True Detective

I was wrong about this show, and I’m glad to admit it. My confession follows, as written over the last six days.

_________

I’m as intrigued as anyone by HBO’s “True Detective,” to begin with by the performances, or rather by the actors. My question going in was, What did these gifted, dedicated men find in these scripts that was so compelling? I can’t yet answer this question—-but see below—-I suppose because the clunky metaphysics of Rust Cohle’s monologues make me laugh, just when I’m supposed to be paying serious attention. But then maybe it isn’t a laughing matter-—maybe it ain’t metaphysics.

So my question is, are the performances given narrative edges by the sultry, languid, oppressive, and thus seductive atmosphere of the endless swamp that seems not just to surround but to saturate every move of these characters, showing up symptomatically as the worry beads of sweat? Do I want to watch this series because it’s so damn gorgeous, drawing me nearer to Rust and Marty with every aerial or long shot of the bayou? Do I watch because I’m desperate for them to break out of those rooms where their memories have been tested by, then confined to, the legal fictions that bound them as badge-wielding law men?

Hell, yes, to all of the above.

The narrative pace is leisurely, in keeping with the temperature, the humidity, the sea level of the place: everyone and everything is slowly sinking under the weight of some previous mistake, some external mass, whether it’s original sin or the return of the repressed river. Meanwhile, the smaller details of the performances, which are conveyed more immediately by the antithetical physical presences of the partners—-one slim, still, almost whispering, the other bulky, restless, always blustering—-are etched on the huge vegetative background of this location, where they register more materially than in those police procedural rooms. But it’s as if the visual and the verbal dimensions of the story occupy different time zones, or rather the competing cosmic spaces of Cohle’s alcohol-soaked, science-fictional confessions.

I report on these possibly eccentric responses to “True Detective” as a result of Ross Douthat’s NYT blog post, which led me to Andy Greenwald’s mostly snarky but very smart and suggestive reading of the series at the Grantland website, dated January 8, 2014. Here is how Greenwald summarizes his complaint:

“’True Detective’ is in desperate need of [someone] to reflect and maybe modulate the darkness its posters brag about. Someone to provide even a fleeting glimpse of real life. It wouldn’t even necessarily need to be a woman—although that would certainly help, as the few onscreen women who aren’t wearing antlers or grinding on poles are given little to do but get angry or aroused. . . . It would just need to be something genuine and relatable that could float to the show’s dank, oily surface: a joke, a heartfelt desire, a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun. Because despite what recent television trends would have us believe, darkness isn’t a stand-in for depth or maturity. Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.”

It’s a brilliant passage because for all its glitter and flourish-—I’ll always remember “a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun”—-it leads us back to the text we’re trying to understand, “True Detective,” and asks us read it more closely. Still, it led me elsewhere, back to another text altogether, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953).

II

Let me explain. This term I’m teaching a brand new undergraduate course on historiography. The two required “textbooks” in the class are Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (1949) and Hayden White, The Content of the Form (1987), which, for all their differences, treat the religious, chiliastic, eschatological sources of modern historical consciousness with the seriousness they deserve. Last Friday I taught Lowith’s chapter 9, on Augustine, alongside Auerbach’s chapter 3, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” where the fresh, realistic voice of The Confessions first emerges to challenge the somber, elevated, classical style of ancient historians like Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus. These historians clung to the conventions that allotted different rhetorical registers to the well-born and the lowly—-according to these conventions, the technique of realistic imitation was fit only for the comic depiction of servants or slaves-—but they described the world of late antiquity with a new sensory awareness and intensity.

Ammianus was a former commander of a Roman Legion who wrote in the mid-to-late fourth century A.D., as a contemporary of Augustine. But they were worlds apart, even though they knew the same Rome.

In volume 15 of his histories, Ammianus writes of a Roman mob and the arrest of its ringleader with the distant aplomb of his predecessor Tacitus, in a proudly stoic manner that contrasts the seething, mindless mass led by Peter Valvomeres against the steely, virtuous resolve of Leontius, the prefect who accuses him: “sitting in his carriage, with an imposing confidence, he gazed with piercing eyes into the faces of the packed crowd raging all about like serpents.”

In The Confessions, Augustine writes of the same seething mass, but transposes the contest between bloodlust and virtuous repose to a conflict within the same man, his friend Alypius, an avowed Stoic who, when finally exposed to the spectacle of the gladiatorial amphitheater, can’t resist: “directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness.”

As Auerbach then explains in Augustinian rhythms, “And it is not merely a random Alypius whose pride, nay whose inmost being, is thus crushed; it is the entire rational individualistic culture of classical antiquity: Plato and Aristotle, the Stoa and Epicurus. A burning lust has swept them away, in one powerful assault.”

Ammianus, the good soldier, clings to that rational individualistic culture, but his hold on it is slipping fast, because the pitiless gaze of his imperial eyes—-the elevated style of classical antiquity—-can’t make sense of the ending that is already upon him: with these narrative formulae in hand, he can describe decadence, deformity, cruelty, idiocy, and treachery in great detail, but he can’t respond to these gruesome circumstances with anything more creative than resignation. That is why Auerbach characterizes this historical moment as a rhetorical crisis:

“From the end of the first century of the Imperial Age something sultry and oppressive appears, a darkening of the atmosphere of life. It is unmistakable in Seneca, and the somber tone of Tacitus’ historical writing has often been noted. But here in Ammianus we find that the process has reached the stage of magical and sensory dehumanization.”

The brutally realistic depiction of a similar darkening is what has reanimated television in our time, from “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” to “Breaking Bad” and now “True Detective.” The “difficult men” at the heart of these series are, like Ammianus, stoic observers and resolute narrators—-and yes, practitioners—-of spastic violence drained of public or political purpose. Thanks to Andy Greenwald, I could begin to think of these shows as instances of late imperial romance, as John McClure has characterized the genre in novels (think Robert Stone), as doomed attempts to make sense of ubiquitous and yet random violence. Here, then, is the pivotal passage in Mimesis that Greenwald drove me back to:

“Ammianus’ world is very often a caricature of the normal human environment in which we live; very often it is like a bad dream. This is not simply because horrible things happen in it—-treason, torture, persecution, denunciations: such things are prevalent in almost all times and places . . . . What makes Amminanus’ world so oppressive is the lack of any sort of counterbalance. For if it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence. Nothing of the sort is to be found in Ammianus. Striking only in the sensory, resigned and as it were paralyzed despite its stubborn rhetorical passion, his manner of writing history nowhere displays anything redeeming, nowhere anything that points to a better future, nowhere a figure or an act about which stirs the refreshing atmosphere of a greater freedom, a greater humanity.” [my italics]

That’s the fundamental difference between Ammianus and Augustine, who witnessed the same decline of the same Roman Empire. The new atmosphere conjured in The Confessions both presupposed and predicted a profound change of moral climate—-something redeeming, something waiting on a distant horizon of nonetheless urgent expectation. That’s not the difference between Cohle and Hart, the stoic and the cynic, at least to begin with, nor the difference between Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland (“The Wire”), and it’s not the difference between Walter White and Jesse Pinker (“Breaking Bad”), either.

III

In any case, it’s the possibility of a change in moral climate-—I don’t know how else to put it—-that Andy Greenwald asks us to consider when he states: “Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.” I have enlisted Auerbach to emphasize Greenwald’s point, and to amplify my own complaint about “True Detective,” but we’re addressing rhetorical worlds separated by seventeen centuries. What is the point of this juxtaposition?

As it turns out, we’re actually addressing the same rhetorical world. Auerbach is explaining the intellectual darkness that fell on late imperial Rome, and suggesting that Augustine’s unlikely alternative carried the day. Greenwald is explaining the darkness that has fallen on late imperial America, and pleading for an Augustinian alternative. Both are claiming that the received tradition—-the narrative convention of the time—-represses and mutilates such an alternative.

In these terms, Rust Cohle is the stand-in for the unhappy consciousness of late imperial America. He’s the Ammianus Marcellinus for our time—-the stoic who knows only darkness because he has suffered the loss of a child, then seen too much depravity as an undercover narc, yet is willing to soldier on. But he’s also a stand-in for H. P. Lovecraft, the sci-fi writer whose stubborn rhetorical passion was the creation of insanely profuse psycho-topographic landscapes which invariably translate the interiors of his characters into exteriors, or rather read the former as the latter.

Rust speaks Lovecraft, as Michael M. Hughes has shown in a wonderfully detailed analysis of Episodes 2 and 3. (http://io9.com/the-one-literary-reference-you-must-know-to-appreciate-1523076497) When Cohle reads aloud to Marty from the murdered Dora Lange’s journal, he is quoting Dora’s citation of Robert Chambers, whose 1895 collection of short stories called The King in Yellow was practically copied into later short fictions by H. P. Lovecraft. “I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow,” Dora has written in crayon, “moving through the forest.”

Indeed Lovecraft’s “cosmic despair” is precisely what Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the series, has told the Wall Street Journal he wants to express in his story. Lovecraft himself explained such despair this way: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable outer, unknown forces . . . a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

For Lovecraft, this suspension or defeat of natural laws led only inward and backward, toward the bad dreams of his childhood, which he always insisted were his primary literary antecedent, or—-as in Poe, another antecedent—-toward the madness of characters who couldn’t bear the weight of any past. Either way, the outer world, in all its increasingly unnatural malignance, would be left intact. Reporting on or retreating from this world was the only conceivable response—-it could not be redeemed, in words or deeds. Here darkness falls, over and over.

So Greenwald and I were right, up to this point. Ammianus had returned to haunt the bayou via the tortured soul of Rust Cohle, always the stoic witness to what would never change. His rhetorical paralysis is on display in those droning, sophomoric monologues, lifted directly by Pizzolatto from Lovecraft’s delirious cosmogony. The sodden, sunken, rotten landscape of “True Detective,” where every creature or object is another sign of both decay and danger, this bayou is a febrile projection worthy of Lovecraft at his worst, and of Ammianus at his best. It’s where Rust’s cosmic despair-—his unhappy consciousness, his unbending stoicism—-gets written as the brittle alternative to death and/or chaos. It’s what I came to watch, anyway.

IV

But only up to a point. The last episode is a powerful retort to Greenwald’s complaint, and mine, and, as such, it departs decisively from its rhetorical origins in “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” and, equally important, from the science fiction peddled by Lovecraft. With extraordinary production design and cinematography, the last episode revisits Lovecraft’s profuse subterranean grottoes, where the story typically ends with the revelation—-not the solution-—of long-buried crimes. But suddenly it breaks out of the narrative conventions those cable precedents, and previous episodes of “True Detective,” and Lovecraft himself, had perfected.

Just when we think the reunited partners are both as good as dead, an Augustinian alternative erupts from the grotesque psycho-topography of post-Katrina America. Darkness recedes as the bright arc of a flare bends toward the portal of the ancient rotunda where the original sinner, the man with the scars, has always tortured and slain his helpless victims-—where Rust and Marty, having killed that man, now wait helplessly for rescue, that is, redemption.

Hart the skeptic and the cynic has led us to this place. He’s the man who, once upon a time, responded to every provocation with the kind of sharp physical gestures that bordered on violence, and sometimes spilled over. Now his thickened body moves slowly, painfully, deliberately, at the pace his partner used to set. He finds the key that unlocks the case by comparing shades of green paint in case file photographs-—by looking at old pictures.

In the final scene, Marty gently leads us toward another place, the place we’re supposed to be, in the here and now, but now armed with hope. He does so by changing the subject, or, if you like, the narrative key. Rust wants to talk about the ineffable “substance” he entered on the verge of death, where he could feel his daughter’s love. Marty lets him say his ontological piece, as always, and then reminds him of Alaska, where the boy Rust used to make up stories while watching the stars. He’s trying to bring that boy back to life, back to this life.

“It’s just one story,” Rust says, “The oldest.”

“What’s that?”

“Light versus dark.”

Then we know Marty is bringing us back to this life, not some other-worldly aftermath, because he looks up, toward heaven, but he refuses its rewards, he says,

“Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah,” Rust says, “you’re right about that.”

That’s where the cable precedents, and previous episodes, would have ended. That’s where I thought this was ending. Darkness falls, over and over. There is no alternative to stoic resignation in view of the grotesque realities that constitute our time.

Then Marty hoists Rust out of the wheelchair, and the two of them limp toward nothing more than a parking lot. And now Rust speaks the naïve truth of the faith they’ve discovered.

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong,” he says, “the sky thing.”

“How’s that?”

“Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.’”

Me, too.

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Snowden as the Alien: From Right to Left

Aha, now Edward Snowden is a Russian spy. This charge, levied by Mike Rogers (R-MI) over the weekend, would seem to oppose what Sean Wilentz claimed in the last issue of The New Republic, that Snowden is a right-wing libertarian nut (supporter of Ron Paul, no less) who wants to destroy the legitimacy of government as such.

An uncanny symmetry worthy of any Cold War melodrama resides within this opposition, however, and Snowden himself nails it in this interview at The New Yorker: liberals and conservatives alike view any significant disturbance of consensus on the legitimacy of the post-totalitarian, national security state as an external shock to a healthy system–that is, an “alien” intrusion on American tradition, which must then be narrated as the non-heroic residue of conspiracy.

In short, the paranoid style is the stock in trade of Snowden’s critics, not an explanation of his actions.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/01/snowden-calls-russian-spy-story-absurd.html

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Post-Totalitarian Society, Part II

I

In claiming that Edward Snowden is a “national hero,” I invoked Vaclav Havel’s notion of a “post-totalitarian society,” which he developed most explicitly in a zamizdat essay of 1978 called “The Power of the Powerless.” In context, I was trying to differentiate between George Orwell’s heavy-handed depiction of totalitarianism (in 1984) and the more insidious state of surveillance revealed by Snowden’s theft of NSA records.

To clarify those televised remarks, I wrote up a summary and refutation of the charges, formal and informal, that Snowden faces, which I posted as “Post-Totalitarian Society, Part I.” In concluding, I declared that Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser were the presiding spirits of Havel’s epochal essay.

I look at that conclusion and I ask myself, “What were you thinking?” Not because Gramsci and Althusser are insignificant figures, but because they’re both results of the intellectual revolution transacted under the sign of pragmatism or pluralism in the early 20th century. How could I, of all people, forget this genealogy? I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to demonstrate that the earthquake we characterize as post-structuralism—-and attribute to European sources—-has its techtonic origins in the published work of William James and John Dewey, ca. 1900-1920.

Who cares? Since when is the genealogy as important as the ideas themselves? My purpose in tracing the roots of the post-structuralist rhizome has been almost parochial-—I’ve been searching for a usable past in the American sources, trying to show that, like socialism or rockabilly, this exotic growth isn’t a foreign import. I’ve been insisting, in other words, that we don’t have to mourn the exceptional absence of an intellectual tradition that equips us to understand, criticize, and transcend post-industrial capitalism. We don’t have to be exiles from our own past, which is to say our own country. So, yes, I’ve been pursuing a political purpose all along.

It’s not as if the pragmatists were the only thinkers to notice that the dispersal of power from state to society—-the signature of what Havel would call post-totalitarian society-—was the most salient feature of their time, the early 20th century. They were, however, the most interesting intellectual registers of this extraordinary shift, because they were fortunate enough to witness events that came earlier and more dramatically to the US than to Europe—-events that were driven by the decomposition of proprietary capitalism and the emergence of corporate capitalism, ca. 1890-1920. (The popular or vernacular version of these events was captured in phrases like “the trust question” or “the rise of big business,” and, in Europe, the advent of “finance” or “monopoly capital.”)

And there’s no way around the fact that the three Europeans who seized on this dispersal of power as the reason to renovate social and political theory-—Georges Sorel, Antonio Gramsci, and Carl Schmitt, precisely the men whom Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have installed as the key figures in articulating the political problematic of “hegemony”-—were also close students of social-intellectual developments in the US. Sorel was obsessed with pragmatism, Gramsci with “Fordism,” Schmitt with pluralism: they plotted their new positions by reference to American coordinates.

Understood in these terms, as intellectual heirs to a Gramscian legacy, Althusser and Havel are distant echoes or late tremors.

II

A post-totalitarian society is one in which the modern, liberal distinction between state and society (thus public and private) has become a problem rather than an assumption—-a question rather than an answer to every political query-—and in which the slogan “the personal is political” can, therefore, become a commonplace. Totalitarian and/or corporatist states, whether fascist or communist, subsisted on the destruction or erasure of this distinction: civil society shriveled as the state expanded its repressive apparatus, in accordance with the Party’s program of social-economic progress via revolution. In a post-totalitarian phase of development, by contrast, we see the dispersal of power from the state to society.

How then could Havel, the citizen-captive of a Soviet satellite, discern the symptoms of post-totalitarian society in Eastern as well as Western Europe, indeed predict that the state of the East was the future of the West? Was it the experience of the Prague Spring, which, however briefly, asserted the supremacy of society over the state? Havel thought not: “All the transformations [of 1968], first in the general mood, then conceptually, and finally structurally, did not occur under pressure from the kind of parallel structures that are taking shape today. Such structures—which are sharply defined antitheses of the official [state] structures—quite simply did not exist at the time, nor were there any ‘dissidents’ in the present sense of the word.” (‘Power of the Powerless,’ Open Letters, pp. 145, 203)

No, what makes East and West different species of the same genus is “the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society”—Heidegger’s nightmare. (pp. 205-07; not incidentally, Havel also cites Heidegger’s student, Jose Ortega y Gasset)

So conceived, post-totalitarian society, which “has at its disposal a complex mechanism of direct and indirect surveillance that has no equal in history” (183), enables two divergent sensibilities within the hidden, independent, parallel structures that develop, necessarily, outside of the formal political arrangements and languages of state power. On the one hand, the indolent, hedonistic consumer culture that ultimately relies on the state to deliver the goods. On the other, the possibility of “living within the truth,” in opposition to both the idiocies of consumer culture and their sponsor in the omnipresent surveillance state. In 1978, Havel thought this oppositional, dissident sensibility was losing ground to consumer culture, as did his counterparts in the West, most prominently Christopher Lasch and the left-wing academics who were similarly inspired by the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory.” ( pp. 131, 145, 151-53, 183, 206-08)

The political valence of the original conception is clearly unpredictable, as the careers of Sorel, Gramsci, and Schmitt demonstrate. You can acknowledge the dispersal of power from state to society as Sorel did, by attributing hitherto unimaginable capacities to the masses; as Gramsci did, by redefining revolution and the relation between intellectuals and subaltern strata, between philosophy and politics; or as Schmitt did, by declaring that to reinstate its legitimacy, the state had to reassert itself as against the competing claims of society, that is, of cultural and political pluralism. As I said, all three plotted their positions by reference to American coordinates, but what goes missing in each case, with the possible exception of Gramsci, is the modern-liberal tradition that insisted on the supremacy of society over the state and on the value of individualism (as against functional-economic classes or racial-ethnic groups).

The great irony of Havel’s victory is, then, that it came not in spite but as the result of a consumer culture, in the sense that the inhabitants of Eastern European realized in the 1970s and 80s that the state could not deliver the goods obviously enjoyed in worlds elsewhere. Nor could “society” as he conceived it, as a beloved community defined by the limits of personal devotion and connection. (pp. 209-14) He, too, plotted his position by reference to American coordinates—-Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, Plastic People of the Universe (a Czech band that did covers of the Velvets)-—but he, too, left out the liberal tradition that empowered individualism and, yes, validated consumerism. The pathetic bewilderment of his years in office might be understood as an effect of this absence.

Still, the concept of post-totalitarian society matters, perhaps more now than when Havel gave it new meaning and significance. For it reveals that “living within the truth” is impossible outside of or in opposition to consumer culture, where deliberate, public abstentions from both products and public policies-—in a word, boycotts—-have become the most effective political devices; that electoral triumph and political “reform” are the long-term effects of self-organization “out of doors,” in the “parallel structures” of civil society, not their proximate causes; and that control of the state, by whatever means, is not the prize in the struggle for social justice.

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POLITICS/LETTERS: The Prospectus

Here’s the founding statement for POLITICS/LETTERS, which Kurt Newman and I have been crafting for the last six months. You might want to read it backward. You can read it any order you choose, actually, because we wrote it with that unruly possibility in mind.

Comments and questions are welcome, of course, but it would be cooler if you proposed to write or record or film something for us. Like I said, with any luck, we’ll have some fun.
____________________

I Error

With this statement, we launch a new magazine that we expect to move from an on-line to a print edition within 12 months.

We’re starting as a quarterly because we all have day jobs we’d like to keep. But we’ll see where the schedule leads us. In any event, our lack of a business model is determined by the historic process we call, in a solemn parody of Marx, “primitive disaccumulation”—-by which we mean the tendency of our time to produce and distribute more and more information without the mediation of markets or the incentives of monetary gain. This tendency toward the de-commodification of post-industrial necessities has already made the “music industry” as obsolete as battleships in war and the “newspaper business” as quaint as powdered wigs in court.

Even so. Why are we doing this? Who needs another publication first planted in some Internet niche which then blossoms into print at 500 newsstand copies, having begged subscribers and patrons (or Kickstarter) for donations? Jacobin, The New Inquiry, n + 1, the new youthful Dissent, the resurrected Baffler, aren’t these enough new magazines for now?

Maybe. Still, a sense of intellectual crisis and intellectual opportunity animates this enterprise, in equal measure. The recent proliferation of websites and journals like Jacobin, and the respectful attention they’ve been paid by mainstream media, tell us that the received tradition has reached a dead end-—it’s an empty parking lot on the right side of town. But resilient green roots are beginning to break up the concrete, according to a desperate demand for new light, new growth, new thinking. The situation reminds us of the formative period 1900-1930, when little magazines like Poetry, The New Review, The Dial, The Crisis, The Whip, The Freeman, The Masses, Fire!, The New Republic, Modern Quarterly, et al., and new scholarly outlets like The American Political Science Review, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, The American Journal of Sociology, and The American Economic Review appeared to reinvent and reorient intellectual life.

We’d like to reproduce the cross-pollination between politics and letters the little magazines once sponsored. Therefore, we’ll happily mix polemic, manifesto, criticism, fiction, video, music, poetry-—we might even sing about architecture—-and we’ll treat every genre or subject, informally at least, as the occasion for experimental writing, even when the topic is a new Supreme Court decision or another White Paper on the NSA’s Bulk Collection of Telephony Metadata. We think the deadly poetry of legal argument, political economy, and administrative utterance represents the “bureaucratization of the imaginative,” as Kenneth Burke put it, so we’ll be digging for the phony, the fictional, and the imaginative in these lacquered piles of bullshit. By the same token, we’ll be looking for buried evidence of bureaucratic inertia in the “political unconscious” of imaginative work.

But unlike the beautiful souls over at The Baffler and The Hedgehog Review, we’re not “debunkers,” Burke’s mortal enemies. In other words, we’re not interested in demonstrating the difference between appearance and reality that translates as hypocrisy, mendacity, or bad faith. We want instead to know how appearance becomes, or just is, reality. So we won’t let the world’s endless supply of error go to waste, as debunkers do when they dismiss what they dislike or don’t understand-—religion, say, or the rise of capitalism, or the corporation—-as instances of ignorance, superstition, or greed. Along with Burke, also Kojeve and Lacan, we think that error, and therefore truth, are possible only where language has abolished any fixed relation between words and things, and therefore has driven us, willy-nilly, to keep remaking the world in the name of things unseen. We think Hegel was right to say that “the false is no longer false as a moment of the true.”

II Comedy

The crisis of our time is a general crisis, to be sure, in which the economic catastrophe of the Great Recession is compounded by what caused it in the first place-—the social crisis of deindustrialization and deepening inequality that began in the 1970s. It’s a political debacle, too, when the Congress plays a budgetary game of chicken while the president, whether conservative or liberal, continues to craft a “unitary executive” from the supposed imperatives of a “war on terror,” seeking ever more power to intrude on the privacy of individuals, and, what amounts to the same thing, to limit their rights of free speech. Together the Congress and the president have constructed what Vaclav Havel-—the man who refused “dissent” as his political vocation—-called a “post-totalitarian society,” an elusive, even ghostly entity that has nonetheless outraced the dispersal of power from state to society by making surveillance of everything its signature.

So yes, the general crisis of our time is more than an intellectual impasse. But for now it can’t be addressed, by us or by anyone else, except as an intellectual problem and a cultural prospect: our question is, what is to be thought? Nor, to borrow again from Kenneth Burke, can this crisis be grasped as the non-heroic residue of tragedy, the narrative form that elevates irony to the highest rhetorical virtue. We intend, therefore, to write comedy according to this axiom: either we recognize our ethical principles (“ought”) as legible in the historical circumstances of our time (“is”), or we relinquish any claim on the future—-any claim on the practical possibility of changing the ways we think about the past, the present, and the future. One of Burke’s favorite thinkers, John Dewey, enunciated that comedic axiom as follows: “An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”

Here is how Burke himself outlined our program:

“Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. . . . The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy. . . . Comedy requires the maximum of forensic complexity. In the tragic plot the deus ex machina [money, power, corruption, fate, or God] is always lurking, to give events a fatalistic turn . . . Comedy [by contrast] must develop logical forensic causality to its highest point, calling not upon some astronomical marvels to help shape the plot, but completing the process of internal organization whereby each event is deduced ‘syllogistically,’ from the premises of the informing situation. Comedy deals with man in society, tragedy with the cosmic man.”

III Capitalism

We sense intellectual opportunity-—great forensic potential—-in these times because we don’t share the Left’s devotion to “dissent” against the mainstream from the margins, as if the ability to speak truth to power requires the will to powerlessness. Or as if that mainstream of political discourse has somehow remained immune to social-democratic idioms and goals. Or as if “dissent” itself isn’t as American as large helpings of violence, apple pie, and alcohol. Since the founding, to be an American has been to disagree about what it means to be an American. The mainstream of political discourse has always been constituted by this disagreement, not by abstention from the arguments that go with it. So to hell with “dissent”—-we gladly acknowledge our ambition, and admit that we want to mix it up in this mainstream. From the standpoint afforded by recent elections, even inside the gerrymandered South, and by Pew Center polls showing that younger Americans favor socialism over capitalism, our will to power looks realistic.

We clearly don’t share the Left’s greatly exaggerated belief in its own demise. We don’t think the project of socialism expired in Eastern Europe 25 years ago because we know that socialism exists, abides, and expands quite apart from states, movements, parties, and cadres dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. On historical grounds, therefore, we think leading left-wing intellectuals are simply wrong to pronounce the Left dead.

These are ways of saying that the choice between capitalism and socialism is not an either/or. Socialism is not the hereafter, as heaven is to earth, it’s an essential component of actually existing capitalism. And vice versa. To accept post-industrial corporate capitalism as the horizon of our expectations is not, then, to exclude socialism from our thinking about the future, but rather to incorporate it. And vice versa.

One of our purposes in refusing the either/or choice between capitalism and socialism is to give the concept of capitalism the kind of specificity and mid-range explanatory scope it now lacks. So we’ll be asking what the development of capitalism, for example, has to do with the production of a perceived crisis in public education, here in the USA—-do private enterprise and free markets actually require the “corporatization” of public universities, and the mechanization of secondary education via standardized testing? We’ll also be asking what capitalism has to do with the solution to an impending crisis in public health, here and elsewhere, in collaboration with states and NGOs—-can business enterprise be a willing partner rather than a sullen servant in the production of public goods? In other words, how do business and reform go together?

Our more fundamental question, so conceived, is how to periodize capitalism as such, as markets devolve and socially necessary labor recedes in the post-industrial societies. We’re convinced by now that prattling on about “deregulation,” the “financialization” of tangible assets, and the rise of a “shadow banking system” is a ritual evasion of the relevant issues, all of which revolve around the problem of surplus capital (the “global savings glut” Ben Bernanke used to talk about). So we’ll be rewriting the history of capitalism by asking practical questions about how it functions.

IV Socialism

By the same token, we will treat socialism as a matter of actually existing social relations, not a theoretical proposition with no purchase on the real world—-we’ll be asking how, for example, the symptoms of socialism present themselves in the unlikely precincts of the all-volunteer armed forces. Or in CIA-funded NGOs, and in the private sector as such, where, without pressure from politicians or legal decisions, corporations are rethinking the question of their social responsibility and political weight.

Notice the premises that permit these statements. In history, as against theory, socialism has no predictable political valence: like capitalism, it can, and has, taken liberal, democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian forms. In history, as against theory, socialism is a cross-class construction rather than the exclusive property of “the” working class, however you define this social stratum: like capitalism, it cannot survive in the absence of active support from all social strata.

As Michael Walzer has observed, socialism has long been “the name of the Left’s desire”-—it has designated what ought to be, not in the political sense of the possible and the necessary but rather in the homely, pedagogical sense of what we should want because it’s good for us. In theory and practice, it has accordingly appeared as the repudiation, indeed the absence or obliteration, of capitalism (and imperialism, etc.). We think it’s time either to rename our desire or to recognize that the object of this desire is not only ultimately obtainable, it’s already measurable as a dimension of post-industrial corporate capitalism. We aim to prove that even in the most neo-liberal renditions of capitalism, even in the USA, socialism abides as historical circumstance as well as ethical principle—-indeed it remains as a normative standard precisely because it’s still legible in the “social relations of production” that constitute what we call capitalism.

On historical grounds, we also think that the pleasure principle residing in consumer culture is worth exploring as the harbinger, perhaps the social-psychological groundwork, of a post-bourgeois civilization—-a civilization, that is, in which the consumption of goods is no longer justified by the production of value through work, in which the delay of gratification (“saving for a rainy day”) is no longer necessary because material abundance has made it pointless, and in which indolence, not achievement, is the goal of education. Unlike most of our friends, relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues from the Left and the Right, we’re uncertain about what the reckless hedonism of consumer culture means. At any rate we want to ask how—-not whether—-the repression of desire in the name of the future has finally become a fetter on those fabled forces of production. But we also need to ask whether, and how, the exfoliation of our desires has had the same deadening effect.

We know that the Protestant work ethic has failed as a reliable index of either character or income: if you have to earn a living, you know that nobody gets ahead by working hard and playing by the rules. So our questions will be why and how, and what follows? After all the cuts in taxes on corporate profits, why hasn’t “job-creating investment” happened-—in other words, why has the discrepancy between retained earnings and business investment been growing since 2000? Why do almost half of employed Americans qualify for food stamps, and a fourth of our children grow up in officially defined poverty? How did transfer payments and “entitlements” become the fastest growing components of household income in the late 20th century, so that by 2012, they represented 20 percent of all such income?

These brute facts suggest that Americans have learned how to detach the receipt of income from the performance of work—-and so they are either prepared to live up to the modern socialist criterion of need (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”), or to reject it on rational grounds. The political stalemate in Washington is the vernacular expression of this great philosophical divide. These same facts also suggest that the end of work as we know it is not a problem to be solved by means of “full employment,” but is instead an incentive to rethink the very idea of necessary labor.

The intellectual opportunity we sense now is not, however, a matter of arguing the world in terms of the inherited isms, including Marxism, or rehabilitating party politics by reassembling the armies that will fight tomorrow night’s war of maneuver—-in other words, by rekindling the class struggle. We have nothing against Marxism or class struggle or political innovation, or even revolution if it comes to that; we merely acknowledge the practical limits of our abilities when we think about calling our fellow citizens to the barricades. We’re not activists, we’re intellectuals. Or rather, we’re writers and artists who hope to have an effect on the way some people think. In this sense, we intend to abide by the unpretentious example of the original Politics & Letters, the “open review” Raymond Williams founded in 1946 as the intellectual antidote to the inane political edicts and ponderous literary criticism issued, ex cathedra, by the Communist Left.

V Crisis

The intellectual opportunity we perceive resides in a crisis that has almost too many dimensions. In the humanities, the breaking point seems imminent when J. Hillis Miller, the Yale School deconstructionist, defends the reading of old-fashioned canonical literature on political grounds, as a hedge against the ideological deformations of rampant neo-liberalism; or when Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri become required reading in literature departments while being totally ignored in history and international relations; or when post-colonialism becomes a universe parallel to every discipline, complete with its own laws of gravity and rules of inquiry.

Of course the sense of an ending has soaked this corner of the curricular gymnasium for an entire generation, as the canon got reshuffled and cultural studies appeared to challenge either the integrity or the centrality of written texts. Still, the “crisis of the humanities” is no mere cliché: its most ardent defenders are incapable of explaining why cultural literacy, or just an English major, is a valuable asset in a digital age. This pathetic situation makes us ask two old-fashioned questions. How do we measure value in a post-industrial society? And, why would anybody want to measure it in terms of labor time, in plain view of the end of work as the social source of character and the economic index of income?

Meanwhile the social sciences also “lose audience,” as we now say. Economists are being driven back toward Keynes, Kalecki, Minsky, and Marx—-or to von Hayek—-because no one else can make sense of the Great Recession. Even Milton Friedman’s once hegemonic explanation of the Great Depression is under siege. Since 2008, every empirical attempt to prove a negative correlation between the scale of public debt and rates of national economic growth has become a joke within months; so we know that whatever the regnant theories were, they’re now perceived as professionally useless, possibly dangerous to careers. Outside of the true believers, economists are now making it up as they go along, and they’re paying very strict attention to historical evidence as against theoretical coherence, to the point where both liberals (Robert Gordon) and conservatives (Tyler Cowen) have convinced themselves that we’ve already used up every available-—read: technological—-source of economic growth, and so are now witness to the twilight of civilization as we knew it.

At the same moment, historians, always as contentious as economists but more polite about stating their differences, have decided after 150 years that they don’t actually know what happened during the big event called the American Civil War. Recent books on this hoary topic, particularly James Oakes’s Freedom National, read as revelations because they foreground the problem of slavery (imagine that!) in narrating the causes and the conduct and the consequences of the American Iliad. Even more recent books on big events like the New Deal, the Popular Front, and the Civil Rights revolution have the same effect because they emphasize the political extremities—-the radical possibilities-—of these times. And then there is the new movement toward a “history of capitalism” which insists that this mode of production is, above all, a cultural phenomenon, so that its students, now rid of any pretensions to knowledge of political economy, are eligible for readmission to the discipline.

In other pilot disciplines, things are no differently precarious. Political science and sociology, for example, remain divided between the quant jocks and the theorists, but political theory has recently acquired an urgent diction, as if re-imagining the body politic is something that can and must be accomplished, right now. In philosophy, too, the intellectual stakes have been raised by a profound skepticism about scientific materialism, even as interest in the so-called New Atheism crests. The rehabilitation of pragmatism and the concurrent rebirth of moral philosophy teach us, of course, that the absence of faith is a mental nullity. But you know the rules of the game have been suspended when Thomas Nagel, the heir apparent to John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, announces that Darwinian theory as it stands is insufficient to the task of explaining consciousness, or anything else worth thinking about. Or when prominent physicists like Lee Smolin declare that time—-history, even—-is the missing dimension in completing, or disputing, the general theory of relativity. Or when Gilles Deleuze begins to look in retrospect like a homely pragmatist inspired by William James’s radical empiricism.

VI Radicalism

If we were describing an academic impasse, it would still be worth remarking, given how central the university has become to intellectual life. But as it happens—-it is no coincidence-—the larger culture is riven by the same existential doubts and epistemic failures that roil academia. Liberals complain, rightly, that conservatives won’t pay attention to “the facts,” appealing, as always, to a correspondence theory of truth that they themselves have put in question. They ask, What’s the matter with Kansas? False consciousness, they say, pure and simple—-the benighted masses don’t know their own interests! Conservatives complain, rightly, about a liberal bias in the mass media (with the possible exception of AM radio), and behave accordingly, as a corrective. They ask, What’s the matter with America? The revolt of the liberal elites, they say, against the interests of the benighted masses!

No wonder liberalism itself has become a dirty word, reviled by radicals on both the Left and the Right. In fact, radicalism is the “new normal” of political discourse. How else to explain that the received constitutional tradition is being shredded by its appointed caretakers at the Supreme Court? Or that Occupy Wall Street’s slogans and sensibilities have been taken up by the mainstream media, for example by Joseph Stiglitz and the New York Times? Or that the two major parties have nothing in common except a commitment to “free markets” and small business? Or that the slaveholders’ strategy of “nullification”-—the aggressive assertion of states’ rights on the grounds that the federalism of the Constitution makes sovereignty debatable-—has become a routine parliamentary procedure in the Congress and a recurrent theme in the deliberations of the Supreme Court?

By our reckoning, these times are a new Machiavellian Moment. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the differences between previous truth and novel fact couldn’t be reconciled by recourse to the received intellectual tradition, which relied on custom (experience), prudence, and providence (faith, prophecy) to explain and justify the actions of monarchs and princes. So thinkers like Machiavelli and Harrington invented a new tradition, adapting what they knew of civic humanism-—what they could gather from Aristotle and Polybius—-to the task of imagining stable republics that didn’t require the imprimatur of the church.

We think we’ve reached a similar verge. We’re all of us historians, more or less, either trained in or respectful of the discipline, but we find ourselves in the strange position of claiming that we’ve reached the point in our development where the usable past—-the received intellectual tradition-—has only a limited utility in our present circumstance. We feel something like James Madison did between the winter of 1786 and the summer of 1787, when, having studied every theorist of republics from Aristotle to Montesquieu (and on toward Jefferson), he decided they were useless in designing a polity that could break out of the Polybian cycle of corruption, degeneration, and collapse. Nothing less than a complete break from this past would permit a “new order of the ages,” that novus ordo seclorum still legible on the flip side of every dollar bill (look under the pyramid, but don’t stare into the eyeball on top, that way conspiracy theory lies).

Against his own cautious, indeed conservative inclinations, Madison became a radical in his year of living studiously. Over the last few years, we have, too. This little magazine is the result of our conversion experience.

VII Pragmatism

And yet we write as pragmatists. In fact, we hope to make this magazine the place where the meanings and significance of pragmatism can be fully explored—-as a philosophical method, to be sure, but more significantly as an “attitude toward history,” to borrow once again from Burke, which treats the impending future as an essential ingredient of the usable past.

We’re perfectly willing to accredit the vernacular definition of pragmatism—-an impatience with ideology and high theory, an emphasis on the consequences (the “cash value”) of ideas, and an urge to avoid moral philosophy of the Kantian kind. But we’re not going to leave it at that.

Practically speaking, our notion of pragmatism is a throwback. By this we mean that it’s more indebted to its early Europeans admirers and critics—-among them, Edmund Husserl, Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Giovanni Papini, Emile Durkheim, Henri Bergson, Georges Sorel, Jean Wahl, and Alexandre Kojeve—-than to the figures on this side of the Atlantic who led the late-20th century revival of pragmatism-—among them, Richard Rorty, Frank Lentricchia, Charlene Haddock-Seigfried, Cornel West, and Louis Menand. The European intellectuals understood pragmatism as a fundamental challenge to every category and every premise of the western philosophical tradition because its founders treated metaphysical problems as social questions. Us, too.

In fact, the original pragmatists insisted that social theory and its worldly cognate in collective action—-social movements—-could replace philosophy as the site of debates about the content of human nature, the possibility of self-consciousness, and the meanings of selfhood. Without citing it, they acted on Thesis 11: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is to change it.” The pragmatists were scientists, in this expansive sense: they believed that the condition of certainty about objects of knowledge was the purposeful manipulation of those objects, as in a controlled experiment conducted in a laboratory. They wanted to test their ideas by changing the world. Us, too.

These are claims that will sound obscure or bizarre unless we can honestly say that Marxism and pragmatism share intellectual origins and imperatives, and can demonstrate, accordingly, that William James, Jane Addams, and John Dewey improved on Karl Marx. For the time being, we’ll simply note that, like Marxism, pragmatism is the effect of intellectual collision, but also collusion, between German idealism and British empiricism—-between Continental and Anglo-American traditions. Karl Marx refused the either/or choice between these traditions. So did William James.

So do we. By now we’re all steeped in the high theory issued from the European continent-—when necessary, we will actually advocate for Irigaray, Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou, Foucault, Ranciere, Balibar, even Zizek—-but our goal is not to validate this or that theoretical position, and thereby to reinstate the logic of metaphysics. We’re here instead to ask disturbing, empirical, pragmatic questions like these: Who cares, so what? Does this idea-—maybe even this sentence-—make a difference in how you think about anything, thus act upon it, sing about it? If not, why bother with it? Why bother us?

We think that the intellectual’s worst sin, more deadly than the familiar seven, is the sneering, principled abstention from the profane world of mass (consumer) culture that enables the Stoic or the Epicurean cultivation of a beautiful soul. As pragmatists, we’re determined, and equipped, to avoid that fate. Among other things, therefore, this little magazine will be the comic record of our souls’ corruption, as we keep making really big mistakes, truly egregious errors, on our way to interpreting, and changing, that world.

VIII Politics/Letters

This statement is not a general guide to our editorial policy, mainly because we don’t have one. Here, too, we’ll be following the lead of Raymond Williams, who, when asked if he aimed for editorial unity and consistency in founding Politics & Letters, said, “No.” He elaborated, uncomfortably, as follows: “We were determined to have an open review. . . . Hence the appearance of incompatibilities and inconsistencies in the journal.”

We, all of us editors, contributing and otherwise, are determined to keep our disagreements—-we hope many “incompatibilities and inconsistencies” appear as we develop our ideas and find new constituents for them. But surely our general political purpose is by now legible. On the assumption that neither Marxism nor socialism has a predictable political valence or institutional articulation-—they can be and have been instruments of dictatorship or democracy-—we want to redefine the scope of the Left and, in doing so, we want to reorient its thinking, our thinking. On the assumption that revolution will never again attain the epic dimensions of the Russian, Mexican, Chinese, and Cuban renditions, as “wars of maneuver” bent on control of the state, we’ll think of our project as a “war of position” bent on cultural hegemony. We want to change the way people experience the world. We’ll do that by changing the meanings of the key words that mediate and determine our experience (words such as liberty, equality, work, pleasure, self, citizen, sex, democracy, and, of course, corporation).

In other words, we assume that the nature of politics has changed fundamentally since the 1950s, with the emergence of post-colonial societies across the globe, most obviously and effectively in the USA, where the decolonization of African-Americans—-what we call the Civil Rights movement-—became the cutting edge of a cultural revolution. As the nature of politics has changed so, too, has the political unconscious of fiction, poetry, film, music, and television, the residents of that centrifugal republic of letters once known as popular culture. But how and why did they change? We don’t have and we don’t want definitive answers to these questions, not yet, anyway. We want to keep our disagreements because without them, our magazine makes no sense.

We have, however, reached consensus on a few fundamentals. We agree that intellectuals on the Left have been too quick to consign the project of socialism to the dustbin of History, and too convinced that an explicitly anti-capitalist movement is the only way to retrieve it; as a result, we think, their programmatic thinking about the origins and effects of the Great Recession has been disfigured by nostalgia for the good old days, when the Communist Party of the Popular Front was the epicenter of intellectual life. We also agree that this same consignment of socialism to the proverbial dustbin has validated the Left’s will to powerlessness—-its urge to stay on the margins, where “dissent” has no costs and no consequences.

And we agree that art of every kind is, or makes sense as, a political act, simply because artists stand at the heart of change, telling us where it can and should lead by depicting what is evident yet unknown—-the “existing beyond,” as William James put it. The world, the scene, or the incident that artists convey in words, sounds, and images may never have happened, but it feels inhabitable (if not familiar) because it’s consistent with both the possibilities and the limits of human intentions—-not just the learned or noble intentions spoken in stately, classical style by the well-born, but all of them, even unto the most mundane and murderous intentions expressed by the rest of us. The promise of literary democracy appears, for example, when vernacular speech becomes the language of character development, not the verbal signal of comic relief.

But we agree above all that we need fresh thinking and good arguments about the relation between politics and letters, and about the verge we’ve reached, this place in time where the disintegrating past looks like state socialism and the impending future looks like neo-liberal capitalism—-as if the transition question of our time reads backward, so that we constantly ask not whether but how we’re regressing.

How to break out of this Polybian attitude toward the vicissitudes of historical time without denying the weight of the past?

That is the question we’re convened to answer.

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POLITICS/LETTERS

Today, January 5, 2014, Kurt Newman and I launch POLITICS/LETTERS, a new magazine that aims to shake up our ideas about capitalism, socialism, and democracy, among other things. With any luck, we’ll some fun.

Here’s the Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/politicsslashletters. Go there and push that “Like” button, unless of course you don’t.
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Here’s the elevator pitch:

“We have lived to see the end of capitalism.” That was W. E. B. Du Bois in 1940. We have, too. Or so we’ve been telling ourselves since 2008. By now it’s pretty clear that we don’t know what we’re talking about.

History doesn’t repeat itself. Historians do. We’ve reached the end of our understanding of capitalism, so we keep saying the same old things, mainly “it ‘s bad for us,” or “let’s break up the big banks,” as if Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan still speak to our condition. Meanwhile, we keep saying the same old things about socialism, as in: “it’s the name of our desire.” Meaning that, like the “most luscious peach” Johnny Paycheck sings about, socialism is always just out of reach.

We want to stop repeating ourselves. So we’re starting a new magazine, POLITICS/LETTERS.

In this space, capitalism and socialism will appear as lived social relations in the here and now, not theoretical abstractions or utopian destinations. Capitalism and socialism will be treated as instances of modern market society. Each will be recognized as the necessary condition of the other’s development, rather than as terms of an either/or choice (which is really just another name for a “double bind”).

POLITICS/LETTERS will not promote revolution, at least not a vision of revolution that presumes some dramatic rupture will install a fully-fledged socialism by displacing capitalism.

We have an expansive, pluralist definition of the Left, and we’re here to offer heresies, in keeping with our pragmatist bent. Among them, for example, that the US is a much more liberal place than it was when Ronald Reagan took office; that the Left is alive and well even in the absence of anti-capitalist political formations; that the affirmation of consumer culture provides the best road to environmental reform; that the future is ours.

POLITICS/LETTERS will also promote art—-prose, poetry, music, and video. We think that art of every kind is, or makes sense as, a political act, simply because artists depict what is evident yet unknown, the “existing beyond” as William James called it. We think that the art of politics is a lot less interesting than the politics of art. We know that cultural politics are a lot more important–and fun–than most of the state-centered programmatic battles covered (or, increasingly, ignored) by the newspapers.

We welcome contributions from all artists, writers, intellectuals and others in agreement with these sentiments. We also welcome disagreements. We’re open to any perspective except the God’s-eye view of the world that tells us the Facts and the Truth exist apart from their embodiment in words, images, and sounds.
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Next post is the Prospectus, later today!

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Post-Totalitarian Society, Part I

In my recent appearance on Bloomberg News, where I called Edward Snowden a “national hero,” I tried to distinguish between the totalitarianism George Orwell conjured in 1984 and the “post-totalitarian society” Vaclav Havel depicted in his zamizdat manifesto of 1978, “The Power of the Powerless.” I actually mentioned Havel by name, hoping to cloak myself in his reputability.

Some friends and colleagues have urged me to explain this distinction, as a way to grasp both the scope of the NSA’s illegal searches and the nature of Snowden’s achievement-—that is, his heroism. I gave it a try and sent the result to my old friend Mike Fennell, suggesting he read it backward and asking for comments. His quick response was so bracing and stimulating that I have appended it to this post.

I begin here, in Part I, by assessing the charges against Snowden, from the personal to the political. By doing so, I hope to illustrate the extent to which we, the people, have become complicit in spying on ourselves, thus adept at disciplining ourselves on behalf of the state. I hope, that is, to illuminate the defining characteristic of a post-totalitarian society-—relying on ourselves to keep the peace. In rehearsing these charges, I move from the ridiculous to the sublime.

(1) Snowden contributed money to Ron Paul’s presidential bid, and thus validated this Republican’s racist past. My comrades on the Left have pressed the charge most consistently, in part because, after Brecht, they’re uncomfortable with the very idea of heroism. I would ask them to dispense with their worries about heroes and consider this Nietzschean axiom: “There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming: ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” I would also ask them to remember the simple fact that Paul’s intellectual background wasn’t common knowledge until press coverage of the Republican primaries brought it to light.

(2) Snowden is a “grand narcissist,” just looking to get attention. This was Jeffrey Toobin’s early accusation in The New Yorker, which I’ve heard repeated many times since. David Brooks hinted at the same conclusion in his New York Times column on Snowden, characterizing the man as a “solitary naked individual,” a product of “the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds.” Quite apart from the vacancy of narcissism as a concept or a psychological category, what kind of narcissist risks his future and even his life to save constitutionally guaranteed rights of privacy and free speech from their enemy in the state, thus upholding the founding principle of American politics—-viz., the sovereignty of the people, the supremacy of society over the state?

(3) “He signed a contract and didn’t keep to it,” or, “He violated an oath and betrayed his employers if not the U.S.” Brooks peddled this line in the same column cited above, but I’ve heard it dozens of times in person, most recently in the Green Room at Bloomberg News, from a Senior Vice-President at MasterCard who held herself up as a model of integrity: “I signed a confidentiality agreement just like he did, and I wouldn’t break it.” I asked her how she’d feel if she knew that abiding by this agreement would harm thousands of people by violating their most basic rights-—if she knew, consequently, that carrying out her duties as a corporate vice-president put the public interest and the American republic itself at risk.

She waved that question away, but it can’t be evaded. The most binding oath, the one that military men and women take, requires them to disobey the orders of their superior officers if they believe that carrying out such orders would violate the rules of war, which include protection of the human rights of non-combatants. Snowden might have betrayed the interests of his employer, Booz Allen, but he upheld a higher good, a more compelling interest, by refusing to keep the NSA’s illegal searches secret, thus refusing to sacrifice the rights of his fellow citizens in the name of Booz Allen’s bottom line.

(4) By seeking asylum in Russia, Snowden has undermined any claim to be interested in the sanctity of human rights; for even (or especially) in its post-Soviet phase of development, this state acts as if the rudimentary rights of free speech, privacy, and fair trials are a joke. The charge might hold if Snowden had designated Russia as his final destination, or had endorsed the Putin regime, or had leaked NSA documents to Russian authorities. But of course he hasn’t done any such thing (and here I rely on reporting from the New York Times). He sought asylum there because the U.S. government revoked his passport and prevented his departure for his preferred destination(s).

(5) Snowden is no hero of human rights because he can’t be compared to the civil rights leaders who deliberately broke the laws and gladly accepted the sanctions that followed, including jail time; to Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the Times; or to the Eastern European dissidents (like Havel himself) who destroyed Soviet totalitarianism by peaceful but unlawful means. Snowden’s civil disobedience does not qualify him for inclusion in this pantheon because he fled the country rather than stay at home and stand trial, where he could make his case to the American people. Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker and the University of Connecticut has offered the most forceful version of the charge; but I’ve also heard it from several academics and prize-winning historians who have written eloquently about civil rights struggles. Here’s how Cobb states it:

“The cornerstone achievements in American rights were attainable precisely because their proponents refused to avoid consequences for their dissent. . . . During the civil rights movement, the young activists of SNCC adopted a ‘Jail, No Bail’ strategy not only because of the financial burdens of raising money but also because their willingness to remain in prison, to suffer for their cause, eroded the moral standing of the men responsible for their arrests. . . . Daniel Ellsberg endorsed Snowden’s actions, but Ellsberg himself remained within the U.S. after he released the Pentagon papers. Had he fled the country, the Nixon administration might not have pursued the actions that ultimately brought its own demise. . . . This year marks the 50th anniversary of MLK’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’ A half-century after supporters smuggled King’s out of the facility and oversaw its publication, it remains the clearest distillation of the meaning and implications of dissent. Edward Snowden is a figure of current events, but if he wishes to become a figure of history or, more crucially, advance the important arguments he has forced us to think about, he should return to the U.S. ‘Dispatch From an Undisclosed Location’ simply doesn’t carry the same weight.”

But the civil rights standard analogy can’t work in this instance, unless we’re willing to broaden it to include Malcolm X’s prescient efforts to “import the social question” by accusing the U.S. of human rights violations under the terms of the UN Charter.

Why won’t the civil rights analogy work? First, there is the tricky difference between foreign and domestic policy. These have been mixed up in the Snowden case, of course, because the FISA guidelines permit routine surveillance of exchanges between US citizens and foreign nationals by the NSA; but one of Snowden’s revelations, as the Obama administration’s White Paper acknowledged, is that the distinction makes no difference. The FBI spied on MLK, to be sure, but if he had leaked or documented his knowledge of COINTELPRO, would he have been subject to indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, or a military tribunal, on the grounds that he had compromised national security? Was he ever formally accused of espionage, was he ever indicted or incarcerated for such a capital offense?

Edward Snowden has already been formally charged with espionage by a government that has yet to acknowledge any limits on its legal scope or military power in fighting a “war on terror.” If he returns to the U.S. to be tried for this charge, his trial cannot be public because on national security grounds, the NSA, the CIA, and the Justice Department will not present evidence in a court of law that they have refused to disclose to the Congress, let alone the press and the larger public.

For Snowden to reenact the example of “civil disobedience” would, then, be to silence himself and his sources. Is that what we wanted or expected from Daniel Ellsberg, who had the cooperation of the paper of record? Who could count on the support of the Supreme Court as well as the liberal media, not to mention a social movement that had made the war in Vietnam the central issue of the time? Is silence what we want from this moment of doubt about the reliability and the resilience of these media?

Second, in our circumstances, the scope of the state’s power is aided, abetted, approved, and excused by the very liberal media that, in the civil rights era, took the other side. Edward Snowden already stands charged with espionage by the United States. But his crimes against the state are clear only if you grant the extant, infinite definition of state power claimed by the masterminds at the NSA, the judges at FISA, Obama’s lawyers in the Justice Department, and all the compliant pundits, from Jeffrey Toobin and Thomas Friedman to David Brooks-—not to mention David Simon and his ultra-liberal ilk-—who can say or do anything they want on behalf of this Leviathan because its dimensions must remain unknown, even to its most ardent defenders.

So, in the absence of the old-time urge to speak truth to power, except where the McClatchy Newspapers get published, what’s a dissident who has massive evidence of unconstitutional and unlawful government conduct supposed to do? Stay home and be forever silenced by the merry collaboration of the executive branch and The New Yorker? Or go into exile, with some hope of asylum because there are nation-states with grievances against the US?

(6) Edward Snowden is invoking a right to privacy that was expressly denied by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland (1978), when it decided that a customer’s provision of personal information to telephone companies was voluntary. From this standpoint, there is nothing illegal or even untoward about the NSA’s bulk collection of telephony metadata. The legality and legitimacy of undisclosed government surveillance with respect to telephony have been repeatedly confirmed, moreover, by formal Congressional approval, first of the FISA courts in 1978 and then Section 215 of the revised Patriot Act: the wire has long been a staple of law enforcement and intelligence gathering. Snowden’s breach of confidentiality and national security is all the more egregious, then, because he is defending a right that doesn’t exist against a state that hasn’t violated the law, whether statutory or constitutional.

This specious claim is the basic content of David Simon’s blog rant against Snowden, which Thomas Friedman then borrowed for his Times column; of the White Paper cited above; and of Judge William Pauley’s recent decision in favor of the NSA.

Here’s Friedman introducing Simon:

“So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.”‘

Here’s Simon himself:

“You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about. And you would think that rather than a legal court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame. Nope. … The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. … I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. … The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. … The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised. And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”

It is of course true that we, the people, don’t know of any actual abuse, but that is because the whole program has been conducted in secret: we don’t know anything about it. Simon’s “more fundamental” question can’t be addressed, let alone answered, until we do know enough to make a judgment. Friedman doesn’t even raise a question because he takes it on faith that “our government” must be protecting us from “real, not imagined threats,” as it clearly did in 1964 (Gulf of Tonkin), 1983 (Grenada), and 2003 (Iraq).

The White Paper is by it nature more circumspect than these cheerleaders could be. Still, it’s as mindless as the opinions offered by Friedman and Simon.

Part II of this document could be called “Why the Program is Legal.” The point here is that the collection and analysis of telephone metadata by the NSA at the request of the FBI and with the approval of FISA courts complies with Section 215 of the revised Patriot Act. Notice that at 14 pages, this is by far the longest part of the White Paper, composing about 60% of the total—-by contrast, Part III, which could be called “Why the Program is Constitutional,” is four pages, only about 17% of the total.

Part II uses the very specific language of Section 215 regarding “authorized investigations,” “tangible things” discovered in searches—-yes, electronic storage qualifies as such a thing—-the “relevance” of any suspect, lead, or information in authorizing investigations, and “prospective orders” of surveillance based on reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause. The rhetorical move here is always to compare what the NSA is doing to routine police work, where these legal categories and imperatives determine the contours of any investigation.

The analogy cannot hold, of course, and the White Paper authors, whoever they may be, acknowledge this awkward fact in two interesting ways. On the one hand, they keep canceling their own comparison with invocations of the state’s interest in national security—-“even if” you could object to our Law & Order analogy, they keep saying, we’d have to tell you about terrorism and explain why the DA’s rules are moot-—and on the other hand they exhaust themselves in an increasingly circular argument about relevance.

The “relevance” argument takes up seven pages of the White Paper, about a third of the whole. Why? Because the category has not hitherto applied and cannot apply to the bulk collection of data, meta or no. Until now it has borne the moral and legal weight of specific circumstance, not crimes still uncommitted by conspiracies that haven’t yet convened. And because “relevance” is the central criterion by which a judge outside of FISC decides whether to authorize an investigation using modern methods of surveillance (short of bulk collection). If legal authorization of an investigation is predicated on relevance—particularity, specificity, actual or impending crime—but the bulk collection of (meta)data denies the very possibility of relevance because it subjects virtually everyone to random search, the argument becomes hopelessly circular.

The perfunctory Part III of the White Paper, on the constitutionality of The Program, validates the circularity of Part II.

There are three claims here. First, a Section 215 order for the bulk collection of telephone metadata “is not a ‘search’ as to any individual” because the Supreme Court expressly held in Smith v. Maryland (1979) that telephone users have no reasonable expectation of privacy because they’ve already relinquished information to a third party (the telephone company). Second, the 4th Amendment bestows only a “personal right” against unlawful searches—a right that “must be invoked by an individual,” and thus “may not be vicariously asserted” in the name of any others (the key cite is Minnesota v. Carter [1998]) Third, “lawful investigative activities conducted in good faith” do not violate the 1st Amendment.

So if you thought that the NSA surveillance program was an intrusion on your constitutional right to privacy and protection from unlawful searches, Not To Worry! It can’t be such an intrusion, you see, because the Government—-the word is capitalized throughout—-doesn’t know who you are: it doesn’t sample the verbal content of your telephone conversations, and you don’t know what the Government is doing because it can’t tell you, for your own good.

(7) Snowden’s actions don’t acknowledge that we are engaged in a “war on terror”—-a war against unconventional combatants, unseen enemies, decentered cadres, trans-national movements, and so on, all of which require a new balance between national security and individual liberty. His theft of NSA data was profoundly naïve, in this sense, and therefore dangerous; for the bulk collection of telephony metadata could well have prevented the catastrophe of 9/11, and subsequent terrorist attacks.

This is the argument presented, or rather the assumption embodied, in Judge William Pauley’s recent decision rejecting the ACLU’s claim against the NSA’s program. It is as empty, as specious, as the notion that the NSA has been operating within statutory law or constitutional constraint. Robert Mueller’s testimony notwithstanding, in 2000 the NSA was already able to identify the location of a suspected terrorist who became one of the 9/11 hijackers, and was also able to identify his father’s residence, where most of the suspect’s calls were directed. There is, moreover, no evidence whatsoever that the bulk collection of telephony data since then has prevented another attack—-none.

So the argument for the NSA’s secret program boils down to a justification of a “war on terror.”
But a “war on terror” cannot be won. There are no military means with which any state can defeat a terrorist movement, as the most cursory look at the historical record would show, from the Russian anarchists to the IRA, the Irgun, and the PLO. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. It subsists by erasing the distinction between state and society, combatant and civilian, public and private, enemies and innocents. But that is precisely the logic offered by the NSA when it insists that the bulk collection of telephony metadata is necessary because the difference between enemies and innocents is unknowable. No state can long indulge this terrorist logic as the justification for its constant deployment of armed force; for by doing so it places its legitimacy—-the consent of the governed and the acquiescence of the oppressed-—at risk. It solicits and enables not merely active “dissent” in the form of political opposition, but everyday resistance in the more insidious and effective form of cynicism or resentment. The politics follow from the resistance, not the other way around.

In Part II, I will take up Havel’s notion of a “post-totalitarian society” by way of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, the presiding intellectual spirits of “The Power of the Powerless.” For the time being, I hope that this summary of the charges against Edward Snowden indicates two salient facts. First, both the defense and the critique of the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata is a symptom of the dispersal of power from state to society, not a new rationale for or critique of state power, as against civil society. Second, the critique is more promising than the defense, simply because it assumes that our consent to and complicity in surveillance is predicated on our prior knowledge of it.

HERE FOLLOWS MIKE FENNELL’S RESPONSE:

Reading this backward makes the last sentence, especially, and the last paragraph sound too optimistic. I would assert the opposite: The critique of the program cannot be the more promising development precisely because it arose only after we “read the charges” so to speak–had them made “real” by seeing them in print. This is a child’s excuse for willful ignorance. The crimes were always there and we knew it–every 9th grader has read Animal Farm and we all grew up on “Three Days of The Condor” and James Bond. Dick Cheney especially didn’t fool anyone. We liked the idea of Darth Vader at the helm.

But that’s why the re-authorization of sec. 215 of The Patriot Act is so troubling. The childish, willful ignorance was a representative act by Congress. They chose to not know what was in there as an act of good faith representation. They knew, as we all do, that to know what the state is up to is to be responsible for it and, as Americans, to dissent, or at least open ourselves to dangerous argument. Once we/they take that step, the next attack is on them/us.

That is to say, reading backwards also got me thinking about what could possibly account for the bizarre language you cite here–from the critics of Snowden to the District Court rulings. I get the creepy feeling that the words themselves don’t make any sense because we are beyond speaking rationally. Perhaps the “Paranoid Style” has met technological promise?

So I think the route from here goes through Chapter 5 of The World Turned Inside Out and The Technology of Desire in particular (again with the Althusser). I think our faith–and what else can you call it really–in the NSA, and our ambivalence about the consequences of surrender to it, looks like an Oedipal struggle with the Cyborg. The idea of post-totalitarianism–leading the state in our own subjection–almost seems sensible if we believe that the enemy here is unknown, unseen yet omnipresent. Such an enemy might call for total resistance, total war, total control–all things we know ourselves to be incapable of. We have the technology now to “Report Suspicious Activity” all around, and to insure that “Loose Lips (don’t) Sink Ships” that we didn’t have in the olden days of omnipresent enemies. All we have to do is trust the “being” that has total capability.

If my reading is not too far fetched, the thing we do not trust–what really scares us–is the man behind the curtain; Snowden in this case. That’s why his critics insist on minimizing the case only to his motives and personality and ignore their own complicity.

And what do they imagine there is in this Matrix if not people like Snowden who will always muck it up somehow? I mean follow their reasoning to the end–what’s left after the human error, desire, avarice, prurience is deducted from this system?

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the District Court(s), Friedman and others and the White House itself mimic in the broadest sense, Sara Connor: “He was more of a father than any man could be”–in a flash of light an unstoppable assassin becomes an indefatigable protector. Totally whatever you need him to be (as long as his/its properly programmed CPU lasts).

I feel a ghostly “Hamletization” coming on so I’ll stop while I’m behind.

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Edward Snowden, National Hero

Here’s the clip from my session at Bloomberg News today, on Snowden’s Xmas message. It’s slightly truncated at both ends, so look at the message before you view this. The opening question is “Does he have a point” in comparing our situation with the fiction of Orwell’s 1984?

http://www.bloomberg.com/video/i-see-snowden-as-a-national-hero-livingston-dhWa1rH4Qs69404qPpHvOA.html

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