Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cognitive Dissidents

Sorry to be caught blogging again, not to mention riding this hobby horse once more, but I'd like to use up my monthly allotment of diacriticals to recommend this article by Slavoj Žižek at the London Review of Books (via). It's a discussion of the relationship between the Party and the government using a couple of famous Communist examples (he is reviewing a book called The Party, by Allen Lane), dwelling on the carefully held democratic fiction (as he calls it), especially prevalent in China, that the entities are separate, that the central role of the Communists remains the country's biggest open secret. Since you may have problems with the LRB link (it has made my computer implode five or six times now, although I can see the article on my Blackberry), here are some pull-quotes and paraphrases:

"One consequence of the [Chinese Communist] Party’s need to maintain hegemony is its close monitoring and regulation of the way Chinese history is presented, especially that of the last two centuries. [...] When history is used for the purposes of legitimation, it cannot support any substantial self-critique.[...]"

"The government and other state organs, ‘which ostensibly behave much as they do in many countries’, are centre stage: the Ministry of Finance proposes the budget, courts deliver verdicts, universities teach and award degrees, priests lead rituals. So, on the one hand, we have the legal system, the government, the elected national assembly, the judiciary, the rule of law etc. But on the other [...] we have the Party, which is omnipresent but always in the background [...] The Party committees (known as ‘leading small groups’) which guide and dictate policy to ministries, which in turn have the job of executing it, work out of sight. The make-up of all these committees, and in many cases even their existence, is rarely referred to in the state-controlled media, let alone any discussion of how they arrive at decisions."

"The irony is that the Party itself, its complex workings hidden from public scrutiny, is the ultimate source of corruption. The inner circle, comprising top Party and state functionaries as well as chiefs of industry, communicate via an exclusive phone network, the ‘Red Machine’ – possessing one of its unlisted numbers is a clear sign of one’s status. A vice-minister tells McGregor that ‘more than half of the calls he received on his “red machine” were requests for favours from senior Party officials, along the lines of: “Can you give my son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin or good friend and so on, a job?”’"

"This model will, of course, be criticised as being non-democratic. The ethico-political preference for a democratic model in which parties are – formally, at least – subordinate to state mechanisms falls into the trap of the ‘democratic fiction’. It ignores the fact that, in a ‘free’ society, domination and servitude are located in the ‘apolitical’ economic sphere of property and managerial power."

Žižek doesn't go to the next step here, to relate it to western democracies, and I want to be careful myself with those sorts of extrapolations. Obviously the U.S. is not China: we have no formal Party in place to secretly pull strings and direct both the government and economy. Whatever networks inform these things here are more de facto affairs, composed of, I think, the integrated total of individual or corporate acts of opportunism, as mild as padding a bonus or hiring your son-in-law, or as nasty as Dick Cheney's energy task force. The existence of a class on this continent that is both more capable and less encumbered by legal constraints than the rest of the citizenry might similarly appear to be a more free-form and emergent, an outgrowth of our establishment of separate legal classifications for businesses, investments, and property. There has been justification for this—companies do different things than citizens do, and there are advantages to forming groups of similar or competing interests which will naturally behave differently than individuals—and it's inevitable that any social institution will coalesce around its own jargon. But you know, all this was true of Communism too, and of the perceived need for Communism. In the U.S., there are limits to business success without moving into, employing, and acting within that loose network. It's not the same as The Party, but I see each manifestation as something consistent with a general human organizational behavior under the parameters of modern times (which doesn't get less boring the more I write about it). Whether the U.S. version has been based on egalitarian first-principles—which is one of our democratic fictions—or whether it's been designed from the get-go to enable an American-style class distinction is an open question. Personally, I don't think those aims have proved mutually exclusive.

It should probably also be noted that we have a different history of what those democratic fictions belie. Rarely has the United States approached Communist levels of murder and disappearance of political dissenters, and speech here remains relatively free, among other things—I'm happy that writing my conscience is unlikely to get me jailed. But that's not to say that everything is just awesome. [To point out the more obvious cracks in our democratic fiction, we shutter up the underclass at a rate six or seven times that of China, while looking the other way at a finance apparatus whose collective effect has been to claim jus primae noctis on our savings and assets as a condition of managing them, and we also hesitate to acknowledge this loose internal network that would rather avoid paying workers (or paying benefits for workers or other citizens) even while they want them to buy stuff (and let the people at large pick up the tab for punishing the deprivations of the destitute, among other externalities). We're also the most recent major power to cultivate a slave class, and we've rounded up and penned the indiginous people we didn't roll over or outright butcher. To say nothing of 200 years of dubious foreign adventures. No saints, us.] I don't want to sound too radical in this post, but let's admit we have our own brand of governing lies and undiscussed licenses. The tendency to avoid any substantial self-critique is what I am calling out as the similar thing.

I am sick of weaseling that a flawed democracy is better than anything else. The flaws suck. What gets me is that if there are any objective historians several hundred years from now, the social conditions of current empires will look obvious, or at least the will not be argued about too much: overextended military, insufficient domestic economy, costly maintenance of various forms of class segregation, and, probably, a wind-down of readily available fossil fuel energy. But when we're living in it, it's hard to see (I mean, how isn't seven and a half percent of the population in jail what oppression looks like?) and the discussion on those stark and universal terms isn't taken very seriously among people who would be criticized under them. To make a metaphor, we constantly bitch about the weather, and obsess over the mapped fronts and the three-day forecasts, when so many of the problems are really associated with the political climate. We can judge easily across geography too, calling out, as a hilarious example, the corruption of leaders who take money from other people than us. But looking at corruption at home? So much of the anger seems to miss its target, or even when it's pointed the right way, the target is too well-protected for it to matter. We can't easily believe how thoroughly we fail ourselves. We have too much invested in our own mythology here too.

(Title stolen from a William Gibson novel.)


Keifus said...

Sigh. I can't promise to completely shelve the subject right now, as I have a couple upcoming books to review (where it could happen, and where it did). But I need to remember that this sort of bullshit (the kind I'm complaining about, that is, not my post, although there's an argument there too) is no good for cultivating my garden.

LentenStuffe said...

A very nice summation. I like Zizek in spite of his quirks and idiosyncaries and think his analyses are provocative and insightful.

Here in Ireland we're dealing with the worst economic crisis in our history. It mirrors what happened in the US, bankers out of control, sub-prime lending, AWOL financial regulators and highly corrupt politicians, local governments, developers and builders. We're in an absolute shambles. The middle and lower classes will have to foot the bill and the government has created a fiction they call NAMA [National Assets Management Agency], which effectively means the citizens now own the inflated and unsellable properties that got us into the bubble.

Combine these failures with a host of reports outlining clerical sexual abuse for almost a century, a health care system that is totally banjaxed, an educational system that is being dismantled through incompetence, nepotism, cronyism and profligate corruption and you very quickly get the picture: all major institutions are flawed, broken, riddled with corruption and in need of a complete overhaul. Ireland was better off as a colony -- at least that way we couldn't altogether fuck things up.

I'm of the opinion that representative government, the fiction we call democracy, is inherently flawed and bankrupt. It has had its day and it doesn't work. Plus, it's been responsible for more war, death and destruction as any system of governance. The idea that the US was bringing this shitty, vacuous ideology to Iraq is ludicrous and pathetic. It doesn't work and it never worked in the US. It seems almost a truism that successful economies [Germany, Japan, China and at one time the USA] are inimical to the principle of democracy. Democracy is incompatible with its capitalist side-kick, but capitalism [as Zizek shows] is cnning enough to assimilate any ideology, patent it and regurgitate it again, repackaged for consumption. The world is doomed if it continues along the path of representative governments. I can't think of a single country where the model obtains where I wouldn't take all the elected thugs and house them in chains below in Guantanamo.

Bring back Hobbes, I say, and if that won't fly, then let us have the Greek city-state model, a return to self-sufficiency and healthy bartering. Fuck the rest of the world and who Angelina Jolie is adopting, or who St. Bono is saving. Let's how our own furrows and pray at last to Candide ... or Joe Pesci.

Oh, and nice to read you again. I'd nearly forgotten how enlighteningly eloquent you are.


LentenStuffe said...


Forgive my typos. They weren't intended ... and I still don't know how to spell dislecksia!

Keifus said...

Typos? I have a whole breakfast cereal's worth of grammaros, brainos, and editos up there. I wish I only had typos. Nice to see you too.

I was reading Howard Zinn last year. It didn't go down perfectly, but the things he was right about, he summed up succinctly and well. A couple of quotes stuck with me and fortunately I copied them: "Historically, the most terrible things--war, genocide, and slavery--have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience," which, given recent reports on civiliar war dead, it is hard to ignore. Hell, you could pick the news of any given month in the last century and something in it would make it hard to ignore. Also, "dependency on government has never been bad for the rich." I believe this is outlined well by the current financial climate in our respective countries. Do the assortment of smug fuckheads that once crowed about the Celitc Tiger still have cushy jobs? Almost certainly.

I'm philosophically impaired, as you may know--any Hobbes I'm comfortable with is what came down three-times filtered and is now such a part of the intellectual background that no one thinks to source it anymore. You're half-joking about the natural man thing, right, the famous quote? (He's also the one who came up with contractual theories of government, is that correct? I don't know to what extent I can agree with that.) By my thinking, it took civilized humans five or six thousand years to really make the effort pay off, mostly by discovering that life can be extended through basic hygiene. I mean, the luxury to think and philosophize, and get other things done, those have been great things, but the organization has enabled even worse things, and there have been second thoughts since that one guy decided to stay back and see if could make the corn grow back. Germ theory of disease may have finally gotten us over the hump. Or not.

Joe Pesci, philospher? Sixth time's a charm? They fuck you at the drive through? Can't argue with that.

Aaron said...

"I am sick of weaseling that a flawed democracy is better than anything else."

I am, too. Yes, you can make the point, and still be somewhat (but not completely) credible; that Republicanism/representative Democracy, as practiced in the United States and similar nations, is the best form of government out there. However, it does not follow from that that that our government is so perfect that any criticism of it must be indicative of a flaw in the critic, or that there are no reasonable improvements to be made. But I guess this is just more of what happens when politics and morality mix.

Keifus said...

I don't know if it's the best. It has a few very good points as these things go, but we typically rank around #20 these days on any relative measure that seems important (life expectancy, perception of corruption, quality of education, economic mobility, etc.). We're first on incarceration rate though, and we have some impressive historical baggage, which mightily contradicts the founding myths.

The countries John mentioned are doing some sort of pragmatic mixed ideological dealie typically. (And so are we.) Even from the limited palette of organizational models, some things seem to work better with a collective solution (like health insurance) or market-based ones (sending some cost signals I guess). Any reason why we can't at least tend to the handful of things that more or less work (for most of us)? Well, yes, but... Political science needs more empiricists and fewer theoreticians.

(And I think a lot of the negative behaviors are endemic to human organization anyway, no matter what ideas we pretend are underneath. To change things, it'd take an enormous shift in how we behave and perceive, a rare thing in human history.)

LentenStuffe said...

We accept so much bullshit out of habit or because irrational systems [with the holy imprimatur of tradition] are deemed irrefutable and sacrosanct: 'that's just how it is', the logic goes, or doesn't, and you must accept that the exercise of a franchise in a democracy is one of the most vacuous and futile exercises imaginable. Simply put, we are not represented and cannot be, and yet we seem to give our blessing to those who go forth in our name.

What's most pathetic is this notion that parties represent ideological difference -- you have mirror images screaming this canard across at one another. They aren't different. It's an illusion, Tory/Whig, Fianna Fail/Fianna Gael, Republican/Democrat, Labour/Liberal, Socialist/Union for a Popular Movement and SPD/CDU, etc, they're all the same, whores the whole lot of 'em.

The only way things will change is through bloodshed and who the hell wants that, right?

Keifus said...

You're right to the point, John. Next question is whether it's possible to get a little more (or cede a little less) from of the sham for the rest of us. I'll let you know if I figure that one out before bedtime.

When I saw the referenced corruption index numbers (from Transparency International--perceptions, and not a measured number; a higher rank is believed to be more corrupt), Ireland clocks in at #14, which and the U.S. at 22. Which may or may not amuse you.

LentenStuffe said...

Ireland is a complete banana republic. We were better off under the yoke of the Brits. They were never as corrupt as our own breed of greedy, self-serving bastards. Our Green Party went into coalition with their nemesis to form the present government and one of their first acts in power was to approve a motorway through the ancient historic site of Tara, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland. These slimy fuckers have only one reason to exist and that is to cost people money. No, Ireland is riddled to its core with corruption and our stairway to heaven now is unconditional corporate bailouts: once upon a time charity was something one gave to the poor; today, it's the troubled wealthy moguls that most merit Christian charity -- bail out the fat cats and forget about the poor.

I'm sickened at the way things have developed here ... and we try to be a 51st state. Wouldn't the US kindly invade us or nuke us or send in some of those black ops agents to take out our leprechauns-cum-politicians!

Keifus said...

That, sir, was a truly unsettling sight.