Despotism as Over-Writing and Overriding Thought, Jamming, 31/03/2018

A couple of days ago, I finished a white paper for a Toronto-based think tank / consulting firm on democratic governance. I’m not going to get into the details of it right now, because it’s pretty dense.

Happily, the firm’s research supervisor enjoyed what I wrote and had some great recommendations for the second draft. A lot of his suggestions had to do with signposting – letting a reader know explicitly why you’re making a particular inference or reference.

If we understand the world according to only a single set of ideas,
we'll do serious injustice to people who think differently, and
impoverish our thinking and our civilization. Spirits must become
more than ideas and practices.
I always need an editor’s hand with signposting in a lot of my non-fiction work. I immerse myself so deeply in the research material and the concepts that what appears clear to me needs to be made more explicit. The connection is there – I just sometimes have to be reminded to say it blatantly. I can be too subtle for my own good when I write.

The paper explores the chaotic and dangerous nature of online social media platforms. They can encourage democratic movements – the Arab Spring, Idle No More, Stoneman Douglas – or revanchist, reactionary movements among all ideologies – the alt-Right, left-wing Putin boosting.

One of the best comments I got from my editor was that I should add, in the final section of recommendations, a brief response on whether these platforms should be nationalized to control them in the public interest.

I think this would be disastrous. Because while the rapid chaos of barely restrained social media can encourage dangerous extremism, nationalization would put media that can also encourage democratic revolution in the authoritative hands of the state.

In most of our political conversations today, talk about the danger of state authority is a libertarian idea. I take a different tack, following the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – along with the philosophical current in which they were major players. Their conception of the state’s dangers is rooted in their concept of despotism.

As much as we fear Trumpism – and there's plenty to fear in his regime
of egotism, corruption, and validation of racism – his politics merely
makes explicit the inherent oppressive danger of state institutions.
We associate despotism typically with despots – dictators or authoritarian rulers whose power falls short of the Führer ideal, while still moving along that trajectory. But Deleuze and Guattari talk about the despotic machine – this is the state itself.

When the material power of a state institution is barely or not at all restrained, it overcodes everything in the territory it’s responsible for. What do I mean by overcoding? It’s a technical term, referring to institutions that orient more and more (and eventually all) of people’s activity to the state.

In a despotic machine, if you want to do anything in your life, you have to run that activity through some kind of state machinery. State institutions, regulations, and rules determine every aspect of life. Not simply in terms of conditions – like laws, safety or environmental rules.

I mean state institutions and machinery determine and actively shape cultural and social development. Diversity and indigeneity are wiped away by state mandates for uniformity.

Here’s a simple example. It comes from touchstones in Deleuze and Guattari’s own work. Franz Kafka was a Czech Jew living for most of his life in the Austro-Hungarian empire, whose thinking and work was informed by his sardonic attitude toward the bureaucratic drudgery of his day job, as well as his personal engagement with Jewish mysticism.

As useful as state institutions can be for supplying common goods to
huge populations, the institutions are very dangerous. They can all
too easily be used to oppress people, and force the many ways of
living across a population into a single, uniform character. That's the
power that Deleuze and Guattari called overcoding.
Kafka had a complex identity and set of ideas, whose linguistic influence was Czech, Hebrew, and Yiddish. But the language of his fiction writing and daily business life was German. This was a state imposition on his identity, which was more complex than the monarchist political morality and subtle German supremacism that the Austrian state imposed on all its citizens. It didn’t matter whether you were in Vienna, Prague, Ljubljana, or Timisoara.

Here’s a more complex example. Last year, there was a very strange court decision in British Columbia. The Ktunaxa people sued the provincial government to stop the development of a huge ski resort on their sacred mountain in the Jumbo Valley, where their religion holds that a grizzly bear spirit lives.

The court mandated that an area of the mountain be set aside from development for Ktunaxa worship. According to the laws of the state of Canada, freedom of religion requires that the Ktunaxa have a place set aside on the mountain to practice their faith.

But the Ktunaxa’s ontology of the divine has nothing to do with having a place on the mountain to worship. The mountain itself is the material manifestation of the bear spirit. So any resort development would be an act of violence against their divinity. Full stop.

Ktunaxa thinking sees the mountain as the manifestation of divinity. Canadian law sees the mountain as a place where the Ktunaxa need some accommodation to practice their religious beliefs. What is a matter of existence for the Ktunaxa is a matter of cultural practice for the Canadian state.

The court judgment couldn’t even comprehend Ktunaxa ontology, let alone acknowledge it as valid. Their entire way of existence was invalidated, overcoded by the state’s systems of meaning. That’s the despotic character of even the most democratic states.

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