-mandated disclaimers. 

The cases are carefully formulated to invite this interpretation, and the conservative majority has shown itself more than willing to go along with this approach: 

Indeed, only through the artful conjoining of free speech and free exercise can one make sense of this otherwise bewildering summary of [Masterpiece Cake claimant] Phillips’s claim by the court: ‘requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion.’ 

In this sentence, the sheer number of prepositions and verbs and lack of subordinate clauses makes it nearly impossible to specify the site of the violation. Where, precisely, is the action? Requiring the creation of a cake does not violate a right to free speech. Compelling exercise of artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees does not violate one’s First Amendment rights. (Commercial artists presumably do this all the time at the behest of their bosses or managers.) And creating a cake for a  wedding does not violate one’s free exercise of religion any more than being required, commercially, to exercise one’s artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees. However, all of these phenomena pressed tougher – required creation of art expressing a message contrary to one’s religious beliefs – bolstered by the unmentioned right of commercial ownership, sets free exercise loose in the public and commercial sphere and generates the scene of its entitlement to discriminate, indeed, to abridge laws of equality. This is more than constitutional constructivism. This is the U. S. Supreme Court empowering a revolutionary antidemocratic force through a novel joining together of ownership, religion, and speech. 

In Masterpiece, the Supreme Court opted to rule narrowly, finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not weigh the facts in a neutral and fashion. But in National Institute they took the bait, striking down a clearly-warranted public health and safety law on the grounds that requiring any disclaimer of any anti-abortion group whatsoever was tantamount to coercing compliance with one side of a matter of public controversy, as though a woman’s right to choose were not settled law and a guaranteed right, but merely a matter of disagreement. This is a terrifically ominous sign of things to come, and I think it’s likely the conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court is likely to reshape the American legal landscape to a degree that is currently difficult to imagine. 

In her final chapter, Brown leverages Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment from his Toward a Genealogy of Morals and Macruse’s theory of repressive sublimation from his One-Dimensional Man to analyze the psychology of anger, resentment, and naked hatred motivating so much political discourse on the right. As this review has already gone long, I’ll mention only two key movements of this argument. In the first, Brown unpacks the relationship between resentment and a nihilistic crisis of values: 

It is significant that Trump himself identifies revenge as his sole philosophy of life: revenge and nothing else, revenge without end, because there is nothing else. Beyond efforts to destroy anyone who questions or opposes him, revenge saturates his so-called agenda and is also what satisfies the basest part of his base. It animates the drive to overturn every Obama-era achievement, of course, from climate accords to the Iran deal, but also to destroy what those policies aimed at protecting or preserving: the earth and its many species, the rights and protections of the vulnerable (LGBT, women, minorities), and the health of Americans secured through Obamacare. 

It is also significant that many Trump supporters, when interviewed about his lies, affairs, and flouting of truth or law, say ‘I don’t care. I’m tired of the disrespect his opponents have for him and for me.’ What kind of defense of your man is this? … In confessing that Trump embodies a retort to their pain, it explains why it does not matter what policies he pursues, only that he opposes those they hold responsible for their suffering. 

In describing the unique character of contemporary nihilism, Brown argues that the crisis of values that motivated so many philosophers and theorists in nineteenth-century Europe pales in comparison to the nihilism that haunts us today: 

Today … nihilism intensifies in a world that reflects humanity as having brought the species to the bring of destruction. ‘Man’ has not merely lost values or stable meaning, but is indicted by myriad powers generated, but not controlled by humans, powers that diminish, mock, reproach, and endanger us, not only devalue us. We appear not only without nobility and greatness, but without even the ability to provide for ourselves or clean up after ourselves. A species of giant toddlers, appetitive for power, pleasure, and play, we have yet to become responsible for our own creations, our history. 

There are no solutions suggested in this book, only an invitation to think and respond creatively and aggressively to the novel constellation of ideas that we oppose. 

As a final note, Brown does not do any of the hard work that would be required to extend this analysis beyond the borders of the United States. Despite her early assertion that her engagement with neoliberal theory is applicable to authoritarian movements around the world, she doesn’t spare a word for how it applies, say, to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or to Modi’s BJP. 

The closest she comes is a half-hearted attempts to generalize her arguments to ordoliberal theory in Germany, which, she argues, is analogous to neoliberal theory insofar as it mandates a political administration of technocratic experts who are not directly accountable to the public. Having lived in both in Germany and the United States, I found those arguments half-baked. I have little patience for her characterization of ordoliberalism as “a type of neoliberalism,” and the degree to which the actual operation of the government and the formation of policy must be directly representative is a question that she has not taken up on in this work. Certainly when it comes to democratic representation, the electoral system in Germany is far more representative than that of the United States. 

That said, as I have repeatedly urged, this short book contains many powerful ideas and is written with great clarity and force. I highly recommend it. 

* Brown has publicly invited the use of “she” or “they”. 

Written by Mesocosm

October 30, 2020 at 6:29 am

Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

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Over the last few years I’ve been reading a group of loosely-associated German conservative philosophers and theorists from the twentieth century – specifically Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and, most recently, the jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. These authors share an interest in formulating a critique of the Enlightenment based on a sense of the limited capacity of analytical reason to account for the complete register of human experience, and an objection to the tendency for Enlightenment advocates to demonize the nonrational element of consciousness.

This is a critique that I share to a certain degree. In my view, rationalist thinkers share a tendency to pre-reflexively identify the rational with progress, science, social justice, and political freedom, while identifying the irrational with the historical past, religion and superstition, economic exploitation, and servitude or authoritarianism. To the degree that such a posture is pre-reflexive, many self-styled defenders of Enlightenment rationalism regard themselves as eo ipso rational, even when advancing plainly irrational, angry polemics at the targets of their ire. 

Where I have generally parted ways with some of these conservatives is in what I find to be three very serious liabilities: 1) a drive toward a metaphysical essentialism that places the source of its own authority beyond the reach of critical analysis as such; 2) a tendency to assert a monolithic political identity as the essence of the body politic, which usually segues into or takes pains to defend xenophobic nationalism based on an ahistorical concept of the people or Volk; and 3) a general poverty in providing a basis for the legitimate formation of policy other than by the fiat of a sovereign.

This is the context in which I read Carl Schmitt’s seminal essay The Concept of the Political. Initially written in 1927 as part of a sustained critique on liberalism and Weimar constitutionalism, this book remains a cornerstone of conservative and anti-constitutionalist political theory. Although barred from teaching by the Allies for his unrepentant defense of Nazi procedures, Schmitt continued to exert a substantial influence on conservative political thought until his death in 1985, and also motivated an energetic response by German liberal theorists whose arguments took shape in part as an answer to his stance. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt purports to take up the task of defining the political and fixing its proper bounds – a task he accuses leftist theorists of ignoring, in favor of producing bungled analyses that confuse the political with the economic and the ethical.

In Schmitt’s view, to understand the political, we have to grasp its essence (Wesen). He discovers the essence of the political in a fundamental criterion he derives from the antithetical terms that describe its limits. Just as we delineate the aesthetic as the field concerned with the beautiful and the ugly, and delineate ethics as the domain concerned with the good and the evil, politics is delineated by the distinction between friend and enemy (Freund und Feind).

A system or action is political insofar as it pertains to the determination by a sovereign that another group threatens its way of life. Schmitt leaves this key term entirely unexamined, but generally speaking, it refers to the degree to which another body constitutes an existential threat. Once that determination of enmity has been made, the sovereign possesses the sole authority to require members of the polity to kill and risk death in war. No individual or social group is capable of making such an imperative on its own authority, and individuals have no authority to exempt themselves from their binding duty to comply, once such a determination has been made. Determinations of “friend and enemy” may be analyzed by ethical and pragmatic criteria, but such analyses are by definition outside the scope of the purely political. 

Schmitt’s metaphysical realism – his belief that the political has an actual essence that may be discovered and described – is one of the most visible signs of his heavy debt to Plato’s Republic; another being Schmitt’s agreement that the central duty of the polity consists in defense and attack. Readers of Republic will recall that Plato returned again and again to the watchman or guardian as the exemplar, paradigm, and embodiment of the state.

The manifold links Plato draws between essence, purity, goodness, simplicity, and self-givenness cohere in a normative determination of the character of the sovereign. This set of thematic associations was carried over wholesale by Schmitt. When I browse through Plato’s discussion of the guardian in Republic, I find a clear articulation of the core values that Schmitt affirms or embraces in his own approach. The ideal guardian is possessed of unity in thought and action, unclouded by distraction or plurality of character, and masculine and forceful in temperament. I note that Plato’s guardian is also sober and not given to “fits of laughter” – and is there a single moment of lightheartedness in Schmitt’s glowering corpus

One of my many fundamental differences with Schmitt is my rejection of the belief that a complex social phenomenon like “the political” derives from an essence, and that it must be delineated by simple criteria, or else it becomes intellectually muddied. This insistence on simplicity, directness, unity, actuality, and purity is clearly one of Schmitt’s primary intellectual commitment.

I will not the first to note there is a link between conservative theory and a drive toward epistemic closure, which I would gloss as an intolerance for uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity, and dynamism. In my frame of reference, the imperative toward epistemic closure can find no theoretical basis, and merely reflects a psychological posture rather than a motivated conclusion. Complex social phenomena require complex, multifactorial, interdisciplinary descriptions, which often have a provisional rather than final character. To certain personalities, such accounts are intolerable. 

In my view, the drive to epistemic closure is developmentally immature and leads to theoretical confusion. In this I am in agreement with Jürgen Habermas, who characterized a such a posture as a mythological engagement with the world in The Theory of Communicative Action in the following way, based on Jean Piaget’s developmental theory:

If we assess cultural systems of interpretation from this [developmental] standpoint, we can see why mythical worldviews represent an instructive limit case. To the degree that the lifeworld of a social group is interpreted through a mythical worldview, the burden of interpretation is removed from the individual member, as well as the chance for him to bring about an agreement open to criticism. To the extent that the worldview remains sociocentric in Piaget’s sense, it does not permit differentiation between the world of existing states of affairs, valid norms and expressible subjective experiences. The linguistic worldview is reified as the world order and cannot be seen as an interpretive system open to criticism.

This exactly characterizes Schmitt’s approach, which systematically elides distinctions between his own normative determinations about the character of the state and his project of recovering the essence from the political, which is largely divorced from any empirical determination of the actual state of affairs. His normative judgments are interpreted as discoveries about the actual state of affairs, and people like myself, who believe that complex historical phenomena require complex explanations, are dismissed as obfuscationists. 

To illustrate the extent of Schmitt’s commitment to his essentialist procedure, I would note that, in his view, not only is a hypothetical enemy the basis for positing political bodies, but enemies must in fact actually exist, or there is no political sphere. He says, for example, “The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity.”

The specific form of his argument deriving an essential definition of the political based on his dichotomous criterion reads to me like sophistry of a weak and archaic type, as unpersuasive to the uninitiated as a medieval proof of God’s existence. Such an argument does not convince, and does not seek to convince, but uses the form reason as a kind of ritualized affirmation for political determinations based solely on power. It is the philosophical equivalent of a show trial in a totalitarian state where the verdict has already been decided before the trial begins. The question of political legitimacy does not arise for Schmitt, other than as a sign of intellectual confusion. 

Schmitt focuses resolutely on the antagonistic character of politics, completely ignoring its cooperative character. Although he claims the political is based on the friend-enemy distinction, he focuses entirely on the enemy. I do not believe he even defines “friend” in this work.

This focus offers no account for the cooperative functions of the state, which are universally considered “political” functions. These include, for example, collective deliberation, the selection of executives and officers, legislation, common planning, and infrastructure management. 

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense,” Schmitt argues, “not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.”

“Mixed and weakened.” You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a pervasive attitude of hostility to heterogeneity of every kind, and the distance between his theoretical complaints about heterogeneity and his openly antisemitic writings of the same period is not great. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible.” Such characterizations are, of course, dehumanizing in precisely the way practitioners of genocide have always dehumanized their victims, though not always with such clarity and candor. Schmitt provides a general model validating such procedures.

It should also be noted that Schmitt’s motive for deriving a concept of the political from such a “first philosophy” of Platonic essences stems from his interest in justifying a theory of sovereign power that doesn’t rely on an underlying constitutional or legislative framework. In Schmitt’s view in this essay, political authority derives directly from the self-interest of communities in defending themselves against existential threats, and legal justifications for sovereign legitimacy are post facto. This became the theoretical basis for his attack on Weimar democracy.

From Schmitt’s essay:

[Thomas Hobbes] emphasized time and again that the sovereignty of law means only the sovereignty of men who draw up and administer this law. The rule of a higher order, according to Hobbes, is an empty phrase if it does not signify politically that certain men of this higher order rule over men of a lower order. The independence and completeness of political thought is here irrefutable. There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings in the name of justice, humanity, order, or peace. When being reproached for immortality and cynicism, the spectator of political phenomena can always recognize in such reproaches a political weapon used in actual combat.

Schmitt’s argument here is that the political does not exist in the abstract, but always arises on the basis of the interests of actual groups of people. In this view, a liberal viewpoint which sublimates political concerns into an abstract field of universal values divorces it from its own essence, and in so doing either neutralizes the political as such, or covertly transforms its own value-determinations into the political realm and wields it as a political weapon.

Of the conservative thinkers I have read in the last few years, Schmitt is by far the worst. I disagree with him on every level – philosophical, ethical, practical, formal, psychological, and empirical. He epitomizes what Nietzsche describes as the worst characteristics of German intellectual life – ponderous, metaphysical, impatient, hostile, totalizing in his rigid framework, and completely humorless. I haven’t disagreed with a work so completely since I read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is not altogether dissimilar from Schmitt’s essay in spirit.  

Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2018 at 12:45 am

The United States is Haunted by a Terrible Demon

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When I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the senior priests told us about a festival that was held annually in the small alpine town she grew up in in Switzerland. A certain holy relic was sequestered away in the village church, except on this festival of renewal, when it was brought out and placed on a kind of carriage, and paraded through the town in a procession. The trick was, you were not to look at it.

I think I gasped aloud when I heard that story. The ritual force of such an episode, and the life-long impact it would have on children who grew up with it, was immediately obvious. I thought of many interesting counterparts, such as the Shingon Buddhist altar I saw in Narita with a towering Buddha statue set back in an enormous stepped platform that receded into an unlit corner of the room, so that you could just make out the outlines of the statue from anywhere in the room, but  you could not quite see it. Its presence dominated the room, but it was held in a liminal state of semi-awareness. It made quite an impression.

Or I think about the mythology of similar prohibitions on seeing or doing that, for example, finds expression in my favorite fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, Marienkind (my translation is here).

This episode is a motif in the religious traditions and mythologies of the world because it makes an impact, such that its uncanny power is remembered decades later, on into adulthood, as the beginning of some deep stirring of the psyche, as in my teacher’s story.

I couldn’t help but think of this motif of the half-perceived sign and its potential to activate the unconscious when a friend of mine told me that her five-year-old daughter is required to participate in active shooter drills in New York. Her kindergarten class has to practice hiding and remaining quiet when someone knocks on the door.

If you don’t think this isn’t going to traumatize a generation of children, then you know nothing of psychodynamics.

There are a lot of reasons I recently moved to Germany, and there are a lot of things that Germany gets wrong, in my opinion, in managing its affairs. But one thing that it gets right, along with the rest of the developed world, with the exception of the United States, is gun control.

There are areas where I simply have to disagree with my fellow citizens. On climate change, for example, I vehemently disagree with people who deny the unambiguous consensus of the scientific community, and the other 179 nations that have joined the Paris Accords, but at least I can comprehend the other point of view, much as I disagree with it.

But I can not comprehend, or forgive, the bizarre fetishization of guns that runs amok in the United States, and that fuels a fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment – an interpretation whose bizarre logic leads again and again to monstrous policy recommendations and a bizarre attitude of paranoia and fear.

There is a lot of talk in the United States these days about arming teachers as a first line of defense against school shooters. There are plenty of reasons to oppose such an empirically-unmotivated and obviously self-destructive posture, but one that doesn’t receive as much attention as I would like is the question of whether the people of the United States have the right to ask teachers, in addition to all that they already give and sacrifice for their careers, to put their own lives at risk acting as security officers, who must be prepared to wield lethal force against their own students.

Again, this is all quite beyond my comprehension. There is a bizarre, shadowy demon haunting the United States, and I fear it is not going away without some kind of huge catastrophe, or mass exorcism.

Written by Mesocosm

March 17, 2018 at 2:07 am

Posted in Musings, Politics

52:10 What Binds Americans Together

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For the most part, I want Mesocosm to be a rambling survey of life-intensifying ideas and works of art. I generally keep it apolitical, because by and large I don’t believe political discourse is helpful.

But at this particular time in history, saying nothing about politics would be a kind of untruth. So for this week’s post, I’d like to look at February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together, a special little essay that deeply influenced my thinking. It was jointly published by Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2003. I’d like to briefly say a little bit about what it meant to me at the time, and in the light of current events.

White Flag, Jasper Johns

White Flag, Jasper Johns

Sometimes I think about the days and years after 9/11. All of us who lived through those times remember the grief, confusion, and the insanity of it – the long years that passed by slowly, when the evening news reported “Threat Level Amber” in a constant scroll across the bottom of the screen in an oblique reminder that the world isn’t safe. Talking heads reporting “high levels of chatter” around the holidays, and other glyphs and half-understood signs of danger.

I remember thinking that many Americans would literally rather go to war with a Muslim country than read a book on Islam. Who knew a Sunni from a Shiite? And I remember my Zen teacher despondently saying that what she found unbearable was that no one seemed to make any sense at all – you kept listening, and you never heard voices of reason. Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and the country was heading to war.

Now, more than ten years later, ideas are taken seriously in American political discourse that would have previously been regarded as madness even by the fringes of the political spectrum. And there’s a chance that in a few days time, we’ll see the election of a man preposterously unfit by any rational standard to the office of president – a man insults comedians and beauty pageant contestants in late-night Tweets, a man who openly called on Russian hackers to intercede in our election on his behalf, a man who celebrates torture, a man who will be standing trial for fraud and racketeering in a few weeks’ time, though he calls his opponent “crooked.”

The Trump phenomenon is increasingly being analyzed for its novel relationship to truth and reason, as he seems to exemplify a political ideology that is fundamentally characterized by a wholesale rejection of conventional standards of reason and evidence (see, for example, here and here). Of the countless examples within easy reach, perhaps the most illustrative case is when Trump insisted that President Obama and Hillary Clinton literally founded the Islamic State. When asked by a sympathetic radio host if he meant that Obama effectively was responsible for the creation of the Islamic State, he respond no, I meant what I said – he is the founder. From CNN’s coverage:

Trump was asked by host Hugh Hewitt about the comments Trump made Wednesday night in Florida, and Hewitt said he understood Trump to mean “that he (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace.”

Trump objected.

“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump said. “I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”

At this point one is literally left wondering if he doesn’t understand what the word “founder” means, or if the basic machinery of rational thought has broken down in his mind. What could he possibly mean by such a statement? Is it possible that in some or any sense he actually believes this claim is true?

This type of rhetoric, which proceeds as if the facts of the matter are irrelevant on a basic level, is central to his campaign, with its endless stream of falsehoods and contradictions. It is a new mode of mainstream political discourse which not only lacks but rejects critical self-awareness.

In a recent interview in Die Zeit, Judith Butler offered this observation about the culture of Trump and his supporters:

Butler: Well, it is all rather unfathomable. I think there is an economic component to the support for Trump. For some of his supporters government has gotten in the way of their capacity to make a good living and to succeed financially, so they are against regulations, against government. And that can include paying taxes and workplace regulations meant to secure the health and safety of workers. They applaud the fact that Trump has not apparently paid federal taxes and they think: “Yeah, I want to be that person”.

ZEIT ONLINE: There is a lot of rage?

Butler: I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants – they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism – basic American liberalism and the left – as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.

A friend of mine sardonically observed “Remembered the good-old days when the Left was the id and the Right was the super-ego?” All I can say is, our version of the id is a lot more fun.

In the dark days around 2003 when I was listening for a voice of reason, one of the first signs of light I found was the essay February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together. Two great European intellectuals representing philosophical positions that are, in many senses, diametrically opposed, came together to make a joint statement that articulated a shared political vision for Europe and a common set of ideals that could be used to chart the way forward.

You may find that short essay worth reading – in essence, it constitutes a reaffirmation of a European social order founded on reason and a concept of basic, universal human rights, in which disagreements are mediated by laws and procedures rather than force.

It was a surprising gesture, with Habermas being the preeminent living representative of the Kantian rationalist view of society, while Derrida represents a career-long manifold critique of the European Enlightenment and its naive construction of the rational subject. I can only conject that when push came to shove, as it did, Derrida found that he was committed to reason and fundamental rights. And though I hadn’t engaged vigorously in political philosophy before that time, I realized that I was, too.

I believe that the United States is, at its best, a society of laws, whose policies are shaped by democratic principles. Democracy depends on judgments that are fired in the collective furnace of rational discourse mediated by shared norms and values. One can and should subject every term of this formulation to critique, but my honest belief is that this is truly the best hope for the country and for the world, and the aberrations and errors made by this country in its checkered past occur, by and large, insofar as we deviate from that model.

Tuesday is the most important election I’ve seen in my lifetime – perhaps more important to me personally and to the world than the Brexit referendum which derailed my in-motion plans to move to London. Tuesday’s election is no less than a referendum on the vision of America as a society in which collective action is coordinated by rational discourse, and which affirms certain fundamental rights owed to every individual on the planet, whatever their country, genealogy, or religion.

We have a choice on Tuesday between a candidate who fundamentally rejects the role of critical reason and the universality of human rights, and one who does not. That is, in fact, no choice at all. If you live in the United States, please vote.

Written by Mesocosm

November 5, 2016 at 7:16 am

Posted in Musings, Politics

52:06 – John Heartfield: Politics as Art

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I destroy the drawers of the brain, and those of social organization: to sow demoralisation everywhere, and throw heaven’s hand into hell, hell’s eyes into heaven, to reinstate the fertile wheel of a universal circus in the Powers of reality, and the fantasy of every individual. – Dada Manifesto, Tristan Tzara

Sometimes you get lucky, walking into a museum. It’s one of the best reasons for museum-going – the opportunity to chance upon something marvelous and unexpected, like the time I happened upon a huge retrospective of Bill Viola’s artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago. I stopped in between trains on a cross-country journey, and my life was unexpectedly changed.

I had a similar experience, stumbling into a gallery of photomontage works by the Dadaist political artist John Heartfield at the Tate Modern in London in 2011.

Imagine having the courage to create a piece like this in 1935, while hiding for your life from the Gestapo:

heartfield1

“Also a Propaganda Minister” proclaims this leering montage of Hitler imploring a coquettish Goebbels, looking like two figures at a high school dance. The caption below reads “Hitler: ‘Goebbels, Goebbels, give me my millions back!”

There is so much scorn in this work, one can easily see why Heartfield was number five on the Gestapo’s most wanted list in Czechoslovakia.

To me this work is like the sol niger of the medieval alchemist – the black sun epitomizing the Great Work, embodying the transmutation of base matter into spirit. The brilliance of its humor is directly proportional to the ponderous darkness of its subject, and its defiance sounds a clarion call to retain one’s own character, and one’s own sense of life, even in the face of crushing forces of silence. It’s a heroic gesture.

The son of a socialist father and activist mother, Helmut Herzfeld was born in Schmargendorf, near Berlin. In a characteristic display of international solidarity and contempt for prevailing political sentiments, he changed his name to John Heartfield at the height of World War I in 1916. The following year he joined the Berlin Dada club, and for the next 15 years he worked as an artist, collaborating with luminaries such as Bertolt Brecht.

After the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the Nazis came to his apartment to arrest him on Good Friday. He escaped by leaping from his balcony and hiding in a trash bin. He fled to Czechoslovakia, then to London, returning to East Germany in 1950 and remaining there until his death in 1968.

This 1934 piece reads “As in the Middle Ages … so in the Third Reich!”

heartfield2

Further Resources

Written by Mesocosm

October 8, 2016 at 7:12 am

Posted in Art, Politics

Hugh Eakin on the Destruction of Antiquities in Syria

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Although the gratuitous destruction of antiquities by IS has garnered almost all public attention, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and a lot of the destruction that’s being largely ignored would be far easier to prevent. According to Hugh Eakin’s compelling article Ancient Syrian Sites; A Different Story of Destruction in the New York Review of Books:

As long ago as December 2014, well before ISIS captured Palmyra, the United Nations released a report showing that nearly three hundred historic sites in Syria had been damaged since the beginning of the war, most of them by groups other than ISIS. Of these, twenty-four had been “totally destroyed” by different militias or by the Assad regime itself, including twenty-two in Aleppo alone. As of this year, all of the six sites in Syria that were supposedly protected by UNESCO World Heritage status have been damaged, including, along with Palmyra, the Krak des Chevaliers, Syria’s most important crusader castle, the remains of the Hellenistic city of Dura-Europos, on the Euphrates, and the Roman city of Bosra. A number of the destroyed monuments, like the Temple of Bel frieze at Palmyra or the majestic, eleventh-century minaret in Aleppo, toppled amid fierce fighting in early 2013, were unique works with no known parallels.

For many Syrians, the international response has been baffling. While speaking constantly of ISIS, whose destructive acts they can do little about, Western leaders and cultural officials have mostly overlooked the grave damage that is occurring in many other parts of Syria—often in areas where preventive steps can be taken.

This reminds me of little-noticed destruction of key sites in Iraq, such as when the US army used the ruins of Babylon as a military base in the invasion of Iraq, or when unexcavated ground at the same site was unceremoniously dug up and used for an oil pipeline.

Eakin also highlights the importance of supporting vital local efforts to preserve artifacts in war zones, and calls for these efforts to be directly supported. For example:

During the civil war in Beirut (1975–1990), when the National Museum of Beirut was on the front lines of the conflict, it was the museum’s own curator, Emir Maurice Chehab, who saved much of the collection, including Phoenician sarcophagi and monumental statuary, by encasing them in concrete in the basement. In Afghanistan, the Bamiyan Buddhas were lost, despite huge international outcry; but the National Museum’s Bactrian Hoard—more than 20,000 extraordinary gold, silver, and ivory objects from a Bronze Age burial site—was quietly saved, thanks to the courage and ingenuity of a group of Afghan curators who kept them hidden for years in a vault under the Central Bank in Kabul. And in Timbuktu, when jihadists overran the city in 2012, intent on wiping out the city’s extraordinary medieval Islamic heritage, it was local librarians who spirited away to safety thousands of rare manuscripts—by truck and canoe.

The whole article is quite thought-provoking – I highly recommend it.

Written by Mesocosm

September 16, 2016 at 6:45 am

Posted in Musings, Politics

The Veils of Islam

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Last week, I attended a talk by Ingrid Mattson, a distinguished scholar of Islamic Studies, and I heard a story that made quite an impression on me. She had been counseling a young man recently, and felt concerned that he was over-sharing on social media – the kinds of stories or pictures from parties that a person in college might not think twice about posting. She suggested that eventually he’d be looking for a job, and he might regret some of the things that were out there on the Internet. As an experiment, she suggested that he try Googling himself, and see what he found.

IMG_2623

Quranic Inscription, 13th Century, Iran

Now, this fellow has a common Arabic name, and she did not anticipate that the first several entire pages of search results would be news stories about violent extremists who shared part or all of his name. This, he realized, is what a prospective employer would see if they ran a quick check.

The light of his individual identity would be reflected by the distorted mirror of the media and refracted through the prism of our times, and he would be marked by association with acts of violence.

The French Algerian theorist Mohammed Arkoun speaks of how societies construct ideas of Islam in terms of imaginaires, or “imaginaries.” These imaginaires are shared systems of ideas and belief shaped by ideology, media, the exchange of social capital, and the intervention of the unconscious.

In Arkoun’s view, discourse about Islam is largely governed by two complementary imaginaires, one coming from Muslim countries, and another constituted in Europe and the US. The common Muslim imaginaire is a reductive description of Islamic society and history that is premised on the belief that its current historical forms of expression are based logically and inevitably on a well-ordered and ahistorical set of principles derived unambiguously from the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic law. That is, what we observe in current Muslim states is believed to follow a precise and unchanging template based on classical sources, and this is how it has always been. 

There are few beliefs as widespread or as dangerous as the belief that ideas do not have a history. This imaginaire that Arkoun describes is recent, and it forms the basis of so many of the tired cliches about Islam –  that it is fundamentally anti-rational; that Islamic states are eo ipso theocratic; that Islamic states perceive all other types of social organization as adversaries to be one day conquered; et cetera. It is proposed and defended by autocratic governments which use it to bolster their own legitimacy. Critical voices are marginalized or suppressed within these governments and their institutions of learning, and consequently the standard tools of social criticism that would generally look to the role of ideology or the irrational in shaping self-concepts of history are silenced. 

For a variety of bad reasons, this distorted self-construction is reflected back by scholars in Europe and the United States, who should know better. In Arkoun’s view, they accede to this narrative either out of a naive wish to let the putatively indigenous self-construction and valuation of Islamic identity speak for itself and on its own terms, or out of a cynical desire to capitalize on simplified reductions of history for their own aims, e.g., to characterize Islam in the language of alterity. All too often these scholars ignore the degree to which critical or alternative voices within the Islamic world itself are silenced, and European and American scholars accept social constructions at face value that would never be tolerated from a European source without careful criticism.

So, to pull one of countless examples, in his recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger soberly recapitulates the cliche that the first several centuries of Muslim expansion were guided by a fundamental ideological distinction between the House of Islam, or conquered Muslim lands, and the House of War, or everywhere else, and treats this as though it were an unproblematic given of historiography. And of course, Kissinger does not pause to ask where this interpretation of early Muslim history came from, or what interests it may serve.

Ironically, by acting in this way, Kissinger precisely echoes the reductive and distorted version of history advocated by Sayyid Qutb, the strident anti-American polemicist whose belligerent interpretation of jihad has been taken up by terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki of Al Qaeda in Yemen. As the French proverb has it, les extrêmes se touchent.

Reality is far more complicated than dramatic simplifications will allow. To speak to Kissinger’s positoin, countless forms of cross-cultural exchange and interaction took place during the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates, involving commerce, knowledge transfer, migration, missionary activity, travel, and dialog. The world is a complex place, and from its earliest days, Islam has been a plurality.

Yet, when you look to today’s newspaper headlines, and draw from so much of our social discourse, you would hardly know that there was any diversity in Muslim views or beliefs at all. We live in an age in which a Republican presidential candidate can openly praise the arbitrary degradation and murder of Muslims in South Carolina, for no other reason than that they are Muslims, and then win the primary in the same week.

Arabischer_Mosaizist_um_735_001

Mosaic, Khirbat al-Mafjar, c. 740

How is it that we form ideas about who we are as individuals? Who are the people we encounter, and what do we really know about them? What do we know about groups – about Christians or Jews, Buddhists or Muslims? What are the mirrors into which we all peer to make out a sense of identity, and to give shape to the complexities of our world, so we can understand and act? How do we see the truth?

The Quran gives us 99 names for Allah, and one of them is “the Truth.” In the Surah Luqman, we read:

Hast thou not considered that God makes the night pass into the day and makes the day pass into the night, and that He made the sun and the moon subservient, each running for a term appointed, and that God is Aware of whatsoever you do? That is because God, He is the Truth, and whatsoever they call upon other than Him is false, and God is the Exalted, the Great. (31:29-30)

I love this beautiful conjunction of the movement of light and dark arrayed in orderly progression, bound to the notion of Truth.

This particular Name is of special interest to the Sufis, who stride so brilliantly through the history of Islam, leaping effortlessly over so many fences. For the Sufi masters, the Truth is indeed bound to a play of light and dark, as we read in the Niche of Lights by Al-Ghazali, or the works of Ibn al-’Arabi, who speaks of the veils of the Real, by which God is revealed within the world, but which simultaneously conceal His essence.

Thus Truth and the Real in the ultimate sense, according to this tradition, are a play of light and darkness; shapes that give sense and meaning, also cloud and hide. And this is where we live, in the play of light and shadow. So how do we find our way?

This is what I take as my starting point: because of the current state of technology and social change, all of humanity must increasingly share this one world together, and learning to recognize one another as brothers and sisters is the spiritual task of our age. My own orientation to religion, history, and culture is comparative, and it is increasingly clear to me that within my own society – that of Europe and the United States – we must have a better understanding of Islam. For this world to survive, we cannot simply take up the concepts that are ready-to-hand within our social discourse, because they are awash with profound distortions.

Anyone who would encounter Islam and come to terms with it, as we must, should wander some of its many ways, for great riches lie within its corridors and chambers. It has long been and remains a powerful spiritual force that sustains and guides the lives of more than a billion people, each with their own individual lives and destinies, and I increasingly believe that it is the duty of non-Muslims to meet it, as a Thou in Martin Buber’s sense, and to encounter its people, before the maddening and distorted din of echoed rumor deafens our ears, and the bright glare of the endlessly-refracted light blinds our eyes, and we can see and hear no more.

 


 

Update: Just days after writing that the old story of the stark distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities during the period of expansion is a gross over-simplification, I came across this fascinating article describing the excavation of the earliest-known Muslim graves in Europe. These graves belonged to three Berbers who were probably part of the Umayyad expansion, and the evidence indicates that they lived peacefully in Nimes with Christians, as they were buried alongside Christians with no sign of partition. In the words of the authors, “[t]hese results clearly highlight the complexity of the relationship between communities during this period, far from the cliché depiction still found in some history books.”

Written by Mesocosm

February 22, 2016 at 7:22 am

Digital Humanism; a Response to Byung-Chul Han

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Fernsehturm Berlin

Fernsehturm Berlin

I’ve been reading the German social theorist Byung-Chul Han’s critique of digital culture with interest since I first stumbled upon his arresting concept of the Transparency Society, of which he is not a fan. I wrote about the Transparency Society here, but to briefly recap, the term refers to a culture of digital disclosure and mutual voyeurism that embraces openness and connectedness as intrinsic goods. In Han’s analysis, this leads to a devaluation of true intimacy and connection, which require an interplay of disclosure and concealment.

As a guy who works in Menlo Park for one of Han’s favorite targets of criticsm, it’s valuable for me to engage with a forceful critic of the new model openness, which he associates with social media and Big Data in the US and with the fringe Pirate Party at home.

When Han declines to differentiate between different forms of exposure – for example, between voluntary self-disclosure in social media and government surveillance – this signals his intentional flattening of the various conditions by which societies become transparent to technology. This strategy reflects what I believe to be a staunchly anti-humanist philosophy.

What do I mean by anti-humanism? Han is interested in the ways that information networks constrain and shape human action and experience, which puts him in the lineage of Continental anti-humanists including Derrida and Foucault.

Foucault’s career was dominated by his interest in the ways in which individual subjectivity is molded by social discourse, particularly discourses of alterity and power, into which we are assimilated and by which we perceive and value the world.

Derrida focused on deconstructing the European metaphysical tradition, especially its prejudice in favor of presence, which has historically been regarded as the ideal, pure forms of being, as opposed to contingency, lack, and absence, which are negative states of imperfection.

Han’s debt to these critiques is clear. In his fascinating book Abwesen, he contrasts Western and Eastern modes of metaphysical discourse, citing Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and contrasting it to the Buddhist and Taoist concepts of emptiness and non-action. While the Platonist conceives of ultimate reality in terms of an everlasting and pure realm of being, the canonical expression of ultimate reality in China and Japan is the sage who embodies its realization. Such a sage is frequently depicted as a wanderer without a home, who leaves no trace. This ideal sage is mobile, embodied, enigmatic, and composed of the play of light and shadow.

This strategy of valuing the hidden, the absent, and the transitory is central to Han’s critique of Transparency Society, which he diagnoses as a classical expression of the Western inability to tolerate these “impure” states. The voyeur has an insatiable need to know, to unmask, and to unconceal, and thus devours the hours reading news and paging through Facebook updates and microblogs.

By this unmasking, the spirit of the encounter is lost, and wisdom is exchanged for the accumulation of facts. Other casualties of the Transparency Society include theory and ideology.

Han persuasively argues in his “Digital Rationality and the End of Communicative Action” that online political activism is post-ideological. Because of its characteristic methods of interaction, the Internet does not give rise to collective ideology or the formation of mass political parties. You may see mass action rising out of the Internet, but we have not yet seen real mass movements, because the Internet fractures discourse and exerts a “centrifugal” pressure by which individuals increasingly speak in isolation to micro-audiences. This does not encourage the formulation of mass ideology, or support the development of long-term political platforms.

Although Han makes this argument on a theoretical level, it’s worth noting that this closely agrees with the findings of sociologists examining the role of social media in the Occupy movement as well as mass protests in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. It’s beyond the scope of this post to analyze that point in depth, but I can refer to a few examples.

I was struck earlier this year, when reading about massive protests in São Paulo, when the Guardian had this to say:

Lucio Flavio Rodrigues de Almeida, a sociology professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, said the authorities had so far responded only with repressive actions against protests that had morphed in character and size and were being organized by an amorphous social network rather than political parties. (emphasis added)

This is just what we find in similar cases – political action is triggered by a catalyzing event, such as an AdBusters campaign, or protests over bus fares, which avalanche into massive, loosely-organized protests reflecting variety of complaints, often having little relationship to the initial cause of the action. Where such movements fail is their recurring inability to consolidate a sustained platform, or to create mechanisms for long-term advocacy.

In short, we have sound empirical evidence that Internet-based political activism has indeed thus far been post-ideological, in Han’s sense. Let’s have a closer look at how he uses this concept.

In “Digital Rationality,” Han cites a notorious screed by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. This widely-criticized opinion piece argues that with the rise of Big Data, we no longer need to look for underlying principles, because we no longer need to understand – we have enough data simply to act on the basis of correlation, and we can leave theorizing to philosophers and children.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Big Data, then, destroys synthetic linkages that organize individual actors into political parties, and that organize individual data points into theory. The overall movement is simultaneously one of aggregation and fragmentation.

Han recently published an opinion piece for Die Zeit called Data-ism and Nihilism, which inspired me to collect my thoughts and to write this response. He briefly summarizes a number of the points I’m recounting here, and reads the post-ideological stance of Big Data as a new form of nihilism, in Nietzsche’s colorful sense of the term – that is, as the character of a degenerate culture that is incapable of positing and realizing its own sense of value from out of its own creative potentialities.

Han’s Data-ism is a culture of facts without meaning, of iPhone confessionals, in which dazed wanderers interpret the Delphic Oracle’s “Know thyself” as an injunction to post their weight automatically to Facebook with newfangled watches. It’s fragmentary and alienating, but at the same time is intolerant of distance or unknowing. It is a dark digital age.

**

In reading this editorial, I came to realize that my interest in Han was born largely out of honing my own perspective in stark contrast to his critique, and this leads me to posit and argue for a counter-balancing position that I’ll call digital humanism.

I like the way that Han brings Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence into dialog with Buddhism and Taoism, and I find him to be a sensitive and cogent expositor of texts, even if he is not a profound theoretician. And I find his critique of techno-culture refreshing, surrounded as I am by so-called futurists, technology optimists and Utopians. The further you get from Silicon Valley, it seems, the more critical and conservative you find the prevailing attitudes about Internet culture. Stuart Brand, Ray Kurzweil and Mark Zuckerberg are of California, while Han is of Western Europe.

Where I differ sharply with Han is his anti-humanist posture. In Han’s account, technology is not a means to human ends; it is something that happens to people, like the weather. It shapes and binds us to certain channels and procedures, but it doesn’t liberate us or put us into contact with knowledge or ideas.

This is only half of the dialectic, and by studiously ignoring the uses to which intentional actors put technology makes a caricature of modern digital culture.

My own studies of culture, philosophy, and history have been enormously augmented by information technology. The gains are so pervasive and profound, it would be an exercise in the obvious to catalog them. I’ll just note as one of countless examples that the free, instantaneous availability of several German newspapers allowed me to discover Han’s critiques, and this blog is where I can publicly respond.

If Han can only regard media culture in the light of its systemic effects and its constraints on human agents, and he can make no allowance for human agency or design, then surely we must ask, who is the nihilist here?

As a counterpoint to the digital anti-humanism that Han embraces, I suggest a digital humanism, which values technology insofar as it is a means to legitimate and moral human purposes.

There is a long tradition among European intellectuals of demonizing technology, visible in the work of theorists such as Marx, Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Heidegger. But technology can liberate as well as bind, and can open as well as close. Technology is not a mere accidental accretion of human civilization, it is a product and tool of human endeavor and deliberation. It cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, disregarding the uses to which it is put.

We can critique technology without rejecting human agency and value, just as we can value technology without subcoming to blind Utopianism. It begins by reflectively evaluating our own values and needs, and considering the uses to which we put technology in our own lives.

Know thy digital self, and monitor where your hours go.

Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm