Monday, August 8, 2016

Back to 2000?

published originally on CounterPunch


History, it seems, reached its zenith eight years ago, in 2008, and has been traveling backward since. How else can one account for the fact that, just as in 2000, the incumbent Democrats are running a highly unlikable former senator, who also served in the outgoing administration, and whose major selling point (aside from her gender, that is) is wonkishness and experience?


If we've returned to the year 2000, however, we should recognize that such a recurrence would double (i.e., amplify) any similarities - which may explain why Al Gore's robotic demeanor has returned in the steely unpleasantness of Hillary Clinton, and how the more or less standard falsehoods and exaggerations of the former (his hypocritical environmentalism, for instance) have multiplied into the latter's litany of lies and war crimes.



Hardly limited to the Democrats, though, this distorted, double-effect holds for the challenger, too. Like the nominee in 2000, who was also born into wealth and privilege, the current Republican nominee is also regarded as a monstrous buffoon. Not only do each of these businessman-politicians have highly dubious business records, marked by strings of business failures (as well as by a long history of fraud in the case of the current nominee), like the 2000 nominee, the 2016 nominee has no actual political experience. For while Bush did hold public office, the governor of Texas serves a largely symbolic function, with few real responsibilities. Instead of a liability, and despite the fact that both are members of the rarefied plutocratic class, though, this inexperienced outsider persona provided and provides much of the appeal of each. The correlate of this inexperience, meanwhile, their respective geopolitical ignorance, is accompanied by still other similarities - their name/brand recognition, for example, as well as the aggressive swagger characteristic of their respective campaigns.


Among other places, this swagger manifests verbally, in a constant torrent of inanity. While we may not remember very clearly, the doubles also share a penchant for absurd pronouncements. And, again, we see that, like their other qualities, the malapropisms of one of the doubles is not just present but amplified in the other (in Trump's blatantly racist comments, for instance).


While Trump may lack the chainsaw-lugging approachability that did so much to endear Bush to a sector of the electorate, however, the two nevertheless possess a comparable appeal. In not entirely different ways, each manifests Marshall McLuhan's insight that the medium is the message. That is, it doesn't matter that they utter toxic nonsense (e.g., denying climate change), and often don't know what they're talking about. Their medium, their brute presence, their opposition to the present, is their message.


Irrespective of Trump's contradictions and incoherence, it is his brashness, his big mouth, his embodiment of an objection, that is key. Whether his statements are true or false is irrelevant. As George Bernard Shaw observed, "the moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it." And Trump's followers believe. In this regard, it is hardly coincidental that one of Trump's most repeated phrases is "believe me." Much like McLuhan's example of a light bulb - a medium whose mere presence creates an environment - Trump's indignant rejection of reality is his medium and message. As opposed to the light bulb, though, the medium of Trump doesn't illuminate. Rather, it spreads darkness, and myth. And yet, spreading darkness should not be conflated with creating it. That is, Trump has been politically successful in large part because the reality he rejects (which Clinton promotes) is experienced by more and more people as poverty, and unremitting hardship. The fear he spreads is inseparable from the mounting anxiety (economic and otherwise) of millions.


But if Trump and Clinton amount to hypertrophic versions of Bush and Gore, it is a further irony that Trump and Clinton mirror one another as well. Not only is Clinton regarded by Trump's followers as nothing short of satanic, for instance, while Clinton's supporters characterize Trump as that secular Satan, Hitler; as so many have pointed out, the main source of Trump's and Clinton's appeal is that neither is the other. That is, their identity is their difference, which is the same. It should come as little surprise, then, that alongside Trump's campaign promise to persecute Muslims domestically is Clinton's record of bombing Muslims abroad - and that Trump's anti-immigrant proposals are matched by Clinton's record of supporting mass deportations, too. True, Trump's opposition to free trade agreements and wars of aggression distinguish him from Clinton (as well as from Bush). But, aside from the issue of whether one can believe him, these distinctions are dwarfed by Clinton's and Trump's respective commitments to capitalism and global hegemony which require such interventions.


The distortions of cyclical time, however, contain more doubles than these. Not only do Trump and Clinton mirror one another, and appear (or reappear) as the intensified doubles of Bush and Gore, the conclusion of Obama's administration in many respects appears as the double of Bill Clinton's. With his NATO expansions, his free trade agreements, his continuation of a President Bush's aggression against Iraq, and his Wall Street-friendly policies (not to mention the ridiculous fact that Clinton was also regarded as the first black president), Obama's two terms mirror Clinton's in multiple, amplified manners.


In addition to deeper poverty, increased police brutality, and levels of economic inequality that make the malaise and "jobless recovery" of the post dot-com era look positively rosy, international problems are also intensified in this recurrence. Since it threatens the entire planet, climate change (which Obama successfully ignored for eight years, despite his promises to the contrary) is among the most urgent of these. Another is the threat of nuclear war with Russia, which could easily result from Obama's (and HRC's) ongoing expansion of NATO. Of course, rather than the result of any particular politician's policies, all of these problems (poverty, ecocide, militarism, and police brutality) are nothing but the underside of our political economy itself - that is, its foundation. Trudging about as we are in the fog of class war (a thick fog of pollution, technology, and ideology), it's as easy to overlook these doubles as it is to overlook the degree to which this fog surrounds and influences us.


A novelty in 2000, when few used email and fewer could imagine how drastically the internet would infiltrate and determine our lives, the personalized social and media bubbles that led Mitt Romney to think he had the 2012 election sewn up until the last minute are exponentially stronger today. Built into search engines, which then reproduce and reinforce all sorts of baseless political opinions, the pervasive and invasive influence of these curated political realities is more powerful than ever. Among one of the bigger political myths reproduced by these engines, one taken for a fact by so many these days, is the Nader spoiler myth.


Rather than Ralph Nader, of course, it was the US Supreme Court (not to mention Gore's inability to convince people to vote for him) that decided the 2000 election. Beyond the facts and issues of one of the Court's most infamous decisions, Sandra Day O'Connor not only openly expressed her desire for a Bush victory (which would allow her to retire during a Republican administration), as well as her anger over the initial announcement of a Gore victory, Scalia's son and Clarence Thomas' wife were actively working for Bush - as were Jeb Bush, then Governor of Florida, and his Secretary of State Katherine Harris. These patent conflicts of interest alone should have sufficed to invalidate the Court's decision as well as the election - the results of which (aside from the fact that Gore won the popular vote) remain inconclusive. All of which is to say, in addition to the doubles of Clinton and Gore, and Trump and Bush, the contested election of 2000 may also see its double appear this year - in a proportionately amplified manner, of course. Beyond the role third parties might play, Trump's recent statements predicting a "rigged election," and his former adviser Roger Stone's predictions of a "bloodbath," suggest that the amplified return of a contested election is a strong likelihood.


With months until November, however, everything's still up in the air. And while Trump and Clinton could both drop dead next week, it takes little foresight to recognize that, in such a fraught atmosphere, the subject of voting will remain contentious. Is a vote for Stein, for instance, really a vote for Clinton? With all the neoconservatives supporting her, isn't a vote for Clinton a vote for them? Moreover, how is one to reconcile the contradiction between Emma Goldman's famous declaration that "If voting changed anything they'd make it illegal" and the fact that barriers are set up to block and limit ballot access and voting all over the country? Aren't those who've worked so hard to gut the Voting Rights Act and institute voter ID laws setting up legal hurdles?


Despite the reality that the monumental costs involved in running a competitive political campaign are enough to expose our putative democracy for the plutocratic system it is, and that even winning an election is a superficial victory (since the laws and structures and institutions determining our lives fold our social fabric into a nearly comprehensive, disempowering maze that officeholders cannot meaningfully address); and just as it's the case that this fundamentally unjust structure needs to be dismantled (just as poverty needs to be eliminated, not managed), and that voting generally changes very little, and can arguably even worsen things by strengthening the illusion of democratic legitimacy, when it comes to making a mess of this illusory democracy, the banal act of voting (for a radical alternative, at least) has the potential to be at least as effective as marching in a continent-wide demonstration. For while voting may be merely symbolic, symbols can nevertheless be tremendously powerful.


While it's true that Jill Stein presently has a very low chance of winning - and, even if she were elected, wouldn't be able to accomplish much within this biophagous system - rather than the ecocidal catastrophe of a Hillary Clinton administration, or the monstrous alternatives of Trump or Gary Johnson (the libertarian candidate who, like the others, doesn't challenge the rule of exploitation and plunder), a strong showing by Stein and Baraka would deal a sizable blow to the status quo. However symbolic, and limited, the simultaneous demoralization and encouragement that would accompany such a blow would be real enough. And, as history amply demonstrates, once the illusory invincibility, illusory inevitability, and illusory necessity of an unjust arrangement of the world is exposed, the whole shameful sham can come shattering down.



Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pseudo-Democracy > Reparations > Actual Democracy

originally published on CounterPunch


It is hardly a coincidence that the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's On the Natural Variety of Mankind were all published within a year of one another, for each supports a necessary aspect of a larger, integrated project. Not only was the rationale for seizing political power (provided by the Declaration) supported by Smith's popular text (which justified rule by the wealthy business class). Because this wealth and power was contingent on slavery, and territories seized by conquest, Blumenbach's theory that the "Caucasian race" (a designation he coined, by the way) was the supreme race was also instrumental in justifying and reinforcing the new political economic order.


Prior to Blumenbach, the Swedish scholar Carl Linnaeus' theory that there were four geographically defined races provided the accepted taxonomical understanding of human diversity. Among his innovations, Blumenbach not only added a fifth race, he arranged the five in an hierarchy, placing the "Caucasian" at the top. And even though this pseudo-scientific theory has been debunked repeatedly over the years, by such mainstream sources as PBS no less, the superstition of racial superiority, inferiority, and genetics continues to influence thought. This, of course, is not to say that a person of African origin, for instance, and a person of European origin have no genetic differences. However, not only are there often greater genetic variations within a so-called race than between people said to belong to different races, what counts as a racial trait or characteristic is completely arbitrary. Indeed, racial classifications changed repeatedly historically according to the need to rationalize political and economic exploitation. Consequently, while there is no such thing as race in an anthropological sense, the concept of race does have a sociological meaning involving socially constructed identities and differences. In addition to Africans and Asians, for instance, the Irish were classified by the British as a different race in order to justify maintaining Ireland as a colony. And, in the 19th century, even the poor (that heterogeneous class) were regarded as a distinct race in the US - as were Italians, and others, who "became white" after World War II.


As such, it is not only the case that poverty and race, like race and wealth, cannot be easily disentangled. This entanglement, and the relations of domination it implies, demonstrates that poverty is, in general, not just a condition marked by the absence of economic power. Poverty refers to a lack – or, more accurately, to a deprivation – of economic and political power. Visible in high rates of incarceration, and epidemic levels of preventable diseases, among other socially produced injuries, in it purest form this weakness manifests as the slave. In light of this, it is no coincidence that the term injury is not just etymologically related but conceptually related to the notion of injustice. And justice, if it means anything at all, requires that the ongoing injuries of poverty be repaired. But how is a society to repair such injuries? What must be accomplished in order to correct the deeply entrenched and entangled injustices of the present social situation? What type of repairs, or reparations, must be made?

  

The concept of reparations, of course, requires clarification. In certain respects the concept overlaps with the equitable notion of restitution – according to which, if justice is to be effectuated, a party injured or harmed by another must be made whole (repaired) by the injurer. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has so eloquently argued, there is no question that the African American community has been monumentally harmed by the political and economic institutions of the United States. In addition to more recent forms of racial discrimination (and its obverse, racial privilege) such as redlining and blockbusting, few industries have not benefited, directly or indirectly, from racism. From insurance companies (such as Aetna) who profited enormously from the institution of slavery, to industrial and agricultural companies, not to mention banks, finance, and real estate interests, tremendous fortunes were made – and, importantly, continue to be enjoyed – from the systemic abuse and exploitation of millions of people. Not only did slaves build the White House, as Michelle Obama reminded us earlier this week; the labor of those slaves continues to reverberate in the walls and halls of the White House, and other structures, in the form of value (monetary, and otherwise). Derived from an injustice, this type of enrichment is articulated in the law by the doctrine of unjust enrichment.


Based on the ancient Roman legal maxim nemo locupletari potest aliena iactura, the doctrine of unjust enrichment holds that when one is enriched at another's expense a duty arises to rectify this by disbursing the unjustly acquired enrichment. To take a standard example, if X trespasses over Y's property every day, and saves a hundred dollars over the course of a year because of this, X would be unjustly enriched by a hundred dollars. Even if no concrete harm is suffered by Y, X would have to return a hundred dollars to Y. If we apply the mainstream doctrine of unjust enrichment, then, to the overall social situation, there is no question that the African American community ought to be reimbursed, and not merely for the collective injustice suffered. Those who profited from this suffering (and continue to enjoy the wealth and privilege derived from such suffering) should be dispossessed of their unjustly attained advantage. 


In addition to the African American community, though, we must not neglect to consider the fact that the fields their ancestors slaved over were taken by force. Contrary to legally binding treaties, the conquest and appropriation of the continent not only involved the murder of millions, it continues to harm millions of Native Americans. Therefore, according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, the fortunes derived from exploiting the continent (much of which is also currently accruing interest) ought to also be divested from those unjustly enriched, and returned to those unjustly deprived. 


This, however, does not satisfy a radical interpretation of the doctrine of unjust enrichment. In spite of the fact that African Americans and indigenous people have suffered inordinately, and continue to suffer from poverty and other institutional harms as a result of historical wrongs, immigrants from across the world (Ireland, Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, Western, Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia, and the rest of the Americas, among other places) have suffered generations of exploitation as well. From coal mines, to fields, to countless sweatshops and factories, generations of people have lost limbs, lives, and well-being producing tremendous wealth and power for a small class of people. All of which is to say, when discussing the issue of reparations and social justice, we must address the fact that (according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, at least) most people in this society – the urban poor, the rural poor, the working class, the shrinking middle class – deserve some form of reparation. 


Because money and property wind up spreading poverty far more than wealth, instead of thinking about reparations as the distribution or redistribution of money, or other commodities (which are alienable), we should recognize that actual justice and peace requires a social arrangement that is not regulated by the drive for profit (i.e., actual peace requires non-exploitative social relations). Unlike the racist, sexist, pseudo-democracy of the Founders, an actually democratic society requires not just inalienable rights; the concrete preconditions for the realization of these rights must be inalienable (that is, not for sale), too. So, instead of the distribution of commodities, actual social justice demands that the goal of reparations ought to be the de-commodification of those conditions necessary for an actually just society. Instead of producing conditions (such as housing, nutritious food, water, health care, a healthy environment, education, and other resources and conditions) necessary for the realization of an actually just society in exchange for something else, then, (for profit), these conditions should be produced as ends, for their own sake, unconditionally. 


Beyond calls for the demilitarization of the police (not to mention the abolition of the United States’ metastasizing prison system, debt amnesty, an end to endless war, and environmental justice), actual, concrete peace requires the righting of historical wrongs, and reparations. Instead of redistributing property, however, which only rearranges and reproduces injustice, actual justice (and actual democracy, as opposed to pseudo-democracy) demands freedom from the tyranny of property altogether - i.e., its de-commodification.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The World Is a Gas Chamber

published originally on CounterPunch
 

The world is a gas chamber, and not just in the general sense that the world’s a type of chamber (a vaulted space) filled with gas (nitrogen, oxygen, etc.). The world is (or, rather, since the industrial revolution, has become) a gas chamber in the particular sense of a space filled with poison gas, that kills people, animals, etc. Yes, although they’re most notorious for killing people with hydrogen cyanide, gas chambers are also known to use carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide to kill whatever happens to find itself trapped within their confines.


And, did you hear? The carbon dioxide-reading research stations of the planet, including those in Antarctica, now register (and are expected to continue to register for decades) concentrations exceeding 400 parts per million. A level not seen in 4 million years, incompatible with life as we know it, the gas chamber we’ve made of the planet has just reached a new degree of lethality.
Unlike the gas chambers of the Nazi genocide (or, closer to home, the constellation of gas chambers used to execute – often innocent – prisoners throughout the US), the gas chamber that the world has become is not being filled with poison gas for the purpose of killing people, and other animals.


Yet, in spite of this lack of intent, widespread harm and death is a completely foreseeable consequence of our particularly exploitative political-economic system. That is, though widespread killing (the sixth great extinction no less) may not be committed with the specific intention of killing, it is done entirely knowingly (a state of mind sufficient to confer criminal guilt). The causal relationship has been beyond all reasonable doubt for years.


Classified by the World Health Organization as a leading carcinogen, the very air we breathe is responsible for not only lung and bladder cancer but for conditions ranging from emphysema and heart disease to mental illness and cognitive decline. And let’s not overlook the fact that the pollution streaming from countless power plants, livestock lots, tailpipes, and other sources of poison, also produces the devastating heat waves killing so many worldwide.


Like the super storms straddling the barrier between norm and deviation, the changing climate is not a cause of harms but an effect of the toxic runoff of our global political-economy. Organized around the pursuit of exchange value (money), as opposed to use value, the global political economy not only poisons the air, water, soil, and bodies of the human and non-human animals of the world as a matter of business, it leads as well to such ecocidal phenomena as deforestation, desertification, and the expansion of oceanic dead zones.


Monstrous in itself, the devastation of these ecosystems’ forests and marine algae (responsible for converting so much carbon dioxide into oxygen) exponentially compounds the toxicity and volatility of the gas chamber of a planet in which we’re all confined – a gas chamber that cannot be meaningfully dismantled until the prison (i.e., systems and relations of domination), which it’s an adjunct to, and outgrowth of, is dismantled as well.


Monday, July 4, 2016

Trump and Clinton: A Tale of Two Terrorists

 originally published on CounterPunch

Nearly 15 years since its fiery debut, Bush’s “War on Terror” has somehow (and for some time now, too) been banalized into the humdrum of Obama’s permanent war; in light of this, as terrorism continues to simultaneously deviate from and reflect social norms, it seems entirely fitting that the two people vying for the presidency of the United States should be terrorists themselves.
More than merely corrupt (that euphemism for criminal), or incompetent, in the course of her tenure as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly committed acts of state-terrorism. From supporting coups in Honduras and Ukraine, to her essential role in the destruction of Libya, to her encouragement of Israeli war crimes against the people of Gaza (and let’s not forget her significant contribution, as senator, to the devastation of Iraq), Clinton has been deeply involved in the commission of war crimes and state-terror.


Compared to so rich a record, Trump’s terrorism is no doubt meager. Though he has certainly terrorized his share of working people over the course of his business career, he lacks Clinton’s experience with such things as state of the art weaponry. Yet, despite these serious limitations, as a candidate for president his terroristic potential genuinely shines. Not only does Trump promise future terrorization (of Muslims, immigrants, journalists, and others), his mere promises have the effect of terrorizing people in the present. But, the discerning reader inquires, do such threats in fact amount to terrorism?


Although the concept is integral to national and international politics, little agreement has ever existed as to what constitutes the crime of terrorism – a lack of agreement that does not simply arise from terrorism’s complexity. The difficulty also inheres in devising a definition of terrorism that doesn’t in some way implicate the military, politicians, businesspeople, and the police in criminality – at rates, by the way, that far exceed those of the small-time terrorist. For while most amateur terrorists only ever commit a few acts of terror, cops and soldiers are able to commit acts of terror daily, for years. And, through their proxies and minions, businessmen and politicians often terrorize entire regions of the globe for generations. Consequently, the “terrorist” tends to be distinguished from other distributors of terror by largely arbitrary, subjective, and often times meaningless determinations.


Although theorists and scholars have been unable to reach anything approximating consensus regarding the definition of terrorism, there nevertheless are some aspects of terrorism that are nearly universally agreed upon. That terrorism involves the violent targeting of civilians, for example, is a relatively uncontentious element. As it turns out, though, this ostensibly uncontroversial notion quickly raises a problem. The police, you see, regularly target and terrorize civilians. Even if it is not intentional, which it often is not, terror is a regular and foreseeable outcome of policing. And what about border patrol guards, and prison guards? The response to this arrives in the form of a qualification: terrorism, we’re told, is only terrorism when acts of terror are perpetrated by non-state actors. Many wholeheartedly accept this limiting definition. Others, meanwhile, accept the more expansive view that such a thing as state-terrorism exists as well. And why shouldn’t it?
After all, terrorism originated – modernly, at least – with state actors during the Reign of Terror (the short terror, as opposed to the long terror of feudalism) in 1790s France. Not only did terrorism develop historically as an adjunct to, and aspect of, the nation-state, terror defines the very essence of the modern nation-state; for one of the necessary components of the nation-state is its territory, and territory is distinguishable from the more neutral, less determinate concepts of land, and country, by the fact that a territory (derived from the word terror) is technically an area demarcated by force and terror.


Border guards, therefore, do not deviate from their historico-political purpose when they terrorize civilians. It is the nice border guard, as opposed to the sadistic one, who is the deviant, the anomaly. As such, the police and border guards, among others who employ terror against civilians, creating a climate of fear conducive to the smooth functioning of the global order, may be fairly regarded as a type of terrorist. And because they are typically paid (by the state, or by private companies) for these activities they can also be regarded as professional terrorists. In contrast to this, the professional terrorist, is the amateur terrorist.


Derived from the Latin verb amare, which means to love, the amateur terrorist (more than the professional, at least) is motivated nearly exclusively by a variety of love: passion. Unlike the professional terrorist (the border guard, the cop, or even the hooded Klan member – who historically enjoyed a large degree of state or local support), it is the impassioned, amateur terrorist who has come to symbolize the terrorist in the cultural imaginary. But though the suicide-vest-clad terrorist may have replaced the bomb throwing anarchist, among other cartoonish figures, as the stereotypical image of the terrorist, we should not neglect to consider the fact that the terrorist of the street is only a small-time terrorist – an amateur able to be defined by his or her enemy precisely because of his or her lack of power.


This is not to say that the terror produced by the amateur is not real. It certainly is, even as it’s amplified out of all proportion by the funhouse mirrors of the mass media – a distortion that creates a monster (simultaneously subhuman and superhuman) whose ubiquitous image functions to eclipse the generally quantitatively and qualitatively greater terror attending the regular bombing of large regions of the world (Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Gaza, etc.).


Yes, the amateur terrorist is weak. But this should not be construed to mean that only the weak resort to terror. It isn’t even necessarily the case that only the small-time, amateur terrorist blows herself up in the marketplace or street. Big-time terrorists, state-terrorists, resort to such displays from time to time when their power appears to be threatened. As in Ireland and Italy in the 1970s, state-terrorists on occasion perpetrate such acts, both to instill terror and to frame their ideological opponents. When the truly powerful are secure in their position, however, they needn’t act at all to instill terror; at times their mere presence suffices. Or, in keeping with the panoptic principle, simply appearing to be present is often sufficient. Via drone warfare, among other technologies, the United States has recently managed to attain a power once the sole purview of the gods – the ability to be everywhere at once. Possessing the capacity to inflict injury or death at any time, nearly anywhere, by employing these weapons across vast stretches of the globe Obama has shown the world what lies beyond the global state of emergency: the global state of terror. And, back to the point, not only does Hillary Clinton support these policies internationally; via her support of Bill Clinton’s crime bill (which, through its police and prison buildup, greatly enhanced state terror capacities), among other policies, she supports them domestically as well.


Though some may contest the validity of its application to such practices as quotidian police work, the designation of state terror is hardly hyperbolic. Among others, the Black Lives Matter movement attests to the ubiquity of the black community’s regular experience of multiple forms of state-terror. In addition to the state-terror stemming from municipal police departments, and border patrols, Latino communities throughout the US are also subjected to the quantitatively and qualitatively unprecedented round-ups of immigrants by Obama’s ICE agency. Though seldom reported in the mainstream press, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents regularly break into people’s homes, separate families, detain people, often in solitary confinement, instilling nothing short of a state of terror. And, like his other policies, Hillary would continue Obama’s terrorization of immigrants as well.


Whether it involves the macro-terrors and micro-terrors inseparable from contemporary police practices, or the micro-terrors associated with other forms of control, such as debt collection (whose ever-present threats of dispossession and ruination induce levels of stress that lead more and more indebted people to commit suicide), the powerless are regularly exposed to terror. Pressured into place by the panoply of free trade agreements presently knitting the US and its allies into an ever deeper imperialistic embrace, the demographic most keenly experiencing the amplification of political-economic micro-terrors is the white working class. If only because other groups have relatively less to lose, the loss of jobs and wealth (as well as the loss of status formerly conferred by racist norms) attending the unprecedented redistribution of wealth and power of the last few decades has led to rates of early death (often from suicide and drug overdoses) comparable to death rates found among gay men during the AIDS epidemic. This demographic provides much of Donald Trump’s support. Beyond his racism, xenophobia and sexism, Trump’s appeal lies in the fact that he consistently lashes out at the anthropophagous status quo – the status quo that Clinton so vigorously defends, and so stridently promises to continue. Yet, Trump is something of a terrorist, too.
Though less experienced in state-terrorism than Clinton, Trump has nevertheless demonstrated a penchant for terroristic thinking. Stoking xenophobic and racist passions, Trump’s presidential campaign reads like a list of planned terror. Expelling 11 million immigrants, banning Muslims, persecuting the press – the barely hidden subtext of the promise to make “America Great Again” is a promise to travel through time to a period of uncontested white supremacy (a historical situation that was itself maintained by systemic terrorism). Trump’s implicitly genocidal positions not only align with terrorist organizations such as the KKK (which he distanced himself from in notoriously hesitant fashion), it also jibes with that of neo-nazi terrorist Dylann Roof, who killed 9 black churchgoers last year in Charleston, South Carolina.


A future Trump administration is not unique in having genuinely genocidal implications, however. Coupled with her hawkish foreign policy orientation (which includes building up NATO as much as it involves building nuclear weapons, and aggression toward Russia along with the military and economic encirclement of China known euphemistically as the “pivot to Asia”), Clinton’s embrace of the ecocidal status quo could easily wind up terrorizing the world just as much as a Trump administration would – illustrating, despite their very real differences, that this political-economic system is incapable of functioning beyond the rule of terror.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Art World? More Like SeaWorld: The Use of Animals as Objects (as opposed to Subjects) of Art from Dali to Duke Riley

originally posted on CounterPunch


While non-human animals (e.g. the bulls and horses depicted in the caves of Lascaux) have been subjects of art for tens of thousands of years, in the past few decades living animals have become not mere subjects but objects of art. Unlike two or three dimensional representations of animals, or even dead animals (the stuffed goat central to Robert Rauschenberg's "Monogram," or Joseph Beuys' dead hare, for instance), the use of living animals in contemporary art is becoming more and more common. In just a few days this month alone, two well-publicized art works were presented in two different parts of New York City using living animals as material. Maurizio Cattelan (whose sculpture "Him" just sold at auction for over 17 million dollars) had his 1994 installation "Warning! Enter at Your Own Risk ... Thank You," which includes a live donkey, restaged at the Frieze art fair; and Duke Riley's "Fly by Night," which involves 2,000 pigeons flying about over the East River with lights attached to their ankles, began its six week run. 


While many artists and critics maintain that the question of whether this use of animals is abuse or not is difficult to answer definitively, it is hardly debatable that the employment of animals (beings incapable of consenting to spending days, weeks, or merely hours, confined to, and on display in, galleries or museums - or, in the case of Riley's piece, performing tricks over the East River) is exploitative, reflecting a form of domination that does not simply regard living animals as material so much as it deforms animals into material (into things that legendary artist Richard Serra described, in the statement accompanying his 1966 work "Live-Animal Habitat," as comparable to objects such as sticks, stones, and paint). 


In a historical period witnessing sustained public outrage over the abusive treatment of animals by entities such as SeaWorld, the use of animals as material in the art world raises, among others, the question of whether art galleries, museums, and their wealthy patrons (not to mention the general public) have any reason to regard the cultural production of the art world as being somehow qualitatively superior to such ostensibly "lowbrow" (and abusive) institutions as zoos and so-called marine mammal parks. (In many respects, the claims to aesthetic and ontic seriousness that pervade the art world make their installations and performances qualitatively worse. For, more than simple emanations of the economic order cannibalizing the planet, these institutions serve - on multiple levels of abstraction - as this order's ideologues and enablers.)


While the use of live animals as objects of art seems to be more common than ever in this second decade of the third millennium, and is central to such iconic works of contemporary art as Joseph Beuys' 1974 piece "I Like America and America Likes Me" (in which the artist spent three days in a gallery with a wild coyote), the practice is less than 80 years old. The use of living animals as objects of art, as opposed to subjects of art or objects of mass entertainment, can be arguably traced to 1938, when Salvador DalĂ­ (ridiculed for his self-advancing proclivities by other surrealists by the anagrammatic nickname Avida Dollars) presented his installation "Rainy Taxi." In this work, a precursor to Edward Keinholz's 1964 "Backseat Dodge '38," two mannequins were placed in a taxi. A shark-headed chauffeur sat in front. In the back seat, surrounded by lettuce and chicory, living snails crawled over the female. While Dali's use of living animals was not widely emulated at first, by the 1960s the use of live animals in the art world became more common. 


The controversial Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch's religiously-oriented "actions" began, for instance, in 1962. Initially involving the butchering of carcasses, viewers of his performances would ultimately see professional butchers, overseen by veterinarians, publicly slaughter animals. And while it may seem counterintuitive, Nitsch, whose Orgien Mysterien Theater hasn't incorporated public slaughters since 1998, is regarded by himself, and many others, as an animal protector.  Only killing animals already slated for commercial slaughter, Nitsch regards the horrors involved in commercial farming as "the biggest crime in our society." 


By the mid 1960s, as previously mentioned, contemporary giant Richard Serra was using rats and mice as objects in his "Live-Animal Habitat." And by the end of the decade, in the year the US symbolically penetrated the moon with its flag pole, Jannis Kounellis produced his now legendary installation "Horses," an installation that involved tethering a dozen horses to the walls of a Roman garage. 


In the years following Beuys' iconic 1974 piece, live animals continued to feature as objects/materials of art. Among the most controversial of these is Kim Jones' 1976 "Rat Piece," in which Jones burned three caged rats to death in a Los Angeles performance. A year later, in 1977, Tom Otterness (known mostly these days for the cartoonish public sculptures for which he's paid millions) created "Shot Dog Film," in which he adopted a dog from an animal shelter, tied it to a fence, and shot it to death. As the 20th century came to a close, and the 21st got underway, the use of animals as objects, as opposed to subjects, of artworks appeared to be more prevalent than ever. 


In the year 2000, for instance, Marco Everistti exhibited his installation, "Helena and El Pescador," in Denmark. Intended as a critique of the brutality of the world, the installation was comprised of ten blenders, each containing water and a live goldfish. Attendees were given the choice of turning on the blenders and killing the fish, or pardoning them. Two fish were soon liquefied. Ultimately, the blenders were unplugged. And while many have condemned Everistti for placing vulnerable creatures in harm's way, replicating the brutality he was critiquing, the counterargument - that it is a bit ridiculous to get all bent out of shape by the killing of a few goldfish while socially accepted things, like the vastly more violent commercial fishing industry, and commercial farming industry, among other industries, are busily contributing to the sixth great extinction - is not entirely unpersuasive. 


At any event, while it may not be difficult to find some merit in Marco's "Helena," or in his more recent work involving living goldfish, or in Nitsch's work, it's hard to find much merit at all in the work incorporating animals of international graffiti mystery artist Banksy. Though the most recent one is already a decade old, Banksy has produced at least two artworks that use live animals as material. In a 2003 exhibition, in East London, he included a work comprised of pigs spray-painted to look like police, a cow painted with Andy Warhol faces, and sheep spray-painted in the black and white stripes of concentration camp inmates. And at the 2006 Barely Legal exhibition in Los Angeles, attended by such celebrities as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, his installation "Elephant in the Room" incorporated a then-38-year-old elephant named Tai. Intended to bring awareness to global poverty, the literal elephant was spray-painted to match the pink floral pattern of the room's wallpaper. 


In "Elephant in the Room," Banksy not only subjected Tai to the violence of capture, being painted, and to the indignity of being displayed as a painted object. On top of this, the paint turned out to be toxic - adding further injury. While "Elephant in the Room" was the subject of protest, and the toxic paint was scrubbed off, considerable irony inheres in using an elephant in such a way in order to bring awareness to global poverty, since poverty is but an effect of an economic order that turns people, as well as nearly everything else, into commodities - into things.


A year after Banksy's "Elephant in the Room," the late Mike Kelley (one of the most influential American artists of the early 21st century) produced his installation "Petting Zoo." Based on the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorra, "Petting Zoo" incorporated, among other objects, live goats, sheep, and ponies. And rather than merely looking at these creatures, viewers were invited to pet the animals (according to the statement accompanying the piece, this is supposed to be relaxing). As problematic as "Petting Zoo" may have beeen, however, Kelley's and Banksy's works seem benign compared to Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas' infamous 2007 installation (in which a starving a dog was tied to a wall, just out of reach of a bowl of dog food), or the artworks made from living animals created by Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye.


Best known for his "Cloaca," a "useless machine" designed to waste food by daily transforming it into synthetic excrement (which was then sold, of course), Delvoye has gained notoriety over his longstanding practice of tattooing pigs. Said to admire pig skin because of its resemblance to human skin (which he also tattoos, on the condition that he receives possession of the tattooed skin upon the tattooed person's death), Delvoye  describes the tattooed pigs as "living canvas." "I show the world works of art that are so alive they have to be vaccinated," he's stated. In order to avoid animal protection laws he moved his "Art Farm" to China in 2004, where his practice continues. Asked about the charges of animal cruelty levied against his work, Delvoye has responded in interviews that the pigs are treated well - they're even fed ice cream - and probably prefer living long lives with tattoos to getting slaughtered, chopped up, and eaten. 


The year in which the world was supposed to end, 2012 turned out to be a big year for employing animals as an art medium - objects, as opposed to subjects, of artworks. In addition to Miru Kim's Beuys-inspired "I Like Pigs and Pigs Like Me" (in which the naked artist spent 104 hours cavorting with pigs in a gallery at the international art fair Art Basel), and conceptual artist Darren Bader's "Images," which used cats as sculptures, and Belgian artist Jan Fabre's cat throwing controversy, 2012 included Damien Hirst's "In and Out of Love" at the Tate Modern in London, which incorporated, and famously resulted in the deaths of, over 9,000 butterflies. 


Hirst, who is one of the most commercially successful artists of all time, Banksy, and Delvoye, are not the only internationally recognized "art stars" using live animals as material. In 2014, celebrity artist Cai Guo-Qiang triggered outrage by gluing iPads to the shells of three live African sulcata tortoises in his "Moving Ghost Town" at the Aspen Art Museum. And, a year later, in 2015, French conceptual artist Pierre Huyghe exhibited artworks incorporating living animals at both the Museum of Modern Art and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (His work on the roof of the Met incorporated an aquarium housing a lamprey, among other creatures; while, 30 blocks away, his 2012 sculpture "Untilled," a reclining nude whose head is made from a buzzing beehive, was exhibited in the MOMA sculpture garden. But these were hardly the first artworks Huyghe has made out of living animals.)


While such establishment art critics as Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz (chief art critics for the New York Times and New York Magazine, respectively) would probably express some degree of disapproval over Kim Jones' "Rat Piece," or Delvoyes' tattooed pigs, they nevertheless do not seem to object to treating animals as objects - i.e., to a practice normalizing domination and exploitation. Indeed, Saltz (whose peculiar understanding of feminism involves his "old belief" - as he puts it in his encomium to Hillary Clinton - that misogyny is "hard wired into us, primitive, primal, deep," rather than historically and culturally produced, as more critical critics recognize) positively raved about the 2015 restaging of Kounellis' 1969 installation "Horses." And it should not come as a surprise, I suppose, that a person whose social media portraits depict him in the embrace of Bill Clinton should enjoy the feeling of walking amidst a dozen powerful, yet disabled, animals. That is, it is entirely consistent that someone who appears to delight in power would enjoy the experience of participating in a grand bondage scene. And though they may be provided with better care than the creatures unfortunate enough to be held captive at SeaWorld (each horse was attended by, as Saltz put it, "three loving grooms"), the horses are nevertheless still tied to, and facing, a wall for eight hours a day, on display for the amusement of the public. 


Defenders of works such as "Horses," or the recent re-staging of superstar artist Maurizio Cattelan's 1994 installation "Enter at Your Own Risk...Thank You" (which features a donkey, as a type of self portrait, standing about in a manger-like space beneath a chandelier for much of the day at the Frieze art fair), who point out that the captive animals are well fed and treated humanely only illustrate the prevalence of the inability to recognize the state of capture, and being treated as an object, as constituting a harm in itself. Yet, in a social world in which people are not only commodified (i.e., objectified) and confined throughout the ever-lengthening workday, all the while pressured to spend their so-called free time deforming their experiences into further commodities (for the benefit of corporations like Facebook), it is hardly surprising that many see the treatment of an animal as an (art) object as completely normal. Relatedly, it hardly seems coincidental that Sir Gabriel (the name of the donkey at Frieze), as well as Tai (the elephant) also appear in mainstream movies and music videos alongside such figures as Britney Spears. All of which is to say, the aesthetic that these artworks seem to be realizing is not an actual aesthetic at all, but an anesthetic. As opposed to an actual aesthetic (which involves critique), anesthetic, like entertainment, functions to numb people, facilitating the smooth operation of the hegemonic order. 


Duke Riley's "Fly by Night," which will be performed each weekend at the Brooklyn Navy Yard until June 12, illustrates this anesthetic aesthetic well. Described by Roberta Smith in her New York Times review as a "performance by 2,000 pigeons," she also compares the "performers" to "sailors on deck" of a ship. Perhaps she should have added that, as has been the case historically in naval projects, these sailors have been conscripted. They did not join this performance willingly. They only participate at all, and take flight, because people, waving large sticks at them, force them to fly about, lights attached to their ankles, for the crowd's amusement. Smith described it as "a revelation." And though it may have been visually striking (retinal art, as Duchamp might dismissively put it), as opposed to an anesthetic, a critical aesthetic requires actual criticism - which involves, at the very least,  attentiveness to the pervasive, stultifying influence of ideology. 

Establishment critics like Saltz and Smith, among others, and artists like Riley, et al, not to mention the gallerists, curators, and institutions comprising the art world may imagine that they are practicing a critical aesthetic by using living animals as objects, as material. If they examined the situation a bit more deeply, however, they might recognize that this use of animals simply reflects, and reproduces, the hegemonic 'anesthetic' integral to this society's greatest harms. 



Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and teacher. He lives in New York City.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Free Stuff = Free Society

originally published on CounterPunch

Waiting in line to get into the Bernie Sanders rally in Brooklyn the other day, an interesting conversation about the relationship between colleges and democracy caught my ear.

Corey, who was more than a little skeptical about the economic feasibility of Bernie Sanders’ platform, was saying that it didn’t make sense for a society to provide free college. Free college, he maintained, would benefit the youth at the expense of everyone else.

That’s just not true at all, his interlocutor, Ramona, responded. It makes perfect sense. Not only is an educated society good for its own sake, the thing that doesn’t make sense (unless you’re one of the few people making money off of it) is an educational system that results in debt peonage. Relieving debt is good not just for students, but for society in general.

Corey replied by suggesting that, among other problems, free college would lead to surges in enrollment. After glancing at his smart phone, and appearing to tap out a text message, he asked whether or not Ramona thought, as he did, that if everyone had free access to college no one would work and the entire economy would collapse.

On the contrary, she rejoined. Just think about all the problems such an arrangement would actually solve. Colleges have medical clinics that provide health care for students, right (not to mention some of the most sophisticated hospitals in the country)? If everyone were a student, and all students had access to this health care, this could help to correct our health care crisis. Also, universal enrollment in colleges could help fix society’s housing crisis – because everyone in a free college could theoretically live in free housing. All these buildings around here, she said, pointing to the rows of four and five floor walk-ups, this whole part of town could be part of a new campus. You could just nationalize it all, or inter-nationalize it all, and this could all be free housing. All of these empty shops and spaces could be classrooms and workshops.

Oh come on, said Corey. Who would work in these medical clinics?

Who? repeated Ramona. Why, the people that live here. The students – and the professors and researchers – who live in the community would work in and maintain these things. Why not? Students at the medical schools could run the clinics as part of their clinical education. If there’s some problem with a pipe or the electrical stuff that the people in some building didn’t know how to fix, they could just ask students in the engineering department, or the architecture department, or some other relevant department. The Con Ed plant across the river, she said, pointing to the smoke stacks in the distance, that could be run by the colleges, too. There are a lot of ways to go about developing a community college economy. And because no one would have to pay rent or tuition or anything, people wouldn’t be compelled to get shit jobs producing garbage. You’d just have to do a couple hours a month helping with the transportation or sanitation systems or something, like a co-op. This would all be very good for the general ecosystem, too.

I don’t know, said Corey, taking a sip from his paper coffee cup. You can’t have a whole economic system based around colleges. What about food? Who would grow it? What about national security?

Are you serious? Colleges grow food all over the place! Agriculture departments grow food. This is even done in elementary schools. It wouldn’t be difficult at all for each college to grow its own food – in fields, greenhouses, rooftops, wherever – these streets. You could even grow food on the East River by creating floating gardens that would be watered from the bottom up by evaporating river water. I was just reading about this community college in Greenfield, Massachusetts that has this program creating food security for the entire community. There’s your national security (or maybe we should call it human security). The various campuses, you know, could trade whatever surpluses they have among one another, so you’d have more variety. The various film schools could have festivals and competitions showing their best stuff. You could have a whole international – or post-national – network of colleges around the world. I’m not saying it would be simple; but it would be a more fair, and healthy, and fun way of doing things, in my humble political opinion.

Actually, Ramona continued, there’s no reason that the college (the public, community college, within a global network of colleges, or something like that) shouldn’t be the basic organizational form of a society that’s actually democratic. Even the word college, you know, is derived from the Latin collegium, which means society, or community. So, you see, so-called free college isn’t about free stuff; ultimately, it’s about a free society, a self-governing society. Isn’t that what this is all about?

Corey took another sip from his cup, then said: I can’t tell whether or not you’re joking.

Because the line started moving, I wasn’t able to hear Ramona’s reply.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sowing the World with Salt

originally published on CounterPunch


While the historicity of the practice of sowing a vanquished enemy’s fields with salt is the subject of considerable dispute, there is no disputing the fact that it exists as a symbol. Beyond the canonical examples (such as the biblical account of the Israelite judge Abimelech sowing the mutinous city of Shechem with salt in the second millennium BC, or the more well-known story of the Roman general Scipio Africanus’ sowing conquered Carthage with salt in the second century BC), spreading salt over the fields of a defeated adversary has come to signify thorough, undisputed conquest. 


As such, one may be forgiven for wondering why the new Rome, with its Senates and its Capitols, and its world-spanning empire, has not sought to emulate the old Rome by pursuing just such a practice. Aside from the various territorial and economic problems this consideration raises, however, the fact of the matter is that the present political-economic order is already considerably far along in sowing the fields of the world with salt. In addition to the salinization of the world’s fields resulting from rising oceans attendant climate change, much of the world’s land is being salinized by industrial fertilizers and other forms of pollution, not to mention the far more quotidian practice of irrigation farming.


The historical irony, of course, is that these ecological injuries are not the contemporary political-economic order (global capitalism)’s specific aim. They are the consequence of a number of short-sighted, market-based, technology-oriented factors. Nor do they symbolize the end of a war. Unlike in ancient times, by further diminishing access to water, limiting crop yields, and threatening biodiversity, among other harms, sowing the world with salt has little to do with ending wars. Instead, it creates them.