Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Trouble With Technocentricity

Too much technocentric discourse seems to me to be premised on the false confusion of the plurality of actually existing and actually emerging technologies with a vast abstraction called "Technology (in general)." Connected to this confusion, too much technocentric discourse also seems to me to be premised on the false confusion of the plurality of actually existing and actually emerging technical developments, ongoing and anticipated technoscientific changes with a vast abstraction called "Development" or, worse, "Progress" (in the sense of a "naturalized" progressive techno-teleological tendency or even Destiny).

Perhaps the confusion of technologies for Technology is facilitated by a more fundamental lack of clarity about the ways in which even a properly pluralized understanding of given technologies will often still fail nonetheless to distinguish artifacts from techniques as well as from the still more complex historical and cultural articulation of personal and collective capacities. It should surely be part of the work of serious technocentric discourse to remind us of these sorts of differences, at least where they make a difference, and to chart the complexities of the emerging technodevelopmental terrain in ways that are sensitive to the different entailments of such differences. Instead, too much technocentric discourse assumes a perspective of generality that facilitates the reduction of these many differences to the terms of just one aspect or other, or a perspective from which these differences vanish altogether or at any rate can be readily trivialized (as, for example, the effetely frivolous or even nihilistic concerns of "relativist intellectuals" in "The Humanities" who lack the solid stolid seriousness of he-man science types still committed by all appearances, flabbergastingly enough, to consequentialist, reductionist, and naïve realist vocabularies of various sorts).

Perhaps the confusion of changes for Development is facilitated by a more fundamental lack of clarity about the ways in which even a properly pluralized understanding of historical and planetary technoscientific changes will often still fail nonetheless to grasp the extent to which the situational dynamic of these changes is driven as much (and often more) by the shifting exigencies of the social, cultural, and political contexts of these changes as by the prevailing state of the art, scientific consensus, and so on (that the instrumental, scientific, engineering conditions are themselves articulated by social, cultural, and political exigencies on their own terms should also go without saying, although technocentricity in its most attention-grabbing variations also regularly disdains even this basic understanding). It should surely be part of the work of serious technocentric discourse to remind us that emancipatory progress (in its technoscientific dimensions quite as much as its political and social ones), such as it is, is always a collaborative achievement rather than some spontaneous stepwise unfolding of logical implications. Further, serious technocentric discourse should insist that technoscientific change is never a matter of an indifferent accumulation of logically useful inventions but a complex and proliferating, sometimes inter-implicated but never monolithic, swarm of provisional accomplishments and failures. What is painted too often in the broad brushstrokes of "Development" or "Progress" is in fact a matter of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle consisting of both contested and collaborative efforts of invention, funding, regulation, publication, debate, testing, application, education, appropriation, distribution, and so on, each effort deeply and unpredictably responsive to shifting conditions in the physical, institutional, political, cultural, and even intimately inter-personal environments in which they take place. It is responsive to the exigencies of advantage, resistance, fashion, ambition, rivalry, intrigue, economy, passion, inspiration, and forever bedeviled and bedazzled by chance.

All this is true, quite obviously, of the facile futurists online who like to attract attention and whomp up apocalyptic panic about the prospect of "Robot Armies" and "Clone Armies" (and in so doing make it incomparably more difficult to talk in a useful way about the actual regulatory quandaries of networked malware, weapons proliferation and automation, informed consensual healthcare decisions related to emerging genetic and prosthetic medicine, and so on), or who would whomp up religious enthusiasms about the prospect of Digital Immortality and Nanobot Superabundance (failing, in the first instance, to grasp that life is lived in bodies, come what may, and hence that a digital existence, whatever that might be, would not properly be the thing we mean by a "lived life," however prolonged it might be; and, in the second instance, failing to recall that scarcity is already maintained artificially and for political reasons here and now and hence that poverty is not a problem susceptible of a strictly technoscientific solution but one that demands democratic political will most of all). But these sorts of figurative and conceptual oversimplifications and derangements also saturate a great deal of presumably serious technocentric academic discourse as well, and not just online fanboy technofetishists and sub(cult)ural technophiliacs -- especially in too much digital networked media discourse and in too much bioethical discourse.

How often is the topic of so-called "information overload" (treated as some neutral technical notion generally accepted as a "problem of contemporary life" with which "informed" "serious" people must grapple) in academic media discourse as much as in cynical hyperbolic promotional discourse really better understood as simply the anxiety of credentialed incumbents and would-be popular "experts" to the loss of much of their editorial and curatorial authority given the emergence of peer-to-peer formations that do this work as well and more democratically?

How often is the topic of so-called "accelerating development" (sometimes even more hilariously hyperbolized as an "acceleration of acceleration," and, again, treated as some neutral technical notion generally accepted as a "fact of contemporary life" with which "informed" "serious" people must grapple) in academic "technology discourse" as much as in cynical hyperbolic promotional discourse really better understood as simply the increasing volatility of "market" economies exacerbated by confiscatory neoliberal policies of increasing "financialization" of wealth and "informalization" of social support, but as seen from the perspective of the relatively privileged beneficiaries (for now) of these immoral and short-sighted policies or of those who, even more pathetically, identify with these beneficiaries whether they actually number among them or not?

Closely connected to this ideologically useful metaphorical conjuration of a monolithically accelerating development where in fact conditions of incomparably complex and unpredictable technoscientific changes actually prevail is the no less ideologically useful and curiously transcendentalizing metaphorical conjuration of "converging" development (where the projected point of convergence, usually implicitly but surprisingly often explicitly -- at least in some of the more careless and popular versions of the discourse -- is invested with hyperbolically utopian or dystopian, heavenly or hellish, superhumanizing or subhumanizing characteristics) where in fact conditions of incomparably complex and sometimes interestingly inter-implicated technoscientific changes actually prevail.

How often is the topic of so-called biomedical "enhancement" (as usual, sometimes embraced as a dreamy superhumanization, sometimes rejected as a dreaded subhumanization, but, again, as usual, treated as some neutral technical notion generally accepted as a matter "on the developmental horizon" with which "informed" "serious" people must grapple) among academic and thinktank ethicists as much as among Hollywood scriptwriters and popular polemicists really better understood as the parochial and stealthy moralizing condemnation of some actually existing and actually desired human morphologies, capacities, and lifeways (especially certain queer lifeways, certain differently enabled ("disabled") lifeways, and certain experimentalist lifeways (among them, consensual perversions and promiscuities, spiritual disciplines, radical and not-so-radical body modifications, spiritual and recreational drug use, and so on)) all under the presumably universalizing cloak of "health," "harm reduction," or "hygiene" advocacy or, somewhat terrifyingly, in the name of "optimality"?

In each of these cases a particular stakeholder position (or a framing of issues that preferentially benefits a particular stakeholder position) is proposed, via monolithicizing, depoliticizing, instrumentalizing language as if it were a general or even universal problem demanding a comparably general address, a problem that solicits consensus -- as instrumental problems always do, but as moral, esthetic, and political problems rarely do, or do very differently. The key term for me here is "depoliticizing," and it might be helpful as a way to get a handle on what I am talking about to turn here for a moment to Roland Barthes's formulation late in his book Mythologies, in a section entitled, “Myth as Depoliticized Speech.” If you haven't read Barthes it's probably best to follow Barthes's own recommendation and substitute the phrase "bourgeois ideology" wherever he uses the word "myth" here (it's not quite the same thing, but you would need to read the whole book to get the benefit of making the distinction):
[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology… What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined… by the way in which men [sic] have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality… The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature[.]

Most of the book Mythologies consists of a series of short essaylets in which Barthes offers up interpretations of a host of phenomena, popular icons, mass-mediated events, general attitudes, and so forth. In each essay he exposes the way something that is actually a contingent and specific product of historical circumstances (which arrived as a consequence of a trackable history of collective collaboration and contestation, any episode of which might easily have turned out quite differently, and which continues just as likely, therefore, to remain radically open to contestation and reform in the ongoing social struggle of history) has been posited as and come more widely to assume the status of the natural, the inevitable, the taken-for-granted, the best of all possible worlds, the best workable solution, and so on. Especially interesting for technocentric discourse is the fact that there is a sort of book-within-the-book in Mythologies, in which Barthes corrals together a series of essays that explore technoscientific and technodevelopmental themes in particular, offering up readings of Verne, Einstein, plastic products, an anonymous supersonic test-pilot, and so on, in each demonstrating how transcendentalizing, hyper-individualizing, reductionistic framings of popular technoscientific discourse serves very bourgeois ends, inculcating the work ethic, cynicism, hyper-individualism, conformism, consumerism, circumscription of imagination, reliance on elites, and so on. That is to say, Barthes proposes that bourgeois futurology (I would say "neoliberal" politics, or the politics of "incumbency" instead of the now unfashionable "bourgeois" politics) ironically naturalizes and so consolidates the notional and institutional buttresses for the maintenance and amplification of the bourgeois status quo, a paradox I often refer to myself as "retro-futurism."

It is crucial to grasp that the depoliticization (via abstraction, reduction, instrumentalization, naturalization) of the actually contingent and plural stakeholder situation of technodevelopmental social struggle is doubly anti-democratizing: first, because it preferentially benefits already incumbent and elite stakeholder positions in particular, inasmuch as these are the ones best situated to substitute their parochial perspective for a more general one and, second, because, in a very straightforward sense depoliticization is inherently anti-democratizing. This is because democratic politics is defined and impelled at the most basic level by a desire for the deepest and widest possible politicization and repoliticization of the terms of the given and shared world as possible, as a matter of course, whatever concrete outcomes particular democratically-minded people also happen to advocate in the spirit of democratization. Whatever its institutional implementation, whatever its campaigns and preoccupations from epoch to epoch, democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, democratization is the widening and deepening of that participation and that say, and anti-democratization is its denigration or frustration. When Jamais Cascio, for example, advocates not only for particular outcomes that he believes to be more sustainable, more fair, and more democratic, but also more generally devotes himself to advocating what he describes as an "opening of the future," it seems to me that he (the rarest of professional futurists) grasps the importance of this distinction very well.

It feels especially good to mention Jamais Cascio in this connection, and by way of conclusion, because this allows me to make a few summarizing points nearly simultaneously. I spend a lot of my time on Amor Mundi deriding would-be professional futurists and sub(cult)ural technophiliacs who often seem to fancy themselves far- and forward-thinking even when their political worldviews are not easily distinguishable from that of nineteenth century social darwinists, eugenicists, and free-marketeers and even when their most regularly reiterated interests tend to be so firmly lodged in the competitive position of current corporate-military elites. But the fact remains that technodevelopmental social struggle really is in my view the most urgent, dangerous, and promising terrain for radical, democratizing, Green, consensual planetary politics in our own time. The fact remains that it makes perfect sense in my view that the "discourse of technology" would be invested with the personal and collective dread and wish-fulfillment of a diverse humanity deranged and traumatized and whipped up into an uncritical frenzy by unprecedented powers, threats, and changes and that all this properly demands our most serious, careful, urgent attentions. The fact remains that there seems to me to be an exciting, vitally important emerging technoprogressive mainstream in the United States of America and across the planet knitting together what might initially have seemed to be disparate concerns into an ever more unified, ever more popular, ever more emancipatory movement, conjoining (a) democratic and anti-authoritarian education, agitation, and organizing via peer-to-peer networked formations, (b) research, funding, and institutionalization of decentralized and renewable energy provision, (c) advocacy of universal informed nonduressed consensual recourse to emerging genetic and prosthetic medicines, (d) championing universal education to promote critical, literary, scientific, and civic literacy, (e) defending the right of women to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies as well as to make recourse to ARTs to facilitate wanted ones, (f) circumventing technodevelopmental wealth concentration via automation, outsourcing, and crowdsourcing through the advocacy of a non-means-tested universal basic income guarantee, (g) overturning militarist budgetary priorities, regulating the trade in and use of arms of all kinds, dismantling private armies and policing forces, repudiating the ongoing automation and abstraction of death-dealing, and (h) turning the tide of confiscatory intellectual enclosure by encouraging access to free creative content through public subsidy of citizen participation in networks, universal public access requirements for research funded by the public, limiting current legal copyright terms, widening fair use provisions, radically circumscribing state, corporate, and academic practices of secrecy, and repudiating the legal fiction of corporate personhood.

Given all this, I clearly think that what is wanted is more, not less, technocentricity in theory, in criticism, in analysis, in policy, in commentary, and so on, and my frustrations with so many would-be futurologists and technocentric polemicists is precisely that they seem to enable and exacerbate the worst of the confusions and complacencies it should be their work to disable and diminish. What is wanted, it seems to me, is more technoprogressive technocentricity, pluralizing rather than reductionist, politicizing rather than naturalizing, social rather than instrumental, peer-to-peer rather than authoritarian, consensual rather than neutral, open rather than optimal, Green rather than corporate-militarist, democratizing rather than elitist. I can't say that I always agree with every little thing Jamais Cascio says, and I certainly wouldn't want to saddle him with the insinuation that he agrees with anything I say, but I will say that he is a widely respected, popular, professional "futurist" who comes pretty close to demonstrating both the possibility and usefulness of something like a technoprogressive technocentricity in the sense I mean. (And I'll bet that to the extent that he did agree with the things that I am saying here, he would say them more clearly than I'm managing to do.)

Although I spend so much of my time ridiculing the facile retro-futurism of so much "serious" or would-be serious futurological discourse (especially in what I critique as its pernicious Superlative and Sub(cult)ural Modes) and so it is easy to come away with the mistaken impression that I would be happiest if the whole absurd largely self-appointed Futurological Congress would shut down altogether this is the farthest thing from what I want, really. What I want is less reductionist, naturalizing, transcendentalizing, hyperbolizing, instrumentalizing, depoliticizing, corporate-militarist, prescriptively optimizing futurism and retro-futurism.

If Wilde Were a Futurist…

I had one of those curious net-immersed serendipities this morning, when I came upon this rather shattering opening sentence of what was otherwise, for me, a pretty crappy and conventional article:
Someday, the only difference between the rich and the poor will be the amount of advertising they're subjected to.

Caveats aside, nuances demanded, that pithy little brickbat snagged something really useful, I think.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

There Is No Such Thing As Technology

I make this point incessantly here on Amor Mundi, but it's clearly time to make it yet again.

Many self-identified technoprogressive folks I admire enormously otherwise regularly say what seem to me to be utterly mystifying things to the effect that they are "champions of technology" and that this championing arrays them against villainous others -- usually described as "luddites" or "technophobes" -- who "oppose technology" with a deadly ferocity equal to the passion of the goodly would-be champions. The stakes of this confrontation are, to all appearances, enormously high for those who are invested in talking this way. Likewise, many self-identified environmentalist folks I admire enormously (not all of whom are technoprogressive, self-identified or otherwise) regularly say what seem to me to be equally mystifying things to the effect that "technology causes more problem than it solves" and that, therefore, "more technology is the last thing we need" right about now.

I know how to draw a pinhead droplet of nectar from a honeysuckle blossom, and I can draw a reasonably common-sensible proposition easily enough from each these formulations as well: "Don't uncritically or reflexively prefer the status quo over needed intervention out of what amounts to the complacency or timidity of privilege." And: "Don't confuse hypothetical technofixes with actually-existing solutions to actually-existing problems." See how easy that was? But setting all that aside for a moment I think it probably better repays our attention to direct it here to the incredibly problematic underlying premise on which both of these formulations (before my reasonable retroactive reconstructions of them) deeply depend for most of their actual force.

You see, the problem is that there is, after all, no such thing as "technology."

To say otherwise is, as often as not, a straightforward matter of confusing "technologies" for "Technology."

There is, one might usefully say, a general discourse of technology, a discourse through which, through a shifting proliferating swarm of developmental pathways, some artifice gets called "technology" while other artifice does not. This usually seems to have something to do with what happens personally or more generally to be more or less "familiar" or "unfamiliar" to people. It often responds to symptomatic investments of fears and fantasies of agency (omnipotence/impotence) that historically, often accidentally, come to encrust certain kinds of made things more than others ("next generation" medicine, humanoid automatons, fast vehicles, megascale engineering projects, and so on).

But there is no such thing as "technology in general."

There is no such thing as "technology in general" to champion or to fear.

There is no such thing as "technology in general" to be "pro-" or "con-" for.

There is no such thing as "technology in general" the championing of which or battling against which then, inevitably enough, provides the rationale for some people to assign to themselves the status of "defender of civilization" or "savior of humanity."

There is no such thing as "technology in general" either solving more or less problems than "it" causes.

Problems are specific and diverse, needs are specific and diverse, stakes are specific and diverse, the positions from which problems, needs, and stakes are grasped and articulated are also specific and diverse.

I think the term "Technology" is like the terms "Reason" or "Action," as when people actually offer up bland vacuities like "Let Us Now Apply Reason!" or "Let Us Now Act!" in the face of some concrete complex quandary and then pretend (or even actually believe?) that there is something practically useful or distinctive about such a recommendation at that level of generality. These are all thin, glacial, mountain-top abstractions, miles and miles away from connecting to contestatory specificities in anything like a useful way.

These formulations almost always derange deliberation, whatever position one assumes within these debates. Even the ungainly phrase "technodevelopmental social struggle," which I have been trying to steer people to here on Amor Mundi as a way of articulating these issues that is alive to their breadth, intensity, inter-implication, while always directing us to the actually existing scene of concrete, plural, ongoing stakeholder contestation of this field, maybe even this ungainly phrase is, despite my efforts and intentions, still too abstract and monolithic.

Come what may, I do think insisting on the phrasing "technodevelopmental social struggle" is a salutary effort to resist the facile and ultimately conservative ("retro-futurist") rhetoric of "natural progress," of "autonomous technology," or of "neoliberal innovation" (ie, confiscatory wealth concentration). Even better, because so much simpler, may be the straightforward expedient of never confusing what are always particular technologies among many more for Technology "as such" or "in general."

MundiMuster! John Edwards on the Trojan Elephant

My favorite candidate for the Democratic Nomination, John Edwards, has set up a petition to oppose the recent Republican dirty-tricks ballot initiative that would selectively dismantle the winner-take-all system in California (but nowhere else) to benefit only Republicans and therefore steal yet another Election. Progressives have, of course, long criticized and struggled to reform this system in an effort to actually better democratize Presidential politics, but just not in the oafish ugly selectively partisan way of the dirty-tricksters.

To sign or find out more about the petition, go here.
There's a partisan power grab going on in California-and we need your help today to stop it.

Republican lawyers and wealthy insiders, working behind the scenes, are trying to rig the entire national election system in favor of their presidential candidate by changing California election laws.

Under their cynical scheme, California's Electoral College votes will be divvied up to the winner of each Congressional district, rather than following the "winner-take-all" system that is the standard in 48 states, including Republican strongholds like Texas and Utah.

Our political process badly needs reform, including public funding of campaigns, greater voter participation and less lobbyist influence in Washington. But we don't need dirty tricks by Republicans desperate to gain and maintain the status quo.

John Edwards is asking you to join us in standing up for political fairness-and to put an end to this blatant attempt to manipulate the result of the 2008 presidential election. Join thousands of other concerned Californians in signing the petition opposing this ballot initiative.


Help us send a message to these political operatives that their Karl Rove tactics will not work. We, the people, will not allow you to get away with this naked partisan power grab.

Please sign the petition-and encourage your family and friends to sign as well. There's power in numbers and, together, we can end the attempt by these special interests to put yet another of their own in the White House next year.


Thank you for your support.

Abundance Without Fairness and Sustainability Is False Abundance

I didn't like Bill McKibben's book Enough very much but I liked his more recent book Deep Economy much more. I wouldn't go so far as to say that these two books starkly represent bioconservative versus technoprogressive framings of the same planetary dilemmas, but I will say that it was the bioconservativism of the first that I disliked and it is the technoprogressivism of the second that I liked. The rhetorical and political relations between the two books are more complex when all is said and done than that might seem to suggest but there it is. For more on these two idiosyncratic terms, by the way, bioconservative and technoprogressive, see this essay.

Anyway, I mention all this just because a friend recently forwarded an article to me from Spiked Online (how he has time to read that site when there are far more reliably progressive sites widely available for better discussions of these topics is a bit beyond me -- but the reading habits of dem-left futurists never fail to perplex me... many of them still take seriously or even defend ugly-minded imbeciles like Tom Friedman, William Safire, Virginia Postrel, and Glenn Reynolds when almost no sensible progressives I know otherwise still waste their time on these corporatist shills), and this article is, among other things, a critical review of McKibben's book and a few others making complementary points. The article disgusted and infuriated me, and to get a taste of the reasons why let me offer up two representative quotations and register my reactions and you can go on from there. (It's week one of the new term, by the way: busy, busy, busy!)
Our ancestors struggled for a world where we could take abundant food, clean water and adequate shelter for granted. Not only have we achieved these goals, at least in the developed world, but modern technology and economic organization have improved our lives hugely.

"At least in the developed world." Uh-huh. Now re-read that bit about "our ancestors," and that bit about how "we could take abundant food, clean water, and adequate shelter for granted," and how "we achieved these goals," and "improved our lives." Sorry to be Captain Bringdown, but there are of course millions upon millions upon millions of people who can't take any of this "abundance" for granted in the least, and this isn't because they are sad atavisms along the developmental trajectory for which relatively rich North Atlantic people happen to represent some natural culmination, the self-congratulatory climax of "prosperity/modernity" and the rest, but very much and very directly in consequence of centuries' longstanding and still ongoing confiscation, exploitation, and violence.
And yet the prospect of everyone having access to the best the world has to offer is commonly seen as an environmental nightmare rather than a worthwhile goal.

This is, to be blunt, an ugly idiotic lie. Environmentalists know that "the best the world has to offer" (you know, the rhinestone encrusted cellphones, craptacular already crumbling "Tuscan" McMansions, the identically ugly refrigerator-box shaped cars we presumably all covet) is simply too much for the world to be able to offer for long even to those privileged few who presently irresponsibly do enjoy it (many of them without much actual enjoyment by all appearances) and is absolutely not sustainably scalable to "everyone" on these terms or via these institutional formations. That is a very different sort of claim from the expression of general hostility to prosperity, or modernity, or civilization that it is often identified as by those who cling desperately to and spin desperately for the status quo even as we careen toward the sheer cliff-face of pointless extinction from it.

One can easily grasp and affirm this sort of point about the widespread psychic dissatisfactions and the structural unsustainability of the idealized "lifestyles" of the so-called "developed world" while still maintaining that there is in fact quite a lot of absolutely unnecessary and easily addressable suffering, ignorance, and social constraint in the world, all of which could be cheaply, immediately, and sustainably redressed (even without Robot Armies! Nanosantas! Immortality Pills! Cyberheaven! at our disposal yet). That is to say, one can easily decry the nightmare of false abundance and artificial scarcity on which the present unjust unsustainable undemocratic distribution of "developmental" cost, risk, and benefit depends, while at once championing the desirability and attainability of real abundance here and now and in futures worth working our way to together.

Monday, August 27, 2007

BTW, About the "Deal"

Harry Reid needs to set up a pro forma session of the Senate right now, or to implement some other workaround measure, since I fully expect Cheneynegans are forthcoming (as would literally anybody with any sense at this point). Although the official Gonzales resignation date may indeed reflect "the deal" Reid presumably made with Bush that there would be no Recess Appointments so that all our hardworking elite exemplars of "market discipline" can go on vacation, one has to assume that "the deal" (a facile gesture of "bipartisanship" with gangsters that already played into the catastrophically rushed Democratic FISA capitulation in my view) is circumventable in "extraordinary circumstances" which are sure to include pretty much any made up bullshit the conservatives say they do. The flabbergasting suggestion that the "gut feelings" of Michael Chertoff might be directing the Attorney General's office for what remains of the Criminal Clown College Administration's term suggests that, once again, as happened already when Abu Gonzales succeeded the calico-cat phobic John Ashcroft in the first place, things really can always get worse when it comes to Bush/Cheney, and that cronies can literally never fail too catastrophically to fall ever upward when gang loyality is the only thing that matters.

From Superficial "Scalps" to Deep Ideology-Critique

The recent resignations of Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales, after so many others, has prompted this comment by Chris Bowers over at Open Left:
With [the] obvious exceptions of Bush and Cheney themselves, since the midterms virtually every major Bush administration figure involved in a major scandal has been forced out….

My first reaction to this list is note that Democratic electoral success and subsequent investigations have led to a significant amount of resignations, but has not resulted in a significant change in Bush administration policy. I think this is connected to progressive campaigns against the Bush administration focusing on individuals committing criminal, incompetent, and unethical acts, rather than on a core set of values as to how government should be run….

We get the scalps from the criminals, the incompetent, and the unethical, but we are not changing the policies. I think this is a demonstration of the weakness of the anti-ideological argument many have pushed on the Democratic side for these past few years, not to mention serves as another example of the general ineffectiveness of technocratic liberalism when faced with the ideological, conservative movement. It isn't just about Bush, Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld or Gonzales. It is about a different vision for the way government should function, and the values that are at the core of those visions. We are not doing a very good job of articulating our values in these disputes, and so we end up with a lot of scalps, but also with very little change in the operation of the federal government itself.

Bowers is certainly right, and this basic difficulty will only be exacerbated when the Bush Administration has finally been eclipsed for good and the left discovers to its appalled shock that the personalizing focus on Bush and Cheney themselves over the last half-decade (understandable enough given just how flabbergastingly awful all these scoundrels and imbeciles have been personally) rather than on the deeply and insistently inculcated neoliberal and libertopian assumptions of the incumbent corporate-militarist establishment that brought us this Republican Rogues Gallery in the first place (not to mention any number of corporatist partisan Democrats, I'm afraid) will have left these dumb devastating dominant narratives relatively unscathed in the aftermath.

The True Believers of market fundamentalism will still intone their poisonous pieties without pause. They will continue to genuflect toward a never-existing "spontaneous order" whose "natural" efficiencies yield only best outcomes and which is always only hampered by "government interference" when, indeed, it is governmental articulation, regulation, and enforcement of production and trade protocols that bring "market orders," such as they are, into being as such. They will continue to defend the right of fictive "corporate persons" to lie in their advertising in the name of "free expression," to externalize social costs in the name of "liberty," to confiscate commonwealth in the name of "innovation," to enforce unaccountability in the name of "privacy," all the while denying and disabling these values for actually-existing persons. They will still demand deregulation without end (pretending that this is not the call for lawlessness that it quite obviously is), they will still champion the privatization of infrastructure and public services (pretending that this is not the call for looting and elite unaccountability that it quite obviously is), they will still deride the democratizing promise of general welfare while demanding welfare for the already rich stealthed as "defense," even when its impact is mostly disastrously destabilizing (pretending that this is not the elitist class warfare that it quite obviously is), and so on.

A vanishingly small minority of self-styled "intellectuals," mostly inexperienced online dupes who have swallowed the hook of an Ayn Rand potboiler or one of Hayek's suave marketeer meditations will earnestly mean what they say when they say these things, sad to say, and for these there is always the hope that they might accidentally trip over some feature of the actual world while their nose is stuck in one of their castles-in-the-air manifestoes and that they will come to their senses eventually (hey, it happened to the kid who happened to be me two decades ago), but the overabundant majority of free marketeers are either cynical opportunists spewing rhetorical cover for ongoing confiscatory wealth concentration from which they benefit or imagine that they will likely eventually benefit, or are pampered thoughtless beneficiaries of these policies who comfortably and uncritically mouth prevailing platitutes, come what may, however senseless, insulated (they imagine, probably falsely) from consequence by a slick soap bubble of privilege.

Be that as it may, be assured that the complacent establishment, certainly the wingnut thinktanks (all Very Serious), and the corporate media will be utterly undaunted by the catastrophic failures, the corruption, and the criminality that has ensued from the concrete implementation of their actual "ideas" in the long night of Movement Conservatism in America and neoliberalism around the globe -- indeed, they will regard (or opportunistically claim to do) these failures as failures to completely implement their ideology, demanding always only ever more of the same, never discerning in the worldly devastation they author the impact of their otherworldly faith in "natural markets" or "natural elites" with which they happen to identify -- the two faiths are inextricable with one another.

It is this neoliberal/libertopian faith that must be decisively demolished if the world is to learn the lesson of the Bush Administration as the climax of the neoliberal era and to usher in an urgently necessary planetary progressive era in its stead. Although the point of Bowers's comment is to castigate the dem-left blogosphere for its superficial satisfaction with forced resignations and its failure to popularize the necessary critique of neoliberal and libertopian ideology, and although I think Bowers's comment is a welcome and necessary one, it is also right to say that, as far as I can tell at least, this task of articulating and communicating ideological critiques of neoliberalism while articulating and communicating planetary progressive alternatives has nonetheless been taken up most forcefully by the democratic-left blogosphere, such as it is. It is the planetary progressive netroots that are getting the word out at last where well-meaning others in the academy and among genuinely progressive traditional institutions have failed to do for generations now even while their work has been righteous. Peer-to-peer networked democracy (especially as it is connected with emerging planetary Green consciousness and organizing, in my view) is the best and most promising force on offer to shatter the corporate-militarist crust of convention the academic and activist democratic-left has been hacking away at too fruitlessly for too long and to inspire the education, agitation, and organizing for a more democratic, sustainable, diverse, consensual, progressive planet.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Dispatches from Libertopia: "Market Discipline" in the Upper Crust Edition

Here are a few choice excerpts, posted without comment, from an article in today's Guardian by Will Hutton:
One of the most inequitable and amoral acts in modern times is happening in front of our eyes…[: A] multi-billion dollar bail-out of global finance after one of the most reckless periods of lending and deal-making since the late 1920s….

Little people's taxes are underwriting the mistakes of big people, who in the process have made riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Globalisation, it is now clear, is run in the interests of a global financial class which has Western governments in its thrall. This class does not give a fig for the interests of savers, clients or wider workforces….

Interpol should make arrests in New York, London, Tokyo, Beijing, Frankfurt and Paris, starting with all the executives in the credit-rating agencies who blithely ranked the debt as creditworthy in exchange for fat fees and freebies from the very banks who were making the absurd loans. Governments should bring suits against the executives involved, [and seize] the repositories of vast personal wealth, to help repair the hole in private and public balance sheets.

Read the whole piece here. I love the smell of revolution in the morning, don't you?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Thursday, August 23, 2007

GWOT Against Green

It seems to me that an enormous amount of the cultural and rhetorical energy that drives the so-called Global War on Terror (and GWOT Consciousness) here and now is that it functions as a direct counterweight to contemporary planetary Green Consciousness.

The Global War on Terror mimes the contours and rhetorical figures of planetary peer-to-peer Green consciousness: GWOT offers itself up as a response to a presumably "global existential threat," imagery that derives its intuitive plausibility in no small part from the disseminated consciousness of the threat of extractive industrial toxicity and catastrophic climate change. What is extraordinary in this is not just that the GWOTs would substitute for the urgent threats that invigorate Greens what seems to me to be a less urgent threat in fact (which is obviously not to deny the reality of some of the threats GWOT clumsily addresses itself to), but that GWOT relies in substance, as it were parasitically, on the Green awareness of the very threat it would then displace from our attention. And all the while, GWOT False Consciousness appropriates and diverts the energies of Green consciousness into precisely contrary political movements.

GWOT always only bolsters incumbent corporate-military interests where Green consciousness, properly speaking, always only threatens them instead. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the threat to incumbent interests of emerging planetary Green consciousness can only be compared in its scope to the palpable threat of Revolutionary Socialism to such interests over a century ago. (And, of course, for the rest of us, the promise!)

Planetary Green consciousness undermines at the deepest level, and effectively for the first time in generations, the classical assumptions of liberal and neoliberal political economy. The false (neo)liberal characterization of personal rationality as that of an endlessly avaricious "maximizer" cannot long withstand the demand of Green rationality for sustainable and resilient commonwealth. The false (neo)liberal model of the person as a rugged individual torn from the fabric of shared and inherited worldly life cannot long withstand the awareness of a Green rationality alert to long-term and systemic risks and costs facilitated by short-term and parochial profit-seeking.

Planetary Green consciousness encourages global co-operation to solve actually shared problems with responsible consensus science where GWOT False Consciousness encourages interminable international military and multinational corporate competitiveness, with all their attendant secrecies, cynicisms, confiscatory proprieties, and anti-democratizing hierarchies in tow. It is, to be sure, the furthest thing from an accident that the concept of commons is definitive to both Green politics and peer-to-peer politics.

Planetary Green consciousness is inspired by proposals for renewable and resilient decentralized forms of energy provision -- from proliferating rooftop solar panels and backyard windmills to mass-transit systems -- where GWOT is still devoted to heavy centralized extractive petrochemical resources obtained through military conquest as well as to unclean coal (clean coal is a corporatist lie) and Big Nuclear (there is nothing utopian about radioactive waste) always captured and distributed through vastly expensive hierarchical infrastructures owned and operated by incumbent corporate elites.

Planetary Green consciousness is completely hostile to the (bio)piratical impulse to propertize and commoditize personal morphology, genetic idiosyncrasy, and multicultural archives in an effort to ramp up confiscatory wealth concentration for incumbent elites, while GWOT is all-too-eager to assimilate every imaginable individual and indigenous resistance to such appropriation to the ranks of "terrorist sympathy" and hence, potentially, to the status of "enemy combatant" bereft of legible rights and protections.

GWOT Against Green is nothing short of the contemporary face of revolutionary struggle.

And be assured, this is a profoundly technodevelopmental social struggle. It is a struggle not only over the ownership of the means but also over the mode of production. It is a struggle for which the parallel and at once inter-implicated struggle of democratizing peer-to-peer formations as against hierarchical broadcast formations cannot possibly dismissed as "merely cultural" but is quite palpably at the heart of its revolutionary ethos and energy (and, I will add, of its unprecedented hope).

To the extent that p2p/a2k (peer-to-peer/open access to knowledge) formations of education, agitation, and organizing are the ones that actually articulate popular planetary Green movement in this struggle against corporate-military GWOT elites notice that this is cause for extraordinary hopefulness, since this means that there is no easy rationale this time around for revolutionary avant-gardism with all its attendant authoritarian paraphernalia, no strong structural inducement for the poisonous and anti-democratizing division of educational from agitational labor that has seized and subverted democratic revolutionary energies so many times before now.

I maintain that planetary Green consciousness -- in its current form -- was inaugurated through the mass-mediated image of the earth as seen from space, in all its wholeness and fragility, and that it continues to be invigorated especially through the people-powered education, agitation, and organization of planetary peer-to-peer networked formations, most forcefully by those movements devoted to the intimate connection of environmental with social justice struggles. This is so, because (among other things), the concrete situational testimony of the people themselves to health problems, infrastructural stresses, externalized environmental costs and risks of corporate profiteering, and so on that are facilitated by peer-to-peer networks and practices (which, taken together, constitute what I call p2p formations) are uniquely able to circumvent the fraudulent manipulations of data and barriers to research of corporate and state-military agencies (consider, for example, the excellent climate science blog Real Climate), meanwhile the dispersed critical, practical, and imaginative intelligence of differently interested and invested people themselves can be co-ordinated and directed in unprecedented ways by means of the same peer-to-peer formations as an incomparable resource to which we might make recourse in our efforts to solve hitherto intractable shared environmental problems on a planetary scale (consider, for example, the extraordinary policy proposals of the online p2p "think tank" Energize America).

American Gladiators Redux

Well, I can't be sure of course that anything like a majority of my serious and somewhat scholarly readership will necessarily be as interested in this as I was, but I just saw, via dlisted, that NBC is bringing back 90s classic (and I mean "classic" here in the sense that would apply just as precisely to the International Male Undergear Catalog, for example) American Gladiators as a midseason replacement.

One word: Nitro!

Dispatches from Libertopia: Who Is John Galt? Edition

Digby, Atrios, and many others are already laughing at this, and I can't help but join in the hilarity as well. Excerpted, via the NYT. No comment necessary, but I'll provide a nicely summarizing slogan at the end, anyway:
The John Galt Corporation of the Bronx, hired last year for the dangerous and complex job of demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, where two firefighters died last Saturday, has apparently never done any work like it…. John Galt, it appears, is not much more than a corporate entity meant to accommodate the people and companies actually doing the demolition job at the emotionally charged and environmentally hazardous site at the edge of ground zero.

The companies and project managers who have been providing the expertise, the workers and the financing for the job are Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Company, which is not in business to demolish skyscrapers, and former executives from Safeway Environmental Corporation, a company that was already removed from one contract at 130 Liberty because of concerns about its integrity.

Safeway first surfaced on the scene at 130 Liberty when it, along with Regional Scaffolding, won a $13 million scaffolding contract in 2005 for the bank building. But Safeway... had a troubled history. [Former owner] Greenberg... has gone to federal prison twice for crimes related to the industry. Identified by federal investigators as a Gambino crime family associate, he was convicted in 1988 of bribing a federal inspector to overlook asbestos-removal violations.... Three years later he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a bid-rigging scheme involving other contractors.

Captalism = Organized Crime

It's as simple as that.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Dispatches from Libertopia: AT&T Censorship

Inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt to our would-be corporate overlords? You should read more: AT&T Admits It Edited Webcasts Before Pearl Jam's.

Dispatches from Libertopia: Mine, Mine, Mine!

Here's a snippet from another indispensable essay on The Big Con by Rick Perlstein. Peer-to-peer democracy is connecting the dots and pushing back, and even partisan democrats will soon follow -- that is to say, if corporate-militarist market-fundamentalist neoconservative Republicans and neoliberal Democrats don't manage to destroy the whole damn country first. The whole essay is excellent, but I'll zero in on one corner of the picture Perlstein paints due to its tragic topicality:
Coal mining fatalities had been declining since 1926: yes, the last time mine safety was this bad the Charleston was all the rage. Then, in 2006, the most coalminers died than had in any one year in a decade. We're up to the largest percentage increase in 107 years.

Why? How? By formula. They use corporate contributions to weaken government regulations, and to help cripple unions. They wage fierce anti-union jihads to keep workers and their advocates powerless. They violate even existing anemic safety rules, while pushing the mineral seams beyond all earthly limits to squeeze forth just a teensy bit more precious profit.

Then they call the result a "mine accident."

As Perlstein points out again and again (among ever more others in the emerging peer-to-peer democracy of people powered open network politics) this isn't an accident at all, just like the lethal free for all "free-market paradise" of Baghdad Year Zero isn't an accident, just like the unholy hell of crony-capitalist post-Katrina "reconstruction" isn't an accident, just like unprecedented unaccountable mercenary armies at home and abroad aren't an accident, just like bridge collapses and exploding sewers in cities and states helmed by anti-tax mayors and governors aren't an accident, just like e-coli in vegetables, lethal pet food, tainted meat in canned chili "regulated" by anti-regulation corporate insiders finds its way to store shelves only to be suddenly hysterically recalled as they kill and kill and kill isn't an accident. This is just what happens when the dumb destructive bad ideas and smug self-congratulatory apologias for incumbent privilege and confiscatory wealth concentration that consitute market fundamentalist faith bear their ugly idiotic utterly predictable and catastrophic fruit in the real world.

Dispatches from Libertopia: Bubbles Bursting In Air Edition

I'm in the eye of the hurricane, finalizing grades for the end of Summer term and finalizing syllabi for the beginning of Fall term and so blogging is a bit scattered right about now. Sorry about that!

Surfacing for a split second's gasp for air, I noticed that the incomparable Jerome a Paris, an intellectual force at both the European Tribune and dKos has posted a diary that makes an urgently necessary point in the midst of the present financial distress. I'll excerpt it, but strongly recommend everybody read it all (it's quite short). Here's his thesis:
The current financial crisis literally begs for the left to reclaim the political initiative and say out loud some hard truths about the devastating economic policies of the past 25 years inflicted upon the world by Reagan and Thatcher with the support of the neo-libs and the rightwing noise machine.

Unless these points are made, the wrong lessons will be drawn from this crash.

Because make no mistake about it, the sole cause of this bubble and its consequences is the feudalist economic ideology of the right.

It pays to remember that no small part of the problem here is that neoliberal orthodoxy has come to define the whole spectrum of American partisan politics, that the "moderate" ever-rightward-drifting wing of the Democratic party (a wing that gets represented in online discourse as the "DLC," which is in fact just one of the symptoms of a broader phenomenon involving the corrupting influence of incumbency in a corporatized and cynical media establishment that enables the right while temperamentally identifying with the left, the very traditional corrupting influence of Machine politics, and many other factors) has an unhealthy disdain for the very idea of good democratic governance that differs in degree not in kind from the disdain of the Movement Conservative Republican party -- a disdain that has been tempered in the Democrats mostly by the fact that they remain beholden to embattled labor and to professional associations connected with the humanities (teachers, lawyers, caregivers, and so on), and which is now, fortunately, confronting the transformative energies of the people-powered politics of digital networks.

Anyway, while it is clearly the Republican party that identifies most ferociously with idiotic market fundamentalist rationales for confiscatory wealth concentration and unaccountable incumbency, it is crucial to realize that the "mainstream" Anglo-American left has been suffused with the same ideology as the right all the while pretending to represent an organized alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy, thereby helping to silence and demoralize real efforts to educate, agitate, and organize alternatives.

This matters, because the partisan left still lags far behind the open networked left (else, would we still be in Iraq, else would we still lack single-payer healthcare, else would Bush tax cuts for the rich remain in force?) and so it is vitally necessary that we make very basic rhetorical points like the one Jerome a Paris is making here as clearly, as widely, as repeatedly, as loudly as possible. Because however obvious and commonsensical we know the argument for democracy against incumbency to be, and however facile and nonsensical we know the arguments for the "emancipatory efficiencies" of so-called "natural" and "spontaneous" markets to be, it is simply not the case that many (if any) of the actual representatives and bureaucrats and talking heads who implement policy are anything like on the same page with us yet.

Jerome a Paris lays out the case we must keep in mind:
Blaming rating agencies and computer models, as is being done, or focusing on the bits of data that still look fine (the meaningless unemployment rate, the wealthy-confiscated average growth, the absolute level of the Dow Jones), are just a way to avoid the real debates, the ideological ones: [the debate] over the supposed superiority of the "efficient markets" to drive economic behavior, [the debate] over the insistence that things be valued in dollars (discounted cash flow) or be worthless, [the debate] over the idea that greed is good and leads to socially acceptable outcomes.

Notice the wholesome rhetorical work of this formulation. Quite apart from whether or not democratic commonsense prevails in every argumentative encounter, it is already a key accomplishment to manage to transform what have come to be foundational neoliberal assumptions, taken for granted, beyond question, "only natural" into ongoing debates, with contestable stakes and with demonstrable stakeholders. Precisely because established elites (among them elected representatives and political pundits across the spectrum) have become so utterly habituated to the terms of neoliberal orthodoxy it will always be emancipatory to open them to question (for they are profoundly questionable), even when our own democratic alternatives fail to prevail in a particular debate.

The formulation continues:
The core of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution is that greed (especially that of financiers capturing future cash flows of the real world for their personal, immediate profit) spontaneously improves the common good... and that all regulations and taxes that limit it should be dismantled.

Well, we're about to see the price of that grand collective delusion. But we should not mistake our target. Bankers and financiers should be made to pay for their follies but that is only a small part of it. The big thing is to blame it on the failed, and utterly dangerous, ideology of the efficient-markets/ society-doesn't-exist/ government-is-the-problem crowd.

Otherwise it will start again -- and not only that, but their proposed remedy WILL be lower wages, fewer worker rights, lower taxes and the other usual "reforms."

[T]he fact that a bubble is now publicly acknowledged [even by those who for so long denied it while profiting from it] ensures that there will be a major economic correction, irrespective of whether there is a full financial meltdown or not. There will be pain. There will be calls for bailouts. There will be further pressure on the lower and middle classes to bear the brunt of the price. [My emphasis.] Unless we have a coherent alternative economic discourse on the crisis -- that of strict regulation of the financial world (real regulation, not the busybody but pretend kind like we have right now), financiers and their paymasters, the wealthy, will continue to capture wealth, even as the pie shrinks.

This is exactly right, and it is here that we can grasp the necessity of this sort of primarily interrogative rhetoric. The recommendation of the constructive alternative of "strict regulation of the financial world" is given far less attention here than is the demolition of the terms of the neoliberal orthodoxy that articulated the forces yielding the catastrophe and which is all too likely to provide the basis for the institutional response to that very catastrophe.

It is crucial to recognize that every constructive response will be measured against this neoliberal orthodoxy (and found wanting) until the orthodoxy has been opened to question. So long as we fail to interrogate the assumptions of neoliberal orthodoxy we can expect that incumbents will turn to those very orthodoxies for the solution to the problems generated by their adherence to the same orthodoxy. It's "only natural" that they would do so. This isn't just a matter of scoundrels behaving in self-serving ways (though all too often that is what it amounts to), but a matter of people turning to the analytic tools actually at hand to cope with difficulty.

But, for another thing, it should not seem a negligible or "merely negative" accomplishment to genuinely democratic politics, surely, to break the crust of convention and in so doing open the space for and thereby provoke the critical collaborative problem-solving which will actually yield constructive and positive alternatives. I'll return to this point in a moment.

The piece concludes with a forceful contrasting of neoliberal as against good government worldviews. I know that many will bristle at the emphasis here on "blame" first, on the "negativity" of the case being made (at least, I'm assuming this will be so simply because even many of my most sympathetic readers chastise me for such "negativity" on a regular basis). You will notice that even in the delineation of the "positive" contrast to neoliberal orthodoxy here, the alternatives are first formulated in negative terms (what things are not, before what things should be). I am inclined to say that this is not a mistake but a necessary recognition of the force of the orthodoxy against which radical democracy must address itself, a recognition of the priority of interrogation over construction even in the moment of offering up alternatives. Again, I'll return to this point a bit at the end. For now, let's look at the formulation Jerome a Paris is proposing:
This is what needs to be blamed, again:

[1 T]he ideology of greed…: the idea that being selfish is somehow good for others as it creates more wealth, and thus that unregulated markets are good for society);

[2 T]he idea that only financial valuations give worth to anything…;

[3 T]he notion that wage inflation is bad but not asset price inflation (money going to the poor is bad, money going to the rich is good);

[4 T]he shockingly lax monetary policy of the past decade (when markets go up, fueled by what is essentially easy public money, it's capitalism at work; when markets go down, because of poor investments by the rich, it's a systemic crisis and the rich need to be bailed out or else);

[5 T]he cheerleading… of finance as the new engine of growth and wealth creation (industry, balanced budgets, communities are [castigated as] communist and evil);

[6 T]he unraveling of existing regulations (like Glass-Steagall) in the name of market efficiency, and the corresponding death of those old engineering concepts, resiliency, safety margins, redundancies, and of old old ethical ideas: reputation, community, duty to future generations.

This suggests a very simple political discourse; fighting these above trends with positive messages.

[1] Wealth [Commonwealth?] is not defined by how the richest fare, and should not be counted via how much they accumulate, but only by how the poorest amongst us are doing.

[2] Society is not doing well when the rich get richer, but when communities care for their members, leave no one behind, and do not focus exclusively on how much money one has to rank and judge members. Richer does not mean better. Together is better.

[3] Things built to last are the most valuable, even if they create no profit today. Infrastructure, education, careful nurturing of rare resources are investments that pay for all in the long run and can be handed over to future generations. Many government tasks are investments, not costs.

I think that this sort of "negativity" is simply a basic recognition of the prevailing state of affairs -- pretty much a bare minimum precondition for facing the realities at hand, the real costs and real suffering in the world -- and that anything that would not be denigrated for such "negativity" will too likely function primarily as an apologia for the status quo, however well-intentioned the proponent. I quite understand that the future belongs to those who inspire hope most of all and that "negativity" is not the best thing in our bag of tricks to elicit hope. But, again, it seems to me that the interrogation of customs mistaken for natural inevitabilities and the right assignments of cost and blame for avoidable suffering and injustice function to clear the necessary space in which the people themselves will gather to offer up the diversity of their own "positive" and problem-solving alternatives to the status quo and that this clearing, however negative it may seem to be on the face of it, is better seen as condition of emergence of constructive but also democratizing "positivities."

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Confusing Moralizing for Politics: Notes on the Paranoid Style of Movement Conservatism

In 1964, the year before I was born, the American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote an essay for Harper's, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" which opened with the observation that "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds." He went on: "In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority."

It is fascinating to recall that Hofstadter's classic essay was occasioned by Barry Goldwater's capture of the Republican Presidential nomination, a moment that qualifies reasonably well as the inaugural moment of the Movement Conservatism that went on to bring us Nixon's imperial illegalities, Reagan's sunny confiscations, Gingrich's looting spree and polarization tactics, and has culminated in the unprecedented catastrophes of the current Bush Administration.

It's been hard for me to shake the sense these last few days especially that Hofstadter's piece speaks to our own era far more insistently than it did even to his own. The Movement Conservative periodical Human Events has attracted quite a bit of recent attention for an article that propounds a thesis that has been tingling back in America's lizard brain more generally for months, a thesis summarized by the portentious opening of the article itself: “Quietly but systematically, the Bush Administration is advancing the plan to build a huge NAFTA Super Highway, four football-fields-wide, through the heart of the U.S.”

In response, the progressive periodical The Nation has published an article by Christopher Hayes that exposes the thesis as an extreme right-wing conspiracy theory, but more interestingly, analyzes the thesis as a symptom of America's anxious and confused response to the pressures of neoliberal globalization. Since I offered up a summarizing sentence from the paranoid article, it's only fair that I provide a comparably pithy sentence from the response. Will this one do? "There’s no such thing as a proposed NAFTA Superhighway."

In a post yesterday surveying all this right-wing conspiracist scenery chewing, the always indispensable Digby offered up this immensely useful observation:
I guess this is the predictable re-emergence of the black helicopter crowd now that the Republicans have lost their power. (These conspiracy theorists always seem to go underground when the GOP is in power. My theory is that they switch seamlessly between anti-government conspiracy to cultlike authoritarian leadership worship depending on who's in office.)

She also connects this observation to Glenn Greenwald's powerful recent exposure and ridicule of the paranoid right-wing panic about an imminent "Islamofascist" occupation of the Mall of America, or what have you (a panic that reproduces the same hysterical discursive contours that suffused the various bomb building civil liberty smashing "Red Scares" the parents of the current conservative crowd were catastrophically cheerleading for the latter half of the twentieth century). Greenwald writes:
Every now and then, it is worth noting that substantial portions of the right-wing political movement in the United States -- the Pajamas Media/right-wing-blogosphere/Fox News/Michelle Malkin/Rush-Limbaugh-listener strain -- actually believe that Islamists are going to take over the U.S. and impose sharia law on all of us…. This is an actual fear that they have -- not a theoretical fear but one that is pressing, urgent, at the forefront of their worldview.

And their key political beliefs -- from Iraq to Iran to executive power and surveillance theories at home -- are animated by the belief that all of this is going to happen. The Republican presidential primary is, for much of the "base," a search for who will be the toughest and strongest in protecting us from the Islamic invasion -- a term that is not figurative or symbolic, but literal: the formidable effort by Islamic radicals to invade the U.S. and take over our institutions and dismantle our government and force us to submit to Islamic rule or else be killed.

To return to Richard Hofstadter (all this is available in a Wikipedia entry summarizing the piece):
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms -- he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization... he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated -- if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

What strikes me as particularly relevant here is the observation that the paranoid mindset "does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician… what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish." Hofstadter describes this repudiation of compromise as a repudiation of the attitude of "the working politician," and this phrasing might seem to suggest that the piece counterposes the paranoid style as a "popular" or "mass" phenomenon as against, say, a more reasonable "professional," "learned," or "elite" attitude.

But it seems to me that the problem of the paranoid form of so much American public discourse is not its anti-professionalism (Karl Rove has been a consummate professional purveyor in and of the paranoid style, for example) but what might be described as a deep anti-politicism or even pre-politicism of the form. In a proper democracy every citizen is a "working politician," and the embrace of an attitude of compromise in the face of the contending aspirations of the diversity of peers with whom we all share the world defines the inaugural insight that leads us into political consciousness in the first place.

It is no surprise that the "political philosophy" of Carl Schmitt has been so central to the Neoconservative outlook, given the way Schmitt organized his understanding of the political around the foundation of what he described as the "friend/foe" distinction. It is not merely a matter of precious terminological quibbling to insist that Schmitt's "friend/foe" distinction is in fact at the heart of moral life, but that the political imaginary, properly so-called, is organized by the insight that, in Hannah Arendt's words, "Plurality is the law of the earth."

In my view, the instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, and political dimensions of human life each have their own publics, their own ends, and their own reasonable warrants.

And so, the protocols of publication, peer-review, testability, and consensus define the public of instrumental science which facilitates prediction and control. Practices of identification with "insiders" and disidentification with "outsiders" define the more intimate public of moral life which facilitates community, membership, belonging, and the profound sense of emotional and social support. Contingent standards that formally solicit universal assent define the public of ethical judgment (a formal generality of address to the "decent respect to the opinions of mankind," to "posterity," to the "congress of logically possible rational minds," and comparable grandiloquences, typically making recourse to meta-ethical standards like "utility," "autonomy," or "universal right").

The actual force of the morals/ethics distinction in the present day seems to me to be very much a technoconstituted affair, the substance of which derives, for one thing, from our tangible interdependence with radically different communities that seem inassimilable to one another. That is to say, we turn to ethical considerations to cope with our sense of planetary multiculture, a sense resulting in no small part from our immersion in planetary digital networked media, a sense that is especially amplified by the emerging awareness of environmental crises. For another thing, our turn to ethics derives from our inevitable interpellation into multiple, partial, usually somewhat incompatible moral communities that demand ongoing negotiation and reconciliation through recourse to the generality of ethical judgment. This fragmentation of ready-made moral identification likewise arises in large part in my view from our immersion in planetary digital networked media.

It is crucial to insist, however, that whatever the inevitability and indispensability of these turns to the generality of ethical considerations, this does not eliminate the equally inevitable and indispensable edifications of our more parochial moral lives. The one does not supercede the other, the terms of the one cannot be reduced to the terms of the other, the value of the one is subservient to the other only on a case to case basis and never in a generalizable way.

All this matters when we turn to political life and to its distinctive public sphere. For me, politics is the ongoing opportunistic reconciliation of variously contending and collective aspirations in a finite world shared by a plurality of stakeholders or peers. The democratic idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them yields different politics (politics that happen to be my own) than the brutal politics of a slave society organized to frustrate and respond to the permanent possibility of revolt or the politics of cynical incumbent elites in notionally representative societies that manipulate mass media to "manufacture consent" to their practices of exploitation -- but each of these attitudes is a political one, a response to the same awareness of a promising and dangerous political plurality, producing its own calculus, generating unique experiences, and so on.

The paranoid style of American politics delineated by Hofstadter's piece, and echoing down through the epoch of Movement Conservatism into the mass-panic of the "Black Helicopter" crowd, the NAFTA superhighway conspiracists, and the racist apocaloids who rave about rampant "Islamofascism" and a "Clash of Civilizations," seems to me finally not to be a proper "politics" at all, but the amplification of moral considerations and forms into a disastrous substitute for political consciousness.

It is precisely when the parochial forms of moral identification ("we"s which depend, remember, on the conjuration of "they"s, on what are called "constitutive outsides," for their own intelligibility and force) aspire to encompass the field of plurality that one is driven to "see social conflict [not] as something to be mediated and compromised… [but as] always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, [where] what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish."

Digby's observation that Movement Conservatives seem to oscillate between episodes of a rather unhinged and conspiracist anti-government hostility and episodes of utterly docile authoritarian government-worship, depending on whichever partisan faction seems to hold the reins of government (and especially the sovereign-parent figure inhabiting the White House), does not describe -- as it may initially appear to do -- a perplexing inconsistency but perfectly symptomizes the seamless moralizing logic that drives the anti-political and pre-political "politics" of Movement Conservatism.

Each attitude expresses the same parochial panic in the face of an ineradical plurality of peers, and the extraordinary vulnerability inhering in the fact of that plurality (the unpredictability of outcome of all human action, the permanent possibility of misunderstanding, miscommunication, exposure, humiliation, betrayal, and so on), the same turn to the reassurances of membership, the authority of canon and custom, the easy legibility of conformity.

Just as I insisted earlier on that the substance of the lived demarcation of moral and ethical life in the present day is conspicuously technoconstituted, it seems to me that the deep confusions occasioned by rapid contemporary technoscientific change -- the undermining of traditional justificatory frameworks by the networked encounter with planetary multiculture, the crisis of human agency rendered at once seemingly impotent and omnipotent by the specters of climate change and WMD on the one hand and genetic and "enhancement" medicine and cyberspatial ecstasy on the other -- also contribute to the re-eruption of pre-political forms onto the scene of planetary politics.

Be that as it may, I think that what is most important for us to realize in all this is that the extremism, the absolutism, and the palpable craziness of belief that inevitably draw our attention when we contemplate the paranoid style of Movement Conservatism are not themselves the key to understanding what is afoot and what is at stake in these curious and furious phenomena, but that they are surface features expressing the underlying logic of a moralizing perversion of political consciousness.

Erections, Mounting and AIDS: Incestuous Gay Monkey Sex (or seven words you can't write in your NIH grant)

[Hat tip to James Hughes] Fabulous title, important paper.
Joanna Kempner, a research associate at the Princeton University Center for Health and Wellbeing, shared preliminary results of her study of the impact of having one's sexuality-related research attacked by politicians….

Kempner studied 162 researchers who in 2003 either had their research questioned by lawmakers who tried (and almost succeeded in the House of Representatives) to have their projects blocked for support from the NIH or whose work appeared on what became known as "the hit list" of projects for which the Traditional Values Coalition tried to generate opposition. The research projects -- all of which had been approved through the peer review process at the NIH -- involved such topics as prostitution, gay sex, unsafe sexual acts, and drug use….

While she is still analyzing the results, early findings suggest that the experience of being a target has led some of the scholars to rethink their work or careers.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Dispatches from Libertopia: Lawlessness = Liberty Edition

[Seen on a dKos diary by Hunter] Here's some plain-talking Libertopian common sense from CNBC anchor Erin Burnett:
I think people should be careful what they wish for on China -- you know, if China were… to start making, say, toys that don't have lead in them, or food that isn't poisonous, their costs of production are going to go up. And that means prices at Walmart, here in the United States, are going to go up too. So, I would say China is our greatest friend right now. They're keeping prices low[.]

Such deadly poison, but such low prices! And such generous portions, too!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Under the Libertopian Spell

The pernicious impact of market fundamentalist faith (what gets called "libertarianism" by the boys online and "neoliberalism" by the boys in the thinktank archipelago, and which, taken together, constitute what I like to think of as the Libertopian Noise Brigade) on foreign and domestic policy is impossible to overestimate.

Until the myths of "natural markets" and "spontaneous orders" are finally dead and buried for good, you better believe that incumbent elite interests will continue to deploy these facile figures to rationalize their brutal exploitation of others, to deny their dependency on the labor of others, past and present, and to justify the ongoing confiscatory concentration of planetary wealth and authority.

Market fundamentalist faith provides what is by now an "intuitively" compelling but utterly self-serving rationale for the dismantlement and neglect of indispensable infrastructure (both physical and legal), treating and framing this theft and fraud as if this were really always a matter of "releasing" pent up forces in nature or "freeing up" arbitrary barriers, rather than a matter of outright physical confiscation of assets and the imposition of institutional barriers to democratic scrutiny of public decision making by elites. Market fundamentalist faith provides what is by now an "intuitively" compelling but utterly self-serving rationale for the wildly disproportionate redistribution of wealth to the richest and most privileged interests in society through an amplified militarization of public spending as if this were really always a matter of "acting in self-defense" or "responding" to external provocations, rather than a matter of outright physical confiscation of assets and the imposition of institutional barriers to democratic responsiveness to expressed public budgetary priorities.

What get called "natural markets" in the actual world are the furthest things from spontaneous upwellings of eternal tidal forces of supply and demand, but are articulated and regulated through contingent historical regulations, laws, assumptions, protocols, institutions, and always in ways that respond to certain stakeholders interests prevailing in a particular time and place. (In relatively democratic orders one should expect the regulation and facilitation of production and trade to respond to the widest range of stakeholders, rather than to elites, since democracy is simply an experimental project to implement as widely and as deeply as possible the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. Needless to say, one would be frustrated to register the distance between this reasonable expectation and reality.)

Market fundamentalist ideology is like a magic spell that would transform what is confiscation into a mirage of liberty, transform what is neglect into a mirage of autonomy, transform what is self-centered greed into a mirage of civic-mindedness, transform what is short-sighted opportunism into a mirage of wisdom and foresight, transform what is the imposition of force into a mirage of relief from force, transform what are historically contingent arrangements into expressions of eternal law, transform what are customs into a mirage of nature, transform fraud into a mirage of science.

Market fundamentalism is magical thinking, it is a self-serving mythology, it is a system of interlocking superstitions and strategic deceptions, it is a vast bloodsoaked scam mouthed by scam artists who smugly declaim (and, even worse, many of them are deluded enough to believe themselves) that they are "scientists."

You know, there is a lot of tough talk about religious fundamentalism online these days (too much of which seems to me to function primarily as a way of oversimplifying and unhelpfully demonizing the abundant esthetic and moral varieties of religious belief and practice prevailing in the world or, worse, to justify for privileged North Atlantic audiences awful ongoing racist projects of corporate-militarist hegemony), but it seems to me that this discourse is for the most part neglecting what has to be the most catastrophic fundamentalist faith at work in the world today.

Until we manage to break the spell of market fundamentalist pieties we will never break the deadweight of incumbent privilege and democratize the world.

Dispatches from Libertopia: Yet Another Iraq Edition

When the Incomprehensible Becomes Conventional Wisdom Expect A World of Hurt

Atrios calls our attention to this flabbergasting Reuters story, which exposes but also excuses as perfectly "understandable" and as a simple "mistake" (oops!) the utter obvious predictably catastrophic idiocy of the market fundamentalist faith "that a free market would rapidly emerge to replace… Saddam's [regime] and create full employment."
Years of economic policy mistakes after the fall of Saddam Hussein left unemployed young Iraqis easy targets for recruitment by al Qaeda and other insurgents, a U.S. Defense Department official said on Sunday…. [E]arly economic planners had made the understandable mistake of assuming that a free market would rapidly emerge to replace what he described as Saddam's "kleptocracy", and create full employment…. This mistaken assumption led to a series of decisions which "sowed the seeds of economic malaise and fuelled insurgent sympathies" after industrial production collapsed and imports flooded in to replace locally made goods.

I especially like this part: "This mistaken assumption led to a series of decisions which 'sowed the seeds of economic malaise and fuelled insurgent sympathies.'" Ya think? Who could have foreseen it?

Today's Random Wilde

The basis of optimism is sheer terror.

California's Trojan Elephant

Jennifer Steinhauer reported yesterday in The New York Times that there has been
a recent move by the lawyer for the California Republican Party to ask voters in a ballot measure to apportion electoral votes by Congressional district. With numerous safe Republican districts around the state, this change could represent roughly 20 electoral votes for a Republican candidate who would otherwise presumably lose the entire state, which has been reliably Democrat in recent presidential elections.

“We think it is the most effective way of having California count,” said Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the ballot effort, the Presidential Election Reform Act. “Candidates love California in the spring when they come out to raise money. But after that, as long as California is not in play, it tends to be ignored.”

David Dayen, over at Calitics comments:
They're going to use a message of fairness and making California count. That's going to be attractive to a low-information voter, and millions will have to be spent to counter it…

Eckery's group is fundraising right now, and it will probably take a few million dollars to get the initiative on the June ballot, including about half a million for polling. That's a low bar; and that's why it is so crucial that we get the word out immediately about this effort to steal the vote. Building a war chest is less important than using some CDP money to define what this initiative would represent -- a piecemeal solution to a problem that would virtually guarantee a Republican successor to George Bush. This is not something to attack with nuance; the goal is to make it so unpopular that any effort to put it on the ballot would be a suicide mission.

I agree with Dayen that this latest effort of ethically and intellectually bankrupt sore loser Republicans to game the system in order to maintain control of the Presidency despite their catastrophic failures and unprecedented unpopularity must be fought loudly and, most of all, early, now rather than later.

It is easy to see that the Electoral College disenfranchises urban majorities in America and is crying out for reform. But it is just as obvious that the Republican efforts to commandeer common sense in the service of targeted reform would exacerbate the worst excesses of the current imbalance.

This effort must be judged through the lens of our recent experiences with the "soft coup" of the palpably illegal 2000 partisan Supreme Court Selection, Tom Delay's unprecedented redistricting of Texas, sweeping systematic traditional and digital disenfranchisement schemes by the GOP in Ohio and elsewhere in 2004, and so on. Electoral College reform of this kind would have to be nationalized to avoid pernicious local disenfranchisement for short-term partisan gains (for either major Party), and to avoid the inevitable spasm of opportunistic crazy-quilt countermeasures, local redistricting efforts, rule changes, court battles, and so on -- all of which would introduce ever greater confusion and cynicism into a system that is already teetering too close to the brink of failure.

It goes without saying these days that Republicans can only win when they cheat and when they lie about what they are doing. We need to get out in front of this, and we can't be polite about it this time around. There is too much at stake.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Second Life As Dead-Eyed Libertopian Cybersprawl

[via European Tribune]:
[T]he most distinctive thing about Second Life is its banality. While the hype promises a virtual community celebrating every possible form of creativity and diversity, the reality is mostly virtual suburban sprawl. Flying across the mainlands reveals identikit malls alternating with acres of virtual McMansions, and open plots or shops for rent speckled with garish levitating FOR SALE signs….

The difference between Real Life and Second Life is that you can have your fantasy lifestyle for less cash up front. The fact that you can't touch anything seems to be trumped by the fact that you can own it -- which is evidently what matters most….

This is Libertarian California on Silicon, and…. residents seem to have internalized the real life suburban shopping experience. Shopping is open 24/7, and is mostly impersonal, so you don't have to talk to anyone while you do it, and no one has to talk to you. But go into any virtual mall, and the visual language will seem instantly familiar. Virtual companies have virtual logos with virtual graphic design of frighteningly lifelike pseudo-familiarity…

Second Life is not the web, because the features that made the web so interesting -- open access, reliability, transparency, low cost of entry, and ease of use -- are missing. And other features -- specifically a generation's worth of consumer capitalist Pavlovian conditioning -- have become more obvious.

There's much more, snark, analysis, and prognostication (the News, predictably enough, is not good for the eager free marketeers of Second Life), so go read the whole thing.

And Remember, Always: First Life First.

Never Forget

It seems that the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge has finally managed to drive home a point in the popular imagination that even the ongoing Katrina catastrophe flabbergastingly somehow hasn't quite managed to do (I'm sure that racism has nothing at all to do with that perplexing failure of imagination).

Progressive public figures (for example, the always wonderful Rachel Maddow), policy wonks (for example, Rick Perlstein), editorial writers (for example, Nick Coleman), and so on are all openly and insistently making the connection between the Movement Conservative Republican antigovernmentality and the consequent abject failures of Movement Conservative Republicans who actually get elected and then try to make a go at governing (if you can call endlessly lowering taxes, endlessly deregulating corporations, and handing out endless sweetheart deals to unqualified cronies "governing" in any sense of the word). And, stunningly enough, this time around, at long last, they seem to be getting traction when they make this glaring connection.

The Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party Is Finally Beginning to Say No Way to the "Third Way." "Reagan Democrats" are sobering up into Fighting Liberals ready for a New Deal 2.0.

The proper response to neoliberal and neoconservative antigovernmentality is to champion uncompromisingly the practical ideal and actual implementation of good, democratic government.