Categories
Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction

The Administration of Identity Vs. The Experience of Identity (A Series, Part 1 of 4)

I want to talk about the difference between what we experience and what we study about experience. On this topic, many will feel that I should provide evidence and build a persuasive argument. There is certainly a place for that, but it aint Facebook, it aint in a personal essay, and it sure as hell aint on my front lawn. The thought that drives this essay could be summed up as “peoples is peoples and feels is feels.”

I have a friend who complained on Facebook that her male colleagues refused to go through doors she held open for them.  She asked her Facebook friends to help her come up with a retort, because these men were promoting the patriarchy by insisting on outdated, sexist chivalry.  What followed was a lively discussion among many women, all of whom implicitly agreed that the point was to call these men out for being sexist. Let us assume that in the way “micro-aggressions,” or small interactions, contribute to larger narratives, men not walking through doors women hold open for them does indeed promote patriarchal norms that are oppressive to women (this could be argued, but let’s not argue it here). While it would seem at the outset that the way forward would be to deconstruct this sexist act and through this determine the best course of action, including how best to respond, this process actually has very little to do with experience, and much more to do with administration and policy making. The administration of identity and the experience of identity are two very different things that need to be treated differently. The question of how to respond to a man who won’t walk through a door you hold open for him is different than the question of how to minimize the number of micro-aggressions against women.  You are not a category (women) and he is not merely a representation of all sexist micro-aggressions.

If we were to respond to this situation experientially, though, we might see something like this-

W: It bugs me when I hold open the door and you don’t walk through, because it makes me feel like you don’t [take me seriously/see me as your peer/like me very much].
M: Sorry! I was just trying to be polite.
[M proceeds to walk through the door]

In this instance, we are talking about experience, and not about large movements that come out of the academy and activist frameworks. Despite the fact that nobody said “micro-aggression,” “patriarchy,” “sexism,” or “feminism,” this was an example of two people addressing all of these things, from an experiential perspective. This is what actually living is actually like, which is separate from the study of living.  What the experiential perspective demands of us is emotional honesty.  It is my on-the-record opinion that it is easier to accuse someone of being sexist than admit that someone has hurt your feelings. But relying on administrative wrongs (those patterns of actions or policies which have been institutionalized culturally that promote injustice) abstracts oneself into a mere category, at which point, there’s no individual to have hurt or to have wronged, there’s only the idea of a particular group of people. You can no longer retort anything at all, because a category can’t talk. Moreover, it is in fact just as sexist, if not more so, to erase the female self in order to make an argument about oppression against females.

All of this is true, I think, and grounds for speaking from a personal place when you feel hurt, angered or alienated by someone else’s actions. But the most important reason to live life as oneself and not as some broader abstraction is that the point of the whole mess, just about everything there is, is the strange and wonderful beauty that is you encountering the world. You are the individual, inherently deviant from the categories to which you belong, you are the only thing like you this world will ever see.

Live that. Experience that.

Categories
Non-Fiction

Rescuing Safe Spaces from Rhetorical Bullshit

Guys. Listen. I know I said I wasn’t going to get into my thoughts on the University of Chicago letter, but, despite the fact that I consider myself a huge skeptic when it comes to safe spaces, I am really taken aback by some of the sentiments expressed against them. My issue with safe spaces is pretty simple: I’m not convinced they can actually exist. I’m not sure that a safe space for women is inclusive of all women, I’m not sure that a safe space for LGBTQ+ folks can be inclusive of anyone who self identifies as any of those labels. The simple fact is that even within the same categories, individuals express themselves differently, hence the word “individual,” and it’s quite possible for a gay republican to get into a fight with female-identified male bodied radical leftist in the LGBTQ+ center. For example. I have no idea how you could construct a safe space outside of the one we already know exists: that space which emerges when you get together with people who know you well and who love you, be they friends, romantic partners, teachers, or family. I have no idea how you could create a space that reproduced that as a constant, for any given category of people. To my mind, there is an non-resolvable tension between needing to be inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Therefore, it seems to me that each individual must be tasked with finding his or her own safe space.  But for heaven’s sake, I’d love to be proven wrong.

What has taken me aback, I mean really surprised me, is the way the people who oppose safe spaces seem to think that it is a natural part of adulthood to feel sad, hurt, angry or alienated. This is simply what it means to be a grownup. You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. YOUR TEARS ARE THE NEW ROUTINE.  I mean, it’s preposterous. Forget all the damn isms, forget Israel/Palestine, forget social justice. It is true that institutional or societal oppression is one reason why you might need a safe space, but another is a bad break up, feeling insecure around your peers, a death or illness, anxiety or depression, or just wanting a place to feel like you can be you.

And the thing is: The University of Chicago isn’t even saying that. The university is talking about intellectual safe spaces, which definitely don’t exist. UChicago is merely affirming that it will continue to invite speakers promoting offensive ideas, along with all kinds of other speakers promoting all kinds of other ideas, while its community engages in the tough work of challenging boundaries together. That ain’t safe, nor should it be.  If we are going to critique the letter, it should be on the grounds of entirely failing to provide context for its statement — events which occurred on the University of Chicago’s campus and other campus across the country — and it failed to observe that its responsibility extends not only to intellectual growth, but also social development, and had it addressed that important point, it surely would have to acknowledge that in the context of social life (civic, personal, and etc), safe spaces are important.

What’s my point? My point is: stop being dicks in the name of cynicism.

Categories
Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction

Postmodern Cynicism and the Oppressive Idea.

In a speech about gun control this year, President Obama referred to the body politic. He asserted that far from being inappropriate, a national tragedy is a good time to politicize experience. We may wonder what it means to “politicize” something and why that might be disrespectful. There are certain kinds of relationships that might suffer from being politicized. For example, LGBTQ+ relationships are both personal — peoples’ love lives — and political. It is possible to trespass into the personal by politicizing a particular relationship, as opposed to a category of relationships. This is an important distinction. The body politic deals with experience at the categorical level, it cannot speak to the personal experience and when it tries to do so, this is inappropriate politicizing. However, certain specific events can lead to appropriate discussions of categories. Obama argued that mass shootings in the United States have become a category, they can now be discussed as such without trespassing into the personal experiences of particular individuals. It is only through such politicization that we can begin to administrate at the categorical level — that is, for example, pass gun legislation. The common argument made against politicization is the use of people’s real experiences towards some agenda, which may result in a lack of recognition of the people themselves as one’s purposes may be self serving, after all. But the real opposition to the body politic is not the personal experience; it’s cynicism.

There are — on the Left, anyway — many well known factors that contribute to the ability to effectively create better conditions for oneself. To the extent that these factors are unequally distributed, they make up what we call privilege. We argue that because underprivileged individuals do not have equal power in representing themselves, those people who have privilege must use it as leverage on behalf of those who don’t. During her DNC speech, Michelle Obama observed that the fact that her girls lived in the White House was an indicator of stunning progress, because the White House was built by slaves. This progress, then, could not have happened without people who were willing to use their privileged positions to take a stand against slavery, and discrimination, and segregation.  For much of American history, on the Left, this kind of change was seen as profitable for everyone, not only the disempowered folks. The notion was that today it is you, but tomorrow it could be me. When we fight for better conditions for any group of people, we fight for the right for better conditions for all people.

Today, we have a new notion, we refer to people who use their privilege to better the conditions of people who are underprivileged as allies. Inherent in the idea of the ally is a lack of shared experience, it differs from the earlier notion in that it does not assume that tomorrow, it could be me. Rather, there are distinct islands of populations, whose islandic natures actually mutually constitute each other through experience. That is to say, because we cannot speak to the experience of populations we are not part of, the existence of the experience of each particular population is what ensures its separation from other populations. The mutually enforced ocean around each island of experience is called freedom. Compelled to respect this space, we must also accept that there is a “way things are.” We cannot reconstitute or reimagine this map, we certainly can’t bring these islands together under the banner of a common category — the notion of the ally hinges on the idea that the ally himself is not in the same category as the population(s) he defends. There is, has been, and may always be the category of the oppressed, or actual victims. But there was once also a category into which both the privileged and the underprivileged fell — the category of potential victims. It no longer exists, and so mutual interest cannot be used to justify collective action. The lack of mutuality expresses itself among the “woke” privileged as cynicism, and this cynicism becomes the justification for a lack of action altogether.

Cynicism simultaneously claims a consciousness and disclaims a conscientiousness. To be cynical, one must be aware of a poor condition; it is necessary to perceive its existence in order to believe that it cannot be changed. At the heart of the change of any condition is the expectation of the change, and a feeling of entitlement to the change. But maintaining this expectation is cooperative in nature — it requires developing a resistant norm shared and mutually constituted by those who seek the change.  This is a particular form of conscientiousness that cynicism invalidates.  A cynical person does not feel entitled to any change, rather he feels as though the right change is never going to happen.

It is therefore my assertion that cynicism among the privileged is, itself, a form of oppression. It actively tears apart the norms which guide collective resistance, those norms which are local to the particular type of community that embodies resistance. Moreover, the ally is an expression of this same cynicism because it assumes an inherent lack of collective, and provides a kludgy alternative — a federation of islands insisting that their genuinely different experiences means there can be no more general category to which they all belong.  This insistence that we must be aliens unto each other is the same as the insistence that the right change is never going to happen. We can only achieve better conditions for underprivileged folks by acknowledging the thin, carefully constructed line which divides the privileged from the oppressed. This line has moved so often throughout the course of history, it behooves us to realize that there are no allies. There is only the universal human right to be free from oppression and discrimination on the basis of those things which are inherent to us. The belief that there is a power structure which is static and untouchable in nature, whose objectives do not shift across populations, is a weird postmodern cynicism. It is weird because it insists that particular power constructs are immutable on the basis of deconstructionist ideologies. But the definitions promoted by these constructs change over time and are thus deeply mutable. It is this postmodern cynicism that wrenches the resisting collective apart by transforming it into “allies.” It is this postmodern cynicism that injures the body politic by preventing it from any movement. It is this postmodern cynicism that is, itself, oppressive.

Categories
Non-Fiction

A Non-Theist Perspective on Forgiveness

Forgiveness is not possible except as it might follow redemption, but redemption erases the very possibility of forgiveness by transcending the possibility of wrongdoing. What we forgive is not what has occurred but the sudden and invasive introduction of the possibility that such a thing might occur. If we could be assured that the offensive action had breathed its last, would not revive itself again in the future, that indeed the person who committed the offensive action was not proving himself to be a type of person but merely a person who had committed one, non-repeating action, we should be more or less mollified from the first cognizance of the action. Only we cannot forgive someone for something he has not done yet, nor can we forgive him for realizing a particular possibility of wrongdoing in our perception, as the realization itself was a product of a process inside oneself and not one that he himself manufactured.  Should he of his own accord reconstitute an impression of himself that causes one, in the natural course of events, to cast off the threat of the possibility previously introduced, he has then redeemed himself and there is no cause for forgiveness, for the presence of the looming possibility of offensive action which had itself been the cause of the conflict is simply no longer an influencing factor.

In acknowledging that forgiveness is not possible, we are able to see clearly that by wrongly insisting on its possibility, we have made the grave mistake of denying the possibility of redemption. That is, we have denied the possibility of a person to change on his own merit, for the better.  Indeed, he who argues forgiveness claims authority over the moral culpability of others, an authority that cannot belong to him any more than control of the earth’s rotation.  Rather, we should be glad for each other that we are people who learn instead of people who are forgiven. This has long been considered heretical, but it has been true for even longer than it has been heretical:  the reification of forgiveness is the proper effect of the commitment to the false and harmful illusion of original sin. Indeed, there is no sin, whether collaborative or individual, which is original, none which is inherent, and therefore none which can be forgiven. We cannot oppose sin with forgiveness, for the two depend upon each other. Rather, we can only confront sin with those virtuous human faculties which allow us to overcome it, to learn how to be better.

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Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction

Making Way for the Neoliberal State: Theoretical and Practical Origins

The emergence of the neoliberal state has been attributed to numerous causes, prominent among them are economists in the academy and the tension between strong centralized governance and business interests.  David Harvey argues that key politicians and corporations led to the rise of the neoliberal state. Harvey’s account of the events and intents of the times is not always organized well and occasionally contradicts itself. His main contentions are that the neoliberal state is a product of class war, in which businesses learned how to represent themselves as a class, and that neoliberalism itself was not planned in the same way, for example, The New Deal was – it was ‘stumbled upon.’ Countering Harvey is Daniel Stedman Jones, who argues nearly the opposite, that the neoliberal state exists in large part due to economists in the academy who wrote the political economic theory and then personally advised the policy makers, including Reagan and Thatcher. For Stedman Jones, there was nothing accidental or coincidental about neoliberalism and least of all, the neoliberal state. What Harvey and Stedman Jones have in common is the belief that the origins of the neoliberal state can be traced back to a small group of key people and events. There is a third argument, asserted by Johanna Bockman, that is provocative and unusual but most importantly, methodologically different. Bockman argues that neoliberalism as a governing rationale has roots in socialism and contains certain socialist ideologies within it, still. Her discussion of the origins of the neoliberal state are premised on the idea that neoliberalism did not emerge out of a vacuum due to the need to oppose socialist constructs, but rather that socialist ideas transformed into neoliberal ideas in response to heavy criticism of socialism after World War II. The method here is not one that focuses on particular events or people, but rather examines the conditions of the time as agents themselves, and sees the individual actors and events as necessarily following the conditions.          While all three historians have narratives that converge at many points, where they absolutely diverge is in their analyses of the relationship between theory and praxis in the development of the neoliberal state. This paper will compare the different historians’ accounts of the origins of neoliberalism, and will argue that a method which premises itself on the notion that there is a causal relationship between ideas and practices will always lead to stronger conclusions.

I. David Harvey’s Neoliberalisms

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey gives us a densely populated account of the persons and events that figured prominently in the rise of the neoliberal state in the West. Neither chronological, nor thematically driven, this small volume requires a surprising amount of mapping by the reader. For this reason, certain contradictions within his work were perhaps more immediately apparent. The gravest contradiction might be between definitions of neoliberalism. At the outset, Harvey defines it as promoting the welfare of citizens through individual freedom specifically as it relates to the search for profit, within a state that guarantees the free market, strong private property rights and free trade.  For Harvey, this is a strong state in a certain sense – it uses force to defend the rights of the individual, as opposed to defending a concept of ‘society.’ It also is obligated to create markets where none exist – this is the particular and strange strength to institute and enforce inequality. But for Harvey, this is also a restrained government. It has no power to work towards a public good, or even to conceive a public good, outside of the individual’s right to promote his own interests.[1]
Eighteen pages later, Harvey uses the word “neoliberalization” to describe the political project of class war. He argues that businesses learned how to act as a class, and that the “elites” went from being what we commonly refer to as old money, or aristocrats in Britain, to being capitalists. But in so doing, he is thrusting upon us a new definition of neoliberalism in which the individual is not the greatest benefactor of the free market, but in fact one economic class is, the business class. The key difference between Harvey’s first definition and his second is that the first is a theory, and the second describes actions taken by various real parties.  It is possible to present a theoretical definition followed by a definition in practical terms that are consistent with each other. But what Harvey is actually arguing here is that neoliberalism as it is practiced has no relationship to neoliberal theory. The political project of neoliberalism is carried out by actors who are mainly interested in the accumulation of capital. The accumulation of capital is one of Harvey’s definitions of Capitalism; the other is economic inequality. There is more trouble though, as Harvey also contends that neoliberalism was not foreseen, arguing that even as business interests became dominant, due to a stagnant economy and the failure of Keynesian policies, “no one really knew or understood with any certainty what kind of answer would work and how.”[2] It is thus not that the business class is co-opting neoliberal theory for its own interests, it is that in fact there are two different neoliberalisms emerging, the one in the literature, and the political project, and they remain largely disconnected in Harvey’s work.
The second contradiction in Harvey appears in his discussion of when neoliberalism finally emerges as doctrine in an explicit way. This is a stark contradiction in the book, where he argues first that, “The capitalist world stumbled towards neoliberalization as the answer through a series of gyrations and chaotic experiments that really converged as a new orthodoxy with the articulation of what became known as the ‘Washington Consensus’ in the 1990s,”[3] and nine pages later that, “the dramatic consolidation of neoliberalism as a new economic orthodoxy regulating public policy at the state level in the advanced capitalist world occurred in the United States and Britain in 1979.”[4] This poses a problem for the reader who tries to map out Harvey’s narrative because in the 1990s, Bill Clinton is deregulating Wall Street, and in 1979, Paul Volcker is dramatically changing monetary policy in the U.S., and Harvey is mainly arguing that it is the events that gave rise to the neoliberal state, and not any kind of intellectual or theoretical framework. There is yet a third point where Harvey suggests that neoliberalism becomes the dominant political economic ideology during George W. Bush’s administration, when Paul Bremer restructures the economy in Iraq under neoliberal policy, privatizing all the public business and foreign or global ownership of Iraq’s private sector. This the reader can safely rule out as the pivotal moment, however, because it is in 2003, which is far too late for such a moment.
This is the great problem for Harvey’s work– in a narrative devoid of any theoretical or intellectual basis, indeed a narrative in which the think tanks and theorists are merely tools of the political interests, Harvey must rely on pivotal moments to move his narrative forward, which requires a chronological recounting that does not contradict itself.  A narrative about a neoliberal state that emerges on the basis of a cooperation between some kind of intellectual platform and some kind of political platform could have contradicted itself without necessarily being wrong. While it is not entirely clear how neoliberalism becomes the dominant governing rationale in Harvey’s account, there are several events he highlights that are worth mentioning here. One strength of A Brief History of Neoliberalism is that it gathered much of the events in the United States and England in the seventies and eighties into a single volume, allowing the reader to see the political constellations, if not the causal conditions, of the neoliberal state. Due to the remarkably dedicated focus on the events themselves by Harvey, his work – after a chronological remapping – provides an excellent frame of reference for reading Stedman Jones and Bockman. What follows is a rough timeline of events leading to the emergence of the neoliberal state in the West, as originally aggregated by Harvey, and paraphrased and organized chronologically by this author.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Keynesian policies came under scrutiny as the U.S. economy experienced “stagflation,” the condition in which unemployment rises along with inflation, and demand stagnates. During this time, in the U.S., capitalist interests gain power. Certain economists, including the “Chicago Boys,” who belong to the University of Chicago’s school of thought under Milton Friedman, form a group called the “Monday club” which seeks neoliberal economic reform in Chile. In 1973, in Chile, under Pinochet, the first neoliberal state is instantiated. The coup is supported by both public agencies and private corporations in the U.S. After Pinochet rises to power, labor movements are eliminated with force, and collectivism itself comes under attack in numerous places. This experiment in deregulating the labor market and dismantling collectivist efforts is ultimately a massive failure, which for Harvey exists as an example of U.S. imperialism – using Chile as a laboratory for high ideals while regarding its citizens as less-than. In part because of this failure, and in part because of the Democratic Congress under Nixon, many Keynesian reforms were signed into law in the early seventies. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher takes office in England. She had campaigned on fixing the economy. Under the influence of Keith Joseph, who was essentially a vocal polemicist with connections to the British neoliberal think tank called the Institute of Economic Affairs, she campaigned against collectivism, and supported individualism and family values. This manifested in policy as “confronting trade union power, attacking all forms of social solidarity that hindered competitive flexibility (such as those expressed through municipal governance, and including the power of many professionals and their associations), dismantling or rolling back the commitments of the welfare state, the privatization of public enterprises (including social housing), reducing taxes, encouraging entrepreneurial, initiative, and creating a favourable business climate to induce a strong inflow of foreign investment (particularly from Japan).”  Thatcher went as far as to say that there was no society, only the individual and his or her family.[5]
Also in 1979, Paul Volcker, serving as the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, significantly changed U.S. monetary policy, in order to stop inflation. This created an economic recession that was required, in Volcker’s view, to get out of the current economic crisis – the stagflation. The change in policy would become known as “the Volcker shock.” As a direct result of the Volcker shock, in the early eighties, Mexico went into default with the U.S., and the Reagan administration rolled over the debt in return for the neoliberal restructuring of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Volcker had advocated for.[6]
The neoliberal policies instantiated by the Reagan administration during the eighties mirrored the response to the fiscal crisis in New York in the seventies, featuring the criminalization of the poor, the privatization of public spaces and services, and the reshaping of civic duty into economic productivity. Bill Clinton deregulated Wall Street in the nineties, and finally, in the early 2000s, the Bush administration turned to Iraq and instantiated its neoliberal reforms on the international level.[7]

II. Daniel Stedman Jones and the Theoretical Foundations of the Neoliberal State

Harvey provided a comprehensive, if not chronological, account of the events leading to the neoliberal state that emerges in the seventies and eighties in the U.S. and Britain. But the theoretical underpinnings are not present in Harvey’s work. In Masters of the Universe, Daniel Stedman Jones uncovers the primary thinkers and writings that as Hayek noted, created the alternatives to be seized by the politicians when Keynesian policy failed. This theory first begins to be articulated in the forties by three people in particular: Karl Popper, Ludwig Von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek. These scholars are mainly interested in redefining liberalism after WWII, with a focus on moving away from centralized governance and socialism.[8]

They sought to define a new market liberalism that opposed both the New Deal on the one hand and laissez-faire economics on the other. Hayek wrote an essay titled “The Intellectual and Socialism,” in which he successfully argued that a network of thinkers, writers, and media had to be developed to advocate for this new market liberalism, and to oppose the present and powerful network that socialist interests had long since developed. This led to the formation of the “Mont Pelerin Society,” named after the place of their first meeting. In the statement of the group’s principles, Lionel Robbins, an economist at the London School of Economics wrote, “The central values of civilization are in danger. Over large stretches of the earth’s surface the essential conditions of human dignity and freedom have already disappeared. In others they are under constant menace from the development of current tendencies of policy. The position of the individual and the voluntary group are progressively undermined by extensions of arbitrary power.”[9] Many of these scholars were Eastern European, and had either fled Europe during WWII or stayed under duress. Stedman Jones argues that this was foundational in these thinkers’ dislike of the New Deal, and collective solutions to social problems generally. Stedman Jones sees plurality as being fundamental to freedom for the Mont Pelerin Society, and one-size-fits-all solutions to social problems oppose the very fact of plurality. This should not be confused with traditionally Democratic notions of political equality. Indeed, Hayek suggested that the West should be wary of Jewish immigrants because they were kicked out of Europe on the basis of their Jewishness, not because of any particular dislike for totalitarianism.[10]

In 1963, Milton Friedman publishes a book called Monetary History of the United States with Anna Jacobson Schwartz. In this book, Friedman’s main intellectual argument is that the variable the government can reasonably predict and control in the economy is interest. Where, under Keynesianism, it was concerned with the full employment of its citizenry, it should instead be concerned with unnecessary inflation, which acts as an invisible tax. Friedman would go on to advise both Reagan and Thatcher. [11]

This makes up the theoretical basis for neoliberalism, but there are a number of factors inside the economic crises that arise that are not merely theoretical which are not addressed directly by Stedman Jones. The seventies and eighties in the U.S. and Britain are characterized by Friedman’s monetarism, and the right wing interest in neoliberal policy. While thinkers in the forties and fifties had articulated an interest in the free market and a definite move away from collective solutions to social problems, they had not gone so far as argue that the free market itself was a solution to social problems. Some were even sympathetic with national solutions to issues such as healthcare and education, essentially advocating for collective solutions only to collective problems, insofar as the uneducated and the unwell were a burden on productivity for everyone. But they offered no political systems or programs at all, theirs was merely theory. In the seventies and eighties, the right needed more than new fiscal policy to get elected. Democracy demanded the construction of consent, and in order to get this is the United States, the Republican party turned to the Christian, moral right. The right had the advantage of not being afraid to represent the strong majority of its constituents, whereas the left had the problem by the very fact of its ideology that it owed equal representation to each of its demographics of constituents. Moreover, these democratic values were coming under fire in places like New York City, where daily life was affected negatively by what was perceived as the same populations who composed these demographics. As a result of criminalizing poverty, drugs, and then later AIDS, large populations of people were ravaged, and this in combination with the rising violence and the defacing of public spaces (the ‘graffiti crisis’) informed a growing resentment by the middle class of the Democratic values and the welfare state, which made them financially responsible for these problems. Privatization became a way for Democrats to reclaim space. There were, thus, a number of political and strategic actors that, when Keynesian policies finally failed in the mid-seventies, put in significant work into the creation of the neoliberal state.

Stedman-Jones argues that none of that work would have been possible without the foundational theory that was developed by the network Hayek had advocated for, after WWII and before the end of the cold war.  For Stedman Jones, neoliberalism and the neoliberal state are largely products of intellectual discourse, and not of tensions between statesmen and businessmen. He sees financial crises as instigating change, but the theory written by Hayek, Popper, Von Mises, and Friedman, among others, as having shaped that change, and some of those intellectuals themselves dictating it as advisors to politicians. Stedman-Jones’s argument, unlike Harvey’s, is much less interested in how a democracy becomes neoliberal, and is a lot more concerned with which ideas from which small group of thinkers heralded comprehensive change. While the intellectual grounding of neoliberal theory is absolutely essential to understanding its rise in politics in the seventies and eighties, it is also undoubtedly true that in addition to the theory, there was needed some charisma, some charm, some good rhetorical arguments and all the other props of popular politics.

III. Johanna Bockman and The Road Between

Johanna Bockman argues that economists in the East and the West consciously attempted not only to explicate a theory of neoliberalism but also to design systems that could be instantiated based upon this theory. She argues that in 1989, capitalist interests essentially caused a reneging of commitments to socialist agendas which might otherwise have seen the rise of socialist democratic markets, as opposed to representative democratic markets. Among the ways in which neoliberalism has socialist seeds within it are its opposition to work – its turn to finance, its monetarism and its prospecting via investment, have together transformed even traditionally production focused areas of the economy into ones that look to find profit via other means than labor. Rather than guaranteeing this as a right for everyone though, as communism does, capitalism – which can only subsist on economic inequality — only promises this to the ‘elites,’ or the upper most economic classes, and what it promises everyone else is the possibility that one day, they might be elites themselves. Bockman also argues that like certain strains of socialism, neoliberalism is actually interested in an authoritarian state, but a smaller one. The authoritarian state in neoliberalism is one that ensures the free market, no matter what, even when Main Street and large swaths of the globe suffer. It has the appearance of authoritarianism that we are familiar with, through the cutting of welfare services and the reduction of public space, but disguises this by asserting that it is protecting plurality, the freedom of the individual.  Most important to Bockman’s argument in socialism’s role in shaping neoliberalism are the socialists themselves. She argues that even Hayek’s neoliberal theory is based in the Austrian school, and that the economists of Eastern Europe when they were finally able to communicate with the left wing economists in the West, towards the end of the cold war, were working together towards socially democratic markets. It wasn’t until 1989, for Bockman, that these left-wing ideas were co-opted by the right to form the neoliberalism we know today.  That the ideas these economists generated were reconfigured for the right wing agenda means that the true origins of neoliberalism are, for Bockman, left wing and transnational.[12]
This argument would face strong critique from Harvey, who sees neoliberalism as largely a political project of the United States and England. If neoliberalism is exported to, or experimented on other countries, this is simply imperialism, and any relationship to foreign economists is necessarily one in which the Western powers are dominant. Stedman Jones, however, agrees with Bockman, in terms of the contribution of socialist economists to neoliberal theory. He sees both the United States and England as being heavily influenced by Germany’s successful experiments with the social market after World War II.  Stedman Jones uses Smith to point out that the fiscal views of neoliberalism do not inherently oppose the notion of a centralized government. Only when the same principles which are applied to the economy in neoliberalism are also applied to the citizen can centralized governance be ruled out.[13]
Where Bockman’s argument is strongest is in method; we need not resort to showing that German economists and American economists were on the verge of saving the world together to suggest that what socialism was doing influenced what neoliberalism set out to do, and moreover, that any theory which follows any other theory in its own field will necessarily carry with it something from whence came, like DNA. There is a method here for thinking about how change occurs that is often overlooked because of the narrowness of discipline or the desire for depth that precludes a broader discussion of transformation. Of the authors here, Bockman is the only one who suggests that there had to be a path, intellectually, from centralized government and the welfare state to small government and the free market, and that this path, by definition, connects socialism and socialist democracy to neoliberalism and representative democracy. While her discussion of specific events, and her focus on 1989 as the moment when the present neoliberal state emerged are interesting, her assertions about the socialist ideas inside neoliberalism are far more compelling, because of the immediate sense they bring to the transition from Keynesianism to neoliberalism. The explication of the ideological transformation justifies the events and theorists’ ideas in both Harvey and Stedman Jones.

IV. Conclusion

Harvey, Stedman Jones, and Bockman each present a narrative that details the emergence of the neoliberal state. For Harvey, it was the mad stumbling of capitalist interests and the politicians who came to support them when Keynesianism failed. Stedman Jones argued that it was a particular set of individuals in the academy in Britain and the U.S. from the forties through the sixties that brought neoliberal policy to the fore.  Finally, Bockman asserted that the conditions in which economists found themselves after WWII forced them to transform socialist conceptions of economy. For Bockman, neoliberalism has socialist ideas within it, and its roots were socialist as well.
Each of these authors explicates an important aspect of the emergence of the neoliberal state. In each case, the historians’ conclusions are strongest when they present a complex relationship between theory and praxis. It is neither enough to say that business interests dominated politics in the mid-seventies, nor to say that the Austrian or Chicago schools of economics guided the political economic policy of the seventies and eighties by themselves. Nor is it sufficient to argue that a transnational market socialism developed by economists in Eastern Europe and the United States bears sole responsibility for the rise of the neoliberal state. Rather the difficulty comes exactly in analyzing the relationship between the theory and the events, the conditions and the choices, the academics and the politicians. There is a causal relationship between published theory, the conditions of the time, and the actions of the people. The emergence of the neoliberal state must thus be put down to this relationship, and any narrative must make its central focus an analysis of this relationship in order to succeed.

[1] Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Pg. 2. OUP Oxford, 2005.

[2] Ibid, Pg. 13

[3] Ibid, Pg. 13

[4] Ibid, Pg. 22

[5] Ibid, Pg. 23

[6] Ibid, Pg. 23-24

[7] Ibid, Pg. 29

[8] Jones, Daniel Stedman. Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics. Pg. 31. Princeton University Press, 2014.

[9] Robbins, Lionel. “Statement of Aims.” MPS. April 8, 1947. Accessed May 14, 2016. https://www.montpelerin.org/statement-of-aims/.

[10] Stedman Jones, Pg. 36.

[11] Ibid, Pg. 202

[12] Bockman, Johanna. Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism. Pg. 218-221 Stanford University Press, 2011.

[13] Stedman Jones, Pg. 103

Categories
Non-Fiction

Individualism Vs. The Individual

 Choice seems to be the domain of the individual, and the form of his expression. We often think that groups, like Congress or the State or the Board of Directors/Executives make choices, but this is an illusion, for at the moment of “choice,” these entities are already committed to one action or another. What has led them to that commitment were largely the stakeholders. The argument about who the stakeholder should be or who they actually are is not relevant to the point that the choices themselves did not belong to the entities we seem to hold responsible. Indeed, it appears to me that the choice as a framework is an individual affair.

What we have to do is create a direct path from individual consciousness to individual choice – and in order to do that, we must first displace what is convenient or comfortable. To keep on keeping on can be a choice, but it rarely is one; it is usually the absence of choice.  When we do choose to keep on doing what we have been doing, by virtue of having chosen it, it is not because it is comfortable or easy. Rather, it is because it is what we want. Clarifying this, there are certainly some things we can choose which are convenient, but we do not choose them for that reason.

Secondly, we must have ethics. By ethics, I do not mean morals, but rather codes of practice, such as the work ethic. It is not enough to be intelligent, it is in fact nothing to be intelligent – what is inherent is only relevant insofar as it should be considered as a limiter on choice. If one cannot see, one cannot choose to be a race car driver. The individual’s disposition constrains his choices; his disposition in and of itself is not his expression, it is the fact of him. The fact of oneself is certainly fascinating, but it is not a choice.

The combination of strong ethic and disregard for convenience will almost certainly create tension between the individual and the systems he inhabits. This tension is productive, it will reveal the difference between what the individual wants and what constitutes his submission to larger systems.

Categories
Film and TV Media Non-Fiction Star Wars

The Saber in the Snow: An American Myth (Star Wars: The Force Awakens review)

On Christmas day, 2015, I went to the theater to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Key on every viewer’s mind was the question of why The Force Awakens seemed to have the exact same plot as A New Hope, the first of the original Star Wars movies, released in 1977. This essay will assert that the near-identical plot in The Force Awakens is not mere laziness, nor heavy handed fan service. Instead, it is in deference to the political moment from which Star Wars originally emerged – in particular, it revisits the tension between two different interpretations of Modernism, and more pointedly, two different interpretations of the violence Modernism necessitated. It also addresses the astounding, swiftly growing divide between the democratic government and the democracy that began at the end of the Cold War. Finally, with the Jedi, it asks what a moral geography that did not advantage one space at the expense of another would look like.

In the United States, early in the 1970’s, the zeitgeist itself began to resist both forms of violence, and turned instead towards privatized interests to represent them. By the 1990’s, the line between public and private was substantially blurred, and Bill Clinton was deregulating Wall Street. Between 1970 and the turn of the century, there were three crucial developments: first, and perhaps most importantly, a growing divide between the people and their government – where the sixties and seventies had been a time of protest and political movement, after the end of the cold war, the zeitgeist turned against the legitimacy of American governance. Secondly, and as a result, we saw the rise of neoliberalism which placed its faith in the free market instead of government, and we also saw the emergence of its cultural analog, postmodernism. Thirdly, and finally, the rapid development of information technologies in partnership with free market ideologies that were not statist, and could be sometimes even anti-statist, led to an increasing awareness of a lopsided globalization, in which certain nations were disproportionately disadvantaged in the “world system” that arose alongside Modernism.

The divide between the people and their government is key in the comparison between A New Hope and The Force Awakens – this divide allows Modernist tensions to play out between warring entities on the political field, and postmodernist, neoliberal, globalized (kill me now) tensions to play out in the lived experience of the citizenry of the galaxy. It is on the ground that the most pertinent question is being asked: what does it mean to be sentient? In this way, neither the New Republic, nor the First Order have anything to say to the people – democracy or not democracy is not the question, it is Heidegger’s question that is asked again and again in the deserts of the Star Wars galaxy: what does it mean to be?

**

Consider that there are three interests in A New Hope: the first is that of the Empire, which is interested in maintaining and solidifying its dominance; the second is that of the rebel alliance, fighting on behalf of the Republic to overthrow the Empire ostensibly in order to achieve better representation in governance; and the last is that of the Jedi, whose order is not allowed any sort of national loyalty, and who therefore mainly fight on behalf of moral geographies. The last case is special, in that it is not purely ideological, nor purely spatial – the Jedi uniquely protect particular moral-spatial relationships, according to its own principles and not those of any other political party or power. This lends itself to a kind of religious tribalism, in which Jedi exist simultaneously inside and outside of whatever location they physically (literally) inhabit.  In A New Hope, the Jedi Order has long been extinct, but it begins to make a revival via Luke and his (then unbeknownst to us) sister Leia, who are the first in a long time to be particularly sensitive to the Force, the primary tool of the Jedi. To suggest the Jedi approach some kind of true universalism would be as foolish as suggesting that the process of globalization does not also ignore or destroy particular geographies and populations.

As previously discussed, postmodernism emerges in the 1970’s. Intertwined with it are post-structuralism and deconstructionist modes of thought and expression. These projects together with neoliberalism dismantled many of the political structures that were meant to preserve national interests in favor of individual freedom, guaranteed by the market and its quantitative forms of measurement. That is to say, freedom became synonymous with “the free market,” and left behind the confines and context of the state. Neoliberalism has come under sustained critique for engendering a globalization process which promotes ideological discourses that exclude particular geographies and populations, or literally uses them as trash receptacles for the world’s literal garbage (the latter being an environmentalist critique about structural violence). This ideology proposes that justice is an entity that is derived from a combination of competition and contracts. In this case, the social contract is the same thing as the commercial contract, and it is competition that allows the commercial contract which is the most just to dominate. For neoliberalism, the market is the great equalizer because its judgment is amoral and in fact not even qualitative; it is rationalism’s secularism. The Jedi represent the extreme opposite: they are not secular (although their spiritualism is not monotheistic), and they are, essentially, moralists. The dark side is composed of people who do things that are morally corrupt, often simply to prove their own moral corruption. Although this is, in many ways, the opposite of rationalism, the Jedi mythos shares one important thing with the neoliberal mythos: it claims universalism, while in fact being essentially Western.

Alongside the Jedi (and their implicit criticism of neoliberal approaches to not only the present, but also world history), there are the political mechanics of nation states, representing in the Star Wars universe what we might understand as the common struggle, associated with the working class. See both Luke’s family and Rey’s. These characters, who are a stand in for the majority of the members of the Star Wars universe in terms of status and ideology, represent a more literal Westernism. In this case, “A New Hope,” might really refer to “A New Hope for the Triumph of the West,”  which is synonymous with a “A Triumph of Modernism.” We can see the rebel fighters as the literal wing, and the Jedi as the ideological wing of a retelling of the Eurocentric, Western myth of modernism. You know – the one that valorizes imperialism, that wants to introduce both a logistically literal and Hegelian-esque ideological conception of the state to the world, thereby advancing us all into the global destiny we deserve: one of peace and prosperity, but also notably one of gentility. (Hegel’s conception of the state is rather confounding to me, but apparently he saw the “state” as an advancement in rational thought, and not anything remotely material). Given the timing, A New Hope might have been better titled, “A Dying Hope.”

**

In fact, The Force Awakens (spoilers – but really if you haven’t seen it yet, then…) opens in the globalized desert foreseen by critics of neoliberalism. In this universe, the middle class has disappeared, leaving behind a wealthy class, an impoverished class (scavengers), and a pervasive black market, where a droid’s worth in food rations is often seen as more valuable than his agency or sentience. There has been a failure to resurrect the Jedi. This failure was marked by obscene violence, which is contrasted in this movie with a certain kind of violence that is valorized. It is, after all, Luke’s light saber that calls to Rey. The tension between these forms of violence – the one the heroes use and the one the villains use – plays out inside Kylo Ren, son of Leia and Han. With the Jedi disinherited by all sides, the First Order rises to challenge the New Republic. The First Order understands itself to have global jurisdiction.

It is the task of the First Order to remove the disorder from our own existence, so that civilization may be returned to the stability that promotes progress. A stability that existed under the Empire, was reduced to anarchy by the Rebellion, was inherited in turn by the so-called Republic, and will be restored by us. Future historians will look upon this as the time when a strong hand brought the rule of law back to civilization. – Kylo Ren

The New Republic also sees itself with global jurisdiction.

This is democracy… We will not always get it right. We will never have it perfect. But we will listen. To the countless voices crying out across the galaxy, we have opened our ears, and we will always listen. That is how democracy survives. That is how it thrives…That is the New Republic.“―Olia Choko[src]

Both of these are deeply modernist constructions, and one is obviously meant to also remind us of fascism. The First Order sees civilization as a product of carefully calculated, meticulously executed violence. A civilized society is an ordered society, where individuality and individual expression are devalued, and order is maintained through fear. The New Republic, when it valorizes to the messiness of democracy, is talking about a different kind of violence – not the kind that one brings to bear on the world to maintain order, but the kind that one is called to despite order. The New Republic has no army, because it relies on this different form of violence. That is the rebels, who use violence to disturb order. The explicit reference to listening is also notable, the New Republic premises its modernist conception of freedom on the right to be heard. This was represented in real world Western Modernism as well, but it was illusory – there were numerous populations whose voices cried out and who were silenced. But both the First Order and the New Republic are modernist insofar as each takes a primarily Western view of what civilization entails and applies it broadly, which is understood as the ethically correct course of action — as opposed to a pragmatic or contractually ensured course of action.

But these two major forces are waging war over a galaxy that is largely composed of people who are not interested in anything but themselves and perhaps, at most, their own families. Between these two conceptions of Modernism, and these two kinds of violence, there is a tension that still rests almost entirely in the ideological sphere – it comes down to ideas and ethics. Meanwhile, on the ground, the people and other sentient creatures we see in the Star Wars universe seem to be interested in neither order, nor being heard. They are interested in survival, and though the faint echoes of civilization as something greater than the sum of its parts emerge from time to time, they largely conceive of government as being essentially carceral – restraining and containing. This final tension, in which value is judged, at its most abstract, contractually is the one that most resembles our lived reality in the United States today. It is the extras in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that represent 2016, and postmodernism, and neoliberalism. In Rey, and Finn, the millennials (kill me now) in The Force Awakens, we also see an anguish that arises due the constant and fierce struggle to develop identity in this brave new world. They are concerned throughout The Force Awakens, not with the fate of the New Republic at all, but with their own fates, of what they mean to mean.

Meanwhile, above the zeitgeist, an ideological struggle over governance plays out.

**

Above and below, the Jedi are simultaneously missed and dismissed, and with them, the notion of moral geography. Both the First Order and the New Republic see the galaxy in terms of territory. This is most obvious when the First Order destroys the New Republic with a physical weapon in physical space. Yet the Jedi believed in a system that did not recognize nationalism as a priority or a measurement of value. Their system also relied on ethical measurements and not contractual or pragmatic ones. The Jedi experiment failed, allegedly because Kylo Ren, who stood between two sides of the Force, snapped. But perhaps the truth is that the Jedi experiment cannot work for precisely the same reason that globalization is not just; the illusion of universalism is itself a form of oppression, and will always fall apart under the pressures of nationalist interests. The Jedi Order can only exist in a world where the ideology of universalism doesn’t come at the expense of whole nations, who are ultimately exempted from this “universalism” exactly in order to make this “universalism” possible. This pits nationalism against universalism, and it was Modernism that gave nationalism its ethical underpinnings.

What results is a world in which national interests play out at a high level, disenfranchised citizenry involve themselves in pragmatic interactions based around survival at a lower level, and the Jedi project remains undeveloped. It could be argued that the world needs to become ready for the Jedi, and it could be argued that the Jedi need to do that work themselves; what cannot be argued is that the Modernist tensions, and the kinds of violence inherent to them, are not threatened nor made irrelevant by globalization, or any self-proclaimed universalism. The real threat to modernist tensions comes from the alienation of the citizenry, and their movement towards neoliberal, postmodern modes of living.

Categories
Media Non-Fiction PC Games

The Beginner’s Guide (PC Game)

The Beginner’s Guide, created by Davey Wreden (who also famously made The Stanley Parable), gets immediate brownie points from pretty much every reviewer for daring to try something new.  In a nutshell, the game approaches the topics of consumption-as-identity, authorship, depression, and what it means to know a person in the form of a “narrative video game,” a game that eschews normal game mechanics in favor of what feels like a narrated tour. The compelling part is the tour guide is telling a deeply personal story, and the player gradually realizes that he is grappling with the narrative even as he tells the story.

Some will argue (and have argued) that therefore, The Beginner’s Guide is not a game, so much as an interactive story, or a visual novel. Over at PC World, Hayden Dingman even gets into Death of the Author, Barthes’  literary theory about authorial present, intent and control in a given work. Indeed, as a text, there are many ways to discuss The Beginner’s Guide and what it says about various themes common to the lived experience in the first world.  But all of that happens to be less interesting to me at the moment than the (also often addressed) question of what constitutes a game.  More specifically, if we take it as a given that Wreden’s latest work is in fact a visual novel,  does that necessarily mean it is not a game? Or, to put it in the most controversial way possible, can a novel (you know, a normal book) be a game?
[EPIC SPOILERS AHEAD]
Here are some experiences/thoughts I had while I was playing The Beginner’s Guide:

This narrator’s voice is comforting, can Davey narrate all the games I play?
Man this is some deep psychological shit.
Dude, who builds whole levels that aren’t even accessible?
Oh my God, Coda isn’t even REAL.
Wait. Is Coda real?
Wait, what if Davey is Coda, and I am Davey? That would just be some whiney shit.
Why does EVERY character have a block head except the one girl who is crying?
I love the NOT-ACTUAL-NOTES NOTES THING. OH MAN.
House cleaning and lamp posts: domesticity in the wild, got it.
adding lamp posts! is this what the player does? add lamp posts? projection + making the foreign more familiar. OR – beacon, I am here in your world, come find me.
What is the difference between Davey’s need for validation and loneliness?
Is it really true that we can’t know anything about the author by looking at his work?

OK.  So this is what I think of as definitely necessary in a game:
1) participatory
2) puzzle – so traditionally, we use this in the game world to denote logic puzzles in adventure games, or even just puzzle games – games  that are basically leveled puzzles. But I am expanding “puzzle” here to mean  “interactive challenge that it is necessary to overcome in order to progress.” So that could be combat, or a platformer level, or a more traditional puzzle.
3) progress – true for most media, but also games.  unlike most forms of media,  games aren’t necessarily linear but there are end conditions.

In What Videogames Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee asserts, “two things that, at first sight, look to be ‘mental’ achievements, namely literacy and thinking, are, in reality, also and primarily social achievements.”[1] He goes on to defend this argument by explaining that the reader cannot “privately” or “asocially” read a text. What determines how a person reads, according to Gee, is who she associates herself  with. He stresses that the reader is free to read however she likes, insofar as she can align herself with whatever group or people she chooses, but what she cannot do is read outside the framework of a social narrative altogether. There must be a social narrative. The reader,  then, is constantly interacting with her text, by bringing her social narrative to bear on what she is reading.  Moreover, she is constantly deciding who is in relation to the text, as she reads. In this way, all media is participatory.  Arguably, videogames capitalize on this participation where other forms of media capitalize on other universal traits. A different discussion for another day is why we take the participatory trait of media (i.e. “play”) to be less serious or important than other traits.

In SuperBetter, Jane McGonigal argues that anything can be a game, you simply label your allies, and your bosses, and you get to work.[2]  She believes that gamifying one’s life will increase the amount of time one spends in a  “flow” state, and therefore reduce suffering.
However, the puzzle task seems to me to be forced in McGonigal’s treatment, it involves the literal reorganization of worldview in order to explicitly label something a “puzzle.”  And Fred Rogers, you know – Mr. Rogers – argues that play is work (although he only argues it in regard to children – there is no reason not to extend this argument).[3]

Perhaps the reason why our everyday interactions are not “puzzles” to be “played” is because they don’t cohere neatly into a gamic model. (did I make the word “gamic” up? I don’t think so..) But – as the visual novel type of game, such as The Beginner’s Guide might suggest – could it be that the “gamic model” is simply a progressive narrative structure that has cohered into a specific space? That is, if the novel is the space, and if reading it requires the application of the reader’s experience in the world and her conception of self, as Gee suggests, then could it not be argued that reading is a form of playing, because of the reader-text interaction?

Of course there still remains the challenge of the puzzle, which is a particular sub-narrative, with a more defined interaction.  I think, though counter-intuitive, it is possible to break up a novel into a series of puzzles, using both the novel structure as a general construct and/or the individual structure of an individual novel. I think we might go so far as to say that avid readers are people who enjoy the kind of interactive puzzles that are inherent to the medium of the novel.  These puzzles involve way finding, evaluation of information, even strategy: the application of already-gained knowledge to the construct of the larger narrative in the reader’s mind.

Yet, this very wide reading of the game (that it might involve anything with a structured narrative with which the player/reader/viewer interacts) does a disservice to the traditional medium of the game in exactly one important way: agency. In The Beginner’s Guide, the player has very little agency, and in a novel, the reader has no agency except insofar as she consistently negotiates her own relationship with the text. In a more traditional video game,  she both negotiates this relationship and also substantially affects the environment of the game itself. She cannot affect the environment of the book in the same way, it is static.

Indeed, the player might find The Beginner’s Guide frustrating in the lack of agency it gives you, especially since you are complicit in the narrator’s mistreatment of “Coda,” a possibly fictional game designer.  Likewise, a book that does not allow for satisfying relationship negotiation will go unfinished by the reader. And a traditional video game which feigns more agency that it actually gives often reaps criticism.

That isn’t to say there’s no place within the gaming sphere for games that limit player agency – I do think that you could legitimately argue that all media experiences fall on the game spectrum somewhere, but there is an important question here, and it has not only to do with games but also, say, paranormal romance, and 50 shades of grey and user experience and, like, capitalism and democracy. The question is — and I think it is the most important one that The Beginner’s Guide asks — what does it mean to have agency?

[1] Gee, James Paul. What video games have to teach us about literacy and learning. New York: Palgraw Macmillan (2003).
[2] McGonigal, Jane. SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient — Powered by the Science of Games. Penguin Press First Edition (2015).
[3] Fred Rogers. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved December 31, 2015, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/f/fredrogers193081.html