Paradoxes of Democracy I: Undermining Trust, Research Time, 21/03/2018

So I’m working on a white paper on democratic governance for a small Toronto think tank this week. It’s a format I’m still getting accustomed to, but I’m hammering out the first draft right now to get my ideas and arguments clear. Then I’ll wrangle it into the step-by-step format the group needs.

The bulk of the paper is a discussion of the reasons why popular mobilization is both central to democracy and an incredible danger to it. Since online social media is a powerful facilitator of revolutionary mobilization, I’m going to propose a brief policy framework to make sure such mobilization doesn’t too easily get hijacked by reactionary or fascist ideas.

A little late, I know. But all policy ultimately becomes catchup in a contingent world.

See, when I’m talking about revolutionary mobilization, I’m not just talking about the Arab Spring, or Black Lives Matter, or the Stoneman Douglas movement for gun control. I’m also talking about pro-Russian conspiracy mongering about Ukraine, and Pizzagate.

The fascists of kleptocracy. One successful for nearly a decade in that
mode. One is still getting started, so might actually be stopped.
You typically can’t equivocate these. My own sympathies are clear. I’m no fan of Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, but if you’re going to understand the mobilizations on their behalf, you have to do something that a lot of us on the progressive side are uncomfortable with.

You have to understand why a fanatical Trumpist believes themselves on the morally right and just side of America’s political conflict.

Get yourself into the headspace of someone who really believes that Barack Obama installed authoritarian communist loyalists throughout the United States government, which Hillary Clinton systematically looted, and that Donald Trump is the saviour of American virtue fighting corruption at all levels of society.

No one is mobilized without believing their own mission to be the right one. In this example, they’re part of the group of Americans defending Donald Trump while he cleans up the corruption of the Democratic Party.

I think completely differently. But I share faith in a virtue – that democratic society demands governance based on trust. Trumpists have seen a betrayal of that trust, and are fighting to restore it.

The framework of their revolution is admirable. It’s the content I have a problem with, but the content has its own problems.

Too Much Reality, Research Time, 20/03/2018

When I was first reading Anti-Œdipus and really getting into it, I didn’t fully understand all the book’s arguments about psychiatry. I could follow the political philosophy well, but a more experienced researcher on Gilles Deleuze’s thought told me I needed some more background knowledge on the psychiatry before I could really dig into its concepts.

It’s been about 12 years since then. I think I’ve got this down reasonably.

Now, quite a lot of academic philosophy departments don’t consider Deleuze and Félix Guattari credible voices on scientific or medical issues. This is because they’re French philosophers whose major works dropped in the 1970s, so are associated with dreaded postmodernism.

Flying from reality? An excess of reality? By Mathieu Laca
Many university philosophy departments have characters more like Petersonian reaction than popular stereotypes about the discipline would have you believe.

As I’ve said before, Guattari was a groundbreaking psychiatrist, whose clinic La Borde was at the leading edge of creative new ways to treat psychotics and schizophrenics. The reason is because of his thorough materialism.

Under the influence of Freud – as well as Jung and pretty much the whole psychoanalytic model of thinking – you conceive of psychiatry as a rationalist practice. Your paradigm is what was literally called “the talking cure.”

So psychiatric practice is about the patient themselves analyzing themselves – the actual analyst acts as a guide so the patient learns the tools and understands the arguments and inferences to cure themselves. The patient understands the causes, conditions, nature, and the steps to follow in their daily lives to overcome their mental health problems.

That works for some mental health issues, but when Freud himself dealt with schizophrenics, he could do nothing. He described such patients as falling away from reality. Reality on his thinking was a material order of things and processes which you understood with rational human thought, language, and discourse.

Figure out the nature of a problem in clear thinking, after self-consciously exploring it. You can always fix your own mind if you understand its mechanics. Schizophrenics fall or fly from this because they can’t understand the world’s mechanics – empiricism is impossible.

Guattari had a totally different way to describe the schizophrenic state of mind – an excess of reality. Functioning people perceived and understood with a powerful focus. We cut away so much of a chaotic, messy environment.

Everyone is a machine. How fine is your tuning?
By Nychos
We sit on a busy bus without being overwhelmed by the activity around us – people moving back and forth, weaving through crowds in all directions, fumbling with bags and boxes, announcements of the next stop or slow stretches, cute puppies poking out of purses. We can keep our eye on a couple of things at a time.

We’re also doing this actively – making sense of all this mess on the damn bus. We remember who sat where, when our stop is, waddle to the door two or three stops in advance, stick our gloves deeper in our pockets so we don’t lose them, keeping an eye out for seated riders about to move. We can use this focussed attention as a basis to understand what’s going on and what we should do.

Schizophrenia explodes our focus. We can’t discriminate among possibilities because we spontaneously understand more causal processes than really exist. The imagination flies radically from the most trivial details. A passenger on the bus snorts out a sneeze, and it means that he’s part of the clandestine CIA plot to replace citizens with plastic machines.

We generate an excess of reality – an explosion of causes, explanations, and conditions. Unable to cut away any of our thought in perceiving or understanding, we overwhelm ourselves.

Funny part is, neurological research has a good angle on the causes of schizophrenia. It’s a destabilization of inhibitory signalling processes in the brain’s neural transmission. Destabilizing a process that should be in a proper range of inhibition.

Unable to regulate our reality – our thinking and world.

Feeding Off Its Own Destruction, Research Time, 19/03/2018

I live in Toronto. It’s a vibrant economy and culture, but there’s plenty of simmering conflict here. The tech, finance, and film/tv industry are the major drivers of the city’s economy, but there are plenty of people left behind.

Rent control and housing affordability is a crushing pressure on people all over the city. There’s pressure on the middle classes. People now able to afford a condo’s mortgage are locked out of a townhouse market with not enough supply, and a detached home market whose value has ballooned ridiculously.

I have plenty of bias – my New Democrat affiliation is in my Twitter
bio. What amazed me was, when my part association posted this
image, how quickly we got our first racist comment about Muslims.
Far from our last, too. The real irony is that, the more shit-posters
we get on this image – and the comment thread is ridiculously long
without my having to do a thing – the more visible Facebook's
algorithm will make it in news feeds all over the networks of the
There’s pressure on the lower classes. High demand entices building owners and property managers to raise rents beyond what many in already run-down buildings can afford. Elected political leaders in city and provincial offices are no longer interested in subsidizing low-income housing directly, which pushes more disadvantaged people out of housing and into cars or parking garages with few security cameras.

Both Ford brothers – alive and dead – have given lip service to affordable housing. Former mayor Rob would visit the city’s public housing to highlight its unsavoury character.

For the most part, the Ford brother who has a good chance of becoming Ontario’s next premier has taken a Not-In-My-Neighbourhood attitude toward disadvantaged people.
• • •
Toronto’s housing pressure is a function of a very basic process of capitalism, one Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explored in Anti-Œdipus. It’s a social / economic system that’s remarkably durable, which is strange.

There have been plenty of economic crises in capitalism – 47 major recessions in the history of the United States alone. The system was unstable enough that a union activist turned social scientist could write an analysis of capitalist economics describing it as a system heading inevitably for self-destruction.

The contemporary left doesn’t take Marx’s ideas at face value anymore. At least the intelligent ones don’t. Anti-Œdipus was another generation’s updating the basic idea of Capital to unexpected, contingent, new conditions.

Parkdale has been a source of artistic creativity in Toronto for a while,
and a big part of that was how many affordable – if kind of scuzzy –
homes were available in the region. It's been a poor neighbourhood
for a while, which means artists and new Canadians often end up
living here. The Tibean and Roma communities have made serious
impacts here for a while. But they're also squeezed by condo
developers putting pressure on property owners to seek bigger
profits. All those poor and weird people who made the place
interesting and drew people to the area will have to leave so the
boring people with fat wallets can live in this interesting place.
Capitalism’s promise is prosperity and freedom – growth of the whole economy is good for everyone.* But capitalist economic systems drive these cycles of expansion and collapse. Usually, a key commodity’s value is inflated beyond sustainable price ranges by wider economic conditions, and there’s a lot of direct and collateral financial damage in the crash.

* As long as the size of some people’s shares of the pie grows at a greater rate than the size of the pie. That’s how an oligarch’s class is created.
• • •
Toronto’s high-pressure real estate market is one of those systems squeezed by affordability crunches. Profiteering people and organizations – property owners, investors in new condo developments – build these massive structures for middle class and professional class renters and homeowners.

Protests of these developments happen when people worry that they’ll be squeezed out of their homes – squeezed out of any homes at all – by the pressure of ubiquitous development that leaves them behind. That’s the injustice of property development – growing supply of middle class housing can stabilize the pressurized prices, but force those of more modest means away.

Gentrification’s irony. We all know it. A neighbourhood is filled with people of modest means who are all somehow marginalized from the mainstream. Working class. Artists. New immigrants. Marginalized people, whether by ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or some other racial or caste marker. Home of the minorities of a society.

Even the far-right nutters who think Trudeau and Bill Morneau are
communists just help drive our messaging to 
more people. Don't
tell them that. Hell, even if you do, they'll probably just keep trying
to start flame wars to own us socialists and libtards. Resentment and
cruelty seem to be the only things keeping North America's
conservative coalitions together these days.
Minorities in Deleuze and Guattari’s conception. People whose existence, identity, way of life separates them from the mainstream, others them. Their central example was Franz Kafka – a Czech man working and writing in German; an intellectual, curious, deeply spiritual Jew living in a Christian, rather anti-Semitic culture. It often puts them at a disadvantage.

Contemporary Toronto has its equivalents. Refugees from all over the world live in the Toronto area, as well as immigrants who come to Canada having to rebuild their entire lives. They’re the disadvantaged of our economic system, where we most value people who are already rich.

Yet a culture of entirely rich people is boring. It’s dull. It’s creatively dead. All this class knows how to do is commodify – invest for a higher return. But if you need sources outside your own class to invest in, you need to find difference-makers – new trends, new businesses, new ideas.

The minorities of our societies are the creative classes – they’re already mixing and realigning cultural codes and traditions in their own identities as they adapt to their new social worlds. Capitalism as a social system needs such people – hustlers, artists, new people – because the elite of a capitalist system don’t have the capacity to think anymore.

The margins of a society bring the energy to the next growth and creative process in a capitalist economy. Yet the very success of those processes force marginalized people out of a society, since the prosperity of an unrestrained capitalist system tends to cluster in oligarchical shapes.

Oligarchs hate those filthy poor people, and they aren’t smart of worldly enough to know how profoundly they depend on them.

Searching for Desire on Google, Jamming, 16/03/2018

Don't necessarily take that title as a recommendation. You can probably tell what you’ll probably end up finding within a few minutes – it’s a search on the internet for content related to desire. You’ll inevitably – and sadly faster than you expect – end up with a results page full of what starts with the letter P and rhymes with ‘horn.’

For the past couple of days, I've been trying to figure out a framework for how you’d change a person’s desires – a whole culture’s desires. But I’ve mostly been talking around it.

And I’m going to keep talking around it for a while, because this is frankly a difficult topic to figure out. This is a five-ish times per week blog – I’m going to be taking a lot of passes at this.

Given the motivating example of Noble's inquiry was the awful
search results for phrases like "Black girls," I thought I'd start this
post with an image of Ava Duvernay, one of the best film
directors working in America today.
One of the other projects I’ve been working on is a policy paper for a small think tank about democratic governance and online organizing in social movements. Most of the theoretical material I already had as part of my personal library, but I grabbed some more recent articles and studies too.

There's been some recent sociological work on the feedback loops between different online platforms and the social change it’s set off. The most hype has gone to Facebook, I’d say. Its immensely detailed databases on its users’ activity drives the most powerful advertising outreach engine that’s ever existed.

Without Facebook’s platform – the peculiar and comprehensive data mining its structure makes possible – Donald Trump would probably not be President of the United States. We know this. Nothing more nefarious than his digital campaign manager Brad Parscale negotiating a really shrewd and sweet ad buy.

A much more subtle feedback loop between a web platform and society is Google Search. I got myself a copy of Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble’s look at how the psychology of racism and sexism appears in the complex internal structures of search algorithms.

It’s a book-long analysis, and I’m still going through all the examples and the basic breakdown of them that she offers. But I can see some themes emerge in my own thinking as I go through them.

Pictured is Brad Parscale, Donald Trump's digital chief for his 2016
and 2020 Presidential campaigns. Pictures also is his beard.
Search and PageRank seem to be failures of rationality. The engineers design a search algorithm that responds to the aggregate of all the queries people give it. So of course the top hits for the phrase “Black girls” are all pornographic.

Because when you aggregate all the searches of the most hideous, grotesque people out there, you end up with the dregs of humanity guiding the leading edge of search engine results. Of course you end up with the most racist, hypersexualized, stereotyped images emerging from the top hits of your search.

Humans can be wonderful, and we have a lot of potential. But a lot of us are scum. Search is going to reflect that.

In that, Search achieves its goal perfectly. It’s used the aggregation of knowledge to organize the world for us, optimized perfectly to line the bank accounts of Alphabet Inc. I mean, answer to our every desire. Yes, that’s it.

That's the epitome of rationality – you work out the optimal path to achieve a goal. But rationality falls short of real reason.

The algorithm needs an ad hoc tweak every time someone reminds Google that an image search for “doctors” brings a first page of pictures of men. There’s nothing about the algorithm that can catch itself. There’s no consciousness of the material affects and psychological or emotional effects of its results, how it expresses vile stereotypes and cruel prejudices. Why would it? It’s an algorithm.

Here’s the disaster that Google has put us all in. Our main everyday source of information has no conscience.

Desire Makes Sales and Sales Make Desires, Research Time, 15/03/2018

You can’t understand how capitalism works without understand the economic power and role of desire. It’s an inherently transdisciplinary inquiry.

Your first instinct might be to look to economics for comprehensive analyses of capitalism. It’s an economic system, after all. But economic models have a hard time dealing with desire.

Psychology has a lot to say about desire, but nothing to say about economics. So it’s really hard to wrangle a psychological concept or principle into economics. One route that I think is promising is political economy, the return of economics as a field to its roots in the pre-disciplinary studies of writers like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.

Pictured: The Rational Man
The problem is, economics shouldn’t make a straightforward return to its origins. An enormously destructive idea emerged from the origin of economic science. The Rational Man.

The concept has grounded their models and analyses for almost the entire history of the discipline. The idea makes perfect sense on the face of it. It's the presumption that people intrinsically act in their best interest, given their knowledge at the time.

It’s perfectly believable because we all believe this about ourselves, don't we? It’s definitely how most of us portray ourselves to others. If someone interviewing me for a job asks me how I make decisions, I’m going to describe a methodical, rational process. I’m not going to admit that I sometimes act from emotional or unreflective gut reactions. I mean, I could – but not without expecting that I’ll never see that office again.

The field of behavioural economics has overcome the reliance on human rationality. But aside from a Nobel Prize for its innovators, economics as a whole has yet to accept its basic idea – humans are a-rational actors.

We make decisions – including those relevant to economics – by a combination of reason and emotions, as well as cultural, class, and racialized biases. Our entire assembly of desire feeds into our actions. Behavioural economics understands this, but hasn’t yet followed the logic through to its conclusion.

You see this short stop when you look at the proposals for political and institutional change that emerge from behavioural economic analyses. Nudges, they’re called. Small, but consequential changes to people’s physical, social, and media environment that makes the more reasonable choice in different situations appear more sensible or easier. Even if that choice is actually more obscure, complicated, or difficult.

Not that kind of nudge, no. Too bad, really.
It’s a very effective policy approach. The problem is that it’s difficult to reconcile democratic values with a governance style of secretly modifying the physical environment of your entire society to condition people’s choices. I’ve written about the troubling character of government through nudges before.

The most obvious problem with the concept of the nudge is that it’s inevitably anti-democratic. The democratic relationship* depends on transparency and trust – they’re the norms of mutual respect among and across people, families, groups, cultures, companies, governments, institutions.

* Whether that relationship is among individual people, families, groups, cultures, companies, governments, institutions; among and across all those scales.

Here’s a nudge procedure that I read about in Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 a few years ago. Detergent caps are designed to deceive you about how much you need – they’re too big, and the volume markers too faint to see. So the solution is a law regulating the size of laundry detergent caps.

Apply this generally, and you have a legal system enforcing fractally detailed rules to condition people to behave rationally without any self-knowledge of it. All transparency between people and their institutions disappears.

That’s one problem with the political economy of some approaches I’ve seen to behavioural economics. I have one more. The nudge goes too far to control humanity, but it was conceived as a way of freeing humanity – free us from our own inadequacies and ways the powerful use those shortcomings against us.

The nudge still manipulates the human power of desire, but real freedom lies in changing the character of that power. Don’t presume our enlightenment – enlighten us.

New Boss and New Boss and New Boss, Research Time, 14/03/2018

In these days of Jordan Peterson’s ascent into his popular campaign to save Western civilization from ourselves, I miss Zizek.

Slavoj Zizek was a ton of fun. I disagree with a ton of his philosophical ideas – the vanguard-style Leninist (or Lenin-ish) political philosophy, his more faithful Freudian heritage, the Hegelian framework of all his thinking.

Some of his ideas I can’t really be bothered with – like his returns to the ethical and political meanings of Jesus and Christ. Just not my thing.

Let's take that philosophical riff on "Won't Get Fooled Again" a little
literally. When Roger sings that we won't be fooled once more by a
hypocritical leader promising revolution but delivering more of the
same injustice, it could mean two things. The hopeful reading is
that he's dedicating himself to getting revolution right next time.
The pessimistic reading is that he'll no longer believe that real
change is possible – he won't let a leader fool him into believing
that genuine revolution is really here.
His ideas about the possibility of building a perfect, or at least progressing-toward-perfect society are generally fascinating. He explores those issues explicitly from a lot of angles in a lot of different books – Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, In Defence of Lost Causes, Living in the End Times.

He has great concepts on the utopian issue. So his works can help people understand the issue and explore it. That’s what philosophy is for.

But he hates Anti-Œdipus. I can understand, because he’s so much a Lacanian, and that book pretty much trashes a lot of the fundamental concepts of Lacan’s psychological, psychiatric, and social-political thought. That’s a shame. Because I’m on Deleuze and Guattari’s side in this.

I’m not going to get into the full purpose of Anti-Œdipus. For that, you can read Ian Buchanan’s book on it, which walks you through the core background context and the most straightforward account of their ideas.

Today, I just want to talk about one key argument of Anti-Œdipus, one that I’ve discussed in different contexts before, but which I want to focus on again now. What would a genuine political revolution be?

We all know the jaded attitude toward political leaders describing themselves as an agent of change. “You gotta have hope!” “This will be Our Revolution™,” “I’m gonna drain the swamp!” The answer is in the lyrics to the greatest Who song ever – “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

What does that lyric mean? A leader is always embedded in a huge network of institutions and relationships. Those are the relationships that give him power over others. State military, police, and bureaucratic institutions, of course, are an incredible form of legal and sometimes potentially violent control.

Because Presidents have to do President shit. Wisdom from a brave voice.
The absurdly rich are immensely powerful too, especially if they control corporations or large investment funds – their decisions can plunge the livelihood of many thousands of people into despair. Or they can become horrifying predators.

One of the stereotypical rallying cries of democracy is “Throw the bums out!” When you’re sick of how the current group of powerful people is handling things, you can rise up and fire them. Democratic institutions are about building peaceful procedures for doing this so you don’t have to risk death to help overthrow a government – you just leave work early to vote or volunteer on a campaign.

But throwing the bums out a few years isn’t how you build virtuous institutions. You make the institutions virtuous for another while. But eventually, the corruption of access to huge amounts of material power and control over others sets in. And you have to throw them out too.

Frantz Fanon warned of these problems in The Wretched of the Earth when he described the dimensions of liberation needed for a genuinely free society. Simply occupying the same institutional place as a corrupt autocrat doesn’t restore virtue to those institutions. It just changes who sits in the positions that have the power to dominate people.

Real revolution changes all the institutions of domination – military, police, law, riches, racism – so that they no longer dominate. But Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Œdipus look past institutions to an even deeper ground for the will to dominate.

As long as the desires to dominate, control, and oppress others still exists, we’ll never be able to build institutions that can’t be corrupted to become oppressive. We literally have to destroy our desire to have power over others at all. Free your mind, your heart, your spirit – and your ass will follow.

Under the Paving Stones II: Horror of the Nameless Dead!, Research Time, 13/03/2018

Here’s how I knew I was on the right track by using Ian Buchanan’s commentary to help me through this historical investigation. He’s up-front about the role the Algerian War played in conditioning the Paris Uprising a decade later.

Yesterday, I talked about how the popular perceptions of the Paris Uprising is that it was a unified movement of radical socialist and communist students in the city’s public sector universities. But if you learn about how it really developed, you realize how laughable that is. Trouble is, you have to deep-dive.

You often conceive of the year 1968 as the beginning of the new
progressive politics. But like all socially transformative events, it was
also the end and culmination of long-running social tensions, a
unique intersection of tensions and interests that's as remarkable as
it was improbable.
The conditions of the Paris Uprising of 1968 lay in the Algerian War. This was a brutal, decade-long conflict that lasted nearly a decade. The French government had conquered Algeria in the early 1830s, and by the end of the 1840s reformed its administration of the region to become part of France. The provinces of Oran, Alger, and Constantine were just as French as Rouen and Bordeaux.

Pretty much all the Algerians disagreed, but their voices didn’t matter. After the Second World War, France re-established their government in Algeria fairly easily, but the Front de Libération Nationale began a guerrilla war in 1954, which was more effective than any of the last century of independence struggles.

FLN combat against French rule was brutal, frequently using terrorist attacks against French government and military institutions that killed many Arab and European civilians. The French government frequently carried out mass arrests, mass detentions, and massacres.

Despite a vigorous eight-year campaign of borderline war crimes, Algeria won independence from France in 1962. It’s gone through periodic civil war among different factions since then, and settled into an unpleasant but fairly stable one-party dictatorship.

French society – especially in the more urbane, cosmopolitan culture of Paris – experienced anything but stability thanks to the war. The general consensus of Paris’ citizens on politics was an inoffensive liberal social democracy. France’s political party leaders kept up a fitting line on domestic policy.

But there was a general consensus among Parisians that their government was run – no matter which party or coalition of parties was in charge at a given time – by hypocritical war criminals.

Everyone knew that the French army massacres thousands of Algerian civilians – it was collective punishment for the insurgency. The same kind of thing the Germans did throughout France during their occupation and under the Vichy regime. Just what the British was doing in Kenya fighting the Mau Mau insurgency.

Most of us remember the Arab Spring uprisings against the
authoritarian governments of the region. We democrats supported
those revolutions, but it was a very different story 60 years ago
when Europeans were the autocratic governments Arab people
were demonstrating to overthrow.
The French government, throughout the Algerian revolution, publicized their massacres of civilians as victories against terrorists. So far, so familiar.

The brutality of the French in Algeria was bad enough. But France’s leaders made the situation worse by promoting themselves as the champions of the country’s social democratic welfare state.

The government supported French workers organizing for collective bargaining and improved labour conditions while massacring Algerian workers organizing for independence. They were proud democrats in Europe and proud leaders of a military regime in Africa. They were humane architects of the welfare state who happily killed Arabs by the hundreds for a decade.

Yet the government line was that Algeria was France. So by the government’s own words, they were massacring French citizens. Quite a lot of French citizens in France saw that a state military apparatus that had no problem massacring Algerians would have no problem massacring European French if people turned against them.

So radical communist students, socialist factory and trade union activists, and liberal business people all came to the same conclusion. No more. This was the common interest uniting these groups that – in pretty much all other social and political situations – can’t agree on lunch, let alone a common political program.

But they were all united in the desire to overthrow a French government that demonstrated, in their treatment of Algerians, that they were willing to commit mass military violence against their own citizens if the citizens wanted something they didn’t like.

That’s Buchanan's account of how the uncommon alliance of the Paris Uprising developed. Works for me.