Brian Holmes on Wed, 14 Jan 2015 13:24:28 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Crisis 2.0 - the political turn (some comments)

On 01/13/2015 03:58 PM, allan siegel wrote:

Yes, there is a crisis, that shouldnâbe a big surprise but
what precisely is the crisis?A number of contemporary philosophers
have been wading into this question for some time now; is it the
crisis that marks a break with modernity? Quite possibly. Is it
simply the economic crisis of 2008? No. After floating through years
of fuelled by the illusions of the post-modern delirium weâe finding
that it is not easy to get very far if youâe running on empty and
the consequence finding ourselves stuck in something akin to an
ideological vacuum.

Hello Allan. In few words you say so much. The "post-modern delirium" you refer to is, by my reckoning, the product of the last half century. It condenses the various ways that capitalist societies found to bring back into their fold all those who revolted against them starting some five decades ago. "Post-modern delirium" is the attempted reification of a failed revolt. When the lingering dreams and feverish regrets are burnt away, what remains is the measured, objectified, manipulated, controllable residue of past generations' struggles for emancipation and justice.

For anyone who might care about these things, there is a very penetrating author named James O'Connor who wrote books such as The Fiscal Crisis of the State, followed by Accumulation Crisis and then by The Meaning of Crisis. Three books that address your question. Generally people only read the first one, published in 1973, because they want to know why the Fordist boom fell apart. The idea that slowly emerges from his later work, however, is that in capitalist societies, personality crisis can be understood as the momentary breakdown of a social process that has led individuals to treat their own selves as objects: glittering, pricey, high-status things whose possession and ownership gives us power over others. A crisis of value (that is, not only a plunge in the cash value of asssets, but also a failure of the institutional circuit that sustains cash value) can therefore be a vital threat to psychic health and equilibrium. At the moment of the vaccuum - ie the empty bank account, the lost job or the failed business - your thing, your self, suddenly begins to appear worthless. By the same token, though, crisis can also be a chance to exit the strictly privatized coccoon of the reified self, and begin understanding and acting upon human interdependence. If one cannot simply buy and flaunt the simulacra of fulfillment, then some attention to the reciprocities whereby people sustain each other becomes not only a necessity, but even a new reason for living. Check out how O'Connor describes the conjoined process of social and psychic crisis, almost thirty years ago in The Meaning of Crisis:

"We know that capital is racing madly through the present; it has raced headlong into a crisis. It attempts to reduce its turnover time compulsively and obsessively. Modernization of production, internationalization of production and a bloated debt structure are three sides of a single process. Whole cities and communities are thrown away in the race to defend and expand profits. "Growth coalitions" multiply like cancer cells, killing the normal cells of family, religion, tradition. The frenzy of accumulation; the fear that it will come to an end in a huge crash or an environmental or military catastrophe; the unbelievable excesses of late capitalism worldwide - these bear witness to the obsessive-compulsive qualitity of the inner soul of capital. If we could become its inner eye, if we could transport ourselves into its inner soul, if we could hear the relentless beat of accumulation, we could experience as well as know the madness of this obsessiveness â this world where capital and money are a religious and aesthetic experience, and where power is a moral category. When we examine ourselves, we find capital within our own souls. We too rush through the present; we race for some victory â or toward some unknown destination; we are governed by unlimited desire; we stumble and fall from identity into the abyss. We create our own personal crisis, as capital creates its own crisis."

For me, that's an amazing paragraph: it's an economist putting the intimate self into the macro-economic picture. Whenever this kind of move is made, ethics and then politics surges to the fore. Amidst the general wreck and sadness of what happens in the world, the cultural question is not just how one suffers but rather how one struggles to create one's own crisis - and then hopefully to resolve it, in a social space beyond the fiction of a stable and valuable interiority which one could polish and improve and flaunt before the desiring gaze of others.

In fact what is being called the âcrisisâis probably the result of
the conflation of a host of historical factors: political, economic,
etcâ So, to view the crisis in the absence of any substantial
historical context is simply misleading. It is as if we can view the
recent events in Paris detached from the legacy of French colonialism
and the post-colonial turbulence that has continued to batter
Algeria. We live in a global world still very much being buffeted by
the decades of colonial and imperial hubris that has plundered the
third world in any number of political guises. The horrendous
blow-back from this is used to buttress the surveillance states now
common in the West: high tech snooping tools, random police
operations which provide citizens with a fragile, fleeting sense of
security that is regularly shattered by unexpected violence and
killings. Countless innocents are slaughtered without warning; police
forces run amokâ

I agree with you entirely. Here we are at the heart of the "necropolitics" whose operations the African intellectual Achille Mdembe has described, in the space of what he calls "the post-colony," from which the killing machines have never been removed. What lies outside the policed borders of the developed world is the politics of death, that's what Mdembe was saying. But this is not only something historical, far from it. To really understand what has just happened in France, we would have to see the world through the eyes of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, or the Al Qaeda jihadis in Yemen. After the American defeat in Vietnam, the focus of war in what would become the neoliberal world-system shifted to the Middle East. To insure the continuity of control over the region's resources, time and time again entire populations have been bombed to smithereens or starved slowly and methodically by a power constellation consisting of the US and its Nato allies, Israel, and the aristocratic ruling classes of Gulf states. That's death for oil. Meanwhile those Muslims who emigrated to Europe to take industrial jobs were treated like trash and then racialized and reviled when their usefuleness to capital was over. How can anyone be so blind as not to see that the historical injustice of colonialism is in full force today, and that it is at the source of the tremendous threat that really does confront us? I'm not saying, see through their eyes in order to pardon heinous acts. I'm saying, see through their eyes in order to do something about the conditions that push people to such odious extremes.

On an opposite end of the spectrum, I encourage you to read the interview with Luz, the cartoonist of Charlie Hebdo, which Patrice Riemens sent to this list. Some of the things this man says are just astonishing to me. He claims that the group of caricaturists at Charlie did not want to deal with grand symbolic figures but with very specific things, images that make sense and are funny in France. But on what planet does this guy live? How can he see caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as anything else but a symbol, a charged cliche, a hot-button item, a waving red cloak in a vast international bull ring? I am sorry to criticize someone whose loss has been so great, but it's pure narcissism, this idea of a cherished France that could be held in your hand and protected from the world into which it nonetheless sends its armies and its oil majors. The sacrosanct caricature of Charlie, brandished in the air as a fetish of liberty, is exactly the reification of the self that O'Connor describes. I don't know what will come of these events, and I don't want to prejudge what French society will make of them, but I can see the potential for the very facile patriotic and chauvinist defence of a supposedly secular freedom of expression which would justify the complete absence of any reflection on the griefs that push people to the insanity of terrorism. I have seen this worst case happen in the US, with the results that we have before our eyes. What we need is not just reflection but action to change the way that the world economy functions. Otherwise its necropolitical character will inevitably poison whatever fine lands we imagine ourselves to live in.

It is yet to be seen whether the political movements in Spain or
Greece can move their societies in a new direction beyond the
neoliberal economic pincers - I certainly hope they can - but the
fact that these movements exist is a testament to some tangible
threads of historical continuity and a capacity to create new forms
of political organisation.

Today I have been listening to interviews with Yannis Varoufakis, a Syriza candidate and potential Finance Minister of a Tsipras government. As with Podemos in Spain, these are sensible and spirited people who really care about what's going on, I think it is impressive.

Iâ not being cynical, really, just realistic; we cannot demand the
impossible but we can manage to to insure that the next generation
has the tools and the wisdom, to go beyond the ineptness, the
corruption, and the greed the has polluted so many hard won
democratic institutions and whittled away the parameters of a just
society. Unless all the solid, meaningful efforts (in any number of
disciplines, economic programmes or alternative and innovative
practices) can coalesce into a political force able to out-manouver
the status quo of the current political landscape weâe in for more
stormy weather.

Yeah, that's exactly it. Often well-intentioned people talk about how to "transmit" our accumulated knowledge to the coming generations. That's not the issue. The question is how to make something useful with that knowledge. Which means working with people and changing what you thought you knew. The transmission comes from meaningful acts. Ideas matter by becoming effectively material.

all the best, Brian

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