Sunday, 30 August 2009

Healthcare reform in the USA: Biggie Size it

For weeks I have been putting off writing about the health care reform debate in the US. This is an issue that has interested me deeply for some time, and in the past I have done a lot of research on health care spending globally, some of it for a course on Medicine, Ethics, and Law, and some out of personal interest. A recent discussion in a stream of comments on a Facebook status update finally sparked the writing of this post.

In response to an anti-insurance rant by an American friend of mine comparing insurance giants to Big Brother, someone else commented "...I might become Big Brother. If I'm paying, it is going to totally hack me off to see the 250 pounders on their scooters buying sodas, ho hos, cigarettes and beer. I'll be following them through the store, 'nope sorry honey, none for you!"

Now I won't even get into all the moral complexities brought into play when well-off Americans (such as the commenter) complain about the unhealthy lifestyles of the millions of uninsured poor whose real incomes have not budged since the 1960s even as the economy and prices have grown, who are effectively the economic and social victims of the deregulation that has brought prosperity to the middle classes, and the associated fast-fooding and automobile-dependency of the American lifestyle; the fact that Mississippi is both the poorest and the fattest state in America (the fattest nation in the world) should give you an idea. (Yes, I am saying that the rich got rich on the backs of the fat and poor they complain about.) Nor is it necessary to inquire extensively here into how those unhealthy lifestyles developed on the ground level - for anyone interested in how America came to be the fattest nation on the planet, watch Morgan Spurlock's 'Super Size Me' - it's a good start. (hint: it does have something to do with aggressive marketing strategies and corporate profit margins)

If you want to think in such inhuman terms, the simple statistical truth is that people with unhealthy lifestyles (i.e. smokers) are actually much less of a burden on the health system, because - surprise!! - they die younger. It just so happens that a grossly disproportionate amount of money - even here in the UK, on the much-maligned NHS - is spent on the last few decades of life for those who, due to their extremely healthy lifestyles, get past 65. And no, there are no 'death panels' on the NHS, contrary to what has been reported in the American press. (As an aside, if obesity is the complaint, cigarettes have the added benefit of reducing the burden even further, given that tobacco is an appetite suppressant and most chain-smokers are highly unlikely to be obese. ) So in all fairness, the fat-asses my interlocutor complained about might be equally if not more justified shoving cigarettes down her throat to save the public the expense of keeping her alive well into her 70s and 80s...

But thank God that most people in countries with national health insurance schemes don't think that way, and neither does anyone follow fat-asses through the store and tell them what to eat, nor do old people get cut off when they get past a certain age.

The cost of end-of-life care and old-age care for that matter is disproportionately high anywhere, except where a policy choice is made to have so-called 'death panels', but I have not heard of such a country. Conservatives like to point to well-publicized cases of, say, the NHS refusing to fund a particular trial of an experimental cancer drug or something of the kind. You think that HMOs on private insurance don't refuse to fund treatments? Of course they do, all the time, and even more so - I can confirm this from experience as a patient on both sides. And think of the economic incentive - the only difference is that with private insurance, such decisions are made first and foremost for the sake of corporate profit margins rather than the public interest or absolute budget limits. In a national health care system - no profit margin means more money to spend on health care.

And whether you're insured privately or on a national insurance scheme, you always have the option to pay for treatments not covered on the insurance out-of-pocket - but that's got nothing to do with what system you're in. In fact, if anything, in such cases you'd be better off being in the UK, than in the US, where no price caps and sparse market regulation mean that treatments paid out-of-pocket would cost several times more.

The disproportional cost of old-age care is even greater in the US. When I last looked at the WHO statistics on public health spending, the US government's per capita health spending - the public funds spent on healthcare - was higher than in any European country besides France. Public health spending in the US is basically Medicare and Medicaid. What that means is that Americans are already paying more than most Europeans in taxes and other public spending per capita to fund a government-run healthcare system - but they only benefit from that money if they are over 65 or very poor and fulfill certain criteria.

One major reason as mentioned is that caring for seniors (i.e. the Medicare program) is very expensive, and the more so the older they get. But another reason is that the US healthcare system is way overpriced - i.e. no price caps - drug companies can charge whatever the hell they want, which is why congress tried to pass a bill a few years back to buy drugs from Canada, from the same companies, the same brands.

Factor into the public spending all the out-of-pocket costs (even Medicare isn't totally 'free'), the private insurance spending which is even greater per capita, both insurance premiums and co-pays, and you get a health system that is priced way above what its actual performance deserves, taking into account the standard of living and price index, which are greater in many European countries.

Do you get a better healthcare system for all that money? Don't think so. Last time I looked at WHO's health performance indicators, the US was middle-range, sharing the same infant mortality rate as Cuba - one of the poorest countries in the word, but one which alleviates that poverty with a health system that performs well beyond its means. I can't imagine what the NHS would be like, or the Cuban health care system for that matter, if they spent the amount of money per capita that the US already spends on Medicare and Medicaid.

Yet another reason for the high cost of healthcare in the US is precisely that it is too cumbersome compared to single payer healthcare systems. That is the argument against private insurance and in favour of something like the NHS - which precisely has the benefit of making things simpler, cuts out a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork. (Again, I can confirm this from experience as a patient on both sides)...

Another type of scare story cited by pro-corporate Americans (such as this blog) is that a national healthcare plan would 'victimize' immigrants and other vulnerable populations. One story cited is of an immigrant spouse of a New Zealander who is denied care due to rules that do not allow immigrants to be a 'public burden'. It is irrelevant whether the story is true or not. And let's not even discuss the blanket assumption that an immigrant in New Zealand would have access to health care through private insurance were things otherwise. The simple fact is that any American who buys this argument is unfamiliar with their own immigration system. (No surprise there, most likely they've never been through it) Under current rules, a legal 'green card' immigrant in the US is not allowed to become a 'public burden'; any American citizen with an immigrant spouse is required to sign an affidavit to this effect, declaring that they will be financially liable in the event that their spouse becomes a 'public burden' (i.e. by claiming social security).

Obviously, the issue at stake is not the humane provision of a health service for all New Zealanders or Americans, but the inhumane immigration rules which exclude non-citizens. When I signed up for the health service here in the UK, I didn't have to prove anything except my address, and even that only for the purpose of ensuring I am with the right GP for my area. Aside from my medical history the past few years, the only thing the NHS knows about me is my name and address. They don't know or care what my legal status is here - and I am not even a permanent resident, but a student now on a two-year post-study work visa. Once, a friend who lives in Italy contracted a kidney infection while on a brief visit here - she has a chronic condition - she was able to get phone advice over a 24-hour help line the same evening without even giving her name, and treatment from our GP the next morning, no fuss.

I can imagine what the next complaint would be, and I have heard that one too - 'medical tourism'. What people seem to forget is that going to the doctor is no fun for most people. I sure as hell put it off even when I should go to the doctor, even when I can do it for free. You don't need the disincentive of co-pays, let alone going to another country to get it. We're not talking government-sponsored tickets to the theater. When people go to the trouble of going to another country specifically to get medical treatment, most likely they really need it badly, and they can't afford it or obtain it otherwise. Anyone who's got a problem with that is sick in the head.

Yet another thing to consider is that it works both ways - the fact that someone visiting the UK from another country can get medical treatment here without a problem, and without charge, should they fall ill during their visit, is something we should be grateful for as human beings; just as much as the fact that I can similarly travel worry-free in some countries. If some people do abuse the system and come here for free treatment on purpose even when they could get it otherwise, or for treatment not medically necessary, there is really very little you can do about it without harming the majority of people who don't abuse the system, but it doesn't really worry me that much. You can't ever totally avoid people pissing in public parks, yet the fact that it happens is no argument for keeping them closed.

If you want to compare costs, I would advise anyone in the US lucky enough to have a health insurance plan to take a good look at their paycheck; and calculate what they pay in income tax, and add to that the health insurance premiums, social insurance, out-of-pocket costs, take it all out. And then calculate what you get in return. I guarantee that they will find that on average, contrary to the perception that Europeans pay a lot of taxes, Americans are the ones getting screwed over. Not by the government, however - but by the insurance companies and pharmaceutical giants.

Because ultimately, any health insurance money comes out of your paycheck, even if your health insurance is 'employer-funded'. The higher the insurance premiums, the less money there is for you to negotiate over. This is something that annoys me about some union bargaining strategies - in 2002, the AFL-CIO officially opposed a ballot initiative in Oregon to provide a state-wide health-coverage plan, on the grounds that the tax that would be imposed to finance it took up to 8% income tax (with as low as 2% for lower incomes) and up to 11% payroll tax. The employer, the AFL-CIO held, should bear a greater portion of the cost. But this is a bogus argument, as some local unions who favoured the plan realized - the tax money taken together would amount to much less than what is doled out on private insurance plans; in reality it doesn't matter who finances the health care on paper - whether it is payroll or income tax, the more money it costs, the less there is to negotiate over for pay rises and other benefits. The goal should be to cut health care costs, and one big way to do it is to eliminate insurance companies and corporate profit margins. The rest we can squabble over later.

Also, while medical malpractice is certainly another major contributor to the cost of healthcare in the US, that should have no impact on the extraordinarily high cost of Medicare, which is driven largely by drug prices and old-age care, which rarely involves malpractice.

Moreover, the highly litigious, adversarial culture of high payouts in damages that has developed in the US is precisely the result of a privatized system. When you pay for something, when health is a commodity rather than a public service, you have different expectations of it, even if those expectations are entirely misguided - i.e. relying on the misguided notion that if you pay doctors more they are less likely to make mistakes.

My only major criticism of Obama's health care package would be that it does not go far enough. In order to truly address all the problems with the US healthcare system without creating new ones, what needs to be dealt with is not just the cost of health insurance premiums, but the cost of health care itself - down to the root. If you simply move to a single payer system without imposing price caps (especially on pharmaceuticals), without investing in lower-cost medical education (recognizing foreign medical school diplomas would be a start), or investing in preventive care and patient education, even with all the savings achieved by cutting out the insurance companies (see Paul Krugman's article;) operating the system may prove to be simply too expensive. The system may be headed for insolvency, just as Medicare is at the moment.

Not to mention the need to address the shocking amount of disinformation and ignorance among Americans regarding this issue. As Krugman notes in a more recent piece, some Americans who benefit from Medicare don't even know that it is a government-run program.

Going back to the obesity issue, rather than complaining about it, perhaps my interlocutor should have considered whether the 250-pounders buying soda and ho hos are precisely why America needs national health insurance. Most people like them most likely don't even have health insurance, or regular access to a doctor, or anyone to tell them - before it is too late - that their enormous weight is something they should see a doctor for, that it is the product not so much of the quantity they eat, but the kind of food they eat. But bear in mind that if their lifestyles do change and their life expectancy goes up, they will cost the health care system - public or private - more, not less.

If as Morgan Spurlock puts it, "everything's bigger in America", then the healthcare plan needs to be too. America needs one super-sized biggie McWhopper of a public health insurance scheme in order to sort out all its problems.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Zizek on Iran: will the cat above the precipice fall down?

[This is an unpublished piece on Iran by Slavoj Zizek, which the mainstream media are apparently not interested in publishing. It was e-mailed to me by an Iranian friend and has appeared on the Support for the Iranian People 2009 blog. The argument is pretty much the same one made by Zizek in one of the lectures I attended at Birkbeck last week (in which he mentions my friend Ali by name, should anyone dispute the authenticity of the article). There is some audio of Zizek's lecture on the above-mentioned site, as well as here, in part IV, I believe.]

Slavoj Zizek

When an authoritarian regime approaches its final crisis, its dissolution as a rule follows two steps. Before its actual collapse, a mysterious rupture takes place: all of a sudden people know that the game is over, they are simply no longer afraid. It is not only that the regime loses its legitimacy, its exercise of power itself is perceived as an impotent panic reaction. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. When it loses its authority, the regime is like a cat above the precipice: in order to fall, it only has to be reminded to look down…

In Shah of Shahs, a classic account of the Khomeini revolution, Ryszard Kapuscinski located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman simply withdrew; in a couple of hours, all Tehran knew about this incident, and although there were street fights going on for weeks, everyone somehow knew the game is over. Is something similar going on now?

There are many versions of the events in Tehran. Some see in the protests the culmination of the pro-Western “reform movement” along the lines of the “orange” revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. – a secular reaction to the Khomeini revolution. They support the protests as the first step towards a new liberal-democratic secular Iran freed of Muslim fundamentalism. They are counteracted by skeptics who think that Ahmadinejad really won: he is the voice of the majority, while the support of Mousavi comes from the middle classes and their gilded youth. In short: let’s drop the illusions and face the fact that, in Ahmadinejad, Iran has a president it deserves. Then there are those who dismiss Mousavi as a member of the cleric establishment with merely cosmetic differences from Ahmadinejad: Mousavi also wants to continue the atomic energy program, he is against recognizing Israel, plus he enjoyed the full support of Khomeini as a prime minister in the years of the war with Iraq.

Finally, the saddest of them all are the Leftist supporters of Ahmadinejad: what is really at stake for them is Iranian independence. Ahmadinejad won because he stood up for the country’s independence, exposed elite corruption and used oil wealth to boost the incomes of the poor majority – this is, so we are told, the true Ahmadinejad beneath the Western-media image of a holocaust-denying fanatic. According to this view, what is effectively going on now in Iran is a repetition of the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh – a West-financed coup against the legitimate president. This view not only ignores facts: the high electoral participation – up from the usual 55% to 85% - can only be explained as a protest vote. It also displays its blindness for a genuine demonstration of popular will, patronizingly assuming that, for the backward Iranians, Ahmadinejad is good enough - they are not yet sufficiently mature to be ruled by a secular Left.

Opposed as they are, all these versions read the Iranian protests along the axis of Islamic hardliners versus pro-Western liberal reformists, which is why they find it so difficult to locate Mousavi: is he a Western-backed reformer who wants more personal freedom and market economy, or a member of the cleric establishment whose eventual victory would not affect in any serious way the nature of the regime? Such extreme oscillations demonstrate that they all miss the true nature of the protests.

The green color adopted by the Mousavi supporters, the cries of “Allah akbar!” that resonate from the roofs of Tehran in the evening darkness, clearly indicate that they see their activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini revolution, as the return to its roots, the undoing of the revolution’s later corruption. This return to the roots is not only programmatic; it concerns even more the mode of activity of the crowds: the emphatic unity of the people, their all-encompassing solidarity, creative self-organization, improvising of the ways to articulate protest, the unique mixture of spontaneity and discipline, like the ominous march of thousands in complete silence. We are dealing with a genuine popular uprising of the deceived partisans of the Khomeini revolution.

There are a couple of crucial consequences to be drawn from this insight. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a genuine corrupted Islamo-Fascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the majority of ayatollahs. His demagogic distributing of crumbs to the poor should not deceive us: behind him are not only organs of police repression and a very Westernized PR apparatus, but also a strong new rich class, the result of the regime’s corruption (Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is not a working class militia, but a mega-corporation, the strongest center of wealth in the country).

Second, one should draw a clear difference between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi effectively is a reformist, basically proposing the Iranian version of identity politics, promising favors to all particular groups. Mousavi is something entirely different: his name stands for the genuine resuscitation of the popular dream which sustained the Khomeini revolution. Even if this dream was a utopia, one should recognize in it the genuine utopia of the revolution itself. What this means is that the 1979 Khomeini revolution cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist takeover – it was much more. Now is the time to remember the incredible effervescence of the first year after the revolution, with the breath-taking explosion of political and social creativity, organizational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. The very fact that this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the Khomeini revolution was an authentic political event, a momentary opening that unleashed unheard-of forces of social transformation, a moment in which “everything seemed possible.” What followed was a gradual closing through the take-over of political control by the Islam establishment. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the “return of the repressed” of the Khomeini revolution.

And, last but not least, what this means is that there is a genuine liberating potential in Islam – to find a “good” Islam, one doesn’t have to go back to the 10th century, we have it right here, in front of our eyes.

The future is uncertain – in all probability, those in power will contain the popular explosion, and the cat will not fall into the precipice, but regain ground. However, it will no longer be the same regime, but just one corrupted authoritarian rule among others. Whatever the outcome, it is vitally important to keep in mind that we are witnessing a great emancipatory event which doesn’t fit the frame of the struggle between pro-Western liberals and anti-Western fundamentalists. If our cynical pragmatism will make us lose the capacity to recognize this emancipatory dimension, then we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line.

people reloaded: why mass protest in iran is true politics worth supporting

by Morad Farhadpour and Omid Mehrgan [translators and philosophers based in Tehran]

[This piece is copyright-free. Please distribute widely.]

In the past two weeks, the majority of people in Tehran and other cities in Iran (including Shiraz, Ahwaz, Tabriz, Isfihan) have been on the streets, protesting against the theft of the presidential election by a handful of state’s agents at the top level. It was not a rigging in the usual western sense, no added votes or replaced ballot boxes, the election went on properly, the votes were taken and probably even counted, the figures transmitted to the ministry of interior, and it was there that they were totally disregarded and replaced by totally fictitious figures. That is why all the opposition forces (Sazman-e-Mojahedin-e-Enghelab, Mosharekat party...) together with people called it a coup d’état.

Global public opinion and, especially, the body of (leftist) intellectuals, Inspired by recent events in the middle Asia and east Europe, mostly regard this Iranian mass protest as another version of the well-known, newly invented, neo-liberal, U.S.-sponsored, colour-coded revolutions, as in Georgia and Ukraine. But is it the case in Iran? This article intends to clarify the issue, to reveal the properly political essence of current mass movement, and to demonstrate that this movement has the potentiality of a self-transcendence, of surpassing its actual demands, of traversing its current phantasy. To do this, we shall first examine the contemporary tradition of radical politics in Iran. Without these references, the current movement, which truly deserves this title, can not be understood correctly.

People, whether consciously or not, are frequently recollecting the 1979 Revolution and the 1997 Reform Movement. Many of their slogans are transformed slogans of the '79 Revolution. The paths of demonstrations are symbolically significantly, the same as those against Shah. But this does not mean that people are imitating the '79 Revolution: there are many new possibilities and creativities, many formal and thematic inventions. As for the 1997 Reform Movement, and its aftermath (the crushing of student protest in 1999), the affinities are even more obvious. Khatami, along with Mir Hossein Mousavi, is one of the most significant leaders and supporters of the protest. It is as if people are trying to redeem the 2nd of Khordad (May 23, 1997), to revive the unfinished hopes and dreams of those days. But this time, the protest is by no means limited to students and intellectuals. Although Khatami in 1997 was elected with 20 million votes from the most varied sections of the nation, the movement was characterized by the political and cultural demands of the middle-class, of students and educated people. But, apart from this, what is the true significance of the 2nd of Khordad Front for politics in Iran?

On the 2nd of Khordad, for the first time since Iranian Revolution, we were encountering a dichotomy between the state and the total system of Islamic Republic of Iran, known as Nezam (System, which is based on the principle of Velayat-e-Faghih, the supreme authority of high-ranked Mullahs). This duality was partly due to the fact that the leader of the opposition, Khatami, was at the same time the chief of the state. It was the only occasion where this duality, which is, in a sense, one between the development of productive forces and cultural, political backwardness, between secular democracy and religious fanaticism, could be revealed. Before and after that period, the state and Nezam have been basically in accordance, as it had been in the Shah's Regime. One of the reasons, if not the main reason, why elections in Iran are of such importance for democratic movements, despite trends to boycott them, lies precisely in the significance of this very duality. Seen from a classical-Marxist perspective, in order to pave the way for the development of productive forces, in order to accomplish the ‘civilizing mission’ of capitalism, there must emerge a bourgeois state capable of carrying out the process of democratization and modernization. Whenever the state has been in full accordance with Nezam, this process fails to go on. Besides this, we deal with yet another duality, one between the capital and the state, the former as the means of development (with all its discontents, aptly and righteously exposed by the Marxist tradition), and the latter as the organ of regression and anti-modernism. So, the progressive and socialist opposition in Iran are faced with the unprecedented, hard task of fighting in two fronts: against religious fanaticism and the authoritarian factions in a semi-democratic government, and simultaneously against global capitalism and its hegemony by means of the production of wars. In a sense, intelligentsia in Iran are very similar to that of Russia and Germany of 19th century. We are a handful of schizophrenics who are, at one and the same time, against and for progress, development, capitalism, state management and so on. In other words, for us, the Faustian problematic, his tragedy, is formulated in a typically Hamletian way. This ambivalent attitude (to western civilization) can be characterized by the dialectic of state and politics. We are neither dealing with a pure politics a la Alain Badiou, nor with a classical Marxist politics, exhausted in class struggles, nor with the liberal-democratic politics of human rights, which was, by the way, the dominant discourse of opposition in Iran before Mousavi. Our supposedly radical politics consists of every one of these elements, but is not reducible to any of them. To deploy Agamben’s terminology, it is a politics of people against People, i.e. voiceless, suppressed people, against People officially constructed by the state. The current movement materializes, in many respects, this very politics.

But the question, which has confused the western (left) intelligentsia and has caused the most varied misunderstandings regarding Iran, is whether Ahmadinejad is a leftist, anti-imperialist, anti-privatization, anti-globalization figure. The common answer is a positive one. That is why certain misguided western leftists tend to regard the current mass movement in support of Mir Hossein Mousavi and against Ahmadinejad as the struggle of liberalism against anti-imperialism, of privatization, liberal-democracy against the enemies of global hegemony of America. The main aim of this article is to expose, to expel this widespread illusion. As regards the other confused camp, the Western, more or less, Islamophobic liberals, who are inclined to identify Ahmadinjad with Al-Qaeda, who refer to Mousavi, because of his Islamic-Republican career in 80’s, as another version of Islamic, anti-democratic Ideology, one could say that they too are caught up in an illusion based on easy Euro-centrist generalizations and lack of familiarity with the Iranian historical context. We should thus answer the simple question: what is actually at the stake? Apart from the triad of French Revolution, the triad of modern emancipatory politics, liberty, equality, fraternity, one could maintain that the main bone of contention in this struggle is precisely politics itself, its life and survival. Our government is called the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now the republican moment, which has always been downgraded by the conservatives, is presently being annihilated. It is precisely through this very outlet that any popular politics, from social movement of dissent and class politics to the defence of human rights, might survive.

Another common approach, no matter how radical, supportive, or conservative, to mass protest in Iran is the following: it is a youth movement, at its best, similar to 68’s student protests. New young generation in Iran, armed with Internet, socialized by social networking sites, tired of Islamic ideology, has awakened, claiming its own way of life, and so on. According to this attitude, which is evoked by a number of journalists, it is only the middle-class intellectuals, students, feminists, and other educated people in large cities who are rallying on the streets, communicating with each other thanks to the internet. What is striking is that the state discourse in Iran widely promotes this very attitude. The ruling elite, based on a populist rhetoric, tends to single out a certain section of the nation and call it the People. The state television, Seda-va-Sima, is the main place where this People is represented, indeed constructed, mostly through the usual populist tactic of one nation versus the evil external enemy who is the cause of all trouble. It presents a unified, pure, integrated image of People, all devoting themselves to Nezam, all law-abiding, religious, etc. This image of People is daily imposed on the masses and inscribed onto the body politic. Against this formally constructed People, with the state as its formal face, there has come out another people, a subaltern, muted people, claiming its own place, its own part in the political scene. June 2009 Election was a decisive opportunity for this people to declare itself, in the figure of Mousavi, who from the beginning insisted on people’s dignity as a true political right. But why him? Why not, say, Karroubi, the other reformist candidate? Has Mousvai, now the leader of the mass movement, appeared on the scene in a purely contingent way? Has he by mere chance, by force of circumstances, as it were, become the leading figure, the reform-freedom-democracy incarnate? The answer is positively negative. To elucidate this, we have to draw attention to the tradition from which he has emerged and to which he has repeatedly referred during his electoral campaign. As we said before, this tradition is rooted in 1979 Revolution and has been revived in the 2th of Khordad Movement -- whereas, Karroubi’s ‘politics’ was based on a subjectless process in which different identity groups would present their demands to the almighty state and act as its passive, divided, depoliticized supporters. In fact, Karroubi’s campaign, with its appeal to Western media, using the word ‘change’ in English, and profiting from celebrity figures, was the one that could be called a Western liberal human-rights-loving, even pro-capitalist movement. The fact that millions transcending their identity and immediate interests joined a typically universal militant politics by risking their lives in defence of Mousavi and their dignity, should be enough to cast out all doubts or misguided pseudo-leftist dogmas.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

This is what democracy looks like

The turmoil in Tehran over the past few days manifests precisely the 'minimal difference' that belies the line of confrontation in the so-called 'clash of civilizations'. What was always missing in this simple dichotomy is the actual struggle, the actual tension. The real clash is neither between Western democracy and Islam, nor between democracy and authoritarianism, nor simply between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. In the context of stolen elections, one should always remember that in the "world's greatest democracy", the Republican party stole at least one, possibly two elections - this with a flourish, and deploying a variety of tactics ranging from racially-targeted voter fraud (50,000 alleged ex-felons fraudulently purged from the register in one case, most of them black) to voter intimidation, orchestrated at various levels nationwide but most notably in Florida, by ex-president George W's dear old brother, Governor Jeb.

So what is the difference between a stolen election in the "world's greatest democracy" and a stolen election in Iran? Well, for starters, the Americans never took to the streets in revolt, never rose up in anger against the political system that cheated them. In the 2000 election it was Al Gore himself who was behind the final, 11th hour betrayal, when about 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus filed objections to the Florida results, demanding a full recount; Gore, as President of the Senate, ruled them out of order, one by one.

But beneath all the concrete acts of betrayal, what took place in the US election was a betrayal of democracy by itself. Americans, ironically enough, betrayed democracy because they believed too much in democracy, or in the institutions of democracy - they lacked a healthy dose of cynicism. Living in a state of collective denial for 8 years, leaving it up to democratic institutions to correct themselves, was preferable to revolt. "Denial ain't nothin' but a river in Egypt," as Louis Armstrong put it.

What all this should tell us, I think, is that real democracy - the 'will of the people' - cannot be guaranteed by any system. The very notion of 'democratic institutions' or 'democratic government' is already a contradiction of terms, of sorts - something to be watched over carefully. The only guarantee of democracy is the willingness of the people to revolt. A government is only 'democratic' as a function of the people's preparedness to wipe it out at the slightest whiff of corruption - by any means necessary. Democratic legitimacy can be vested in institutions and formal procedures only so long as the threat of collective violence persists, even if it is never realized.

What is amusing in all this is the bewilderment of western journalists who see Iranians as a people 'ruled by fear', now all of a sudden taking to the streets and taking up an open struggle. Well, under the circumstances, and given the odds against them, they appear to be far less fearful than anyone thought. They have slightly more corrupt and less democratic institutions than some countries in the west, and face greater state/police brutality; yet despite this, as a people they are clearly more capable of exercising a collective will, with or without institutions.

The real struggle in all this is not between Iran and the USA, or Islam and the West, or authoritarianism and democracy: it is a struggle between collective will and state/institutional authority as such - 'democratically' legitimated or not. It is a struggle that takes place within democracy, within a political system of any sort, within an institutionalized religion even - rather than between 'different' nations, religions, or political systems. It comes down to what Deleuze calls 'internal' difference - real differences are always internal. The USA in fighting Islamism or communism was always fighting its own demons: in the case of China it eventually reconciled not only with communism but with authoritarian rule (i.e. China was granted permanent 'Most Favoured Nation' status in 2000 by the U.S Congress). Communism became palatable for US politicians once it eliminated any trace of collective will or 'people rule' - becoming, effectively, state capitalism.

Which explains why some right-wing US politicians and commentators are tacitly or ambiguously supporting Ahmadinejad (while the liberals are just shrugging their shoulders). The real threat to their agenda, as they well know, comes not from Islam but from any expression of collective will, from popular revolt as such. It just never seems to go their way, that's all.

Parallels to the 1979 revolution are apt, most of all because what is at stake is a repetition, in the Deleuzian sense: in 1979, the revolutionaries lost in the end, as the critical mass was hijacked by Islamic fundamentalists firmly on the side of state authority. What is needed is a repetition - authentic repetition is never repetition of the same, but the repetition of a possibility; and it is only with repetition that the truly new emerges. It is time to return to that fork in the road.

Slavoj Zizek recently criticized the left's stance toward Iran, pointing out among other things that Mousavi's opposition movement has activated an emancipatory dimension within Islam itself, rather than pandering to Western liberal ideology. That is precisely it - internal difference. One divides into two. This is the only path to true universality: nous sommes tous Iraniens.* Mousavi is within Islam the emancipatory voice that the Left should be within neoliberal capitalism - not to mention the American brand of neoliberal capitalism, which happens to be paired with a fundamentalist Christian faith not all that different from the Iranian mullahs.

The ambivalence of the US political establishment is most likely due to the embarrassing realization that what is happening in Iran is "Iraq, the way it should have happened," as Zizek put it. I would only add that the irony is double: it's not just about the failure in Iraq, it's also the failure in Iran itself - some fifty-odd years ago. One reason why Western democracy never took root in Iran in the first place is because, when the Iranians tried to build a progressive democratic society on their own, one where women were more emancipated than they were in most Western nations at the time, and certainly more than they would be in Switzerland for decades**, their dream was crushed by the very same hegemonic powers now rooting for war on Iran. The Iranians elected a socialist government in 1951, which proceeded to enact a range of popular social reforms, including the denationalization of Iranian oil, at the time controlled by British interests under a 100-year concession granted under duress by a previous unconstitutional government; the British and Americans, prompted by a dispute in which the International Court of Justice ruled itself incompetent - effectively ruling in Iran's favour - removed Iran's democratically-elected government and installed the Shah as dictator.

Similarly, Iraq today after a dose of US democracy is more religiously conservative than most Arab countries - more than it has ever been in history. The thing about western democracy is it's a bit like the ridiculously overpriced pharmaceuticals peddled by multinational corporations, where the side effects seem to reproduce the symptoms they are meant to cure. The common side effects of antidepressants, for instance, include "urinary retention, blurred vision, constipation, sleep disruption, weight gain, headache, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbance/diarrhea, abdominal pain, inability to achieve an erection, inability to achieve an orgasm (men and women), loss of libido, agitation, anxiety" - couldn't all that make one a little depressed? (Conveniently enough, if the side effects do appear, it's impossible to tell whether it is the drug or the disease any more.)

Or take for instance the common side effects of antihistamines: "drowsiness, headache, blurred vision, constipation, dry mouth, dizziness, difficulty passing urine, confusion" - are we talking homeopathy here?

A lesson we should draw from history: the most common side effects of 'spreading freedom and democracy' include "authoritarianism, religious dogma, fundamentalism, outbursts of violence, political repression, economic depression, mass killings, imprisonment of political opponents, war, etc...

The Iranians, left to their own means, are off the medication and are fixing things themselves. One should only hope that they don't give up. And that those outside Iran who take the idea of free self-determination seriously will look past Mousavi's beard.

*in the wake of September 11, 2001, a French newspaper headline proclaimed 'Nous sommes tous Americains' ("we are all Americans"). I agree, but in the sense of 'universality as struggle'; many of us were the skeptical Americans who did not sheepishly buy into their government's rhetoric.
**incidentally, I was recently shocked to find out that one Canton in Switzerland only granted women the right to vote in 1990, after a decision by the Swiss supreme court; at the federal level, women's suffrage was granted only in the 1970s.

Why are the iranians dreaming again?*

The following is a guest post from Ali Alizadeh, Researcher at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Middlesex University. You can also see him discussing the situation in Iran here on BBC's Newsnight.

[This piece is copyright-free. Please distrbute widely.]

Iran is currently in the grip of a new and strong political movement. While this movement proves that Ahmadinejad’s populist techniques of deception no longer work inside Iran, it seems they are still effective outside the country. This is mainly due to thirty years of isolation and mutual mistrust between Iran and the West which has turned my country into a mysterious phenomenon for outsiders. In this piece I will try to confront some of the mystifications and misunderstandings produced by the international media in the last week.

In the first scenario the international media, claiming impartiality, insisted that the reformists provide hard objective evidence in support of their claim that the June 12 election has been rigged. But despite their empiricist attitude, the media missed obvious facts due to their lack of familiarity with the socio-historical context. Although the reformists could not possibly offer any figures or documents, because the whole show was single-handedly run by Ahmadinejad’s ministry of interior, anyone familiar with Iran’s recent history could easily see what was wrong with this picture.

It was the government who reversed the conventional and logical procedure by announcing a fictitious total figure first – in four stages – and then fabricating figures for each polling station, something that is still going on. This led to many absurdities: Musavi got less votes in his hometown (Tabriz) than Ahmadinejad; Karroubi’s total vote was less than the number of people active in his campaign; Rezaee’s votes were reduced by a hundred thousand between the third and fourth stages of announcement; blank votes were totally forgotten and only hastily added to the count when reformists pointed this out; and finally the ratio between all candidates’ votes remained almost constant in all these four stages of announcement (63, 33, 2 and 1 percent respectively).

Moreover, as in any other country, the increase in turnout in Iran’s elections has always benefitted the opposition and not the incumbent, because it is rational to assume that those who usually don’t vote, i.e. the silent majority, only come out when they want to change the status quo. Yet in this election Ahmadinejad, the representative of the status quo, allegedly received 10 million votes more than what he got in the previous election.

Finally, Ahmadinejad’s nervous reaction after his so-called victory is the best proof for rigging: closing down SMS network and the whole of country’s mobile phone network, arresting more than 100 leading political activists, blocking access to Musavi’s and many other reformists’ websites and unleashing violence in the streets...But if all this is not enough, the bodies of more than 17 people who were shot dead and immediately buried in unknown graves should persuade all those “objective-minded” observers.

In the second scenario, gradually unfolding in the last few days, the international media implicitly shifted its attention to the role of internet and its social networking (twitter, facebook, youtube, etc). This implied that millions of illiterate conservative villagers have voted for Ahmadinejad and the political movement is mostly limited to educated middle classes in North Tehran. While this simplified image is more compatible with media’s comfortable position towards Iran in the last 30 years, it is far from reality. The recent political history of Iran does not confirm this image. For example, Khatami’s victory in 1997, despite his absolute lack of any economic promises and his focus instead on liberal civic demands, was made possible by the polarization of society into people and state. Khatami could win only by embracing people from all different classes and groups, villagers and urban people alike.

There is no doubt that new media and technologies have been playing an important role in the movement, but it seems that the cause and the effect are being reversed in the picture painted by the media. First of all, it is the existence of a strong political determination, combined with people becoming deprived of basic means of communication, which has led the movement to creatively test every other channel and method. Musavi’s paper was shut down on the night of election, his frequent request to talk to people on the state TV has been rejected, his official website is often blocked and his physical contact with his supporters has been kept minimum by keeping him in house arrest (with the exception of his appearance on the over a million march on June 15).

Second, due to the heavy pressure on foreign journalists inside Iran, these technological tools have come to play a significant role in sending the messages and images of the movement to the outside world. However, the creative self-organization of the movement is using a manifold of methods and channels, many of them simple and traditional, depending on their availability: shouting ‘death to dictator’ from rooftops, calling landlines, at the end of one rally chanting the time and place of the next one, and by jeopardizing oneself by physically standing on streets and distributing news to every passing car. The appearance of the movement which is being sold by the media to the western gaze – the cyber-fantasy of the western societies which has already labelled our movement a twitter revolution, seems to have completely missed the reality of those bodies which are shot dead, injured or ready to be endangered by non-virtual bullets.

What is more surprising in the midst of this media frenzy is the blindness of the western left to the political dynamism and energy of our movement. The causes of this blindness oscillate between the misgivings about Islam (or the Islamophobia of hyper-secular left) and the confusion made by Ahmadinjead’s fake anti-imperialist rhetoric (his alliance with Chavez perhaps, who after all was the first to congratulate him). It needs to be emphasized that Ahmadinejad’s economic policies are to the right of the IMF: cutting subsidies in a radical way, more privatization than any other post-79 government (by selling the country to the Revolutionary Guards) and an inflation and unemployment rate which have brought the low-income sections of the society to their knees. It is in this regard that Musavi’s politics needs to be understood in contradistinction from both Ahmadinejad and also the other reformist candidate, i.e. Karroubi.

While Karroubi went for the liberal option of differentiating people into identity groups with different demands (women, students, intellectuals, ethnicities, religious minorities, etc), Musavi emphasized the universal demands of ‘people’ who wanted to be heard and counted as political subjects. This subjectivity, emphasized by Musavi during his campaign and fully incarnated in the rallies of the past few days, is constituted by political intuition, creativity and recollection of the ‘79 revolution (no wonder that people so quickly reached an unexpected maturity, best manifested in the abstention from violence in their silent demonstrations). Musavi’s ‘people’ is also easily, but strongly, distinguished from Ahmadinejad’s anonymous masses dependent on state charity. Musavi’s people, as the collective appearing in the rallies, is made of religious women covered in chador walking hand in hand with westernized young women who are usually prosecuted for their appearance; veterans of war in wheelchairs next to young boys for whom the Iran-Iraq war is only an anecdote; and working class who have sacrificed their daily salary to participate in the rally next to the middle classes. This story is not limited to Tehran. Shiraz (two confirmed dead), Isfahan (one confirmed dead), Tabriz, Oroomiye are also part of this movement and other cities are joining with a predictable delay (as it was the case in 79 revolution).

History will prove who the real participants of this movement are but once again we are faced with a new, non-classical and unfamiliar radical politics. Will the Western left get it right this time?

* The title is a reference to Michel Foucault’s 1978 writing on Iran’s revolution: “What are the Iranians dreaming about?”

Monday, 20 April 2009

Constructivism and the Future

Far more refreshing than the 'Altermodern' Triennial at the Tate Britain, the special exhibition at the Tate Modern, 'Rodchenko and Popova' provides a comprehensive but by no means nauseating retrospective on the art of the revolution, as it flourished before the thermidor of Socialist Realism. If any 20th century art movement should be revived and rethought, I say, it should be Russian Constructivism.

In fact if, as Zizek says, the future will be either socialist or communist - 'socialist' meaning the kind of nanny-state capitalism practised by Western governments in the wake of the financial crisis - for the art world this must mean that the future will be either Altermodern or Constructivist. Art will either remain more or less what it is, a distinct sphere of rationality backed up by specific forms of cultural practices and modes of communication, or it will be sublated in a multidisiplinary network within an overall revolutionary dissolution of separate social spheres and disciplines.

'Altermodern' is clearly the tendency to be opposed, but not so much for the content of the art it takes under its wing - a lot of which, as discussed earlier, can be described as 'postmodern', in spite of its curator Nicolas Bourriaud's proclamation that 'postmodernism is dead' (kind of like Leonard Cohen's lyric... "I fought against the bottle/but I had to do it drunk..."). What should be opposed is not the art but the critical tendency - the mentality of 'out with the old, in with the new' - exemplified in equal measure by buzzwords like 'Altermodern' and by the spectre of Wall Street's return to Marx. ('retro' is now the 'in' thing...)

The issue is not that these are mere 'surface effects' but precisely that they exhibit the opposite or inverse tendency of 'depth without breath', of getting to the bottom of a problem but only after the fact, only when the damage is already done. Why did we need a complete breakdown of the system in order to correct its course, if it is at all a correction? (I personally don't find the idea of bankers reading Das Kapital very convincing.) Or why did we need a total degeneration of the art world into a commercial meat market in order for someone to suggest something is wrong?

What is needed is not merely a new form of art - let alone a new buzzword, a new name, a new way forward or into the depths - but a new way of thinking about the very production process of art and its social function, something which the constructivists, unlike most art movements, sought to do. What is needed is precisely not more depth, nor a different kind of depth, but more breadth: the extension of art into other realms. Let's face it: to what extent does Bourriaud's theorizing really exhibit the traces of a 'universal language'? Isn't the work of "translation" at stake in this 'altermodern' phenomenon merely the transcription of a myriad of untranslatable cultural phenomena into one non-universal and even somewhat esoteric language particular to the foofy contemporary art circuit, and largely unintelligible to the majority of society globally?

The language of lines and forms, on the other hand, is a universal language - if for no other reason than what one could call its 'primitivism'.

Constructivist design for a cup and saucer

But even more so, an art that rejects the notion of "art for art's' sake", an art that believes art must be put to use - in addition to the promise of social change built into its very core and fibre, must speak a universal language in order to exist. It can only exist on condition of extending its breadth, of its expansion into 'non-art'.

At the same time, the constructivist egalitarian rejection of the term 'artist' in favour of 'constructor', the simplification of the process of creation, to demistify art, etc - hints at the postmodern 'death of the author'; in both cases the aim is to undermine the privileged position of the speaker/author/artist as the arbiter of meaning or aesthetic value in favour of a configuration where the very dichotomy of author/consumer becomes false. Art for the people.

In this context the reference to 'modern' in 'altermodern', and the call "death to postmodernism" can be read as the thermidorian gesture of restoring order, repeating Stalin's gesture of outlawing constructivism and proclaiming Socialist Realism as the only acceptable form of art.

Constructivist clothing design: clearly the future

Another thing worth thinking about is the constructivists' involvement in advertising, and their insistence on not rejecting it as a capitalist consumerist ploy. There is something to this: for how can one confront the phenomenon of advertising at all, if not with advertising itself - either in the form of subversive re-production (i.e. Adbusters) or in the form of counter-advertising, advertising for the right causes?

The Adbusters slogan for what they have dubbed 'Buy Nothing day', November 22, has a distinctly constructivist ring: MAKE SOMETHING - BUY NOTHING.

From now on, I am no longer the author of this blog, but its chief constructor.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Punkstmodernism is not dead: notes from behind the irony curtain

I hate it when people declare something 'dead' when it's actually not.

Scratch that. I hate it when people say that an Idea is dead, period. Sure, there are dead ideas; but that's because they never were real Ideas, because they were born dead. Just like "manuscripts don't burn" - Ideas don't die. In the world of Ideas, the only things that can ever legitimately be declared 'dead' are those that never were - the many false starts, misapprehensions, misdirections in the history of human thought. Ideas do not oscillate between the living and the dead; they oscillate between the living and the stillborn. Confusion slips in when the latter go on 'living', Zombie-like, 'undead' - until centuries later some rare, clear-sighted specimen of our blundering race sees through the folly, and tells it like it is.

Sadly enough, Nicolas Bourriaud - art critic, curator, and co-founder of the Palais de Tokyo - is no such gent, and he doesn't tell it like it is. Postmodernism is not dead. It is alive and kicking, and there is nothing radically new here. Postmodernism, like every great idea, has been declared dead before - most notably after September 11, when neoliberal apparatchiks excitedly whispered that the 'age of irony' was over. In fact, Derrida's strain was even declared 'dead on arrival', years ago, before the term 'deconstruction' embedded itself in the vocabulary of art and philosophy to the point of becoming a cliche.

The thing about irony is that - like dialectics - it just never goes away. It's worse than cancer. The more you 'excise' it, the more it multiplies - the more ironic the irony gets.

When people do declare an idea to be dead, this does signal a change, but it is often not the change they are counting on - it is very often the contrary. Just when Francis Fukuyama announced the 'end of history' in the Final Age of liberal democracy, he himself soon withdrew the proclamation. Just when it looked like Global Capitalism was going to be the only game in town for good after the fabled 'fall of communism' in the 90s and the various proclamations that the 'age of ideologies' was over, the financial system collapsed and people started reading Marx again.

And just as Nicolas Bourriaud proclaimed that 'postmodernism is dead', postmodernism reared its little head all over the very exhibition that Bourriaud curated this Spring at Tate Britain to signal the death of postmodernism and the birth of what he has dubbed 'altermodern'. Isn't that, like, ironic?

I did like some of the works I saw, but I didn't find the show as a whole especially refreshing as against the contemporary art scene today. But rather than comment on the merits here, I will only address a few examples in relation to ('postmodern') theory. All quotations addressing the works and artists in the Triennial are from the exhibition guide.

Tacita Dean's work 'The Russian Ending' 2001, one of the highlights of the exhibition, is inspired by an early twentieth century custom in the Danish film industry where each film was produced in two versions: a happy one for the American market, and an alternative with a depressing or tragic ending for the Russian market. Taking images of disasters from original postcards purchased in flea markets, Dean uses handwritten notes that suggest the storyboard of a film to provide "imagined endings to imagined films."

What Dean is clearly getting at is the ambiguity of meaning in text and narrative that this reference to the Danish film tradition evokes; she inserts, for instance, coy double entendres such as 'man's laughter/manslaughter' - play, irony, reversal of signs. How is this in any sense not postmodern? Decontextualizing/recontextualizing images to imbue them with a meaning unimagined by their authors, through writing - palimpsest - and moreover suggesting "imagined endings to imagined films", is this not post-modernism par excellence? A perfect example of - whatchamacallit - deconstruction?

Similarly, Peter Coffin's work 'Untitled (Tate Britain)' 2009, projects animations with soundtracks onto existing artworks from the Tate's collection. The works "remain both in their conventional habitat and simultaneously become mobilised as fictitious characters in a new narrative scenario which...opens up a web of associations." In this way, Coffin "charges existing artworks with a life and mind of their own."

Oh, you mean that whole thing about the "death of the author" - how the 'meaning' of a work/text/utterance does not reside simply in the mind of the original speaker/author? Yep, nothing new there. Derrida again, right? And a bit of Barthes?

Rachel Harrison "splices together found objects, images, and hand-sculpted abstract forms to create installations that possess the iconoclastic energy of Punk...presents all her material on an equal footing and wilfully flattens out any cultural hierarchies." If that doesn't sound 'postmodern' enough, her work in the exhibition, 'Voyage of the Beagle, 2007', a "pantheon of fifty-eight portraits of figures and sculptures, from ancient artefacts to shop mannequins" - including a pelican, a buddha statue, a bear, an Elvis mannekin, a bear, a superman blow-up doll, all shot and framed identically and hung in a series - "functions as a sort of anti-taxonomy, mocking ideas of progression or systems of classification and otherness."

This anti-taxonomy is what Michel Foucault would refer to as a 'heterotopia' - an impossible place where all the unclassifiable junk is secluded in order to make a 'utopia' of order and reason (and taxonomy) 'possible'. Except that in The Order of Things - a work emblematic of precisely Foucault-the-poststructuralist - he goes even further. Harrison's work is just not radical or probing enough. A major inspiration for Foucault, cited in the famous introduction, was a short story by Jorge Luis Borges - a 'modern' writer (more on that below) - in which he mentions a "certain Chinese encyclopedia" which divides animals into

"(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies."

This passage, to Foucault

"shattered thought...breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other...Moreover, it is not simply the oddity of unusual juxtapositions that we are faced with the umbrella and the sewing machine on the operating table. The monstrous quality that runs through Borges's enumeration consists, on the contrary, in the fact that the common ground on which such meetings are possible has itself been destroyed...A vanishing trick that is masked or, rather, laughably indicated by our alphabetical order...What has been removed, in short, is the famous 'operating table'."

Another work, Simon Starling's 'Three White Desks', is made up of three copies of a no longer existing desk designed by Francis Bacon for Australian writer Patrick White. Only the first desk is a copy of it in fact, made by a cabinet maker after the only surviving photo. The second one, made after an identical photo of the first desk, is a copy of a copy, and is in turn get the picture. The third desk is a "copy of a copy of a copy."

The disavowed reference is clear - Warhol only did it better, with more umph. The added dimension in Starling's 'altermodern' approach is having each copy made by a different cabinet-maker in a different country, each in a city relevant to the story of the original desk. But this unnecessary step, which makes for an 'interesting story', only obscures the key point - that repetition alone produces change, without any added input. If one artist alone makes copies of a thing, by the same method, in the same medium - after a sufficient number of repetitions the copy becomes a simulacrum. Each repetition brings about a change, however minuscule. This work, then, tells us nothing significant about 'cultural exchange' and 'translation' between cultural milieus or mediums - every copy, every repetition is a 'translation', every work - every copy in fact - a 'cultural milieu' unto itself on a microcosmic scale.

Here's Deleuze, one of the, you know, key dudes of postructuralist/postmodern philosophy, writing about Warhol circa 1968, p 366, Difference and Repetition [my italics]:

"Each art has its interrelated techniques or repetitions, the critical and revolutionary power of which may attain the highest degree and lead us from the sad repetitions of habit to the profound repetitions of memory, and then to the ultimate repetitions of death in which our freedom is played out...the manner in which, within painting, Pop Art pushed the copy, copy of the copy, etc., to that extreme point at which it reverses and becomes a simulacrum (such as Warhol's remarkable "serial" series, in which all the repetitions of habit, memory and death are conjugated)..."

I rest my case.

Reading Bourriaud's introductory text I find myself baffled - it oscillates between totally meaningless commercial art-world jargon with no apparent relationship to most of the works in the exhibition, other than what could be said of any contemporary art ("the figure of the artist as homo viator, a traveller whose passage through signs and formats reflects a contemporary experience of mobility"); and a schoolboy's highly simplified rendition of precisely postmodern philosophy, i.e. Deleuze - "lines drawn both in space and time, materializing trajectories rather than destinations, expressing a course or a wandering rather than a fixed space-time"; the term 'altermodern', he tells us, "suggests a multitude of possibilities, of alternatives to a single route."

Très chic. Yet this somehow means that the "historical period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end"? Not with these kinds of contradictions to play with.

Derrida can be read into this discussion as a kind of arch-Marxist: where Marx saw internal contradictions in capitalism, Derrida saw internal contradictions everywhere. Deconstruction is internal to things - and this is what bugs me when people throw these words around without grasping them, and write stuff like 'Artist so-and-so uses conceptual approaches to such-and-such to deconstruct notions of this-and-that with reference to narratives of something-or-other', and so forth. People don't deconstruct anything - deconstruction is a passive process, a force of nature. It can only be shown - one can only draw attention to the self-deconstruction of, say, a text. Things deconstruct themselves, break down into their constituent components, expose their own contradictions, generate their own opposites and internal differences. Language deconstructs itself through repetition. Ideas deconstruct themselves. Modernity, too, deconstructs itself; and Bourriaud's 'Altermodern' triennial is a case in point.

'Altermodern' decomposes, ironically enough, into a poor copy of 'postmodern'. And by 'poor' I don't mean artistic merit or 'faithfulness to original', but quite the contrary - poor in the sense that it falls short of its own mark, that within a history of thought, it doesn't represent a development in the way in which 'postmodernity' was a development of 'modernity'.

One of the great lessons of one of the key philosophers of modernity, Hegel, was this: something that appears to be refuted - annihilated - in the progression of thought, is merely sublated. (Aufhebung) One of Hegel's favourite metaphors was that of a flower springing from a bud, appearing to destroy the bud in the process; the flower blooms, the bud disappears. Nevertheless, without the bud there would be no flower - it is the bud that gives birth to the flower, and remains sublated within it.

Postmodernity is a moment in the history of thought - one of its key realizations as against modernity being that meaning and language are inherently unstable; that identity is unstable; that concepts themselves are unstable and their meanings shift, evolve. Even terms like 'modern' and 'postmodern' or 'poststructuralist' are themselves inherently unstable, and were rarely - if ever - self-applied by those thinkers usually corralled under them by high-minded critics concerned with fads and fashionable phrases.

We cannot simply retreat from that, abandon that moment in thought, pretend it didn't happen. In Deleuze, the dialectic exemplified in Hegel's metaphor translates into becoming. But becoming - what Bourriaud might call "trajectories rather than destinations" - encompasses more than Hegel's dialectic because Deleuze, among other things, had Darwin and evolutionary science behind him. Becoming takes account not only of a process of growth in the sense of a single living organism (even as a microcosm of world spirit), but the whole process of genetic development and actualization, which adds complexities - is more in the vein of 'rhizomatic'. It can move and split in any direction and does not follow any clear, determinable path to 'Progress' but only adaptation, neither up nor down, neither forward nor back; and it is dependent precisely on processes of repetition - the copy of a copy of a copy, etc - which over time generate the truly new in nature.

To Deleuze, the very suggestion that there is an opposition (real or apparent) between 'bud' and 'flower' as distinct identities, and that one annihilates or even appears to annihilate the other, would be false: this is the field of the negative, the 'false problem' or 'the fetish in person'. The one, rather, becomes the other, morphs into it. Together they form a 'trajectory' rather than two 'destinations' or 'points'.

In this vein, I find Bourriaud's notion of 'altermodern', at least from what I have so far seen in practice, very un-becoming.

Altermodernity hasn't come up with any truly new problems in relation to postmodernity. To use Bourriaud's own terminology, what he has missed is that the relation modern-postmodern is precisely that - a relation, in which neither is a fixed point in space/time - the two form a trajectory in which neither can be reduced to simply itself, or disengaged from the other.

Ideas - real ideas, generating real problems - don't die; and many of the pieces in the 'altermodern' exhibition demonstrate that the Idea in question here - the 'postmodern' one - is very much a real Idea, embodied in actual objects, even ones whose authors or curators claim that that same idea is 'dead'. Irony is indeed alive and well.

The thing is, writers and poets always 'got it' before art critics and historians did. Rimbaud's famous remark in a letter to a friend - Je est un autre ('I is another') - has long been mulled over as a herald of postmodernity. Jack Kerouac's "it ain't whatcha write, but the way 'atcha write it" hints at the notion of différance. Yet another great poet once wrote

Do I contradict myself? Very well then
I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.

Now that sounds pretty damn post-modern to me. When was it written? 1855. Walt Whitman.

In the case of some writers, who stand in the margins and evade easy pinning down, such as the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa, people have debates and ask: was s/he modern or postmodern? And I say to that: does it matter? Only the Ideas matter in the end. Where 'modern' stops and 'postmodern' begins is a matter of pointless pedantry.

Walt Whitman - clearly postmodern

These writers - Foucault included - themselves embody that trajectory in thought, the discovery - the transition from 'modern' to 'postmodern'.

I am tempted to speculate here that Bourriaud may in fact have a point, however not the one he figures - that perhaps the rise of fads and buzzwords like 'altermodern' in today's global financial capitalist world does signal a new era, but one which is still postmodern, even ultrapostmodern rather than 'altermodern'. What we may be faced with here is a stripped-down version, a 'bare repetition' of postmodernity without self-awareness, or with a kind of false consciousness - a thoroughly unhinged postmodernity unaware of its own historical moorings, under a different name, a different guise. An even more postmodern postmodernity, precisely because it doesn't call itself that. (very much in line with Zizek's remark that one of the dangers of today's global capitalism is that it 'no longer calls itself capitalism.') Postmodernity, in other words, is Altermodernity's unnameable core - its Big Other - the elephant in the room.

So, there - deconstruct that.

As another modernist poet - whose words also have a distinctly post-modern/Taoist ring at times - T.S. Eliot, put it:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

Alternatively, one could say that just like Marx is only now, 150 years later, in the midst of a financial crisis, coming into his own; postmodern thought, too, has yet to come into its own. 'Altermodern', on the other hand, in the world of Ideas may well be of the stillborn/undead variety.

Therefore in keeping with this fashion of inventing interesting buzzwords, I have come up with my own: AlterpostpunkAnarchoMarxistModernism. Whatever straw dummy Bourriaud in his out-of-touch world takes postmodernism to be may be 'dead', but this surely ain't. This, I claim, is the true 'sign of the times'; but alas, I haven't the time to elaborate on it here.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Tamil sit-in at Parliament Square and the Bug of Colonial Cynicism

It seems every time I go see an exhibition the past few days, I run into a Tamil protest. This time it was the Altermodern triennial at Tate Britain (of which I will write more later), and my Tamil friends were staging a sit-in at Parliament Square. I shot some more photos, but concentrated mostly on video footage this time, which I have edited into a short film, posted above through Youtube. (I shot in high-definition, but unfortunately it has gone through various conversions for something to work on. I am quite fond of the last shot, with the Churchill statue looming over the crowd as the clock of Westminster Cathedral stikes seven.)

These protests have been going on for several days and have blocked streets in central London, the one on Saturday drawing a crowd of 100,000 according to official police figures; yet it has hardly made the headlines. (Partly explainable by the Sri Lankan government's ban on foreign journalists.)

One key thing to note is that although Tamil communities worldwide have been staging protests and sit-ins, there is an added significance here. Unsurprisingly, the root of the conflict in Sri Lanka is one of many British colonial leftovers - the creation by Crown mandate, on the departure of the British from Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), of an artificial statelet - without regard to pre-existing regional demographic differences and related claims to autonomy, in this case the Tamil minority who were left in a repressive majority-Sinhalese statelet.

I am tempted to come up with a jibe here on the likelihood that all this had something to do with preserving the supply - and of course the impeccable flavour - of English tea.

It also strikes me that almost any existing armed conflict in the world today, now, that I can think of is rooted in some mess left by European colonialists - usually British - upon their departure; and in almost every single case, the root cause is a cynical disregard of demographic, political, and ethnic differences in carving out artificial statelets, power usually being doled out to the most loyal or cooperative of colonial subjects. Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, East Timor, Somalia, Ethiopia, you name it - case after case, the map of armed conflict in the world today is almost invariably a series of variations on a theme.

Just look at a map of Africa - look at all those perfectly straight lines. I mean, sure, desert and savanna is pretty straightforward territory if you're drawing borders. But who drew them? Do you think they largely reflect the migratory patterns of Bedouin tribes, or the whims of colonial prelates of yore?

And then they blame the mess in the world on the genetic proclivity of 'darker races' to engage in violence. (I have personally witnessed a member of the liberal British upper classes - a Guardian-reading, public school-educated PhD student in urban development at UCL - quietly elaborate this point to me once on a bus chock-full of local immigrants in Dalston, in relation both to the causes of the high crime rate in Hackney and the violence in the world in general; it was one of my first cultural shocks in Britain, and I shall never forget my initial disbelief that he was indeed suggesting - indeed, in a very British, understated manner - what I was indeed hearing...)

To be fair, the British certainly aren't the only ones to blame, and one should also take into account places like Vietnam and Korea - the product of a similar colonial bug, albeit of a more modern, Soviet-American-Franco-Chinese variety. (interestingly enough, both countries were split between a communist north and a pro-Western south, in both cases reflecting no known actual demographic divisions, but rather the balance of power between the occupying forces.)

And yet it seems to me that almost all the key hotspots brewing right now - Palestine, Iraq, Sri Lanka - can be traced back to British colonial rule. Sure, it's complicated. Sure, there is a situation on the ground and there is no simple solution - not anymore at least. But is it just that the British are unlucky, and happened to take on the most difficult places with the most complicated histories under their domain, or is it that there is something particularly cynical about their methods of colonial government? An example much closer to home - Ireland - might be instructive, since it poses similar dilemmas and complications.

The British government's way of washing its hands clean of the mess in Sri Lanka at present is to dismiss the Tamil Tigers, as other governments have, following Sri Lanka's cue, as a terrorist organization. The best indication of the cynicism of such policies, in light of what is known about the conflict, is the double standard applied by the USA and other governments to the kurds, as documented in the film Good Kurds, Bad Kurds : the Iraqi Kurds, who are useful, are treated as 'freedom fighters'; the Turkish Kurds, who are essentially part of the same movement, have the same goals and deploy the same methods, are 'terrorists', because Turkey is an ally.

It is for this reason that the Tamil protesters' slogans include 'Tigers are our freedom fighters'.

In light of all this, it is commendable that they still wave the British flag at their protests, instead of burning it, as I surely would in their shoes.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

G20 and the rise of disciplinary power: the bankruptcy of justice

The Guardian has posted stories of mistreatment of civilians by police during the G20 protest, along with a version of the video (above) showing the police assault Ian Tomlinson, who later suffered a heart attack, as he was making his way home. The Guardian edit of the original video (the first one to surface, shot by a bystander) includes a slow-motion replay and action highlights.

This, along with the thousands of other such stories that go unreported with every protest because they do not result in deaths (take the use of harassment legislation to curb protests, discussed in an earlier post), is a good index of the rise of disciplinary power in contemporary Western society.

The fact that no major riots or anti-police actions have broken out is a measure of the effectiveness of that power, even when it exceeds its bounds. (Think of the Rodney King riots in LA) An individual officer may get reprimanded; but the overall effect is a success, the message hit home. Just as the rhetoric of freedom and democratic values in the age of the 'war on terror' and the 'clash of civilizations' has heated up, the police on this side of the fence are getting more brutal. (Incidentally, an item in the Readings section of this month's issue of Harper's details a lawsuit filed by the family of a 12-year-old black girl in Texas who in 2006 was brutally beaten by police officers on her parents' lawn for resisting arrest on charges of being a prostitute. The family "eventually learned that the dispatch call the officers were responding to reported three white female prostitutes soliciting men half a block from the family’s home.")

This split in Power theorized by Foucault - between the conventional form it takes in the West in the sovereign legal right, and its modern form in disciplinary power, is perhaps more real than ever. Even when police actions are questioned, they are not questioned on the basis of right, but on the logic of necessity - i.e. was it reasonable under the circumstances, were security measures that led to this shooting or that beating necessary in view of the threats, etc (who gets to measure such things?).

Even when rights are infringed (think of the De Menezes shooting), this is irrelevant so long as the measures taken are deemed to have been necessary, and the innocent casualty becomes simply the victim of an 'unfortunate accident'. Rights only come into play to cover up the bare bones of disiplinary mechanics.

In other words, disciplinary power is questioned only on its own terms, on the logic of necessity. The only question that can be asked of it is: 'is it necessary to take such measures in order to produce the desired effects/goals?' One is not allowed to question the effects/goals themselves, or their justification. One is not allowed to suggest that a particular measure is illegitimate because it may or is bound to infringe on a particular political/natural/legal right.

Yet it is clear that the real 'necessity' behind the techniques of discipline is not security from terrorism or from particular threats - this can never be achieved one hundred percent as proto-fascist security barons would believe - but the disciplining of the population, the deployment of techniques of discipline and 'normalization' without popular or democratic oversight. It is no surprise that the recent crackdown on supposed Pakistani terrorists using student visas came on the heels of the police brutality at the G20 protest - the timing was no doubt arranged to downplay police brutality and conflate the threat of 'terror' with the threat of the protesters - something which New Labour politicians have attempted to do explicitly, making statements that liken anti-globalization protesters to Bin Laden, etc. It was just oh-so-convenient that Bob Quick misplaced a memo and they had to crack down early.

With each new crackdown and ensuing security measures, i.e. no bottled water, taking off one's shoes at airports, one lighter per passenger (what is it that can be done with one but not with two?) - the 'terrorists' try something else because, of course, they won't try bottled liquid explosives or shoe explosives again; and the possibilities are endless when one is willing to give one's own life up in the process. Yet the retrospectively enacted measures stay in place, however useless they are in the long run, after the fact; because their ultimate target is the population at large; and their aim is teaching discipline and obedience to authority, regulating and corralling the mass of ordinary citizens, teaching them to execute commands without asking questions. We're all in the army now.

No doubt there will soon be new restrictions on student visas and entry clearances, allegedly for security but in reality with a view to organizing a 'reasonable racism' or 'reasonable xenophobia', to borrow a formulation used by Slavoj Zizek in recent lectures.

It is notable that in the torture debate of recent years, even those liberals who maintained their principled opposition to torture for the most part found it necessary to assert that anyway, the intelligence obtained by torture is unreliable, that people will say anything you want them to under torture. It is insufficient, in other words, to assert that torture is unethical, that 'we are becoming like them', that it infringes the legal or natural rights of suspects, etc. One must always also engage the technical point; one must question disciplinary power on its own terms, on the issue of necessity and efficiency.

And the power of disciplinary mechanics is ultimately the only real power, or as Foucault put it, the 'mode in which power is actually exercised...power at the point of its application to bodies' ; as opposed to vague or abstract notions of sovereignty and autonomy and democracy and legal right. Disciplinary power constrains and subordinates any recourse to legal action or legal right, rather than being constrained by it.

It is this same power that is at the bottom of the financial meltdown and the ongoing recession, in the form of economic disciplinary power. The goal of neoliberal economics from Milton Friedman onwards has been nothing less than to wrest economics from the domain of political sovereignty and right, and bring it fully within the scope of discipline, within disciplinary power. Disciplinary power, as Foucault shows in his analyses of various social domains (prisons, hospitals, schools, etc) is constituted by what he calls the 'medicalization' of knowledge: this is where the notion of economic 'shock therapy' fits in neatly - a term that Naomi Klein in her critique of neoliberal economics did not coin but borrowed from Milton Friedman, the neoliberal shock doctor in person. (at a time when, of course, 'shock therapy' was still believed to be valid medical science; nonetheless, it is a good example of self-incriminating statements, however unwittingly made)

And it is through the 'medicalization' - one could say de-politicization - of economic knowledge that the neoliberal 'shock doctors' were able to take key economic decisions regarding deregulation of markets and other economic reforms outside the political and democratic sphere, and into the scientific/technical sphere. There is no room in the edifices of modern government to question economic policy, because economic policy has become a matter of science, of mechanical necessity, of technical knowledge - not political decision. We are meant to take it on faith that state assets, utilities, schools, prisons and the like must be privatized or turn to private sources of funding, that taxes must be lowered, that credit interest rates must be set to suit the banks, that there just isn't enough money to cover the cost of social security and other benefits even as taxes are being lowered for the benefit of the super-rich or when - even during a once-in-a-century recession - billions are given away in a massive 'benefits package' to banks, and so forth. What should be political decisions take the form of unconditional demands, mechanical necessities.

The only good answer to this is to say, as Martin Luther King did in the march on Washington, that "we refuse to believe that the Bank of Justice is bankrupt." We must cash our cheque. Our demands too must be unconditional.

This is a point where it is no longer even that the ends justify the means - in the Machiavellian schema one still has to justify the ends, promote a 'just' end. In the sinister logic of neoliberal capitalism, the ends are taken to be self-evidently just and fully identified with the means chosen. The relation between ends and means cannot be questioned, since it is the mechanical result of 'economic science'.

Two articles also in this month's issue of Harper's provide the most incisive critique I have yet seen of the current economic crisis and its roots in several key moments of deregulation of the US economy over the past several decades - in particular, the deregulation of interest rates and wages.

INFINITE DEBT: How unlimited interest rates destroyed the economy details how the elimination of the right to form unions in key sectors of the economy and the subsequent union-busting led to an effective pay freeze - no real increase in the minimum or average wages over 40 years, even as the economy grew - driving millions of people into levels of debt unfathomable to their parents; this, coupled with the constitutional legalization of usury - i.e. unlimited credit card interest rates - promising supernormal profit margins, drove all the capital out of manufacturing (a strong union sector but with lower profit margins) into banking and finance, lining up the key elements to ignite the crisis. This is what ensured the decline of Detroit and the rise of Wall Street since the mid-1980s.

Usury country: Welcome to the birthplace of payday lending is a more documentary account of an industry that, with its beginnings in the state of Tennessee, has effectively come into being as an industry and exploded across the USA since the early 1990s. Payday lending - as in dodgy businesses that lend people an advance on their monthly salary at six-figure annual interest rates when they can't pay the bills (no kidding) is rightly referred to by the author as a modern-day form of sharecropping. Or in Foucauldian terminology, another one of those techniques of disciplinary mechanics.