The title of this post comes from a question asked by a Greek comrade on our bus back to the hotel tonight after dinner. Dinner was excellent, lots of appetizers (mezze) and then mixed grill. The bus smelled of gasoline, had velvet curtains blocking the windows, and red lights with mini glass beads around them. Someone joked that the curtains were for security. Apparently the hotel is the site of a bombing that killed the director of the movie, "Halloween." It was also one of the first high rise hotels in Amman, renown for its prostitutes.
No one knew the words to the Internationale in Arabic, although an Italian said that he heard it a lot in Cairo in the first Eygyptian revolution. To be sure, he said, some of the singers were Stalinists. Someone said a lot of older Algerians knew it--after all, Che Guevara came to Algeria--but not so many anymore. The younger folks aren't so interested; they've lost contact with this part of their radical history, are interested in something new.
It could be that this is the wrong crowd for that song. The key sponsers are Global Voices Advocacy, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Hivos, EFF, Tactical Technology Collective, Soros (Open Society Foundations), and a few others. My sense the first day (which may well change) is that this is a human rights, civil society, NGO, democracy, advocacy and awareness sort of crowd. The topics for the breakout groups: security, story-telling, internet governance and policy, and information visualization. I think most people went to story-telling today. There was some very smart and important work being done to help people know what sort of details and verification was necessary for reports to be able to have evidentiary value in different legal environments.
The morning began in a style that I can't quite place: is it NGO-activist or US Silicon Valley corporate? I've seen the same in university settings, and it seems to me that activist students like it. It's the stand up, move your body, introduce yourself in 3 sentences, answer a funny question, do crazy motions sort of thing. I don't particularly like it. I was interested, though,in the exercise that had people step to the center room if they answered yes to a particular question, for example, had kids, were bloggers, were new to the meeting. It worked well in that it made people pretty cheerful and relaxed.
The day was structured very loosely. After sleeping some this afternoon (I expect I will regret this tonight), I showed up about fifteen minutes before my session. We were told it was running late, people weren't sure if anyone would show up, they would have to cut it short, maybe we should do it tomorrow, structurelessness's small cuts and redirections. After all that, we started less than half an hour late and had terrific attendance. The organizers kept us on point and on time. People seemed interested and engaged. We had heard that some had been very, very skeptical about having academics here--reluctant to be research subjects, not interested in being lectured to. From my standpoint, the vibe seemed good, an actual conversation.
I talked about communicative capitalism and the way it can open us up to thinking about social media and US imperialism. A brief quote from the notorious Jared Cohen helps establish the point quickly. Arguing that the internet and mobile phones can help reach the "disaffected youth of the Arab world" (and keep them from becoming terrorists which seems to be what he takes to be their default mode), Cohen writes:
Because the digital and technological world offers young people opportunities to generate their own media and entertainment, they are learning critical thinking through self-exploration, and they are practicing digital democracy on a daily basis, even if they claim to despise the very concept of democracy. Without their keyboards, remotes, and telephones, they assume a real-life political, religious, ethnic, or nationalist identity. Behind the technology, many of these “digital natives” are beginning to identify with a transnational youth identity.
Global consumer or terrorist. Those are their options. With that as a way to approach communicative capitalism, I went through a few of the features of the idea. My initial sense was that people thought the concept was relevant to the MENA, although in need of some alteration to make it fit with the neoliberal autocracy of a place like Syria. One of the Palestinian bloggers spoke powerfully of the affects of individualism on Palestinian bloggers, providing as well examples of some of the ways they try to work around that feature of the format. An Egyptian blogger expressed a sense of capacity to steer the mainstream media conversation.
At dinner I learned that there was not much of a discussion of climate or environmental issues in the Middle East. One question, issue, problem overdetermines all the rest.
I'm heading to Jordan tomorrow for the Fourth Arab Bloggers Conference. I'm pretty thrilled (albeit distressed already by the gesture to entrepreneurialism -- makes me think that communicative capitalism is global). I'm hoping to blog about the experience. It's been a while since I've done much first person blogging. And, this feels particularly risky since I have never been to the Middle East, don't speak Arabic, and don't know very much about the region. My posts, then, will be those of a naive observer.
A few weeks ago when Paul and I were in NYC for the baptism of the child of some friends (by Reverend Billy), we ran into some acquaintances. The acquaintances are men in their late twenties. We ran into them around NYU. I made strained small-talk with one while Paul chatted with the other.
The guy I was talking to is a hedge fund manager.
I didn't push it. Really. After covering sports, the weather, the few people we know in common, he asks about my kids. I reply that my son is going to McGill. He's impressed and adds, "a lot of guys in my firm went to McGill." I smile sweetly, "The one thing I hope my son will never, ever, become is a hedge fund manager."
The guy laughs uneasily, "Well, he should be able to make his own choices."
"But not that."
"What's so wrong with being a hedge fund manager?"
I look at him like he must either have severe brain damage or be from another planet (both, I think, are true, the effects of capitalist excess). "Umm, the role of the finance sector in the intensification of economic inequality in the US and the larger global economic crisis?"
He says, "Well, that's your opinion."
"No. It's a fact."
"Well, some would disagree."
"Then they are wrong."
He stares at me. I offer, "My most recent book is The Communist Horizon." He grabs the other guy and insists that they have to go. Now.
The next evening while a blizzard engulfed the city I sat in a bar with a socialist friend a few years younger than the other guys. After I recounted the conversation from the night before, he tells me a similar story. A few weeks earlier, he was chatting with a woman at a party. He said something critical of Wall Street and she became uneasy, volunteering that she worked in finance, that people who go into debt have no one but themselves to blame, that anyone who works hard can easily save enough money to have a good life, etc. He described some of the challenges faced by his working class parents, tying them to the structural role of debt and unemployment for capitalism. She became increasingly uncomfortable, defensive, and angry, ultimately storming off.
The bright side of these stories of twenty-something shame: the fact that they feel it. They aren't bragging and gloating. This isn't Jamie Dimon and his gloating Christmas card. Rather, these twenty-somethings quickly cave under the realization of the wrong of inequality. They might try, initially, to parrot the capitalist ideological clap-trap that protects them, but they feel its holes. They don't believe it anymore, even if they want to. Jamie Dimon and his ilk do their best to patch up the the image of extreme wealth, "look how fun it is!," but their deafness to the tone of the times betrays their underlying desperation. Misfires are symptoms of their crumbling position. They won't be able to hold it much longer.
I lived in NYC in the mid-eighties. I worked for a year in a low-paid publishing job and then went to graduate school. A few friends and a lot of acquaintances had gone to work on Wall Street (Karen's Ho's Liquidated is a great ethnography on this pipeline). They were investment bankers and traders. Some dealt in junk bonds. From the outside, it looked like a wild scene, not as extreme as "The Wolf of Wall Street" but not so far off, either.
The difference is that in the mid-eighties, these guys were shameless, masters of the universe, Tom Wolfe would call them in Bonfire of the Vanities. The Gordon Gekko line, "greed is good," wasn't a critique, it was a flag, a banner.
This flag is now in tatters. The banner has fallen.
Now even those who want to be Wall Street's gekkos and wolves can't. They don't believe anymore that the rest of us believe that they are winners, that they are the smartest guys in the room, that they somehow deserve or have earned their immensely unequal share of the common surplus. They know that the rest of us think that are thieves, extortionists, criminals. A little shame has crept in. That's why the twenty-somethings got angry.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" lays bear the injunction to enjoy underlying the last thirty years of financialization. The ambiguity of the movie comes from our relation to this enjoyment. Does it incite our desire, does it arouse us, making us against our better selves in fact want to be like them, want to have what they have? Does it disgust us, arousing our indignation? Does it blend the two together so that we find ourselves with no place to stand (sex and drugs are fun! I'm no conservative, moralistic, prude!)? And, if it does any of these does the movie end up coming too much to the assistance of Jamie Dimon and his ilk? Maybe the audience for the film is those twenty-something finance types who want to rid themselves of the shame that shadows their work in the sector that is killing the world.
Criticisms of the movie for its sexism miss the mark. The movie enacts obscenity. It enjoins excess and this injunction always is at a cost to someone. Someone is exploited (or excluded--it's a white movie--or beaten up--lots of homophobia). The excess has to be understood as inseparable from Wall Street. Nothing to be proud of here. They should all be ashamed.
February in upstate New York is dreary, cold, damp, and gray. I am usually very happy not to live in a place like California--how can one get work done when the weather is sunny and warm? But days upon days of cold and damp start to become depressing. They can even make it so dreary that work can't absorb it all and so the gray lingers and overwhelms.
I think of myself as decisive. Lately, I haven't been. This past fall I agreed to speak in Tel Aviv in June. The event is interesting, part of an anti-capitalist left art project. Participants include communists and other activists. It was arranged that I'd also be able to speak in Ramallah. I had thought that this would balance out the problem of speaking in Israel.
It won't. The balance is false, a delusional and unprincipled equation. I started wondering if it was like giving a lecture at a segregated white university in Mississippi as long as one also gave one at one of the black colleges, separate but equal and all that.
During the rucus over speakers from BDS at Brooklyn College, I started looking into the details of the academic and cultural boycott. I was really looking for a way to feel like I could go ahead and participate in the event without being ashamed or defensive. I couldn't find a way. I'm not happy about this. It even feels false or inauthentic to me. But I think that this must mean that my feelings are not to be trusted.
The thing is, I am not comfortable with the boycott as a tactic. It seems to me to be a politics of self-righteousness: "I won't let my words and acts provide support to your awful state practice," and this said by US and UK academics who easily fly back and forth between the US and the UK, as if the US weren't the primary funder of Israel, as if the US didn't have more people in prison than any other country, as if the US didn't undertake illegal war and occupation. Everything I do has the perverse effect of legitimizing the US as a country that supports free speech, that tolerates dissent, that encourages opposition. The more I speak as a communist, the more I criticize communicative capitalism, the more I buttress the very system I want to overthrow. This is part of the practice of academic life. Why, then, does it make sense to single out Israel? Isn't this a way of displacing attention from the murderous, imperialist, militarist role of the US?
That the Palestinian left endorses the boycott is ultimately what guided my decision. I still don't feel settled about it (and not just because there was never an answer from the BDS in response to an inquiry regarding the event and so I keep holding onto a little hope). Maybe because it feels like a forced choice. Or maybe just for selfish reasons--I doubt I'll ever have the opportunity to go again and I resent people who've gotten to go setting up rules as to who else can go and under what conditions, like the left academic political-ethical border patrol. That said, I don't have to abide by the boycott; even a forced choice is a choice. Overall, though, I guess I feel the force of the boycott as an expression of a strong left political will. Feeling it as the force of a collective, I accept it.
It's Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 and I'm Douglas Lain, the host of the Diet Soap podcast.
This week I want to thank Michael T and Brandon F for their one time donations to the podcast, and I want to urge everyone listening to follow me on Facebook and join the new Diet Soap International Facebook group. I also want to tell Shane and Michael P that I haven't forgotten about sending copies of my dusty memoir Pick Your Battle your way.
Upcoming episodes of Diet Soap will include conversations with Jason Horsley, David Blacker, and my son Benjamin. Also a conversation with the primitivist John Zerzan is brewing for a future episode of Pop the Left.
Why not, then, the 'democratic horizon'? It is here that we reach the limits of democracy that Dean's book so astutely identifies. Democracy is a process, not a goal. It is measured quantitatively not qualitatively. It is empirical not axiomatic. It is no more a marker then of our actual place than the way the wind blows. Above all - and this we have learned from experience - democracy is not a means for attaining itself. The vote wasn't won through referenda. Rather it was won when 'the people' imposed its 'will' on the polity. For Dean the terms 'people' and 'will' are mutually constituting. That is, the 'people' only become once they have transformed themselves into a unified collective behind a certain ‘will’. We should not be put off by a failure to reach a democratic consensus or by the mere existence of reactionary dissent. For not everyone is 'the people'.
Dean's argument might appear controversial, but only if we pay no attention to history. For example, we do not have much trouble in saying that women won themselves the vote. And yet at the height of the suffragette movement in Britain, reactionary movements were able to gather more female signatories against their having the vote than the suffragettes could muster for it. So when we say that women won themselves the vote, we can only be using 'women' in a certain qualified sense.
The overthrow of capitalism will not come at the polling stations or the signing of petitions. Such devices, Dean argues, are essentially exercises in ratifying prevailing arrangements (the 'rendering the people' in terms of their 'demographic components'). It will come when the people will it and have the organisational form to achieve it. Dean is right. The people's will is communist because 'communism' is expressly for the collective in a way that brooks no qualification. As such, it is the only word we have in our political vocabulary that represents an unequivocal rejection of capitalism. This is why our horizon is communist.
Midway through The Communist Horizon Dean quotes Walter Benjamin on the perils of a certain strata of radical left wing intellectualism; one that has 'nothing in common' with a workers movement, and whose function is to 'produce, from the political standpoint, not parties but cliques; from the literary standpoint, not producers but agents or hacks who make [...] a banquet out of yawning emptiness.’ The truth is that theory is largely a 'banquet of yawning emptiness'. There is often a chasm separating the questions intellectuals ask themselves and the kinds of problems encountered by everyone else. The Communist Horizon is theory for everyone else and I can think of no higher praise for Dean's arguments than to say that they really belong, not in seminar rooms and lecture theatres, but in people's houses, workplaces and public haunts.