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.

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