HUH? Letters between two members of the BLJ editorial board
This is about the time I reach out to you for some calm and reasonable analysis of whatever the situation du jour is. But, to get that reassuring analysis, I first have to come up with a serious question or at least a poem or something.
I have neither at the moment. I think societies like ours, now stalled in a "recession" that doesn't stop for the vast majority, a society that doesn't bother to look into its own history to see Keynes' description of an economy that could function with high rates of unemployment and social stagnation, a society that has now elected as president a man who is an exemplary financial crook and corruptor of government surrounded by like-minded people, boggles the mind of those who grew up in leaner, thriftier times in which there was more than lip-service paid to older virtues, however corrupted by the rich of that time.
What is the question? How to bear it? What is it wise and what unwise to say? ...I read the beautifully crafted paragraphs of Pankaj Mishra in Age of Anger: A History of the Present, and admire its beautifully crafted indictment of Western culture/capitalism/imperialism, but that book offers neither solution nor solace. Apparently, Descartes really screwed us all up. Well, yes, one has heard such opinions before, but now -- which is in fact "again" -- the cogito is actively boring through our collective consciousness again or more insistently and creating a crisis, at least in Mishra's snapshot of history.
I have read and reread the Polish philosopher Kolakowsky's The Priest and the Jester, on recommendation of Jan Kott's book on Shakespeare, and I guess, if there is no solace, there may be moments of recognition that we live in the old, cruel world where the priests are constantly preaching the remorseless march of Time towards the Judgment Day (choose your religion or ideology and plug in substitutes) and the jesters are constantly pointing out that stairway to kingship that ends on the scaffold, head hacked off by a dull axe. But it takes quite a commitment to the jester's point of view to be able to laugh at ourselves for having elected this president, The Developer, representing one of the most potent forces of corruption of government of our times. We are going to have to work on our cruel laughter as the plutocracy shrinks government to a size that can be drowned in the Grover Norquist Memorial Bathtub.
A "calm and reasonable" assessment, answering the questions "how to bear it? what is it wise and what is it unwise to say?," eh?
One of the unintended gifts of Katha Pollitt's recent rant (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/11/07/year-one-my-anger-management/) was that it reminded one how hard it is, when one wanders between anger and depression, to keep all the sources of one's outrage in mind. Though I might not have been able to make such a list on my own, still, there are things she misses or glides past too quickly. Her phrases "climate change" and "environmental damage" are too brief. Here are a few additional items: Lifting the lid on nuclear proliferation, encouraging arms races in the Middle East and the Asian Pacific rim and India/Pakistan. Leaving Europe at the mercy of Putin's threat to shut off the gas. Signing off on Duterte's mass murder of his own citizens, passively tolerating the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, actively tolerating the murder and silencing of independent critical voices in Russia and China. Abandoning the international multilateral order represented by TPP (thanks to you too, Bernie), the Iran nuclear deal, and, above all, the Paris agreement. Throwing actual and potential immigrants from murderous Central America to the wolves, abandoning the Cubans (and, for good matter, the Iranians and Syrians and Qataris and even the Israelis) to their own repressive governments and the Yemenis and Sudanese to civil war and who knows how many unrecognized Africans, in all parts of the continent, to desertification and overpopulation and AIDs and their own civil wars. Closer to home, releasing the expression of poor white rage back into its self-deceived racist channel and collaborating with the NRA in arming it. Doing his best to let his Congressional free-riders gut the New Deal (and the gasping vestiges of the labor movement) and allowing millions the escape of opioids and, from other causes too that health insurance might help resist, an early death. Accepting mass incarceration. Allowing many more millions the freedom of irreversible debt from credit card usury and education loans). And, by a combination of his silence and his eminent modeling, denying the best in women, endorsing the worst in men, and returning us to the marginalizing of every voiceless ethnic and gender-related minority. Oh yes — did I forget voter suppression and, by turning Fox nation against the serious press and forcing the serious press to counter-attack with truth, reducing the efforts to rise above faction to apparent factionalism? Or, in step with this, taking political advantage of the evangelicals' turn against science and, by forcing scientists and educators to make lists like this, reducing them, with their evolutionary and geological/climatological 'theories,' to apparent partisanship? And I haven't even mentioned oligarchy, reactionary big donor ownership of the political process and, more and more, of the courts, and the extension of this power of money to the new plutocracy in Russia.
Lists have the vices of denying the occasion for specificity in the detailing of each item and of pre-empting the effort at synoptic insight.
I think (with a complete lack of originality) that we are at a profoundly dangerous moment, with our post-Civil War and post-New Deal attempts at electoral democracy at risk of not just sliding into plutocracy (that's been going on well before and with renewed energy at least since Reagan) but irreversibly so, with the consequence being the undermining of Western multi-lateral order in favor of Chinese oligarchy (not without possible silver linings — will China, which must commit to economic development in order to stay ahead of its own civic discontent, lead the globe in a turn away from earth-warming and -poisoning fuels and towards the construction of poverty-alleviating and migration-defusing infrastructure?). Marx was indeed a brilliantly holistic analyst of the self-undermining contradictions of Big Industrial capitalism, but he had no answer, so far as I can see, to the danger that those who would ride the wave of socio-political transformation (Lenin to Stalin, Mao to Xi Jingping, and many smaller players) would, partly for love of new-found power and partly to prevent their position from being overcome by successors who, learning from them, would turn their own attacks on political hierarchy against them (the French Revolution's turn to Terror) and transform incipient democracy into party rule with a newly grounded royalty at its head (the turn from Terror to Napoleon). Hegel saw this danger (Phenomenology VI.C) and, as Plato had done before him, championed the rule of law as the bulwark against it. But Marx may have had the last word, with his recognition that law is the expression of class interests and, so, only a temporary bulwark (a Penelopean weaving?) against, and in fact in the midst of and part of, the ongoing dialectic of factional conflict.
How's that for a rant? Unlike Pollitt's it's not even well-written. You see, though, why Lucky's speech is my model? Beckett had the wit to have Lucky's rant fragment in its form as well as its content. I lack the unselfishness, or perhaps just the confidence, to risk that.
A deep sigh,