Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Life Past The End Of History

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What a beautiful world this will be; what a glorious time to be free.*
- Yesterday I woke suddenly from dozing off at my computer. I was outside at Starbuck's and this woman was sitting on the bench near me swearing and screaming at me while pounding a steel pipe on the metal table. She'd been threatening my life while I slept. This woman was one of the after closing time regulars, had been coming for years. At first she'll talk to you calmly. Within a minute she's telling you about who's spying on her and she's going to sue, within another minute she's taken offense somehow at something you said or because you didn't say anything and off she goes into her swearing and screaming. She does this with everyone. She calls the police and shouts at them too. She admits to have gone so far as smashing up stranger's windshield when communications were shared between cars in stalled traffic. It's in the courts now.
- You're making this up.
- No, believe me. Have I ever mentioned to you the four fraternity boys? A couple months back they got out of car and launched a volley of raw eggs at my face. One commented: 'I bet you didn't expect that'. Then they calmly got back in their car and drove away. Around this same time of night, two weeks ago now, a tall black man in his 20's approached my table, bent his head down to within an inch of mine and gave me the message that the race war is starting and it was starting with me. I would be the first victim. I created some doubt in his mind that he'd stumbled upon the only non-racist in the neighborhood long enough to grab my computer and slip away. About a month before this appearance, I'm sitting back at the same table when a middle aged man, unusually well dressed for time and place rattles the locked Starbucks door then steps over to me and asks:
- What are you doing sitting out here late at night? You shouldn't be here. What happened to you?
- Just luck. Doesn't mean anything. What brings you here?
- Where am I?
- You're in West Hollywood. At the border of Beverly Hills. Those were Beverly Hills police you were taunting.
- F^%&#^*ing police. Why are they harassing you and me, a couple of white guys?
- Are they harassing me?
- They talk bad about you. I say you're a F^%&;#^*ing genius.
- I get that a lot.
- You look good.
- I do? I don't see how. Where are you from?
- Buffalo.
- What have you been doing tonight? Where are you going now?
- I'm going to kill someone.
- Who?
- You maybe.
- Why would you want to kill me? What do you do? What is your profession?
- I kill people.
- Why would you want to kill people?
- I eat them. I'll eat your face. What do you say to that?
- I don't think it is a good idea. I have things left to do in life.
- I love you. You know? You're in danger.
- I know.
- There's my guy. Take care of yourself.
- Really, you're making this up.
- Accurately recounted word for word. And then there's the self described addict who told me he probably would take my computer next time he saw me with my eyes closed.** He needed money to buy drugs.
- What were you reading when you fell asleep?
- A professor's paper sent my way by the algorithms at Academia.edu.
- Was it so boring?
- Not at all. In fact, now that I think of it, I see something interesting. The paper was by a philosophy professor at the Central European University in Budapest. That's the university, in case you haven't heard, the neofascist government of Hungary recently passed a law authorizing them to shut down.
- You used to hang out there when you lived in Budapest.
- I did. Remember how when the Soviet Union collapsed an announcement, widely ridiculed, was made: History Is Over. Capitalism and democracy have triumphed. There is nowhere to go from here. Progress will bring nothing new in economic and political forms. Less than twenty years later we've started to hear almost the opposite: not history, but our history, the history of our politics and economics in the present form seems to be over. We have a fascist in the executive and the economy has developed into a machine used by the rich to rob everyone else.
- What was missed back on 1989?
- The paper I was reading was about the lectures the French philosopher Michel Foucault's gave on neoliberalism shortly before he died. This was the late 70's. His previous, extremely influential studies were about how power is exercised on people not directly by physical restraint or law, but by limiting how they thought of themselves and were thought of by experts: a kind of governance he called 'biopower'. By the 18th Century government was involving itself in all aspects of life: health, sexuality, sanity. However, it came to be believed  in the 19th century that a natural law governed the marketplace and that if the government intervened it could only harm productivity. Foucault saw this as a fortuitous space of freedom from government supervision. The lectures had many critics among his fellow radicals. They were surprised, felt betrayed by his seeming economic conservatism. He had forgotten about class relations, class war: doing without regulation in capitalism meant monopoly, bribery, collusion by the rich undermining the free market. He also was wrong about non-social intervention in personal economic life, as we know to our cost: we sell ourselves, invest in ourselves, identify ourselves in our possessions, work for the sake of success in work not for the beauty and happiness of life.
-  I seem to remember that around the time of these lectures Foucault had made the news with his close observation of the Iranian Revolution. As in neoliberalism's hands-off of economic life Foucault saw room for a personal spiritual revolution, he saw the same hidden in the shadows of a political revolution claiming to inaugurate a national spirituality.
- And that is an even stranger defection to conservatism because Muslim governments tightly regulate private life. 
- Perhaps he wasn't looking too far past the act of revolution itself. He had the same attitude to spiritual revolution as he had to sexual revolution.
- Which was?
- The only desirable outcome of revolution for him could be anarchy. He didn't believe in a fixed human nature.
- Somehow, though, individuals without fixed nature had a collectively produced nature in which all knowledge was taken into the service of power to be used against the powerless.
- That's right. What was there lurking deep down in the history of politics and economics that suddenly revealed itself, proving not history to be at an end but this particular history? Not Foucault's revolutionary spirituality.
- No. Hasn't made an appearance.
- And desires, shameful or otherwise? Not in the shadows. They have been and are familiar and fundamental to politics and economics. You agree?
- Yes.
- Then what? Do you know what I think?
- What?
- How could history be ready to end when there continue to be major, fundamental, unexamined problems?
- And they are?
- Property and ritual. Or only one problem - property - that shows itself differently in politics and economics.
- Go on.
- Democracies hold assemblies where citizens share power with each other to make laws. But if citizens delegate authority to representatives, the essential, initial conditions - assembling a crowd, and its perceived weakness - are set for ritual, as the electorate always is in a position of weakness in relation to the government. Ritual:
1. Starts in a condition of weakness
2. Sets in motion a group of people acting together passionately
3. Ends in a sense of strength
The 19th century brought neoliberalism and democracy's return to history. The 20th century brought fascism, which we can define as the deliberate application of ritual to democracy. A representative can take advantage of the opportunity offered to claim the nation is weak, government and society infiltrated by enemies, a good fight will drive them out and strength will return.
- And ritual, which for you is what the unconscious is for a psychologist - it explains everything - ritual is what was lurking in the darkness of the supposed end to history? That broke out and restarted it? That is timeless when an individual enacts the story of his own death and rebirth, but breaks out into history - warmaking, enslaving, establishing classes - when it forces another people into the role of those fighting against whom one is reborn?
- It's an idea, isn't it? Do you have a better one?
- Are you five years old?
- It fits the bill: a human capacity not to be found in the individual, only revealed by human beings acting in a group. And if democracy is liable to fascism, then isn't the free market economy liable also to be undermined by ritual?
- How?
- What happened with neoliberalism? Role play, spectacle, self branding, selling yourself: playing your role requires finding crowds to your show. Getting crowds into the theater audience requires selling. Selling is convincing people they lack something, that is, they are weak. The show you put on in role convinces the crowd that with taking up a role complementary to yours they will be strong. But you don't even have to take up a complementary role. You can buy a product with a crowd of people associated with it in word or image. Propaganda and advertising create the crowd needed for a role or a product's success. Like representative democracy has its fascism, free market economics has its spectacle, role play, consumerism.
- And the problem with property you said was behind both?
- Property as ritual, not in its function of making life better, is a thing or a self that has its meaning given to it in relation to the power of a crowd.
- And non-ritual property? If there is such a thing.
- After use requirements of food and shelter are satisfied, property as a gift can be an expression of individuality; the choice of who to give to can become a creative act.*** Foucault thought that the unregulated space of neoliberal market trading could be filled with spiritual revolution, sexual or religious. Instead history has showed this gap is filled in by crowds, by imagining their admiration of objects or roles played. All those ridiculous threats against my life I begin by telling you about: do you think what I do about them?
- What? That they arise out of the same darkness?
- Yes. Our senseless mass shootings at malls, schools, theaters that now are a regular fact of life: they are the acts of people desperate to remake themselves who believe themselves to be blocked from the ordinary ways of acquiring property in things or roles. They use the only tool they find at hand: violence. They've taken their cue from the wealthy: they use violence to create crowds of witnesses and gain control of their lives, like the rich use the violence (monopoly, bribery, collusion) of concentrated wealth to control markets.
- Ok then. History is not over, but it doesn't look good. What's to be done?
- If the problem is property we have to work to change our relation to property.
- Teach ourselves not to allow ourselves to become the property of our leaders and not become property of ourselves.
- Exactly. Our fascism is not like the fascism of the 20th century, arriving with all the force of government behind it. Our fascism is self-imposed. It grows out of the economic into the political rather than vice versa, the political imposing upon the economic, as in the old Soviet Union and Orwell's novel '1984' he based upon it.
- In other words it's not absolutely here yet; deadly serious in some forms, ridiculous in others.

Further Reading:
There Is No Conspiracy Because There Are No People
Eve In The Garden Of Eden
The Technology Of Good
___________________________
* Donald Fagen
** The computer was in fact taken the day after this story was posted.
*** See William Godwin, An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793