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Thomas Kiefer
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I agree with you Alain--I think Mr. Henwood is a top-notch economic and political analyst, but as a psychologist he's saying essentially what Dinesh D'Souza has been saying. I think a much simpler explanation is that Obama is a crappy debater (recall all the terrible debates against Hillary), everyone forgot that, and his lack of skill just resurfaced then --regardless as to whether if he's really a narcissist or not. Plus, if Henwood's analysis is correct, Romney did better because he's NOT a narcissist. Really? All these people who run for higher office (incl. Romney) are totally in love with themselves. Plus Romney spent much of the last twelve months debating truly vicious people, before he got the nomination, whereas Obama had a country to putatively run.
What the Chilean Student movement does not have in common with the others listed is that they are led by a smart, charismatic leader (Carmina Villejo, I believe is her name), who is also a member of the Chilean Communist Party. The students are able to formulate coherent demands, and the people in power have someone to talk to who can present those demands. (By the way, a now-former Chilean minister said in public that if Villejo were assassinated, the protests would stop --ah, some honesty from the ruling classes that is rarely heard.) Note in the Egyptian Spring (and elsewhere, as in the protests here) the demands were much more vague, and when "the people" needed a leader, or someone to take office, they had to scrounge around for someone from the ruling elite whose hands weren't "dirty" and who knew a little bit about governing. Now look where Egypt is now...not very promising. This parallel with Egypt is why I'm not excited about this Occupy Wall Street, which is better than nothing though. The press, which initially ignored the protesters, is now saying they have no clear demands other than jobs and wall street sucks, and that they have no one to talk to --which results in the reporters picking people who look interesting on camera, and who can put sentences together. Say Obama comes out and says, "who represents you, so I can talk to them to see what you want?" the protesters will, at least prima facie, be unable to offer anyone, thereby allowing him (or whoever) to truly say "these people don't know what they want!". The protesters, if they can come to any consensus, will have to find an established Democrat to 'represent' them...and we know how that will turn out.
I've been telling people at the coffee shop I work at, who asked about the riots, that "this is the face of austerity". I'd like to ask the ruling class here if they'd rather have riots like in London, or the situation in Mexico or Pakistan, where you have instead a war of all against all in some for or another. I'm positive they'd prefer the war of all against all, but it'd be nice to hear them say it.
Dear Prof. Dean, This probably isn't the best post to ask under (or maybe it is!), but I was wondering if you have a short-ish paper of your work available covering the same material/ideas you discuss in Blog Theory. If you do, I would use and assign it in my introductory philosophy course. If not, that's okay! Thank you, Thomas
Dear Prof. Dean, I came across this article written by Adam Curtis (Director of 'Power of Nightmares') and it traces the history of the idea 'self-organising' networks back to the 1920's, feedback (and more like chaos instead of capture) and the like. I know this is a theme you've been working on. Please forgive me, but I'll post it below so other readers can see that self-organizing is a myth, and has some sinister origins. Feel free to delete it, leaving the link, if it takes up too much space. Hope all is well, Thomas Adam Curtis The Observer, Sunday 29 May 2011 How the 'ecosystem' myth has been used for sinister means When, in the 1920s, a botanist and a field marshal dreamed up rival theories of nature and society, no one could have guessed their ideas would influence the worldview of 70s hippies and 21st-century protest movements. But their faith in self-regulating systems has a sinister history. At the end of March this year there was a wonderful moment of television interviewing on Newsnight. It was just after student protesters had invaded Fortnums and other shops in Oxford Street during the TUC march against the cuts. Emily Maitlis asked Lucy Annson from UK Uncut whether, as a spokesperson for the direct-action group, she condemned the violence. Annson swiftly opened the door that leads to the nightmare interview, saying: "We are a network of people who self-organise. We don't have a position on things. It's about empowering the individual to go out there and be creative." "But is it wrong for individuals to attack buildings?" asked Maitlis. "You'd have to ask that particular individual," replied Annson. "But you are a spokesperson for UK Uncut," insisted Maitlis. And Annson came out with a wonderful line: "No. I'm a spokesperson for myself." What you were seeing in that interchange was the expression of a very powerful ideology of our time. It is the idea of the "self-organising network". It says that human beings can organise themselves into systems where they are linked, but where there is no hierarchy, no leaders and no control. It is not the old form of collective action that the left once believed in, where people subsumed themselves into the greater force of the movement. Instead all the individuals in the self-organising network can do whatever they want as creative, autonomous, self-expressive entities, yet somehow, through feedback between all the individuals in the system, a kind of order emerges. At its heart it says that you can organise human beings without the exercise of power by leaders. As a political position it is obviously very irritating for TV interviewers, which may or may not be a good thing. And it doesn't necessarily mean it isn't a valid way for organising protests – and possibly even human society. But I thought I would tell the brief and rather peculiar history of the rise of the idea of the "self-organising network". Of course some of the ideas come out of anarchist thought. But the idea is also deeply rooted in a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture. But we have long forgotten where it came from. To discover this you have to go back to a ferocious battle between two driven men in the 1920s. One was a botanist and Fabian socialist called Arthur Tansley. The other was one of the most powerful and ruthless rulers of the British Empire, Field Marshal Jan Smuts. It all started with a dream. One night Tansley had an unsettling nightmare that involved him shooting his wife. So he did the natural thing and started reading the works of Sigmund Freud, and even went to be analysed by Freud himself. Then Tansley came up with an extraordinary theory. He took Freud's idea that the human brain is like an electrical machine – a network around which energy flowed – and argued that the same thing was true in nature. That underneath the bewildering complexity of the natural world were interconnected systems around which energy also flowed. He coined a name for them. He called them ecosystems. But Tansley went further. He said that the world was composed at every level of systems, and what's more, all these systems had a natural desire to stabilise themselves. He grandly called it "the great universal law of equilibrium". Everything, he wrote, from the human mind to nature to even human societies – all are tending towards a natural state of equilibrium. Tansley admitted he had no real evidence for this. And what he was really doing was taking an engineering concept of systems and networks and projecting it on to the natural world, turning nature into a machine. But the idea, and the term "ecosystem", stuck. But then Field Marshal Smuts came up with an even grander idea of nature. And Tansley hated it. Field Marshal Smuts was one of the most powerful men in the British empire. He ruled South Africa for the British empire and he exercised power ruthlessly. When the Hottentots refused to pay their dog licences Smuts sent in planes to bomb them. As a result the black people hated him. But Smuts also saw himself as a philosopher – and he had a habit of walking up to the tops of mountains, taking off all his clothes, and dreaming up new theories about how nature and the world worked. This culminated in 1926 when Smuts created his own philosophy. He called it Holism. It said that the world was composed of lots of "wholes" – the small wholes all evolving and fitting together into larger wholes until they all came together into one big whole – a giant natural system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in the right places. Einstein liked the theory, and it became one of the big ideas that lots of right-thinking intellectuals wrote about in the 1930s. Even the King became fascinated by it. But Tansley attacked. He publicly accused Smuts of what he called "the abuse of vegetational concepts" – which at the time was considered very rude. He said that Smuts had created a mystical philosophy of nature and its self-organisation in order to oppress black people. Or what Tansley maliciously called the "less exalted wholes". And Tansley wasn't alone. Others, including HG Wells, pointed out that really what Smuts was doing was using a scientific theory about order in nature to justify a particular order in society – in this case the British empire. Because it was clear that the global self-regulating system that Smuts described looked exactly like the empire. And at the same time Smuts made a notorious speech saying that blacks should be segregated from whites in South Africa. The implication was clear: that blacks should stay in their natural "whole" and not disturb the system. It clearly prefigured the arguments for apartheid. And this was the central problem with the concept of the self-regulating system, one that was going to haunt it throughout the 20th century. It can be easily manipulated by those in power to enforce their view of the world, and then be used to justify holding that power stable. Because, although Tansley and Smuts and their argument about power would be forgotten, hybrid combinations of their ideas were going to re-emerge later in the century – strange fusions of systems engineering and mystical visions of organic wholes. Thirty years later, thousands of young Americans who were disenchanted with politics went off instead to set up their own experimental communities – the commune movement. And they turned to Arthur Tansley's idea of the ecosystem as a model for how to create a human system of order within the communes. But they also fused it with cybernetic ideas drawn from computer theory, and out of this came a vision of strong, independent humans linked, just like in nature, in a network that was held together through feedback. The commune dwellers mimicked the ecosystem idea in their house meetings where they all had to say exactly what was on their minds at that moment – so information flowed freely round the system. And through that the communes were supposed to stabilise themselves. But they didn't. In many communes across America in the late 1960s house meetings became vicious bullying sessions where the strong preyed mercilessly on the weak, and nobody was allowed to voice any objections. The rules of the self-organising system said that no coalitions or alliances were allowed because that was politics – and politics was bad. If you talk today to ex-commune members they tell horrific stories of coercion, violent intimidation and sexual oppression within these utopian communities, while the other commune members stood mutely watching, unable under the rules of the system to do anything to stop it. Again, the central weakness of the self-organising system was dramatically demonstrated. Whether it was used for conservative or radical ends, it could not cope with power, which is one of the central dynamic forces in human society. But at the very same time a new generation of ecologists began to question the very basis of Arthur Tansley's idea of the self-regulating ecosystem. Out of this came a bloody battle within the science of ecology, with the new generation showing powerfully that wherever they looked in nature they found not stability, but constant, dynamic change; that Tansley's idea of a underlying pattern of stability in nature was really a fantasy, not a scientific truth. But in an age that was increasingly disillusioned with politics, the ghosts not just of Tansley but also of Smuts now began to re-emerge in epic form. In the late 70s an idea rose up that we – and everything else on the planet – are connected together in complex webs and networks. Out of it came epic visions of connectivity such as the Gaia theory and utopian ideas about the world wide web. And human beings believed that their duty was not to try to control the system, but to help it maintain its natural self-organising balance. At the end of 1991 a giant experiment began in the Arizona desert. Its aim was to create from scratch a model for a whole self-organising world. Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the "ocean" and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The "bionauts" began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another's faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power. Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches. In 1993 the experiment collapsed in chaos and hatred. The idea of nature that underpinned all these visions of self-organisation was a fantasy. A fantasy that was born at a time when those who ran the British empire were desperately trying to cling on to power as the dynamic forces of history whirled around them. So they turned to science to create a vision of a static world where everything is stable and your moral duty is to make sure that nothing ever changes. The other problem with the self-organising system is that it cannot deal with power. Although it sees human beings all linked together in a system, its fundamental rule is that they must remain separate individuals. Alliances and coalitions would compromise the precious autonomy of the individual, and destabilise the system. And in a Newsnight studio on a March evening this year, this is what you could hear. Lucy Annson insisted again and again to Emily Maitlis that she was only a spokesperson for herself, and under the rules of the network no one could stand back and judge the system. Emily said: "You're not a completely peaceful organisation." Lucy came back with the killer line: "I don't think anyone can make an assessment of that, other than the people involved in the actions themselves." What the anti-cuts movement has done without realising is adopt an idea of how to order the world without hierarchies, a machine theory that leads to a static managerialism. It may be very good for organising creative and self-expressive demonstrations, but it will never change the world. At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.
There's some morphic resonance going here with JudyButlerSpeak--I just finished your "Blog Theory" yesterday (after hearing your interview with Doug Henwood in December) and it's great. A lot of critical theory can be a mash of linguistic mumbo-jumbo, but your writing was highly intelligible. I feel its overall thesis is correct, and really am persuaded by your writing on the decline of symbolic efficiency and whatever being. Re: the latter, people in the past (esp. young people) could resort to a default identity --one's profession. We can't even do that anymore under communicative capitalism. Perhaps this explains why the right's continual appeal to the American Idea (like Palin) is still so attractive to the public even though it's a complete fiction--that's an identity ("I'm an American!") they can't or won't let go of as it's all they have left. Your book makes me despair for the future of the US --living through the decline of a civilization is no fun! Thanks again for the great writing.
Toggle Commented Jun 8, 2011 on Disobedience? Really? at I cite
Happy Belated Birthday! I don't know if it's any consolation (aging is just plain old hard), but you're material on Lenin (the "What is to Be Done?" and your talk in the U.K), is the best radical political work I've read/heard in a long long time. Plus, you have a lovely speaking voice!
Toggle Commented Apr 20, 2011 on Nothing to report at I cite
Couldn't one argue that the conception of a 'plan of life' is bourgeois, analogous to 'career'? Poor subsistence farmers, or the proletariat of old, do not have the luxury of a 'plan of life'. Also, isn't the need for a 'plan of life', and living according to it, indicative of Sartrean bad faith? Namely, that by forging and making oneself live according to a plan, one acknowledges on some level that one's life has no meaning or purpose, but that the freedom that that brings (Nietzsche here) is too terrifying for one to face? I'm not sure about that though. On the flip side, I see more and more young people who seem to realize on some level that they have no future, and that capitalism and society regards them as 'superfluous eaters' (word up to Arundhati Roy for the use of this term in describing how capital sees such people, which came from the Nazis and how they described their 'useless' population) , and so have no life plan because what's the point...and hence their lives are a mess, with no education, nihilistic partying, having babies, no interests other than pleasure in order to deaden the sense that their lives are already over. In this case, a plan of life would do them a lot of good it seems. P.S.: Mill's 'harm principle' isn't bad!
Toggle Commented Apr 4, 2011 on The easy way at I cite
"The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves, but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don't stop people from expressing themselves, but rather, force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, or ever rarer, the thing that might be worth saying." (Gilles Deleuze, "Mediators")
Toggle Commented Mar 5, 2011 on From swords unto mindshares at I cite
I fear that the 'revolutions' in the Middle East are not all what they are being cracked up to be by those on the left, or even in this analysis here. To me, these revolts look more like what happened in Eastern Europe from '89 onwards: namely, 'if we're free we'll be rich like the Americans'. Of course it never turns out that way, as people in Hungary, Lithuania and Latvia, etc. are finding out. Could this be the Middle East equation? There are an enormous amount of highly educated young people who can't find jobs. They reason (and partially rightly) that it's because of a corrupt, unresponsive regime. (Egypt or Tunisia, or even Libya, was no Burma.) They think, if we're free, the jobs will come. Meaning, if we have an economic and political system like America, we'll have jobs and be rich. Evidence for this? There are no calls for worker control and ownership of state factories, no anti-militarism, no protection for local farmers or calls for food security for all, no outright rejection of the neo-liberal project. Just calls for freedom and responsive government. Those are nice, but they aren't going to bring a real revolution. In other words, I feel leftists are underestimating the power of the myth of the American Idea. I hope I'm wrong.
There is a model in American history for Prof. Dean's project: the Nonpartisan League, which existed in the Great Plains and Canada roughly between the two wars. Their platform was simple: We will vote for anyone who will sock it to the railroads and agribusiness (including nationalization). They were quite successful overall. Their eventual decline holds lessons as well. A similar, simple program like "Soak the rich, save social services" that Prof. Dean outlines would be viable. Prof. Dean's position 3 is key. Thanks for making it.
Toggle Commented Feb 16, 2011 on Walk like an Egyptian at I cite
Your work on Lenin's "What is to Be Done?" is wonderful material. Thank you. This is only indirectly related to this post, but I just finished reading a section of your "Blog Theory" on the New Communalists, and I don't know where else to post it (if my comment's worth anything). First, Stuart Brand --and perhaps "organizers" of today-- missed something crucial when he adopted the de-centralized, random, non-hierarchical, collaborative model of organization being encouraged by the Rand Corp. and the military-industrial complex: it was that there was always some one in charge, some one giving direction. For example, in military R&D, someone in the Pentagon decides they need bullets that can pierce tank armor. To make a long story short, some officer ends up with a group of scientists and says "give us bullets that can pierce tank armor". At *that* point the de-centralized non-hierarchical etc. etc. kicks in, and in fact can be very effective and efficient in coming up with solutions, with lots of play and freedom. However, there is still a goal being determined by someone above. Brand ignored this direction from "someone above". Problems like this are being seen now at Google's think tank. Investors are now starting to worry about Google in that its future has no direction; the researchers at the think tank are simply given the direction to "amaze us". Well, they're floundering. Contrast that with Steve Jobs and Apple --Jobs says "give me a tablet computer", and *then* the non-hierarchical freedom individual play blather kicks in. I think Lenin's point about professional revolutionaries is related to this--on some level, there at least needs to be direction for any organization or revolt to succeed. The second is that this non-hierarchical conception of organization has its origins in the early Cold War against the Logical Positivists. The Positivists had a lot in common with the radical left after WWI (in fact, one, Otto Neurath, was part of the Bavarian Socialist Republic, and had connections with Austrian socialists). One of their main goals was a unification, or an "orchestration", of the sciences, all working with one common language, logic and theoretical framework. When they fled the Nazis and war, coming to the US, they brought their project, and radical left politics, with them. Anyway, to make a long story short, after WWII the Positivist project of unification was deemed "totalitarian", and anyone who believed in the "American Idea" had to allow for every opinion being valid, every *use of language* to be valid, everyone allowed to pursue what they will in freedom. However, the clincher was that you HAD to believe in the American Idea, otherwise you were a totalitarian. (This argument and "American Idea" comes from Howard Kallen.) Well, the Positivists lost thanks to the McCarthy-ite purges, and those that survived dropped their political affiliations in order to survive. Interestingly, some who took the side of Kallen's found employment in the Rand Corporation, and in fact Rand uses at least one Positivist (Hans Reichenbach) in a magazine ad. (See Reisch's "How the Cold War Transformed the Philosophy of Science" for this.) Sorry, one last thing. Hayek was a personal enemy of Neurath. The thing Hayek had against plans wasn't that they were always bound to fail, it was that he thought there will always be a minority who will disagree with the plan. In order for the plan to be carried out, the minority will have to be repressed (and histrionically, ultimately imprisoned and killed). This repression is what will lead to totalitarianism. Neurath wrote a nice critique of Hayek's "Road", one point being that Hayek assumes that people are unable to come together, and agree to co-operate with one another according to a plan. Thanks again Prof. Dean for your work.
Toggle Commented Feb 7, 2011 on What is to be done? (4) at I cite
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Feb 7, 2011