McNally: My fiancee said the saddest moment for her was watching how excited people were the night Barack Obama was elected. Share a little bit about your feelings that night and your feelings today.
West: I was ready because I draw a radical distinction between the symbolic and the substantial. As a critical supporter of Barack Obama, engaged in over 50 events for him from Iowa to Ohio, I knew that at a symbolic level something could happen that was unprecedented. And it did happen. At that symbolic level, I can understand the tears, I can understand the jubilation, I can understand the euphoria. But I always knew there was a sense in which he, now heading the American empire, was tied to the shadow government, tied to CIA, FBI, tied to the establishment waiting to embrace him. It was clear when he chose his economic team, when he chose his foreign policy team, he was choosing, of course, the recycled neo-liberals and recycled neo-Clintonites that substantially you're going to end up with these technocratic policies that consider poor people and working people as afterthoughts. Beginning with bankers, beginning with elites.
Symbolically, black man breaks through makes you want to break dance. So, yes, we have to be able to relate to both of these. So I resonate with your dear fiancee, because the hopes that were generated and the call for change, and then we end up with this recycled neo-liberalism. There's no fundamental change at all.
That's very real, but I think we do have to understand we had to bring the age of Reagan to a close. We had to bring the era of conservatism to a close. And then you try to unleash new possibilities. Of course, the question now is, how do we keep our fellow citizens awakened so it goes beyond the campaign for a candidate and really begin engaging in grassroots organizing and mobilizing.
McNally: I'm more disheartened these days than I was during the eight years of Bush. During those eight years I expected nothing. I was surprised by almost nothing. We fought, we did what we could But I feel a little sadness in my soul as I watch this one. You've said that Obama's looking at the wrong Lincoln and I think of Roosevelt who shows so well in Michael Moore's movie when he declares the New Bill of Rights.
West: The Four Freedoms, yes.
McNally: Roosevelt came to power as a moderate. Lincoln came to power as someone who had worked very comfortably with slavery. And it was the movements, it was the people that challenged and inspired them. How are we doing, and how are we going to do?
West: We are not doing well at all. If you look at the abolitionist movement and its impact on Abraham Lincoln. The Frederick Douglas's, the Harriet Beecher Stowe's, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Wendell Philips, Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman. The powerful abolitionist movement put pressure on Lincoln. Trade union movement put pressure on FDR. What kind of movement do we have? Hardly anything at all.
That's where the analogy breaks down. Barack Obama leans toward Wall Street, mesmerized by the elites, wants to be embraced by the establishment, wants to preserve his legacy as a president, more in the language of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative columnists than in the hearts and minds of everyday people.
McNally: So we both agree, this election does say the age of Reagan is over but it doesn't say what's starting, does it?
West: I think even my dear brother Michael Moore tends to put too much confidence in Barack Obama. In his film you get the sense that here comes Barack Obama speaking the language of deep democracy. No, no, no, he's been a liberal all his life. He uses that language to mobilize, but in the end he's going to capitulate and defer to the neo-liberal establishment, which is what he has done so far. Now gran
Is it not that, here also, one has to do it (offer an apology, choose terror) in order to see how it is superfluous? This paradox is sustained by the distinction between the “constative” and the “performative” dimensions, between “subject of the enunciated” and “subject of the enunciation”: at the level of the enunciated content, the whole operation is meaningless (why do it – offer an apology, go through terror – when it is superfluous?); however, what this common sense insight forgets is that it is only the “wrong” superfluous gesture which creates the subjective conditions which made it possible for the subject to really see why this gesture is superfluous. It only becomes possible to say that my apology is not necessary after I offer it; it only becomes possible to see how Terror is superfluous and destructive after one goes through it. The dialectical process is thus more refined than it may appear; the standard notion is that, in it, one can only arrive at the final truth through the path of errors, so that these errors are not simply discarded, but “sublated” in the final truth, preserved in it as its moments. What this standard notion misses is how the previous moments are preserved precisely as superfluous.
So the obvious critical approach “But is this idea of retroactively canceling the contingent historical conditions, of transforming contingency into Fate, not ideology at its formally purest, the very form of ideology?” misses the point, which is that this retroactivity is inscribed into reality itself: what is truly “ideology” is the idea that, freed from “ideological illusions,” one can pass from moment A to moment B directly, without retroactivity – say, that, in an ideally-authentic society, I can apologize and the other can say “I was hurt, apology was needed, and I accept it” without breaking any implicit rules; that we could get the modern rational State without having to pass through the “superfluous” detour of Terror. There is a well-known joke about cooking which relies on the same logic: “How anyone can make a good soup in one hour? You prepare all the ingredients, cut the vegetables, etc., boil water, put the ingredients into it, cook it in not too hot water for half an hour, occasionally stirring the water; when, after three quarters of an hour, you discover that the soup is tasteless and unpalatable, you throw it away, open up a good can of soup and quickly warm it up.” This is how we, humans, make soup.
what happened last Friday in the House of Representatives, when — with the meltdown caused by a runaway financial system still fresh in our minds, and the mass unemployment that meltdown caused still very much in evidence — every single Republican and 27 Democrats voted against a quite modest effort to rein in Wall Street excesses.
Let’s recall how we got into our current mess.
America emerged from the Great Depression with a tightly regulated banking system. The regulations worked: the nation was spared major financial crises for almost four decades after World War II. But as the memory of the Depression faded, bankers began to chafe at the restrictions they faced. And politicians, increasingly under the influence of free-market ideology, showed a growing willingness to give bankers what they wanted.
The first big wave of deregulation took place under Ronald Reagan — and quickly led to disaster, in the form of the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s. Taxpayers ended up paying more than 2 percent of G.D.P., the equivalent of around $300 billion today, to clean up the mess.
But the proponents of deregulation were undaunted, and in the decade leading up to the current crisis politicians in both parties bought into the notion that New Deal-era restrictions on bankers were nothing but pointless red tape. In a memorable 2003 incident, top bank regulators staged a photo-op in which they used garden shears and a chainsaw to cut up stacks of paper representing regulations.
And the bankers — liberated both by legislation that removed traditional restrictions and by the hands-off attitude of regulators who didn’t believe in regulation — responded by dramatically loosening lending standards. The result was a credit boom and a monstrous real estate bubble, followed by the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Ironically, the effort to contain the crisis required government intervention on a much larger scale than would have been needed to prevent the crisis in the first place: government rescues of troubled institutions, large-scale lending by the Federal Reserve to the private sector, and so on.
Given this history, you might have expected the emergence of a national consensus in favor of restoring more-effective financial regulation, so as to avoid a repeat performance. But you would have been wrong.
Talk to conservatives about the financial crisis and you enter an alternative, bizarro universe in which government bureaucrats, not greedy bankers, caused the meltdown. It’s a universe in which government-sponsored lending agencies triggered the crisis, even though private lenders actually made the vast majority of subprime loans. It’s a universe in which regulators coerced bankers into making loans to unqualified borrowers, even though only one of the top 25 subprime lenders was subject to the regulations in question.
Oh, and conservatives simply ignore the catastrophe in commercial real estate: in their universe the only bad loans were those made to poor people and members of minority groups, because bad loans to developers of shopping malls and office towers don’t fit the narrative.
In part, the prevalence of this narrative reflects the principle enunciated by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” As Democrats have pointed out, three days before the House vote on banking reform Republican leaders met with more than 100 financial-industry lobbyists to coordinate strategies. But it also reflects the extent to which the modern Republican Party is committed to a bankrupt ideology, one that won’t let it face up to the reality of what happened to the U.S. economy.
Could anyone be surprised that the corporate lackeys parading around as Senators have dropped the public option? Should anyone believe that this is simply because the notorious Joe Lieberman couldn't support the pathetically watered down excuse for a public option, the one held up as both significant reform and meaningful compromise? It's a lie that they have no choice: this is what they choose--a massive give away to the insurance companies that continue to deny coverage and increase premium costs to extort every last cent out of us (my copays and emergency room visits just doubled). The bill reminds me of the food in Brazil, the disgusting mush accompanied by images of delicious dishes. The scandal is that the charade proceeds as if something important were at stake, when that was ditched long ago, by Obama himself when he took single-payer off the table.
Escalating war in Afghanistan (in the name of peace!), failure to prosecute torturers, failure to reign in Wall Street (in the name of helping Main Street!), failure to deliver on climate, support for the worst in Haiti, and failure to deliver adequate health care. And all this with a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate.
This means that the Democrats are the bad guys. Why assume that they can't get what they want when they control both Houses? The answer must be that they are getting precisely what they want--money from the insurance sector, the finance sector, the arms and security sector. (In this respect, increases in obesity may be our best current resistance--if people are too fat to serve in the military, the military collapses; if obsesity puts too much stress on hospitals, the health system collapses; on the one hand, this doesn't make life any better for the poor and obese; on the other, at least they aren't reinforcing the system that feeds on their sacrifice and humiliation. So it's like another version of Bartelby and refusal. In the face of an injuction, one says, in a complete non-sequitor, Supersize Me!).
Clinton ushered in the reforms necessary for the intensification of neoliberalism. Obama is enabling neoliberalism to do its worst without repercussion. He is intensifying the authoritarian and militarist elements that attempt to control, that continue to develop strategies and technologies for control, and intensifying the already extreme inequalities that make control necessary. What makes Obama worst than Bush is that Obama leveraged progressive, democratic, youthful, anti-racist, multicultural hope that politics could still work for the people, that government could still restrain the strong and protect the less fortunate. He held out the promise that unbridled self-assertion abroad and at home would end. Neither glutonous banks, mortgage brokers, and credit card companies nor war hungry oil companies, private contractors, and neo-cons would determine our futures.
It's not ironic that Obama gave a highly publicized speech on education at the same time the CA system is crumbling. It's 1984, just like under Bush: anything that is praised is falling apart; anything that is criticized is really supported, endorsed. The same thing occurs with respect to finance. Obama wants to 'shame' Wall Street? Please. We know they have no shame. Who needs shame when you make over a billion a year? 'Shame' is what Obama says when the truth is that he has done nothing but feed the gall and hubris of Wall Street.
Exploiting people's hope for change is key to the damage Obama has done and continues to do. Destroying any remaining sense of agency is crucial to ensuring total compliance. The thing is, last fall and winter, people were ready to make sacrifices, ready to be responsible, ready to grow up. The mood was almost one of relief that the pressures to enjoy, to consume, were over, that our decade long credit orgy had finally come to an end and that finding another way was possible. Green initiatives were not yet completely coopted. The financial system seemed broken nearly beyond repair, a clear indication of the ultimate failure of market fundamentalism--as even Alan Greenspan acknowledged: his entire world view was wrong. A reformed finance sector, green energy, single-payer health care, renewed public transportation and a shift away from car culture--these key programs for a new beginning seemed--and were--possible. Instead, the US of Goldman Sachs has chosen war and finance.
Maybe this collapse of our hope is the opportunity for its renewal. Maybe this collapse is the liberation from the fantasy that Democrats are democrats.
The newest surge isn't only in Afghanistan. It's here via the financial-military complex. And if Afghanistan will persevere (as we all expect it will, just like it has in the face of every foreign invasion), then we can too.
I've wondered for a while, wondering rather than reading since these days I read only what others want me to read and not what I want to read, if the injunction not to cede one's desire means never to satisfy it or never to give in to the lie of satisfaction. It's likely that this is not a news flash, yet another example of the way what is obvious somehow becomes clear or obvious in a different way, as if one hadn't really known it before.
Holding onto desire would be holding onto a fantasy, letting the fantasy inspire, letting it take one's breath away, provide the incitement to getting out of bed, the last hope before going to sleep. Such a holding on, though, is fragile, always at risk of misplaced attempts at realization, misplaced because they forsake desire by presuming that it can and should be satisfied rather than cherished. Zizek describes the becoming of horrific of realized desire at the end of the The Piano Teacher.
Read in terms of cherishing desire, of taking care not to cede it but to attend to it, nurture it, provoke it, the place of the Party is not to realize communism but a desire for it, to produce and inspire subjects who will seek it, knowing their limitation, their ignorance, but not fetishing this impossibility as either futility or relativism but rather as the necessary condition for their desire.
The easy part: the desire is already there.
The hard part: people fear the name.
Perhaps trust in the people has to mean trust in the desire, not the fear that leads to its misnaming.
Blessed with two days to myself, I've found myself in the annual embrace of paper crafts. This coincides nicely with holiday decorating and not so nicely with end of term grading. I've also accompanied the paper projects with serious attention to a Christmas playlist. In this context, "serious" means combining the likely taste of a 14 year old boy ("Gary," by MC Lars) and 11 year old girl ("All I Want for Christmas is You," Olivia Olson), Paul (selections from "The Reindeer Room") with my own preferences (some are too sappy to mention; I'll leave it at the list would be fine for a "Grey's Anatomy" Christmas special).
At any rate, one of the selections on the list is "Joy to the World" (sung by American Idol runner-up, David Arculeta--folks can guess who that one is for). And, there is the meaningfully, over-wrought, intensely sung, "let earth receive her king." This resonates with a theme in the post-apocalyptic series of novels of the Change (S.M. Sterling), namely, the king is chosen as the sacrifice of those who choose him.
My sense of recent discussions of sovereignty is an emphasis on an other who is sacrificed or an other who can be killed but not sacrified. My recollection is that Zizek generally rejects sacrificial logics, particularly insofar as they are necessary guarantees of the Other constituted through the sacrifice. The Other comes into being through the sacrifices made in its name. Indeed, Zizek tends to praise those feminine figures who sacrifice the sacrifice.
But I worry that this rejection of sacrifice too easily fits in with that constellation of enjoyment and libertarianism characteristic of late neoliberalism. The left fell in with this as it decried any restrictions on freedom as repression--as if all forms of repression were the same, that is, all unjust and never necessary.
The rejection of repression has been an accompaniment of contemporary emphases on democracy. The result is a view of democracy compatible with neoliberalization (that is, communicative capitalism). This is democracy as each getting what he wants, going for what he wants, and viewing any limitation on this self-assertion as an illegitimate over-reaching of government (or its failure).
The problem, then, is that democracy has been morphed into a form of government without sacrifice, as if such a thing were possible at all. Agents, no longer subjects, are essentially objects that perserve (hence again the popularity of political theory for objects; they combine immanently, without sacrifice). Hardt and Negri's multitude, for example, flows and desires, but seems incapable of sacrifice--although the rights asserted at the end of Empire are only possible as statements of those principles for which sacrifice is necessary.
We have a national social assistance program, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), that’s supposed to be our nation’s last line of defense against falling into the depths of poverty. Yet this program is so deeply inadequate that by 2008, the number of needy children receiving TANF fell to only 22 percent. Under the pre-“welfare reform” system of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1995, 62 percent of poor children were benefiting. Eligibility criteria are set at sub-poverty levels in some states, making poor children ineligible, and barriers such as lack of childcare and lack of access to employment have further kept poor children from receiving desperately needed economic assistance that a system such as TANF should provide.
Most Americans' sense of well-being is tied to their jobs. With unemployment and underemployment at over 17 percent, higher among black, Latino and women-maintained household populations, the fall from middle class to poverty is often quick and painful. America’s children suffer the most. Almost one in five children in the United States lives in poverty; almost one in four suffered from inadequate access to food last year. These numbers are on the rise without an end in sight.
And although two safety net programs in particular, food stamps and unemployment insurance, have proven fairly responsive during the recession, what does this mean in practical terms? About 57 percent of unemployed workers currently receive unemployment compensation thanks to the Recovery Act and congressional extensions. But the amounts are typically less than half of the wages they were receiving and many are suffering from the devastating loss of work-related health benefits.
After my mother died, a large, open-mouthed bottle of messages she had written came to me. It's strange because the bottle wasn't for her. It was a Christmas gift from her to my father. The bottle has a top, like an apothecary jar. Attached to the red ribbon around the top is a handmade tag, something like 'Rx for depression: take one when needed.' Inside, are tiny white scrolls, tied with green ribbons. Each little scroll has a remedy, perhaps a promise.
I haven't read the little scrolls.
But maybe that isn't true because I seem to recall unwinding one and reading my mother's handwriting. I don't know if this is a real memory or my imagination. The jar remains full of little messages that I haven't read, that in fact no one has ever read.
I know or imagine that my mother made this for my father at a difficult time in the marriage. I know or imagine that I know that she was hurt that he never read them, never used them. I think she told me this one time. The jar sat on his dresser for years, filled with the white scrolls and never ran out as the top gathered dust.
I don't know why I have the bottle now, why it came to me. And so I wonder whether to open it and read the messages.
The prospect is overwhelming, a confrontation with the intensity of my mother's love for my father, a love so unselfish as to be infinitely demanding. She often reminded us that my father was first, well, right after God. I'm not sure ranking combines well with love, but she was. I imagine that the scolls prescribe an afternoon walk or a nice dinner, prescribing what would remedy her depression, make her feel loved, rather than cheer up my father. I try not to imagine the possibility that the messages might be sexually explicit--but I don't know whether I fear the confrontation with the reality of parental sex or the possibility of my mother's naivete. She was a staunch, even a professional, Southern Baptist.
If I read the notes, am I violating, intruding into, their relationship? Am I impinging on my father's privacy (he has since remarried)? Or am I somehow taking his place, acting in his stead, taking upon myself an encounter that he avoided or refused?
The bottle is somewhere in my attic. That doesn't seem to be the messages' proper point of arrival. But where or what is that point? I would hate them to end up in a dump. Or is it possible that their destiny was always not to be read, that my mother wrote them hoping for something she knew would never come?