Posts

Trumpian Motion

Posts in this series; some of the terms I use are described more fully in these posts.
Trumpian Motion
Negative Responses to Trumpian Motion
Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion
Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion
Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

===============

The press has taken to bemoaning the speed of the news cycle, as in this Washington Post story. Harpers Magazine sends a weekly email listing some of the previous week’s craziness before it falls down the memory hole. The constant uproar in our media environment over every little thing reminds me of Brownian Motion. This is from the Wikipedia entry:

Brownian motion … is the random motion of particles suspended in a fluid (a liquid or a gas) resulting from their collision with the fast-moving molecules in the fluid. Fn. omitted.

Think of a grain of pollen in a drop of water on a microscope slide. When you look through the lenses, you can see it move around randomly as the molecules of water bang into it; at least that’s what Einstein said. If there is an external force, the particle moves gradually in accordance with that force. Imagine that the particle is iron and that there is a magnet near one end of the drop of water.

The analogy I see is that we swim in a pool of media water, being bounced around randomly by whatever we click on or see in our news feed, crashing from one stupid to another outrage. The water particles aren’t organized either. Each one acts under forces it can’t completely understand, and often with no purpose other than to slam into us pollens. Then there are the people aggresssively trying to influence us. Think of them as the magnets. The forces are all unseen and to the pollen undetectable. The clamor is deafening. Thought is inconceivable. Understanding is impossible.

That’s part of the reason I’ve been reading and writing here about old books by French and German writers. They were trained in a different time, under different scholarly imperatives. Unlike so many of us, they weren’t trained to get a job; their training was specifically directed at creating at least a few people to study society as objectively as possible. They were all raised in intellectual traditions, including Marxism, but they proved capable of seeing the problems of their own training as clearly as any other problem, and of advancing human understanding. And since Arendt and the members of the Frankfurt School were directly affected by the rise of totalitarianism, they too faced horrifying societal conditions. Foucault and Bourdieu came later but were raised in a similar tradition, in which the intellectual life was valued, and the effort to understand society and history were valued.

I personally feel battered by the media environment. I don’t watch cable news or tv news at all, but even the Twitter is so confounding that some days it’s hard to concentrate on my reading. So, I’m going to write a short series trying to use the ideas I’ve picked up from my reading to provide a sort of grounding, a context, a historical analogy, a comparison to the times observed by some smart people. I’ve tried to do a bit of this in my posts on these old books, so this isn’t new, it’s just a bit more direct. I will start with Hannah Arendt, from The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part 3 on Totalitarianism.

We are told that the Republicans are a movement, and we know they are ideologically driven. The ideology is neoliberalism. The most important principle of neoliberalism is that markets know best, and if let alone that Invisible Hand will drive the human race to perfection. Any interference in the workings of the market will only make things worse. The market is the most marvelous information processor imaginable. No human or group of humans can hope to match its deliberations. Therefore, no human interference with the workings of the markets is permissible, including especially concerted action through government. The market will always work for the best interests of all of us.

Arendt doesn’t think much of ideologies.

Ideologies [are] -isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurence by deducing it from a single premise….

… The ideology treats the course of events as though it followed the same “law” as the logical exposition of its “idea.” Ideologies pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process—the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, the uncertainties of the future—because of the logic inherent in their respective ideas. P. 468-9.

Ideologies work by the process of logic, the deductive working out of the idea behind the ideology. The ideologies Arendt is discussing, the Marxist idea of the progress of history, and the Nazi idea of racial purity, both have an inherent motion, from the past to the present and on into the future, all driven by a deductive logic. The same is true of neoliberalism. The state of the market at one point in time and the actions taken at that moment create the next state of the market, and on and on like a clock stepping forward.

In Arendt’s description of the rise of totalitarianism, the primary tool of the leaders is terror, a gradually increasing level of fear of armed force, first under the guise of law, and then without any pretense of legal justification. The analogy in the case of neoliberalism is also fear, not of armed force, but of immigrants, or of losing jobs, or that lack of cash will mean death from the money-centric health care system or outright starvation, or of a loss of status that might lead to those terrifying outcomes.

That kind of fear doesn’t work on everyone, but it works on enough people to set a swarm in motion. Suddenly a large group of people are moving almost in lockstep. The racket, the noise, the movement, all draw the attention of the media, and of everyone else through their ceaseless yammering. and the weak-minded hangers-on join in. The goal of the leaders, the Republicans, is to get that mindless crowd in motion. It is the movement itself that they seek, because once in motion, the masses can be led wherever the leaders want them to go. The constant injection of new and more terrifying fears increases the movement; faster and faster, until the very notion of thought disappears in a whirlwind of brainless and frightening activity.

Even if you don’t want to pay attention, the threatening noise and action are everywhere. They’re driving people nuts. That’s what the Republicans want.

Politicians Did Not Get Rich From Hollowing Out the Economy

In his inauguration speech Trump said:

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs and, while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

He claims that politicians got rich by off-shoring jobs and driving up trade deficits. This is an instance of a standard Republican lie, that our problems are caused by politicians. In fact, all the profits from off-shoring went to corporate executives and owners of corporations. They made political contributions, sure, but that doesn’t enrich anyone. The gains to citizens were some lower prices at a cost of whatever wars and worse-paying jobs.

The decisions to off-shore and outsource jobs are made by corporate executives and controlling owners. They had many reasons to invest in other countries, ranging from a desire to protect their own businesses from being underpriced by foreign entitiesk, incentives offered by foreign countries, lower labor costs, and access to foreign markets among others.

US policy in both parties since at least WWII has been generally sympathetic to foreign investment for many reasons, not least the belief that nations linked by commerce and trade are less likely to go to war.

Foreign investment is always dangerous. The risks include expropriation, local governments that won’t or can’t stop violence against plants and equipment, lack of protection of intellectual property, and others. Karl Polanyi discusses these risks in The Great Transformation. Hannah Arendt agrees in The Origins of Totalitarianism. In different words, and with different emphasis, they say Western European capitalists solved this problem by enlisting the government to protect them when they invested abroad. The same thing happened here. Thorstein Veblen saw it clearly in 1904:

… [W]ith the sanction of the great body of the people, even including those who have no pecuniary interests to serve in the matter, constitutional government has, in the main, become a department of the business organization and is guided by the advice of the business men. Chapter 8, Principles of Business Enterprises.

Here’s a discussion of the implications of that statement for foreign investment.

Right down to today, capital enlists the support of the government to protect it so it can make profits in other countries, and government responds for its own reasons. We have always used military force for that purpose, but now the primary tool is trade treaties. The recent example of the TPP stands out. It was written by corporations and their lobbyists and lawyers, and supported by mainstream economists. It was opposed by working people and unions and most progressives. It was supported by a bipartisan majority of legislators. It should be noted that it was rejected by Trump and Sanders and disparaged by Clinton.

I won’t try to untangle all the interlocking interests, or to discuss the negotiations between the two camps, government and capital. But Trump’s assertion that Washington politicians got rich off foreign investment is stupid and false. The people who got all the money from from foreign investment are the executives and the obscenely rich people who own and control these corporations.

The incoherence of Trump’s statements in his inauguration speech and in his campaign speeches about corporate overseas investment is displayed in this New York Times article discussing Trump’s meeting with CEOs of giant US manufacturers. The reporters, Nelson Schwartz and Alan Rappeport, say that Trump told the “titans of American business” that they had better move manufacturing jobs here, threatened them with taxes that look like tariffs, and offered rewards like lower taxes and fewer environmental regulations. The reporters say that this is pointless, because taxes and regulations do not determine where corporate investment are made.

The reporters say that the real cause of overseas investment is Wall Street, by which they mean Capitalists, including hedge fund managers, giant Banks, and the richest investors.

In some cases, Gordon Gekko-like hedge fund managers are to blame, but much of the time, it is the drive for bigger returns on 401(k) accounts, pension plans and other retirement vehicles that depend on steadily rising corporate profits and, in turn, a buoyant stock market.

That’s just wrong. Many pension funds are operated by private Wall Street firms through Gordon Gekko-like managers. The largest funds spread management around among several management firms, and invest with hedge funds, and get investment advice from Wall Street firms for the funds they manage themselves. The idea that Wall Street cares about small investors or their IRAs is silly. I’ll just ignore the stupidity of using a movie character when it’s easy to identify the real perpetrators. You could just read this article to find one, Daniel Loeb.

The actual problem is that the federal government let the interests of the rich set our industrial policy with no public input, and actively ignored the interests of US workers and citizens, and sometimes even the security interests of the nation.

I suppose it’s possible that Trump meant that the rich have too much influence in government, and he means to change that. But seriously, can anyone imagine that the Republicans or the neoliberal Democrats will allow Trump to initiate trade wars over protectionist tariffs? Does anyone think that Trump will do anything to harm the interests of the rich, or that Trump doesn’t personally identify with the rich and their interests?

And exactly how is this different from that time President Obama chewed out the banksters over their greed in April, 2009? Nothing changed then. Why should this time be different?

It won’t be different until a solid majority of voters come to grips with the fact that the dangerous elites in this country aren’t college professors or scientists or liberals. The dangerous elites are the rich people who control the giant corporations and the people who support them, in and out of government.

Security, Territory and Population Part 1: Introduction

Security, Territory and Population is a collection of lectures given by the French thinker Michel Foucault at the College of France in 1977-8. Foucault describes the lectures as a work of philosophy, defined as “the politics of truth” (p. 3), a term which itself seems to require a definition. This creates two difficult problems for the reader. First, philosophy is hard. It involves carefully picking things apart, examining each element, putting the pieces back together, and then picking them apart from some other perspective, examining the new set of pieces and reassembling. It’s hard work, and it makes for difficult reading.

Second, these are lectures, not a polished work prepared for publication with the aid of editors and the time it takes to smooth out analysis. Foucault says that these lectures are part of a long program of study, of which other books and sets of lectures are parts. The earlier books include Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality for certain, and others as well. These are polished works, and they give an idea of the general program.

In this book, Foucault wants to talk about what he calls “bio-power” which he describes as “… the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object ofa political strategy, of a general strategy of power….” Note that I did not use the word “define”, but the word describe. We should understand this book and The Birth of Bio-Power which I plan to take up next, as tentative explorations, and not as a formal philosophical explication.

I haven’t written about Discipline and Punish or The History of Sexuality (except briefly), but I don’t think that will be a problem. The last three books I’ve written about, The Great Transformation, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Theory of Business Enterprise, raise a similar set of issues. In each one of these books, we saw a massive change in the lives of the working people in Western Europe and the US beginning with the Industrial Revolution. These changes have produced amazing wealth for a few people, and have completely revamped the day-to-day lives of the vast group of working people. How exactly did these changes happen? Was there some great clamor for 12 hour work days in deep-pit mines? Did working people spontaneously decide to put their children to work in spinning mills at the age of 8? Was the demand for coal and cheap shirts so great that these things seemed like fair exchanges to the people whose lives were affected?

Polanyi seems to suggest that the changes were driven by economic duress both from the early capitalists and from the government. Arendt talks about the collapse of earlier social structure, and a combination of economic insecurity and random violence coupled with an appeal to nationalism and scape-goating of the Jews. Veblen doesn’t directly discuss the mechanisms of change but he does say that the industrial age demanded new structures to achieve maximum efficiency. Polanyi says that society resists these massive changes, and Veblen seems to agree. Arendt says that the people can be changed by a combination of force and rhetoric. I realize these are gross simplifications, but they are offered to show that these writers lead us to the problem Foucault wants to talk about. Foucault says that he is not interested in a theory of power, but that his investigations have the potential to expand into a discussion of major social trends.

Third, the analysis of these power relations may, of course, open onto or initiate something like the overall analysis of a society. The analysis of mechanisms of power may also join up with the history of economic transformations, for example. P. 2.

Human beings are a species, and in large groups can be understood and manipulated by those who have studied the species. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault gives us an early example:

[T]he ideas of crime and punishment must be strongly linked and ‘… follow one another without interruption…. When you have thus formed the chain of ideas in the heads of your citizens, you will then be able to pride yourselves on guiding them and being their masters.’ Foucault, Discipline and Punish, at 102, quoting J. M. Servan, Discours sur l’administration de la justice criminelle, 1767.

It reads just like Ivan Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning. We are much more refined than that now, of course. Almost every day we read a new theory about ourselves as a species. These insights are used by business to boost sales, by politicians to gain their own ends, and by each of us for our own purposes. For some of us, it is enough to know that. For Foucault, it was a signal that we need to think more clearly about power.

One good question might be, how did neoliberalism become the dominant discourse, not just of general societal power but of control over the self. Freedom is the most important thing in neoliberal rhetoric, but if we have to work to live, how free are we? If we have to take whatever is on offer as wages and employment, how free are we? People have internalized neoliberalism as a tool of self-discipline, and at such a deep level that they cannot even recognize it as an ideology. They think it is the natural way life should be, and anyone who questions it is anathema. This leads us to think about governmentality, which I discussed very briefly here, and which Foucault discusses in some detail in this book.

I believe that theory is important. The right wing is winning because so many people believe in neoliberalism, including a large number of Democrats. Kuhn points out that scientists can’t even do analysis without a theory with which to understand the observations they are making. I don’t think theories about societies or individual human behavior can ever have the kind of certainty we can get in the physical sciences, because as humans, any theory becomes an object of study and then of change. Even so, we can’t understand our society without some kind of theory. Foucault says that philosophy is about the politics of truth. Is neoliberalism a truth? What are the points about it where we can push back against the idea that it is a truth? Identifying those points is one of the goals of this series of lectures and of the next set, collected as The Birth of Bio-Politics.

In this post, I suggested the beginnings of a theory for the left. The same kind of analysis can and should be applied to that proposal. But that’s for the future. As I work my way through these books, I will try to remember that every proposal has points of struggle, as Foucault calls them, points that are contested. Let’s start with the recognition that for many people, neoliberalism has successfully concealed the points of struggle from the people whose minds it has colonized.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons
========
Please note: the last post in this series was published at Naked Capitalism. It tries to explain privatization in terms of the forces that produced imperialism, and discusses Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas.
========
In Part 3 of The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt takes up Totalitarianism. She starts with the nature of people who succumb to a totalitarian movement. She distinguishes a totalitarian movement from a totalitarian state; the latter is a nation in which the totalitarian movement has taken over a nation and is functioning as the state. The leaders of totalitarian movements have enormous popular support in large part because they are charismatic people.

Totalitarian movements recruit support among the masses, a concept I take up in Part 3 of this series. The masses are superfluous people. They come from all classes, from the lowest to the highest. They have one thing in common: they stand outside the society, because they are not needed for any productive purpose, and do not participate in government or any other social institution. They have no identifiable common interests, in particular, no common economic interests.

Arendt says that democracies stand on two assumptions. First, people are involved with policy issues and participate in government. If they do not participate, it’s because they believe that there is an organized party or an institution that represents their views in the decision-making process. Second, the people who do not participate for some other reason are an irrelevant minority. Organized parties do not reach out to the non-participants, or try to recruit them. In the 1920s the number of non-participants grew rapidly, partly because a number of people were not needed for production and lost their sense of belonging, which is a precondition to participation; and partly because many ended their participation when they realized that their views were not in fact represented by the existing parties.

Totalitarian movements recruit among non-participants. Because they are not organized by economic or other interests, it isn’t necessary to use reasoned arguments to recruit them. A leader can emerge who expresses their fleeting passions and any prejudices or foolish ideas they share, or state some new idea with such fervor that it becomes a firm belief, without regard to reality. Suddenly that leader emerges at the head of a very large, very loud and often violent group, suddenly organized seemingly from nowhere.

Though they came from all classes, the masses shared the belief that

… the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent. P. 315.

The number of non-participants in Germany and Austria increased enormously in the wake of the defeat in WWI and the hyperinflation of Weimar, and the breakdowns in production that gave rise to high unemployment. The fact that this displacement from their role in society happened to many people at the same time did not stop individuals from judging themselves harshly, from blaming themselves. Arendt says that gradually these people lost interest in their own well-being, their sense of self-preservation. They put a bunch of abstract ideas ahead of their own well-being, their own interests.

Himmler, who knew so well the mentality of those whom he organized, described not only his SS-men, but the large strata from which he recruited them, when he said they were not interested in “everyday problems” but only “in ideological questions of importance for decades and centuries, so that the man … knows he is working for a great task which occurs but once in 2,000 years.” The gigantic massing of individuals produced a mentality which, like Cecil Rhodes some forty years before, thought in continents and felt in centuries. Page 316, fn omitted.

The key to understanding the role of the individual in a totalitarian movements is this:

Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals. Compared with all other parties and movements, their most conspicuous external characteristic is their demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. This demand is made by the leaders of totalitarian movements even before they seize power. It usually precedes the total organization of the country under their actual rule and it follows from the claim of their ideologies that their organization will encompass, in due course, the entire human race.

The totalitarian movement demands absolute loyalty, and cannot bear any ties other than to the movement. It cannot abide any other claims on the loyalty or the feelings of people under its control, whether to institutions or to other people, even families.

The characteristics of people caught up in a totalitarian movement fit the needs of the movement.

1. They are separated from their society and have no close social relations outside their families.

2. They are not members of any organized party, and frequently have never participated actively in any political action.

3. They are alienated from the political structures of their society, and specifically, they believe that the politicians and other authority figures in power are frauds and incompetents, and that these leaders are the cause of their situation.

4. They respond to the charisma of the leader of the totalitarian movement.

5. They have lost their sense of self-preservation, and their sense of their own interests, substituting abstract issues and intense loyalty to the charismatic leader.

The usual explanation of the rise of Trump and Cruz given by the center-left is that a large number of US citizens have strong authoritarian streaks, that they like the idea of a strong man willing to take on the burden of governance and lead the US back to greatness, whatever that means to them. I think a lot of people leap from this idea to the idea that authoritarianism is a short step from fascism, and then they conclude that Trump represents a sort of proto-fascist smovement. Arendt gives us a broader way of thinking about our right wing problems.