philosophy as not philosophy: para-ontology, hauntology, schizoanalysis

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious."
- Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."
- Karl Marx, Thesis III

Friday, November 14, 2008

"I'm an anarchist. Power to the people!"

There is a truth to the cliche, popular amongst centrist politicians in these woeful economic times, that economic stability and ecological health are elements of national security. McCain said it, Obama said it, even Bush started leaning in this direction after Iraq began looking like a catastrophe.

If there is a significant threat of external violence against the United States, be it posed by terrorism or another State, then yes, of course it is the responsibility of the State to protect the people against these threats. This responsibility lies in the fact that it is the State itself, and not any local group of people, that is involved in such antagonisms, and so these people are essentially innocent bystanders so far as such violence is concerned. The State, as the intended target, cannot help be feel responsible, ashamed, guilty, and hence obligated to avert civilian casualties.

Okay, but the Right has not been arguing that the government is obligated to protect its people from external violence - they have been arguing, from Ayn Rand to the neocons, that this is all the government should do. Anything beyond providing a minimal stable infrastructure, and defending it at all costs, would be out of bounds for the State. This is because any function the State would provide could be outsourced to the private sector, and it would be cheaper, faster, and more efficient.

This is why the remarkable fervor with which Fox News and other conservative media has declared utter terror about the Obama presidency is nonetheless wholly understandable. They say, explicitly, that they are afraid Obama is a Marxist, that this was some kind of socialist coup, that Obama will be a puppet for the radical left, unions, and the like. They are afraid that, in the guise of a modest shift from the (not-so-)center-right to the center left, a return to a government aiming at economic transformation will take place, opening the door for God-knows what kind of totalitarianism.

I get the sense that, throughout the campaign, the words 'economy' and 'security' functioned as a general code for the the candidates positions. In the simplest sense, '(national) security' defends against an external threat, whereas focusing on the economy is a defense against an internal threat. Moreover, security simply attempts to preserve what we have now against danger, whereas the latter claims what we have now is the danger, and it is only through fundamental change that we can reach a secure formation. McCain, no matter what he did, remained the national security candidate, and Obama won because the economy became the clearest, most immediate threat as the campaign neared its end.

When Bill O'Reilly appeared on the Daily Show, there was an bizarre, even sublime moment in which he declared: "I'm an anarachist. Power to the people!" Of course, we know what he meant; that he is an anti-big government libertarian/conservative, that for him, the government that governs best governs least. This is the dirty truth of the neoconservative legacy: preemptive war and global American hegemony were not (merely) elements of a renewed imperialism, they were rather attempts to focus all attention and energy on an external enemy, instead of recognizing the source of one's problems immanently, as internal antagonisms in the very structure of economy and society. Bush and Co. had to build up a big government to prevent an attack from outside, so that we ultimately could be safe, and live as if 'there is no government to get in our way'.

The alternative to this approach is to say that our greatest danger is the antagonism within our society, and not between our society and another. This is the antagonism of class, of oppression and inequality, of exploitation and alienation. Our security not only involves, but depends on a reformulation of the economy and the energy sector specifically, insofar as these are the sites of an inner-splitting of society - the points at which we are the threat to our own existence. The economy thus is not simply an element of national security, it is the element, it is that which undermines security in itself, over and above external threats.

Now of course, Obama is not committed to such a perspective, but there is nonetheless something to seize upon in his platform - we must fundamentally change that which we would aim to secure, because it is itself not secure, it is a threat to itself. What this change means is a huge practical question, one that will surely be answered inadequately by the Obama administration. The bigger question, however, is not how to create a stable economy as opposed to a volatile one, but whether economic stability is a possible, or desirable, goal. Perhaps the true change would amount to an acceptance that the economy is that which prevents a society from attaining a stable, secure balance, and a grounding of society on the basis of such a realization.

Isn't this what capitalism achieves? Yes and no. Capitalism does install an uncontrolled, unpredictable economy as the basis of society, rejecting all attempts to regulate and stabilize it, on the grounds that this would destroy its positive effects. However unstable the free market may be, it nonetheless provides us with a great abundance of wealth, infrastructure, power, and it generally improves the quality of life of the people. Yet where capitalism falls short as an economic system is basically in claiming that instability is only a means to a greater stability, economic insecurity will lead to political and social security, and so on. What would it mean for an economic system to seize upon the insecurity, instability, and general impermanence of social relations as a virtue, as the very goal of political-social existence? What if intervention in the economy is not a means to greater security, but a means of unsuturing political life from security as an end?

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