Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More (Apocalyptic) Thoughts -- In Long Form

In building this podcast/discussion enterprise, I am slowing realizing the value of "long form" material. Certainly my first podcast, which clocks in at roughly 1 hour 15 minutes, is a tangent from your standard "The Day in 100 Seconds" web fare. It may be my own self-righteous inclination to prosecute discussions in the same manner as one would patronize a potful of tea. To that end, I will make no apology for long-windedness, I will merely aim to make what I present to you worth your precious time.

Mea culpas aside, my reflections on the New Year® have wandered into darker territories, as the current political circus revs up for what promises to be a mind-bendingly elaborate insult to rational discourse. Author and journalist Chris Hedges appeared on C-SPAN on New Years Day to perform an impressive three-hour marathon of interview and caller questions (as has become C-SPAN's signature format for notable guests). He lays out a case, in first 15-or-so minutes, for the downfall of the American Empire and the rise of "Corporate Totalitarianism." Take a look here (apologies as C-SPAN's archive does not allow embedding):


For Hedges, the decline of the economic opportunity, as well as the erosion of civil liberties (and the pernicious cultural manipulation used to create popular consent for this disenfranchisement) are really a failure of institutions. Journalism, trade unions, populist politicians/legislation; these are the firewalls that once insulated the vulnerable citizenry from political and economic dispossession, but are now lost to decades of concerted class warfare by the corporate elite.

Hedges view is certainly not unique. His is essentially a Chomskyan worldview, delivered through the experiences of the baby boomer generation, informed by the dissent of such figures as I.F. Stone and Dwight Macdonald, all with a dash of Liberation Theology-flavored radicalism. He certainly makes all of the tell-tale allusions to anarcho-syndicalism (the Wobblies) as well as to the Bernays/Lippman program of the "manufacture of consent." Hedges also has the distinction of a front-line journalist, which can produce an understandably bleak (but well informed) critique of powerful institutions.

While Hedges laments the "slow motion" destruction of the tools available to popular movements to affect change, he ultimately concludes (as he does in his 2009 book 'Empire of Illusion') that hope rests solely in mass popular movements, akin to the labor struggles of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

This strikes me as another case of "Chomsky's Wager." Legendary author and activist Noam Chomsky has long maintained that given the proper education, the masses will grow to understand the blatant contradictions between our national self-image (freedom and democracy) and the actions carried out by those who purport to work in furtherance of these ideals. Ultimately, these revelations will give rise to a populist moral imperative to eschew the misguided violence and control that these institutions utilize, and either co-opt them or abolish them outright in a wave of mass actions.

On the subject of Chomsky's Wager, I am ambivalent. I am skeptical of the redemptive power of a righteous mob in service of objective truth (for reasons which I should not need to expand upon here). A set of assumptions underlies the surety of Chomsky's solution, the foremost of which is that societies of a sufficiently large size possess the capacity to undergo such gargantuan shifts of public consciousness. The emotional fervor evoked by American patriotism and nationalism within the electorate are powerful, if not insurmountable.

Also, I find it dubious that Americans, despite the gradual dissolution of their rights, who live in an uncommonly open and prosperous society would seek to destabilize their immediate material and social lives for an alien and unfamiliar future. Their economic safety net, albeit a crumbling one, is reinforced by a comforting ideological safety net, which is so persuasive that seemingly no amount of military aggression, domestic repression and economic disenfranchisement has yet been able to unseat. The American dream is an enduring delusion.

In contrast to Hedge's gambit, I humbly direct you to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Last year, Zizek appeared on a Dutch television program to expound on ideas from his book "Living in the End Times." Watch the master at work:

Zizek's unique political and social perspective is born out of the turmoil of Soviet-era Yugoslavia. He is known primarily for his study (and appropriation) of the French Psychoanalyst Jacque Lacan's cultural theories and as labeling himself as an unapologetic Communist. For Zizek, the problem is (and always has been) ideological in nature, as it is ideologies that create and sustain the semiotics and mythologies that comprise our sense of self. As Zizek is fond of repeating "It is not what lies in the wheelbarrow, it is the wheelbarrow itself."

It is our vulnerability to adopting factually falsities (the example in the above video of the hedge fund millionaire, claiming the market wasn't allowed to work because government intervened) that is the trademark of ideology. It is the propensity for the simplistic, false, and irrational to supersede the quest for truth. Zizek often uses a dialectical method of analyzing cultural phenomena, looking at the obverse as well as the inverse.

I appreciate the way it was put by H.L. Mencken: "For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong."

Viewing our crisis from a Marxist perspective, Zizek links the ideological issue to that of our economic system. He claims that recent economic crisis was decried by Capitalism's apologists that "tr[ied] to put the blame on how we were not faithful enough to the fundamentals of the system." Zizek goes on to state that "...Capitalism today is a matter of religion, in the sense of it's built on trust." In other words, our failures amounted to a problem a lack of devotion to the Church of Capitalism, not that the problem might be Capitalism itself.

Ultimately, Zizek concludes that "[n]either the market nor the state... will do the job..." of rescuing us from ourselves. Zizek does offer a solution, however it is difficult to know whether or not to take him seriously. He calls for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" to be sole hope of human social liberation.

His critics accuse him, and rightly so, of sometimes espousing contradictory positions in his meandering and raving polemics, but like Marx himself, the methods he uses to frame the problems may be more valuable than the solutions offered. My own view on Hedges and Zizek lies somewhere in between.

Ideology represents the single greatest achievement of the human species (the ability for different tribes to organize around common principles) and has led to much of the advancements that we hold dear. But the ideologies of our past, as well as the institutions we build to sustain them past the lifespan of any single human, die hard. The speed of information, the quickening of the pace of communication and the shortening of attention point us towards quick hits, not long games. The pining for the old newspaper, the proud union, or the inspired political party betray our inchoate desire for the benevolent dictator; if only we found the CEO/president/spiritual leader that understands us best, the future could be salvaged. Perhaps the secret is not to look for salvation at all.

The little apocalypses we create may merely be visions of our personal ends. And the future may be beset by chaos; we are buzzing little bees without a queen.

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