From the Limits of the Earth to the Limits of Conception, Jamming, 19/06/2018

Here’s a tricky movement to follow if you’re trying to understand what hegemony is. Let me rephrase that.

If you’re trying to understand what Gramsci’s concept of hegemony helps us understand. That concept helps us understand how a complex economic system and the ideas that justify it can constrain each of our capacities to imagine possibilities for people’s lives in communities.

This is going to be a rough few hundred words. But I want to take a first pass at describing this movement.*

Can you reset a civilization? Just turn it on and off again? Because I
kind of feel like we have to do it with ours right now.
* I’m writing this post after a very frustrating evening of finally updating my OS. There’s just something about how long that takes, that annoys me so much. I know basically how everything works, but I’d be a terrible IT guy, simply because you have to wait so long for processes to finish running. And you can’t just read a book while you wait because you can’t risk your bosses perceiving you as slacking off.

When you say the word ‘neoliberalism,’ what do you actually mean? What are you referring to? What’s the concept? What are the material processes you discuss when you use that word?

You’re talking about a set of economic and governance institutions, yes. But you’re also talking about all the communications – books, television appearances, newspaper columns, blogs, videos, posts, films, academic programs, articles, advertisements, slogans, jokes, clichés – that express an ideology, a philosophy.

Individualism as an absolute principle, the reduction of our obligations to each other in a search for the minimal point at which a society can still function peacefully. Then maybe even going past that.

It’s an ideology that’s been mobilized – by think tanks, newspaper chains, television and online news and infotainment networks, all owned or bankrolled by oligarchs who’d prefer never to pay taxes, have no state regulations constraining their cost-cutting, and who want a submissive, pliable, precarious workforce so they don’t have to pay employees very much.

Revolutions in thinking that began in a prison cell.
But an ideology takes on a life of its own. Not literally, of course. But once people start taking the principles of an ideology for granted, they perpetuate it in their everyday conversations, decisions, and ethical stances. Contingent principles about the best way to run a business or handle personal debt are understood as intuitive, obvious, even necessary.

The first step in any revolutionary thinking is understanding that nothing is genuinely necessary.

The moral principles that justify a global-scale economic system are the unquestioned, obvious truisms of the people who live in this system. What’s ubiquitous, what’s everywhere, is all too easily taken as necessary – the only way of life possible, the only personal and economic morality possible.

Does everyone understand this well enough that they know what you imply when you say the one word? Or do they just hear a buzzword that means so many things that it doesn’t have much of a meaning at all?

A critic of neoliberal economics, politics, ideas, and moralities needs to isolate them to criticize them. But you can’t isolate every aspect of the whole world. Nothing is isolated.

Show people where they live in the system, how all these relationships affect each of us. Most importantly, push them to think of other possible ways of life. Maybe get them to play-act it for a little while, in public all together. That’s how you start people thinking differently.

No Simple Victory in a World Such as Ours, Research Time, 18/06/2018

Being a pretty active member – and occasional contractor – for the New Democratic Party in Toronto means I regularly have conversations with lots of different kinds of marxists.

That includes self-identified marxists, and folks who are only considered marxists according to the new popular conception of marxism. You know it – where people who think there should be a state-subsidized pharmacare plan are functionally indistinguishable from Josef Stalin.

The caption reads, "Study! Because we will need all your intelligence."
The painting is by the Italian artist SOLO. Its location is the entrance
to Antonio Gramsci Secondary School on Affogalasino Street in Rome.
See, I don’t really like to call myself a marxist because it always gets people ascribing philosophical views to me that I don’t actually hold. Telling someone that you’re a marxist tends to make a lot of folks think that all your ideas are just regurgitated from the Cliff’s Notes of Kapital. That’s true whether or not you actually want them to think this. Usually, you don’t, but it can’t be helped once you use the m-word.

But it’s a much more complicated tradition that folks in the popular media give it credit for. A lot of that is because of the nuanced analyses of political economy that you find in Marx’s own later works. I was reading about that Sunday morning on a pleasant deck in Riverdale.

Today, I want to go over some of my notes on Gilbert, his take on how Antonio Gramsci transformed the marxist tradition.

As you might remember from my last post, a major task for my district association’s policy work is figuring out the key differences in the drift of working class union folks from the New Democratic Party in Canada. It’s a shift that puts the lie to the Cliff’s Notes version of marxism – class is always the primary vector for social consciousness.

I’ve had self-identified marxists tell me this. They should know better. Don’t act like Antonio Gramsci didn’t exist. His influence remains strong today, in many parts of the world.

Gilbert focusses on what he takes to be a central transformation in how the term ‘hegemony’ was used, giving it an entirely new philosophical spin. He remixed and mangled this old concept from political science – the direct or indirect leadership of a privileged class (inside a state) or a military power (internationally).

The slogans of my own country's current
leading intellectuals aren't quite so
inspiring to me.
He turned this term into a concept that we could use in all vectors of activism that seeks cultural and economic transformation. For a group to have hegemony in a culture means that the group’s mainstream and accepted images, political frameworks, economic systems, moralities, and ethical principles pressure all other such cultural and economic elements around the globe to conform to its own structures.

In other words, the old 19th century political science concept of hegemony: imagine an American fleet pulling into your harbour and forcing you to open up a McDonald’s. Military power backs economic and cultural transformation.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony: imagine an American businessman flying to your country, co-opting all your local businessmen to open McDonald’s franchises, and then the popularity of their menu causes people to drift away from their more traditional foods. Economic power backs cultural and moral transformation.

Then Gilbert flies through an account of how Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe updated Gramsci’s concepts. They brought research on how the global economy was changing from the era of Western stagflation onward. So from the 1970s.

Laclau and Mouffe – in their joint and solo books – described how cultural power can lead the way in a hegemonic transformation, not only military and economic power. Identity politics like nationalism bind communities together in movements for economic change and even military civil insurrection.

Any aspect of human existence can become the leading edge in a liberating or a revanchist social revolution. It could be violent or peaceful, or a mixture of all degrees of inspiration and blood. What matters is that circumstances align to bring one vector into a hegemonic intensity of influence.

What are those circumstances? How do we manage them? How do we understand them? Change them?

The Social Drift That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Research Time, 15/06/2018

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of convergence between research for my philosophical writing and the political activism work I’ve been doing. Here’s an example.

As you can tell from my Twitter feed, I spent the last month working a contract for the New Democratic Party in Ontario on a district campaign in the provincial election. We lost that race by a respectably small margin, but there were some promising and troubling signs of future directions in how people engaged with state politics in this part of Canada.

On a province-wide level, the New Democrats had a remarkable success, nearly doubling their seats in the legislature, showing a strong performance province-wide, and breaking into victories in areas that hadn’t supported them in some time or ever.

When I was searching for artistic images of Ontario Premier Doug
Ford, I ended up discovering that there's a whimsical visual artist
in Auckland, New Zealand who is also named Doug Ford. One
of his ongoing projects is painting amusing or pastoral scenes on
traffic light control boxes.
The New Democrats swept most of urban Toronto, and even into the metro suburbs like Scarborough and Brampton. They gained seats in Kingston and central Ottawa, as well as growing and consolidating support in and around Windsor, Hamilton, Niagara, Thunder Bay, the lesser London, Peterborough, Sudbury, and Kitchener. But the rural-urban divide in support was stark and disturbing.

The only rural seats that went New Democrat were Indigenous-dominated populations in the far north of the province and the area around Sudbury. Two smaller cities with very working-class backgrounds went to the Conservatives: Sarnia and Sault Ste Marie. A major Sault Ste Marie Steelworkers union endorsed the Conservative candidate after its members demanded it. It was probably a major factor in his slim victory.

Sault Ste Marie offered the most troubling story for an organizer in progressive politics. The New Democrats have historically been a very pro-union party, traditionally linked to the concerns of working-class citizens.* This is especially true in Ontario, with its powerful government, higher education, and manufacturing unions.

* I mean, the New Democratic Party was literally created from the merger of Canada’s federal socialist party and the country’s largest association of trade unions.

But many union members are turning away from the New Democrats, even though that party’s policies are generally the best for people in that sector and class. I want to do some investigations about this, but my hypothesis is that the socially conservative, pro-white sentiment among many working class people are driving them to support a party that dog-whistles sufficiently to let folks know their stance.

He's a symbol and a voice. A voice that does speak for far too many
people out there.
Yes, Doug. That’s what “I’m taking care of our own first” means.

One of the most insightful popular analyses of this problem I found last year, written by Erik Loomis, a historian at University of Rhode Island. American union leadership and membership has taken the side of heavily-polluting oil companies against environmentalists and Indigenous people. Throughout the country’s history, American trade unions have supported openly racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and supported Donald Trump’s economic isolationism.

During the campaign, a Meet-and-Greet I was organizing fell apart. It was with a group of strong NDP supporters, all of whom had spent their entire lives in Toronto’s manufacturing and construction sectors, all of whom were dedicated union activists. My contact in the group even told me why.

Late in the campaign, the Liberal and Conservative parties began blanket messaging of opposition research on different New Democrat candidates around the province. I didn’t consider any of these issues a dealbreaker. In fact, I considered these additional reasons to endorse those candidates. But I can understand why many Ontarians who aren’t me found these people’s activism disgusting.

Gurratan Singh, running in the same Brampton riding his brother left to become federal NDP leader, once held a sign at an anti-violence protest reading “Fuck the Police.” Jessica Bell, running in central Toronto, once got herded into a police wagon and arrested at the protests against Stephen Harper’s G20 summit that saw Toronto’s entire financial district occupied by the Canadian military.

Erica Kelly, running in central Etobicoke, once said on social media that gun owners disgusted her after a blitz of post-Stoneman Douglas NRA ads made her blood boil. Laura Kaminker, a candidate in central Mississauga, refuses to wear a poppy leading up to our Remembrance Day because of how the symbol has been turned from a sign of mourning to one of patriotic jingoism.

Because the government of Tony Blair brought nothing but justice
and prosperity to Britain and the wider world. People got a little
disappointed about this, and more than a little angry.
We also ran a young trans woman in the Vanier suburb of Ottawa. She lost. So did Kelly and Kaminker. Singh and Bell won, though.

What reason did my contact give for his community turning down our campaign event? They were all disgusted by Kaminker, Singh, Bell, Kelly, and the other candidates slammed as ‘radical activists.’ They all threw their support to the Conservatives.

Jeremy Gilbert describes a parallel problem happening in Britain in the late 1990s. After Tony Blair led Labour to an electoral victory in 1997, the British labour movement of union activists and organizers largely shut down for several years. They presumed that, with the unionists’ party having taken government, there was no need for them to advocate. They had won.

You never win. The Labour Party won the 1997 election, so the popular movement for social justice in Britain was complete. I couldn’t finish writing that sentence without laughing. I’m not sure how much I should trust Gilbert on this assessment. It sounds a lot like hyperbole.

But I can’t deny that when one sector associates themselves with a political party so much, you can identify the party’s electoral victory with your own.

If the NDP ever wins government in Ontario again, I’ll be among the first to criticize its policies if they fall short of what we want to do and what we can do. Even if they’re giving me another job. My principles will never take a back seat to any party loyalty.

It seems the union folks abandoning the New Democrats think the same.

The Alienation of Loneliness, Research Time, 14/06/2018

Something generally understood today about capitalism as a concept is that it’s not the same as a market. In any society, there are markets, currency, purchases, and businesses. The transition from the many different kinds of society with markets in them to a capitalist model is a threshold of stratification.

The creation of oligarchs, literally and essentially. What makes oligarchies – the snarling parodies of aristocrats for capitalisms – so destructive is that they’re businessmen. A medieval European aristocracy was a large-scale landholder with many local inhabitants held in bondage. But he didn’t have a drive to buy up all the other aristocrats. It was a static class structure.

What kind of person would choose to have no
one at all? Totalizing self-reliance.
Oligarchs blow class structures to pieces because they never stop accumulating. They want their personal and corporate wealth to measure in the billions and trillions of dollars. They’ll raze economies to do it.

Yesterday, I was talking about the anxiety, fear, and timidity that a brutally competitive working culture and an unstable, precarious economy produce in people across the society. Well, there’s another destructive psychology that brutal capitalism trains in many people.

You separate yourself from the rest of your neighbours, co-workers, friends, everyone you encounter. You come to treat people as a competitor before a friend, or anything else, for that matter.

Marx himself wrote about the alienation of people from their labour and its products in the mid-19th century. But in today’s economy – at least in most of the West – people are alienated from any social connections at all.

It’s a loneliness bred from fear, paranoia, and hostility. It’s a psychological forge of sociopaths and human wreckage.

Jeremy Gilbert discusses how some of the most culturally influential social movements have made ending this alienation their priority and method. One important example was the UK’s Reclaim the Streets movement, which provided an alternative form of social connection whenever they occupied space.

Then, of course, there was Occupy, obviously – its greatest success was as an experimental space to demonstrate that another form of society was possible. Very few of those experiments in social connection could survive the pepper spray that eventually broke up those spaces. But the point was that any demonstration of alternatives had been successful.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, the popular mood and political party leadership across the mainstream board said that there was no alternative form of society anymore except liberal capitalism.

As if there were only ever two forms of society anyway. Nothing works forever. In all the revolutionary movements in social connection and reconnection that flowered over the last decade, all those varieties had one thing in common.

They were different. They were alternatives to the anxious, alienated existence that we’d come to take for granted. They were real.

The Anxiety of Having to Work For a Living, Research Time, 13/06/2018

We think of the millionaire – or billionaire these days – businessman as the bold entrepreneur. A fearless experimenter. We hear the rhetoric all the time, and have for years. The startup business is where people take risks – develop new ideas – transformative new ventures.

Can't spell adventure without venture (capital), after all.

Look, I know that wasn’t even funny. It wasn’t supposed to be. I just want to make one brief point that I found very insightful – it appeared in Jeremy Gilbert’s book on the history of Cultural Studies, and Antonio Negri’s new book Assembly.

The will to become epochal is equally inspirational and ridiculous.
Entrepreneurial culture is a homogenizing force, risk-averse to the point of cowardice. Their fear is a psychological affect of life in capitalistic economies. It’s the fragility of the wealthy.

The entrepreneurs we lionize in our culture are those few who’ve taken great risks and been incredibly successful. They’ve transformed our culture with new technologies and business models. For better or, from many perspectives, worse.

But that’s only a very small number of people. They were uncommon, not just in their luck but their personalities. Every biography of a legendary entrepreneur is fascinating because they are genuinely remarkable, singular personalities. Brilliant to the point of mysticism, ruthless to the point of infamy, driven to the point of mania.

Such people are rare. Very rare.

So what about all those thousands of people I see in shared office spaces all over Toronto?

Graphic designers. Intellectual property lawyers. Call centre. Dudes developing an app to create insurance packages for you. A really good SEO guy.

But innovators? People out to transform the structure of an entire economic sector? An entire global economy? My buddy is a really good SEO guy, but that is not his goal. Dude just wants to pay off the mortgage on his condo, maybe pump out a kid or two with his wife in a couple of years.

Only a few people understand how rare that combination of the
inspirational and ridiculous truly is in society. So rare you can, for
the most part, only find it in fiction. Usually, they're the
supervillains. The fictional versions too.
The losers of a rat race die in poverty. That’s the problem with the rat race of a new liberal economy. It doesn’t actually empower most people to innovate their way to a bold new future. Desperation drives people to anxiety and heart disease, not creativity and risk. When you know you can lose the mortgage on a bad bet, you’re less likely to make bets at all. You’ll just be desperate for some security.

This is how most people live under our economic system. It’s a desperation that breeds poor decision making, anxiety that perverts reason with constant worry. People do not take risks when they are terribly worried, unless they’re so brilliant, ruthless, and driven that they can drown worry out with the raw screams of a sustained explosion of all-consuming volcanic will.

My buddy is a really good SEO guy, but I don’t think he’s really capable of that kind of thing. I haven’t asked him yet, but I’m pretty sure he’d agree.

When a dense theorist* talks about how capital is a homogenizing force, this is one of the actual mechanisms they’re talking about. The anxiety that quiets most people into complacent, frightened, risk-averse, desperate conformists whose judgment has been warped into thinking selfishness is a virtue.

* In both senses of the term.

Concepts express life at its most abstract. A good philosopher unfolds her concepts into reality, not more and more ideas.

A Time and a Place for Abstraction, Research Time, 12/06/2018

Over the last few years, I’ve read a decent chunk of marxist theory. I’ve read the good stuff – some of the original, a lot of Gramsci, too much Zizek, Laclau, Mouffe, a little bit of Lenin; the anarchists too, like Bakunin, Goldman, and the uncategorizable Rancière.

I’ve also come across scattered essays of the bad stuff. A lot of it is contemporary – not to say that it’s bad because it’s contemporary. It’s bad because it’s the casually-written stuff.

Even 100 years ago when political revolutionaries really did argue matters of profound philosophy in journals and magazines, most of those essays were kind of shit. We don’t remember the many, many people who filled the pages of those journals every day, the ones who only looked good when Gramsci hadn’t written that week.

The gold-plated promises of wealth and power.
Quality is always rare. Make of that what you want.

There’s one trend that I find unfortunate in a lot of the everyday theory writing in the marxist tradition. The word ‘capital’ gets taken for granted. A catchall term whose conception grows more and more vague every time it’s used. Which, in the sloppiest of marxist writing, is an omnipresent and omnipotent force controlling everything.

Anyone who treats the shorthand as anything more than shorthand isn’t worth reading. The point of understanding capital as the basis of a lot of social and economic problems isn’t to blame capital – it’s to understand the machineries of capital.

That’s why you always need to be an empiricist when you’re writing political and economic philosophy. You need to look at real engines of wealth to see what produces all that cash.

In Gilbert’s history of Cultural Studies, he writes that the field pretty accurately identified one serious problem with capital today. The major engines of wealth have become the boardrooms and trading floors of investment companies and stock exchanges.

They move the most money around the world. They power the global movement of money – even though it’s turned out that they can’t control it.

The dystopia is real. The dystopia has always been real.
More than that, the investment industry doesn’t even really create anything, says Gilbert. Not quite true, of course. The investment industry does create analytic, algorithmic, and other mathematical tools to manage and regulate those capital flows. But those are machines to move the money – not what actually powers the movement.

No, the sources of power for the financial industry come from the traditional industries of making things. Laboratories, streets, studios, factories, offices – these are the types of things that the investment industry invests in, speculates on.

As global money and trade flows move faster and faster, they grow fractally complex – new cultural, communication, and technological products develop at faster rates and spread more quickly around the world.

Communications technologies open up more possibilities and diversity in what’s on offer to people. More bandwidth means more niches – for cultural products like movies and television, and for all commodities, as people make themselves increasingly unique as more possibilities for expression become available.

The financial industry provides a massive and powerful flow of money to channel into this increasingly intense production. But the real crisis – corruption, embezzlement, breakdown – comes when the financiers think they’re the creators, not the funders. The money circles through the same few hands, expanding by handshake, while the actual creators of material and conceptual wealth are starved.

Then the collapse comes.

The Inevitability of Nightmares, Research Time, 10/06/2018

I was too busy with the last few days of the provincial election in Ontario to produce any blog posts. I was working on a campaign, and it took up so much of my time and energy in that last push.

Then in the days after the election, I was recovering. A Conservative majority government in Ontario led by Doug Ford will turn a significant chunk of the machinery of the state against vulnerable people. Within the Ontario Conservative party, a key part of Ford’s support base are social conservatives, and outside the official party many bigots and racist extremists are quite happy for his victory.

I’ll be the first to admit that many edgelords across all demographics drank my liberal tears that night.*

The stuff of nightmares. Hidden in the deepest crevices of our homes,
our lands, where the most destructive and cruel tendencies of our
natures are cultivated and so flower. They will eat us alive.
* Even though I’m totally not a liberal. To them, everyone on the left is a liberal. It’s part of the widespread complete misunderstanding among most of the modern conservative scene of how progressive thought actually works.

It’s easy to feel discouraged by elections like Doug Ford’s, Donald Trump’s, Binyamin Netanyahu’s, or Theresa May’s. There are plenty of profound philosophical sources that justify and explore that pessimism about real social and political progress.

As well as the Frankfurt School figures of Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin, there’s the Situationist project. I’m thinking in particular of the project as laid out in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

He developed a union of political demonstration and theatrical exhibition that influenced techniques of protest around the world. But much of the Situationist perspective remained limited by its own pessimism. Protest created a space for the imagination to roam free – it was a space where, for a few moments, a different kind of life was possible.

But that possibility could never become reality. It was always an act of imagination, a performance, an act of refusal to acquiesce facing the inevitability of its own defeat. Protest, on the Situationist model, is a demonstration of a dream from material, but which will always be a dream, a performance, an image. Not a real system of economic, cultural, and ecological activity.

There is no one more fearful than the richest of men. That fear is why
they hate and destroy. And also why they become grotesque neurotics.
Maybe they're absurd germaphobes. Maybe they subsidize an insane
scientist's quack research on human urine as an aid to rejuvenating
us into near-immortality.
It is so difficult to find guides for philosophical creativity that also considers material success possible. Recovering and maintaining optimism is the most difficult task of progressive politics.

The secret to overcoming pessimism is to identify the real material relationships and dynamics that maintain an unjust system and people’s support for it. It’s an inherently empirical act, but it needs the precision of a philosophically-trained mind to identify the keystones – the relationships of a social-moral-economic system without which it will fall to chaos.

Here’s a key idea that Jeremy Gilbert – along with an old influence of mine, Manuel DeLanda – has identified. You can have markets without capitalism. What turns a market system into an exploitive capitalist system is crossing a threshold of accumulation. When your markets have produced oligarchs – the absurdly rich – those central power figures are able to turn the entire system to serve their personal goals.

Markets are places where people experiment with new ideas for economic activity, moral thinking, and ecological development. People have the social and economic space to adapt to changing circumstances. People in markets on fairly equal terms have the power to take risks, knowing that a risk gone sour won’t be a disaster because they can fall back into the community.

An oligarch operates by a selfish fear. They’ve accumulated so much that their kingdom is more important than the prosperity that produced it in the first place. They become risk-averse and greedy. It’s the irony of massive accumulation – the weight of wealth perverts you with paranoia.

When you’ve been taken out of a community, you’re no longer capable of trust, because your wealth has alienated you from those who are different from you in the most important way.

You’ve become an alien to the non-wealthy. You imagine that they hate you, and so you fear them. Your actions from that fear makes them hate you. You’ve fulfilled your own nightmare.