Against another Double Blackmail: Scientism and Primitivism (or Humanism and Anti-humanism)

I have just bought a copy of Slavoj Zizek’s book Disparities, a philosophical tour-de-force that would be considered anyone’s magnum opus were it not Zizek’s 50th or so book. Here Zizek outlines his concept of disparity and comments upon (and differentiates himself from) other philosophical opinions, or in Zizekian terms, recognizes the fundamental disparities between his vision, grounded in dialectical thought and the Hegelian tradition, and the positions of other philosophers. Here he sets up a fundamental opposition, one which runs through the book, between his view and the ontological position of Gilles Deleuze, namely opposing his views on rhizomes and the univocity of being (while still giving credit where credit is due). However that theoretical disagreement is not the aim of my article: my aim is to elaborate on my thoughts inspired by the first chapter of Disparities, called “From human to posthuman…and back to inhuman: the persistence of ontological difference”. In this chapter Zizek addresses and categorizes multiple types of “posthumanisms”, from transhumanism to structuralist anti-humanism. Interestingly, he also categorizes the “Gaia hypothesis” deep ecology view as another anti-humanism, in which humans are seen as a virus on the planet which in its hubris, destroyed the environment. Zizek sees transhumanism (which, briefly, is the theory popularized by Ray Kurzweil in which man will gradually merge with the technological machine and transcend the meek and mortal human) as a kind of reemergence of Soviet biocosmism, an ideology popular in the USSR in which the human being would be gradually overcome in the new Communist utopia.

Before I go on, it is interesting how both of these ideologies (and they are properly ideologies, because they rely on a fantastical element) are dependent on a utopian view of society, as either being saved by technology, or saved by Nature. Therefore, it is natural to oppose these utopian views of society, which have as their forbears the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment and Rousseauian concepts of human nature, with the properly Marxist or dialectical answer: that technology is simply a tool utilized by humans in a particular historical and economico-productive context. However, we must go further than Marx here. Technology is neither the alienating object which separates man from his true nature, as in the early Marx, or the means by which to propel man into the Communist utopia, as in the Communist Manifesto of middle period Marx. It is rather, that technology is just one of the means of production, or the means of reproducing society, and is as such neutral, a product and reflection of the social organization. Thus, the material base of society itself must be transformed along with the social organization of society if society is to be truly revolutionized. And, a proper Marxist would recognize that the material base of society does not propel society along as its single causal determinant, and that ideology is also a fundamental determinant, with superstructure and infrastructure intertwined and mutually dependent. Therefore, technology should neither be demonized nor fetishized, because demonization is another form of fetishization which misses the fact that all material goods are the product of labor, human labor to be precise.

However, from the Grundrisse, we can say that Marx toyed with the idea of technology itself doing the dominating. But this is only by design of the capitalist- yes, the machines handled by the factory workers are inherently dangerous, but we should not seek salvation in automation, thereby rendering human labor useless. Rather, we should seek to balance automation with a humane labor policy, enforced strictly by the revolutionary state. It is in this way that fetishizing nature, and lifestylist primitivism, can only do a disservice not only to the cause of Labor, which must by necessity deal with technology for its livelihood, but also the cause of indigenous and tribal people, who do not have to by choice.

However, if forced to pick one of these two poles of the false dichotomy, primitivism and technological transhumanism, I would much prefer primitivism, because at least that goes against the grain of technological capitalism and its commodity fetishism. Zizek has revealed how there are also new forms of ecological fetishism, but it is true that industrialization itself, as Marx recognized, produces new horrors, reductions in standards of living that not only class society entails. The factory itself oppresses not just because of machines which wear down the body, but also the polluted air, the lack of available farm labor, the appropriation of the land by business. Land reform may work in an already agricultural society, but in a society driven by technology, is it possible, or even good policy, to enact a redistribution of land, to agriculturalize an essentially industrial and post-industrial workforce? No, I don’t believe this will work culturally as well as bureaucratically. However, we do need to take the ecological crisis seriously, and seriously think about reorganizing our food production system so that not only the health of the consumer is emphasized, but the health of the producer and the health of the environment is as well (and throw on top of that the health of livestock, to please the animal rights activists and vegans).

To add another sufficiently Zizekian or Hegelian dialectical reversal (one I’m sure Zizek has already said)- transhumanism is not sufficiently anti-human enough, not only because it does not recognize the fundamental antagonisms within the human itself (the inhuman in the human, as Zizek says), but it also posits technology as an inherently moral good. To this we can ascribe this law of human historical development: technological progress does not equate to moral progress, and neither does moral progress equate to technological regress. This is because there are too many other complicating factors. However, as an anthropologist, I will make one more caveat: primitive tribal societies did just fine without modern technology, but that was not the only source of their relative abundance and happiness. It was also the egalitarian nature of their societies, societies which were almost eliminated by the development of class-society and the State, which emerged at the same time. Paradoxically, however, this does not mean we should eschew the state or technology, because neither are fundamentally sources of oppression, only with their coupling and emergence from stratified society. Thus, we should reimagine the State, transform it, just as we should reimagine and transform technology to suit human necessity, and not just the necessity of the elite.

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Against the Double Blackmail: Stalinism and Anarchism

In contemporary leftism, popularly and online, there seems to be only two poles, two possibilities, a kind of dualistic way of thinking without any synthesis or true dialecticism. For both of the aforementioned groups, Stalinists/Marxist-Leninists and Anarchists, if you are a Democratic Socialist you are a liberal, and if you are not a Democratic Socialist, then you must be in favor of complete violent revolution in the vein of a Marxist-Leninist. There is some truth to this, however when it comes to the actual polices favored by a Democratic Socialist (not a Social Democrat!) one can see how they don’t disagree with the Marxist-Leninist, but their philosophy for how to accomplish this differs.

The Marxist-Leninist will argue that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie can only be overtaken by the dictatorship of the proleteriat. This kind of orthodox Marxism belongs in the 19th century, as it opens the door wide open, obviously, for totalitarian regimes whose crimes outweigh the benefits they provide for the people. Sometimes, historically, these totalitarian regimes have drastically increased living standards, but nevertheless, what I will call the anarchist impulse, the impulse to distrust power in any form, whether corporate or state, or what one could call the libertarian socialist impulse, I believe is a good impulse, and keeps one from being so blinded in one’s hatred for capitalism that one is willing to overlook the obvious horrors of 20th century communism, horrors which I believe are so obvious, like the show trials under Stalin, that they don’t deserve debate anymore. See my posts on Tibet for more details.

However, theoretically, I also disagree with the idea that the only thing needed for a truly non-authoritarian liberating political movement and society is the non-existence of the state. One can find historical examples of “anarcho-communist” societies like Catalonia in the 1930s, which largely functioned, but here I will provide a genuine defense of Zizek’s theory he puts forward in “A Plea for Bureaucratic Socialism”.

Zizek’s theory seems at first to be a defense of a kind of neo-Stalinism, a centrally planned economy. However, this could be further from the case. Zizek recognizes the degree to which government institutions, and yes, that dreaded word bureaucracy, which is NOT the same as career politicians, are already necessary for the existence of advanced industrial society. Things that run perfectly smoothly today, things like the Post Office, or the NHS in Britain (before the spending cuts by the Tories), are all government administered. Could these institutions be “further democratized” under a Socialist government? Of course! The wealth of these companies could be more equally distributed. But one has to recognize that layers of unnecessary bureaucratic exist only when the profit motive is involved, or there has been a mistake in organization- the profit motive is not involved in the NHS, and thus they have fewer managers than a privately-run hospital. Administration costs are drastically cut under a socialized medicine system- everyone knows this, yet even Marxist economists like Richard Wolff are so enraptured with the idea of cooperatives that these simple macroeconomic/comparative facts seem lost on them.

So let me be perfectly clear- I’m not interested in a theoretical defense of anarchism, in the sense that it could “also provide the necessary means of organizing society, could provide power to houses, etc.” Without tax dollars collected by an efficient state, there are no highways, period. There won’t be volunteer armies building the roads and bridges, and neither will I volunteer for such a system. In this sense, Zizek’s defense of alienation serves as a necessary foil of contemporary Marxist or Leftist orthodoxy. The larger infrastructural/productive problems of society still linger in a society where everything is democratically-run- this is what the Soviet Union clearly saw.

The top down approach of the Soviet Union to production wasn’t the only problem that existed in the Soviet economy. The problem was primarily a “developmentality” where the State felt it had to rush industrial production as fast as possible, to the detriment of the rural population. As such it was industrialization, not bureaucracy, that was the Soviet Union’s main problem, aside from sheer corruption and the perpetration of political atrocities. It wasn’t the non-existence of competition that was the Soviet Union’s problem- it was Stalin’s desire to catch up with the West so fast that he didn’t care how many lives would be lost in the process. Critiques of socialist bureaucracy with the Soviet Union in mind are usually quite ahistorical and rely on a thesis that state planning itself is inherently the issue. While I can definitely agree that the state should not plan every aspect of the economy, this is not a coherent argument against any aspect of state socialization of the economy, for example, say oil production. Neither is the Venezuelan economy, which largely collapsed due to lack of foreign investment and the dip in oil prices caused by over-reliance on oil, causing massive hyperinflation.

Zizek is interested far more in getting concrete political gains HERE AND NOW then in the hypothetical speculation on what the future socialist society will look like. This kind of building of a utopia amounts to nothing in the end. Yet, one can understand that the defense of a stateless society IS just such a hypothetical speculation! We are nowhere close to, nor should we, abolish the state apparatus. Just because the State works against the people’s interests when certain parties are in power, doesn’t mean that is necessarily so. It’s just that the corporate stranglehold over real power makes such a change almost unimaginable.

Does that mean that change has to be forced violently? No, and here I disagree with Zizek in his defenses of Leninism. Global capitalism has a way of punishing democratic socialist regimes and revolutionary regimes. But if we are to take Zizek’s theories about internationalism seriously, one can see how, in order to beat the influence of something like the World Bank or the IMF, massive change on a global scale must occur. That change must occur first in the US, the epicenter of power. Only when true anti-imperialist and anti-free trade policies take root in the US can we begin to confront global capitalism. But this does not require some sort of infantile game about strategy and planning the armed revolution. The time for rebellion against the Czar is over. We do not live in that era. We must at the same time be faithful to our critique and struggle against the current economic system, recognize the exploitation that takes place, primarily in the Third World, and continue to try to dismantle the epicenters of global corporate power. In order to do that, a Red Tide, a movement like the Arab Spring, but much larger, must sweep the developed world, and finally carry it forward- peacefully and democratically. And it must not be allowed to backslide into demagoguery. But before that happens, concrete battles must be won, first against the liberal establishment, then on specific issues such as Medicare for All, ending the wars, ending monopolies, and climate change.

Finally, my defense of electoral politics is not a defense of establishment politics. I will never vote for another neoliberal politician, ever in my life, even to beat Donald Trump. We don’t have a choice anymore, considering the sorry state of the Democratic Party.

 

Normativity inside normativity…an endless spiral

My girlfriend commented recently that she thought the word “normie” that is now being used is itself mainstream. Is this endless navel gazing, or does this touch on a deeper point? Angela Nagle, a columnist at Jacobin Magazine, has put out a book called “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right”, and its that book idea or reference point that I’d like to discuss (spoiler: I haven’t read the book, just the synopsis). Interestingly enough, a leftist cultural commentator has to engage in the same “shock value” marketing tactics that her ideological foes do. As I will say time and time again, yes, I am a socialist. But here I want to make the case that engaging or diving into the “culture wars” that has become so commonplace, as Nagle argues, is itself counterproductive, because it itself is a part of the larger sphere of normativity.

Now, one could argue that this is Nagle’s project itself, that she is attempting an objective view of online media cultures both on the left and the right to reveal their relationship and how, in her view, the politically-correct Left enables the alt-right through “the author’s insistence on the culpability of the left in creating the vacuum in which the Alt-Right expanded.” While I actually share this opinion, I don’t want to engage in these kind of liberal-bashing polemics and critiques of safe-spaces. Why? Am I just being contrarian?

Because I witness in my daily online interactions with actual leftist online communities how ideologies and culture wars are perpetuated and sustained. Factions emerge, ideological fights ensue. There are big divides between arguably Stalinist factions and anarcho-coms. The internet is a big place, and yes, socialists have their versions of 4chan. Its a hallmark of our generation. If the real point of this book is to gain attention to very problematic political dynamics going on in the country, how the alt-right connects to Donald Trump (as the media endlessly drones on about) then it should be done in a vigorous and anthropological manner, not a New York Times bestseller fashion.

“But won’t that alienate the type of people Nagle is trying to convince?”

I think that type of reasoning underestimates the extent to which ideological sub-communities truly are isolated. There is very little room for true convincing in our public discourse. Nagle is engaging in a sexy topic at the right time- I’m sure the deliberately inflammatory title will appeal to a certain segment of the population. Maybe she will convince some of them who were previously not left leaning to be left-leaning. But is this truly the way we should convince other people our cause is right- by appealing a misanthropic sentiment?

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen coffee mugs that say “I hate everything” or “Leave me alone”. It has now become commonplace, even normative, to be edgy and say one hates other people. This has been recognized by the corporate establishment and recuperated by the capitalist system in order to sell trendy merchandise. The sad part is, these types of products are only funny *to other people*, they are bought in order to be shared in the office, etc. therefore undermining any “real” claim to being a misanthrope. Of course, these are “ironic” joke products I’m talking about, but a simple google search of “I hate people coffee mug” getting 19 million hits reveals the extent of the cultural problem. Fashion can reproduce itself in a myriad of ways.

In a way, I’m writing this because I’m frustrated at the state of the political discourse in America. Its overly saturated with continual references to pop culture (see my previous blog posts on Pop politics here: https://amorinoblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/04/the-problem-with-pop-politics-articles/). One could generalize and call this phenomenon “pop politics”, and my argument is that the pop politics Nagle herself is so critical of, she simultaneously has to engage with and enter into a dialogue with. To be fair to the author, she may be using the title as an ironic reference that someone, possibly on the Right, said on 4chan, but my guess is that its completely “unironically ironic”. In other words, she really does hate normies. On a different level of irony, this is exactly the kind of hate-fueled rhetoric the alt-right is gaining traction with. Every political stripe has their share of insults and slogans: “libtard” “bootlicker”, etc. But perhaps we could get beyond a politics of hatred, even hatred of intolerance, because it still manifests as endless chatter. Now, I’m not advocating a naive liberalism or centrism of “why can’t we all just get along?” but it is interesting that centrists gain political capital by appealing to the divisive state of American political discourse. People are genuinely upset about the level of heatedness of the debate- what centrists fail to realize is that there are genuine things to be upset about (and consequently, non-genuine things as well). The whole landscape of American politics is so complex that sometimes I wish to escape it entirely. Another interesting tidbit is that this entire debate only  applies directly to America, but this isn’t explicitly said, it goes unnoticed on the cover of Nagle’s book or elsewhere. This is because place, for many Americans, is largely something unconscious I would argue, but that is for another post.

This reflection is also inspired by what Michel Foucault said about transgression and normativity, in that they are related to one another by an endless spiral. Nagle engages in that kind of dialectical thinking, but I would argue, does not escape the dialectic, and instead argues for a kind of “true transgression”. Instead, what one must do is forget the cultural war entirely, disengage, seek solitude…but America would not be able to do that. No, the Last Man, as Nietzsche would have it, has already penetrated so deep , its probably impossible. Hope for a truly emancipatory movement remains dim. One should not put faith in movements, always only critical engagement.

 

 

The implications of Obama’s immigration policies for socialist strategy

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hard-truths-about-obamas-deportation-priorities_us_58b3c9e7e4b0658fc20f979e

Above, I’ve linked to the article I will be talking about today. I am very encouraged to see this level of journalism coming out of the Huffington Post, although the contributor to the magazine is, somewhat unsurprisingly, an academic, namely a professor of history at Lewis and Clark college. The article reveals what I have been saying over and over- that the oft-quoted statistic that Obama deported “90% criminals” is a flat-out falsehood when you consider the fact that according to ICE and Department of Homeland Security statistics (their own statistics!) only in 2016 were 90% of interior deportations of those with a criminal record. This doesn’t count deportations at the border at all. As the article reveals, this also obscures what kinds of crimes were committed. Only 19% of 2014 deportations were of people with “violent or potentially violent” convictions. That is an appalling statistic. The war on immigrants has been going long before Trump.

Many people now know or at least have to acknowledge the record amount of deportations Obama made during his presidency, but they then try to obfuscate that fact with misleading statistics and the argument that Obama tried to “concentrate on deporting felons”. The fact is the majority of those deported who had criminal convictions were not felons, but the crimes committed had something to do with immigration violations. As always, the Obama administration is being disingenuous and actively fooling people into thinking they are humane and care about human rights. This is the case when it comes to drone strikes (which I did an entire statistical project on, and the amount of civilian casualties under the Obama administration that are recorded is a shocking statistic, but that’s another story).

We must, as Cornel West continues to vigorously and courageously argue, oppose the Obama administration’s narrative that they were allies and protectors of people of color. When it comes to immigrants, yes Obama did pass the DAPA and DACA exemptions, but their record when it comes to immigration and deportation is clear. When it comes to the record on indigenous rights, on the rights of Native Americans, we know what Obama did with the Keystone and DAPL pipelines (until the very last minute when it could be overturned by Trump). We know what Obama’s record overseas was, a continued policy of more and more war, a continuation of Bush era foreign policy with a “human face”. Obama is the black face of American Empire. Last but no least, Obama’s progress when it comes to the prison-industrial complex, private prisons, and mass incarceration (and police brutality!) was minimal. As always, the definition of liberal Obama-era policies are HALF MEASURES.

It’s time to put an end to half-measures. It’s time to stop defending Obamacare, instead view it in light of what other countries actually have. It’s time to never vote for a neoliberal centrist Democrat ever again, in the primary OR in the general election. The time is NOW to send a message to Washington, enough with the corporatism, and enough with establishment politics. And its also time to put a name to what we want- democratic socialism. Yes, socialism, that dreaded word. Not Stalinism, but actual policies that redistribute wealth and put an end to American imperialist foreign policy. This intersection between economic and foreign policy is why immigration policy is so important, because illegal immigration is impacted primarily by the existence of horrible free trade policies like NAFTA which deregulates the market and floods foreign markets with cheap American goods, destabilizing Latin American economies and causing mass immigration crises. The immigration crisis in Europe is caused primarily by American empire in terms of our Middle East policy, a legacy of the Iraq War, and the immigration crisis here at home is primarily caused by Clinton era neoliberalism. This is a stark reality if you think about it, that many major problems in the world can be traced to American imperialism, but it makes sense when you look at the legacy of America in Guatemala, in Iran, in Indonesia, indeed everywhere. The legacy of the 20th century, the latter half of it, is the moral failure of American capitalism to deliver the promise of human rights, and it has continued to fail in the 21st century, and the “Hope and Change” promised by the Obama administration, something I sincerely wished for as a young 18 year old first time voter, failed to materialize. I was fooled by the smile of a politician once- never will I be fooled again. I am a proud socialist, and my heart belongs to the international movement of workers and people of all stripes against capitalist imperialist hegemony.