Month: December 2016

On the Upcoming Electoral College Vote

There is only one defensible justification for the electoral college’s existence–especially after its throwing the result to the candidate with 2.8 million fewer votes–and that is as a sanity check against the inauguration of a demagogue, someone who fails to meet some basic standard of honesty, stability and loyalty. If on Monday the College proceeds to confirm Trump, it will have most egregiously failed in this singular duty, showing that the rot in the American political system has truly passed any point of self-correction.

Already there are the augurs of negligence, mendacity and corruption of a blatantness if not scale unseen in modern presidential history:

Abroad, the saber rattling over Taiwan has begun, with suggestions of military escalation across the Strait. China has promptly repurposed its “trainer” aircraft carrier group for maneuvers in the Bohai Sea, and also has begun live-fire exercises near Taiwan.

Domestically, the fire-sale giveaway and demolition of agencies entrusted with the care of public commons and individual protections has begun, as seen abundantly in the form of a series of cabinet nominees more anti-labor, anti-environment, and anti-civil liberties than even anything seen in the latter Bush administration. The “millionaires’ cabinet” of the Bush era now seems almost quaint, with the new incoming “billionaires’ cabinet” poised to oversee a degree of naked class warfare by the 0.1% upon the general population that will demolish all lingering illusion of America as a “classless” society.

Already too we have, from campaign behaviors extolling violence and depraved revenge, and from remarks since the election, ample evidence of an unbalanced mind that delights in carnage and darkness, from Trump himself and his surrogates, such as Steve “Dark Side” Bannon and Gen. Mattis.

Already we have massive conflicts of interest which appear to clearly violate the Constitution’s “emoluments” clause–all of which seems to cause the president-elect no concern whatsoever. Having proven the power of pressing forward without apology or self-restraint against an elite whose only weapon turned out to be tut-tutting, there is no reason the President-Elect or any of his surrogates will be anything but further emboldened once they have taken office.

Then there is the mounting alarm from the CIA and FBI over, shall we say, an untoward Russian influence in Trump’s candidacy.

On this last, it’s hard to sort out what to believe. I for one have no problem with relatively friendly relations with Russia, and I even believe that the leaks which earlier showed the severe corruption and favoritism of the DNC and Clinton campaign did a useful service. The problem was that given the terminally sclerotic state of our democracy, there was little reasonable alternative to vote for: with Clinton and the DNC revealed as richly disreputable, and Trump already obviously so, the only option was to support relatively lackluster (and media-invisible) third-party candidates.

In short, damning revelations about a candidate are of little use to an electorate when the game is already fouled, when there is no exit, when all the other offered candidates are just as damnable–unless the people realize together the need for new movements and new parties. That has yet to happen.

At any rate, the Russian factor falls far short of a smoking gun for vote fraud at the moment–and Jill Stein’s wannabe-heroic recount effort in Wisconsin merely netted the GOP nominee a few hundred further votes. Putin’s blatant vested interest in Trump’s victory, and Trump’s own campaign exhortations for Russia to hack more DNC emails certainly look terrible, and more so now that the intelligence agencies have lent weight to the matter–but for all the coverage of the matter there still seems to be no direct evidence presented that Russian involvement included vote-tampering or changed any outcome. Though it has grown perhaps more credible and mainstream, this “blame Russia” reaction, especially on the Left, still has a tone of moral panic and silencing-the-messenger: blame not HRC’s corruption or the ineptitude of her campaign, nor the abysmal condition of American civic and political culture, but the Russians for perhaps helping to expose these things.

On the other hand, even granting the obvious fact that harmonious relations between the US and Russia are a perfectly worthy goal–they particularly could help head off an incipient Sino-Russian alliance that could dominate half the planet–it is equally foolish to ignore the geo-strategic facts of the matter. Russia, while brittle in its own ways, is a massive, nuclear-armed nation that spans the Eurasian continent, and a traditional threat to America’s closest military allies and cultural kin, the nations of Western and Central Europe. Good relations are one thing, but is unwise to be too gullible towards such a country, especially when it is run by a puppet-master of Vladimir Putin’s league. Our President-Elect shows little or no awareness of these factors.

If indeed Trump’s aspiration is not just to have NATO nations pay their fair share for military defence, but to undermine the alliances of the West, then it is hard to think of a greater and more fatuous gift one could give Russia—and no doubt it’s the very reason Putin much preferred Trump.

Yet for all we might regret this, we come back to the no-exit reality of American politics: there is little reason to believe that a Clinton presidency would have offered a much better picture, other than an irrational sort of tribal comfort for coastal liberals in having “their kind of person” in the White House. (For as ever politics-as-tribal-apologetics continues to outweigh politics as careful weighing of deeds and positions.)

Instead, it is likely President-Elect Hillary Rodham Clinton would now be on a depressingly similar course to Trump with regard to the nomination of financial (Goldman) elites and militarists, with the only difference being a calmer style and somewhat more lip-service being paid to the favored issues of her captive progressive constituents, and disastrous tough-talk against Russia taking the place of disastrous tough-talk against China and the EU.

Returning to the duty of the Electoral College: it is incumbent upon it to clean up the horrid mess it has (partly) created. The reality is that it is basically impossible for Clinton to win, given the partisan make-up of the electors. However, if the reports of there being a significant number of Republican “faithless” electors willing to vote against Trump are more than simply the liberal equivalent of belief in unicorns, there may be just a chance of installing an alternative Republican candidate to serve as president—a corporatist and militarist, undoubtedly, as such is all that is currently allowed anywhere near the corridors of US power–but someone at least without the myriad ethical, rational, and temperamental hazards of the current President-Elect.

The selection of a compromise Republican would, perhaps, be the most tolerable still-plausible option, in that at least it would keep the recklessly corrupt and unstable Trump from office. Loathsome and extreme as the Republican itself has become for the most part–this would be a new nadir in “lesser-evilism”–such an outcome might allow the Republic its best shot of staving off spiritual oblivion while heading off armed mischief from aggrieved open-carriers in the firearm-saturated districts of America’s blood-red white ‘n blue rural heartland.

Time is short. But even if there is a miracle of electoral lesser-evilism in the cards, the mirror beckons us like a court summons. For altogether, the awful predicament we now face goes right back to us. We as citizens have failed, lulled into the drudgery of consumption, the illusion of a future where higher hopes are bribed off with riches that do not exist. We have become voyeurs, embracing entertainment and superficiality, escaping into worlds of fantastic and casual violence to vent the disaffection and misanthropy that has quietly festered under the label of “humanism”.

The Electoral College is called now to assuage the very disease it embodies. That too would be only a superficial fix, but it would at least buy time to address things more deeply under an administration of relative sanity. Lacking that, the politics of radicalism, of reform by revenge, riot and revolution, will steadily move in for its ordained showdown with emergent neo-feudalism.

Tiny Essays, No. 3: The Psychopomp of Progress and the Last Days of Eden

Because of the abrupt changes that the Industrial Revolution and World Wars brought, there has tended to be an unexamined discontinuity in our perception of the past. Somewhere about 1880 or so, it becomes “us”: something so radically different from all else, as if changed in its very DNA, that we think of it as for all intents a completely new world. What came before, by contrast, has seemed “other”—faded, irrelevant, vaguely unreal, and above all, powerless to harm us.

Only now, as we see that brave new era beginning to slip away from us, to show its tatters, hypocrisies, and age, do we begin to realize it was but a part of History’s stream all along—not an “end of history” by any means, but a strange, marvelous but frivolous golden age, whose tragedy was that its very instincts and genius prevented it from developing an enduring way of inhabiting the planet. 

• * *

The magic of Faustian-Platonic-technologism rose through the early 20th century and attained the sublime shortly after the crisis of WWII, with the United States as its torch-bearer and champion—the City on a Hill and self-declared mystagogue of Progress. But the staggering marvels on which this ascent was founded, such as antibiotics, moon landings, and nuclear energy, could only be discovered once—and so this high-water mark was most likely already passed decades ago, perhaps even by 1970.

The 2008 crash and the rise of right-wing populism in the US—arguably buoyed by a wave of frustration at stalling, ill-apportioned, or even retrograding progress—mark a darker kind of turning. It is less a peak than an inflection-point, where the infallible torch-bearer is recast as just another fraught and fallible nation-state; here, Progress’s mystagogue, its light-bearer, is transformed into its psychopomp, a conveyer of souls into the underworld.

With the hastening disintegration of multinational structures like the EU, and the deep complications climate change and biophysical limits present to the growth-ethic on which both the general and professional impressions of progress vitally depend, the stage is set for the emergence of a mythology entirely different from what led us here. We can reasonably expect that its differences will be the more disturbing, the greater the abruptness and the worse the circumstances under which they have to be imagined. 

To forestall our imagining of a world-myth that encompasses these trends, in the hope of their eventual return, is to set ourselves up for worse to come. If the Second Religiosity is coming, as Spengler discussed, we must take it upon ourselves to frame those myths and traditions in the light of the best wisdom available to us, and the best of the ages past.

* * *

Up till now, the supreme historic monument to human insanity and stupidity, to the hopeless flaws and flukes of our collective nature, has been Nazi Germany. Here, an entire nation, extremely wealthy and technologically advanced, went mad—completely and proudly mad, no less—and went forth to murder tens of millions, with a strange combination of haphazard slaughter and industrial exactness. It was stopped only years later, at horrific cost; and when we speak of the horrors that human nature is capable of charging headfirst into, therefore, we instinctively turn to Hitler and the Holocaust.

There are other cases, naturally. Stalin comes to mind, possibly Pol Pot, Rwanda, Armenia; but from the meanest Internet troll to the most solemn perorations given at national memorials and museums, Nazism holds a special place as our arch-icon of human fallibility, of human-made disaster, not only because of the exceptional intensity of the crimes it committed, but because of the intellectual pedigree of the nation that spawned it. For that the land of Goethe, Leibniz, Schiller and Gauss could also create Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich and Hess seems to tell us that even in the depths of the most “progressive” and intellectually enlightened there lurks this terrible potentiality.

We pretend we have grown wiser, even as we gradually consign history into convenient boxes that are “other”. We do not stint on lip service to the contrary: Nazism has left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness, one often hears; we must not ever forget; nay we shall not. One smallish country bears the stigma; but the entire world bears the stamp. We say this, even as Nazism has inspired a kind of fascination, a covertly admiring kitsch in the mass culture.

Many of the other trends currently in motion in the world portend eventually to supplant even Nazism as the ultimate dark mirror we hold up to ourselves. For where will we look for hope or faith in our chances as a species when that dark mirror is no longer a wall-mirror we occasionally glance at in the direction of the past, dutifully to remember our frailty as embodied in a single evil nation that was defeated long ago? How will “humanism” still stand, except ironically, as an Icarus-like myth of sheer hubris, when the mirror becomes a world-sized hall of mirrors, one where our frailty stares back at us from every corner of the earth, not from the past but in the present, in the form of inundated cities, decimated crops, mass displacement of peoples, spreading diseases, wars and perhaps population collapse?

In the decades to come, the mythic power of the Holocaust may not be so much lost or forgotten, as eclipsed by the greater and more terrible story of how humanity, in its seemingly “progressive” need for expansion and technological thought, laid waste to the our one and only world. And whereas memory of the Holocaust has faded or grown more abstract over the last seven decades, in seven centuries the shadow of worldwide environmental ruin could still be staring humankind in the face, not a remembrance but a daily misery, a daily humiliation.

* * *

In the Middle Ages, human beings were automatically viewed as fallen, imperfect beings, not hopeless but sorely in need of grace and forgiveness. In a great irony, that need for absolution became the need for divine favor, which in turn morphed into an excuse for still more layers of barbarism, exploitation and cruelty. It was only the vision of Progressive Man, guided by Science and the divine faculty of Reason towards a heroic conquest of social and technological perfection, that jarred us at least partly free of this constant and fruitless self-doubt.

It was our misfortune to confuse that vision with the Conquest of Infinity, the inherently doomed Faustian project of which Spengler wrote so keenly.

In the years to come, the vision of Humanity as the Faustian conqueror of its fate will steadily unravel, and the vision of the frailty and folly of humanity will gradually regain its old priority. The frenzy for absolution, too, will resume—but this time, it will not be absolution for peccadilloes or impure thoughts that we seek, nor for a distant myth of human folly leading to a Fall. Instead, we will hunger for absolution from a still-palpable historical fact of how humanity turned the world into a wasteland by, on the one hand, squandering the spectacular one-off gifts of science, in favor of the delusion of unsustainable plunder and enrichment; and on the other, by devaluing the natural and spiritual endowments of the world itself.

In this sense, despite all its warts, our present time may best be understood as the last days of Eden.

Learn Your Way to Feedom!

This time of year, tour after tour of prospective students crisscrosses the grounds of the college where I work part-time as a tutor. Most are kids, young adults, but a surprising number of them are middle-aged—a castaway look in the eye, one that hints at the forlornness of rebuilding from scratch. I wonder how many are coming to fulfill a long-held dream of college, to climb their way up while they still can, and how many simply have no choice but to retrain after getting downsized out of once-reliable jobs.

It’s not just the prospectives, though; it’s the other employees. All around me in the office there is talk about loans, loans, loans: public loan, private loan. Six years, eight years. Refinance, renegotiate, default. The talk about money is tense and unending, a slow-boiling obsession, and creates a strange kind of gallows fellowship. Between my own tutoring appointments, as I try to get some of my own reading done, it becomes a soft drone, snippets floating across the hallway:

“…–––’s stuck with 7.8 percent interest, it’s crazy…”

“…oh my god, it’s 1200 dollars, I need that so bad…”

“I know, I know, I told my mom she could handle the loan, but…”

“We want to go to Toronto… but it’s $140 for the round trip so…”

“Yep, I’m going back to school, so will probably put another 20 or 30 grand on top of that at least…”

“…Well you just put it [more debt] on there, don’t think about it, live a happy life…”

“…They say yeah, gotta focus on your schooling, so just don’t think about it…”

And of course, now and then you hear the master of them all, the sentiment that goads all the others along:

“…The bank will own me…”

Hearing all this, over and over, I find myself thinking: what are we doing?

Mind you, it’s been heading towards this for decades. Somewhere in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, in keeping with the neoliberal credo that no form of human endeavor could not be improved by regarding it as a cutthroat business, mighty minds of marketing set out to present college as a must-have, a rite of passage, an “investment in your future”—and a gigantic industry arose. “Universities are like factories, and I’m in sales”, seemed to become the mantra of more and more college higher-ups. Endowments expanded into the billions; tuitions escalated, closely linked to a rising ratio of administrators to professors; while at the same time, for many public institutions, funding increasingly got dropped into the laps of students.

Now almost everyone thinks they have to do it, and millions are in debt they can’t get out of—$1.4 trillion nationwide as of September. The average US college student’s debt at graduation now stands at a little over $35,000, and shows a steady upward tread. Even the traditionally highest-earning professions are facing debt headwinds so huge they can be very hard to fight: the median of medical student debt, for instance, now easily exceeds $200,000. No matter what path you choose, education starts to seem more and more like digging a deep hole, simply because someone told you there might a ladder buried further down.

Maybe it wasn’t just greed that got us here though, but a well-meaning Enlightenment belief gone amiss—something like a belief in the perfectibility of human intellect and the innate value of learning, which slowly got garbled into “get more school, whatever it is, at all costs”. Perhaps it was due to the belief that our ever-increasing financialized Escher-economy would always make space for more workers, without their ever having to submit to the soul-killing contrivance of menial or bullshit jobs (though if they did, no one who mattered really cared).

Or maybe, too, it was a belief in the limitless magical power of our own American innovativeness, a subtle way of patting ourselves on the back for inventing an economic system so incredibly nifty, so futuristically ingenious, that exacting crippling amounts of schooling and debt just to get by in it could seem like a feature and not a bug (even the populist Bernie Sanders has taken to saying, rather unquestioningly, that an undergrad degree is the equivalent of what a high school diploma once was).

On an even more fundamental level, one could justify it all by making recourse to various smart-sounding but scarcely understood social phenomena. Take the Flynn effect: this finding says that since 1900 all our IQs have been rising for some mysterious reason(s). Ergo, since people must be getting smarter all the time (and surely will continue to, since our system is so awesome), the efflorescence of degrees must be a sign not of some kind of scam or of unrealistic goals, but in fact a tribute to humanity’s and America’s ever-escalating genius-ness. This is reminiscent of the blind more-is-better way the explosion of publication counts is oft taken as a sign of the supreme vitality of today’s sciences, or the petabytes of data sent over social media are taken as some indicator of healthy community and burgeoning pan-human sentiment: more must mean smarter.

But on the ground, it feels like something quite different. Aspiration has been twisted 180 degrees, till it has become a tool used to jab the aspirational. On the great treadmill of the “knowledge economy”, the working man and woman—as well as educators themselves—have been instructed to outrun automation, it seems, while shouldering an exponentiating burden of formal education and debt. And despite what the Flynn effect may say, the impression of waves of unprecedented intellect flooding our entire system is, shall we say, curiously absent.

And so, having taken the neoliberal-techno-accelerationist’s approach to education, there follows the difficulty that dogs all factory-style production: the problem of oversupply. It seems we are approaching the point of having glutted the country with highly-priced degrees; having been sold like a good and often awarded to customer-students who don’t always cut the mustard, college educations are now sinking to the relative utility level that a much shorter (and free) high school education once afforded.

Why is this something to celebrate? How many Millennials do you know of with a college degree and still underemployed and living with parents? As of this writing, the numbers continue to amaze.

This is not to mention that the idea of students as “customers” in a growth-oriented but rigged market has hardly just made degrees simultaneously more expensive and less valuable; it has also cut in other directions. “The customer is always right”, after all, is not the most helpful mentality to mix with an undertaking that often requires reminding students of the embarrassing gap between their aspirations and self-concept and their present actual knowledge. Grade inflation, the strip-mining of grievance and identity culture, and threatening complaints from students against any criticism or “microaggression” are par for the course by now. Such behavior plays into a vicious cycle, as successive waves of graduates become more and more brittle and self-absorbed and less likely to cope or to strive.

This strange mixture of exalted self-entitlement and hapless debt servitude has created the perfect recruits for a new underclass, what you might call the “knowledge serfdom”, which spans the chronically underemployed graduates with now useless degrees, and the armies of postdocs and adjunct minions whose underpaid and insecure misery greases the wheels of the modern university.

What is our answer to all this? Enter what may be the central maxim of our times, the maxim of inverse reform: the only allowable solution to a problem is to repeat the problem with more intensity.

Taking their cue from the “Inexorable Climb of Knowledgey-ness” narrative parroted by countless figures like Sanders, more and more graduates are obligingly deciding that if a lot of education didn’t get them the job of their dreams, then maybe they should pile on a super super extra lot of it and head on to grad school. The debt staircase thus promises to get steeper and steeper, while the value of these more advanced degrees, too, becomes more dilute.

There is already plentiful evidence of a glut of doctorates. This includes not just mail-order “PhD’s” through phishing scams, or humanities PhDs who have always, it seems, had tougher prospects, but STEM PhDs—you know, those wondrous gifts-that-keep-on-giving, the cross-beams of the Knowledge Economy, of which we supposedly can’t ever have too many.

Not so very long ago, a PhD (or even the right kind of master’s degree) was a sign of rather extraordinary aptitude for and dedication to, a subject, and was valued accordingly, either in the form of an academic position with reasonable benefits or a private sector job with chances for advancement.

Nowadays, the PhD instead seems to have become another step on the path of dead-end intensification, mindless debt and precious self-importance. One meets secretaries who struggle with apostrophe use and basic spelling but talk about picking a doctorate up “on the side”; housewives who read Madame Bovary ten years ago deciding to go for an PhD in English, out of the astounding belief that doing so would relieve their domestic boredom; and school counselors who believe getting a PhD in education will launch them into some rarefied realm of highly-paid course-schedule-consulting masters of the universe. Even those who already have PhDs seem increasingly to be throwing themselves back for second doctorates.

Is this gluttony for punishment, or desperation? Putting all griping and incredulity aside, there might another possibility: perhaps the reason for the degree craze is not simply the mistaken hope that it will be a ticket to the top, but something more existential about our time and place, i.e., there is nothing better to do. For, in this generation, one perceives that school has acquired the status of a safe-haven, a port in the storm, a failsafe against uncertain or un-fruitful prospects.

But it was never supposed to be that: real education is a confrontation with the unknown, a testing of one’s limits; a sometimes-painful quest to broaden one’s vision as much as one’s knowledge; and above all, an immersion and a preparation for thinking, that most nettlesome and unloved of pastimes, out in the teeth of a world that often values it little.

Contrary to the boilerplate exhortations about the brave new Knowledge Economy ahead, the system simply has no use for all these putative eggheads, nor will it: for despite our current ideological inability to acknowledge it, intellectual wealth—wisdom—has never been and never will be mass-producible, nor commensurable with any numerical rubric of material wealth. Scholarship without talent, minds without intellectual fire, all based on a wrong-footed conception of employment and human potential, is hardly good for the academy—but it most certainly will not suffice to keep a nation of 320 million afloat, the less so as the prospects for extending growth look shakier.

Part fool and part victim, our new human-waves of debt-slave graduates promise to file their way into the ranks of the knowledge serfdom, where they will quietly form a socioeconomic powder-keg of discombobulated ambitions and overestimated potentials. If it finds a voice and a focus, it likely will come to rival the blue-collar frustration among rural whites that was widely credited with delivering Donald Trump the presidency.

I have this image, probably over-romanticized, that back in the days of America’s grand ascent into industrial-fueled prosperity—let’s say from 1850 thru the 1920s—the smartest people were typically the go-getters and inventors, the self-made mavericks who didn’t stand on ceremony too much, who jumped at things, and blazed new paths; then, as the 20th century wore on and the age of professionalism ballooned in complexity and impressiveness, that gave way to the safer path of layered education and credentialing. It worked, too, for a certain time, giving the best and brightest a place to think and grow in relative peace.

Now, all I can think is that the smartest people must be the ones who get out of school as soon as humanly possible, and find a way support themselves doing as close to nothing as humanly possible, or following their own hobbies and projects for their own sake, and generally just get out of the damn way. In this environment, to do more is just to fall further behind. 

As for “getting ahead”, that mythic creature, the only secret seems to be: already be the person that people in charge know and want. But if you are that person, your education will hardly matter. Like so many things, the answer comes down a return of that an age-old calculus: some are in the club, and some just ain’t.