Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Neoliberal War on Imagination


I spoke recently with Tom O'Brien of the From Alpha to Omega podcast.  Tom asked me about zombie films and their political freight.  He also asked me about Occupy Wall Street. He thought that I would have an opinion about OWS because, as long-time C-Realm listeners know, I made two visits to NYC during the late summer and fall of 2011 when OWS first manifested as the occupation of Zucotti Park. I made casual visits to the encampment, collected interviews and provided an account of my experiences in C-Realm Podcast episodes 280: OWS - the Spark and 281: The One Percent Narrative.

In those early days, when OWS had the support of local unions and thousands of people assembled to chant “We are the 99%” and “This is what democracy looks like,” I let the energy and excitement of the moment sweep me up in the dream of a revolutionary ground-swell that would lead to a rapid transformation of the political and economic landscape.  I described to Tom the great anticipation and subsequent disappointment that I experienced around the form that Occupy Wall Street would ultimately take in the spring and summer of 2012. By then, I was living in Brooklyn, and I was excited to see what OWS would look like after a rejuvenating winter time-out. From my vantage point, Occupy’s 2012 incarnation basically fizzled.

It seemed like the establishment had made better use of the winter hiatus than had the activists, and OWS did not manage to reclaim the space it had won in the corporate media conversation the previous fall. It was as though the champions of the mainstream worldview had effectively neutralized the challenge from OWS. Then came Hurricane Sandy in the late fall of 2012, which left some of NYC’s previously under-served and marginalized communities like Far Rockaway, without electricity, potable water, or respite from the cold and with little prospect of immediate relief coming from the city, state, or federal government. This was Occupy’s opportunity to demonstrate mutual aid, spontaneous organization and community-building, and they performed well above my expectations.

After my conversation with Tom O’Brien, I heard from Josh Fuhrman (a Friend of the C-Realm). He directed me to an excerpt from David Graeber’s new book The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement, which appeared as a freestanding essay in the web magazine The Baffler. In it, Graeber describes the long-term effects that the organized opposition to the Vietnam war had on American foreign policy and the use of military force in the decades since. Graeber argues that the protests exercised a lasting influence on the tactics and priorities of the power elite in managing the worldview and containing the imagination of the American populace.   I wish that I had read that essay prior to recording my conversation with Tom, because in it Graeber clearly articulates notions about the Occupy movement that I was struggling to clarify in that podcast interview.  

Graeber explains that, in the United States,  the global revolution of 1968  took the form of an alliance  between students, dropouts, and other marginal players who united in opposition to the Vietnam War.  The popular view of those protests is that they failed to remove the United States from that theater of war any sooner than would have happened without the protests. Graeber argues that a longer term view shows something different. As a result of those protests, the United States would not commit American soldiers to a massive ground war for another 30 years.  

When 9/11 broke the US out of that pattern, the fear of domestic resistance to the war caused military planners to hamstring themselves. Thinking that the loss of American lives would spark protest on the homefront, the architects of the War on Terror made keeping US casualties to a minimum their overriding priority. They did this even though minimizing American body counts meant imposing such hardships on the civilian populations of Iraq and Afghanistan that it made both wars essentially unwinnable from a military perspective.  The US war planners understood that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan posed any threat to a geopolitical order which much of the world identifies as neoliberalism, but which the United States simply calls "freedom." The over-arching concern of the defenders of the status quo seems to be that a massive organized resistance to US military hegemony could grow into a coordinated expression of discontent against the neoliberal worldview.

“Clearly, an antiwar movement in the sixties that is still tying the hands of U.S. military planners in 2012 can hardly be considered a failure. But it raises an intriguing question: What happens when the creation of that sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power?” -David Graeber

Graeber then describes his experience attending a protest intended to disrupt a series of IMF meetings in Washington DC in 2002.  The police presence and their overbearing tactics quashed any notion that the protests might succeed, and Graeber left the scene feeling defeated and depressed.  He later learned that the IMF had canceled many of the scheduled meetings. In practice, the police security measures meant to prevent organized protest of the meetings, became so onerous to the attendees that it was easier for them to  conduct their meetings online than in person.  The protests, which, to the protesters themselves, seemed like such a washout, turned out to have been really quite effective.  

This set Graeber to wondering if perhaps the ultimate goal of the neoliberal establishment is to maintain the sense of powerlessness among citizens and to prevent them from imagining any large-scale change to the economic and political order.  Could it be that the highest priority for the neoliberal establishment is to maintain a demoralized state of mind in people who do not support the system but who have no sense that they could choose something different? Neoliberalism is, after all, something which Americans are not even supposed to recognize as being just one set of political and economic arrangements among many possibilities. The corporate media imposes such strict discipline on the American vocabulary that financialized capitalism of the neoliberal variety is only identified using terms like “free trade” and “the free market.” Neoliberalism itself must not be named, much less examined or challenged.


The philosophy of neoliberalism, as Graeber describes it, holds that the primary objective of government is to foster economic growth, and that all other social goods will flow from the ingenuity of the people operating freely in the market and in an environment of economic growth.  That means that governments must subordinate all other concerns to growth. If, in the short term, that growth seems  incompatible with human rights or with peaceful international relations, then governments must still take action to foster growth even at the short-term expense of peace or human rights.

For me, the key insight that Graeber communicates in this essay is that if fostering economic growth really were the primary objective of the neoliberal agenda, then its effectiveness over the last thirty years is certainly underwhelming.  If, on the other hand, the primary objective of neoliberal policies has been to foster the widespread belief that no other economic system is possible, then it has achieved a resounding victory. Even though this system, which Graeber describes as "financialized, semi-feudal capitalism," is clearly not fostering reliable growth, much less providing the majority of people with meaningful work, it has succeeded gloriously in preventing the majority of Imperial American subjects from considering alternatives to the neoliberal order.

David Graeber describes the campaign to make the current global economic arrangements seem like the only possible choice as a “war on imagination.”  The actions of military planners and police seem to support the idea that the highest priority of the system is the perpetuation of the assumption that, as the late Margaret Thatcher so famously put it, “There is no alternative.”

From here, David Graeber went on to echo something I had heard from Federico Pistono, the author of ROBOTS WILL STEAL YOUR JOB BUT THAT’S OK: How To Survive the Economic Collapse and Be Happy.  Federico was the guest on C-Realm podcast episode 352: Drive, Flow, Purpose. In his book and in our recorded conversation, Federico makes the point that, for several decades, automation has been displacing workers and destroying jobs faster than it creates new types of employment and that the process is about to accelerate with, for example, self-driving cars eliminating the jobs of millions of truck and cab drivers. As artificial intelligence grows more subtle, adaptable, and better able to navigate the vagaries of working in the physical world, that process will not only continue, but will exacerbate our economic woes.  

One mental stricture that keeps human society from responding adaptively to current circumstances and technological trends is the unquestioned belief that employment is a good unto itself and that people must work a job in order to justify their continued existence. In other words, we treat the notion that everybody must earn a living as an unquestioned article of faith.

Federico's position is that if we fail to break our ideological commitments to the value of work, we will create enormous ecosystems of unnecessary employment that will consume enormous amounts of resources that could and should be put to much better use.  Warning of the dangers inherent in addressing the future while maintaining the assumption that people must work a job in order to live, Federico writes:

“I can envision a plethora of futures where everyone has a job. One job could be to show up at the office, sit down, look busy, and read emails all day. Another could be to look at robots working, and make sure nothing is wrong. The fact that only one in ten thousand robots fail over the course of a week, and that one supervisor per facility would suffice matters not. We can have hundreds of supervisors. And then supervisors of supervisors. And then managers, and managers of managers, up in the food chain. We can fabricate new diseases, and then create professions to cure those fictitious illnesses. Finally – desires, as economists teach us, are infinite, therefore we can perpetually generate things to fulfil those desires, however frivolous or whimsical they might be. While this may sound laughable to some of you, it may also sound striking similar to what we are already doing today.” -Federico Pisotono

Federico concludes that the idea that everyone must earn a living is a spurious conceit that we must eliminate before we squander our resources trying to give every human a job to do in an environment in which artificial intelligence and robotics are eliminating whole categories of human labor.

Not only will the newly created jobs serve invented needs, but they will mostly fail to provide people with any sense of meaning or challenge because the work, by its very nature, is unnecessary, and so if it is done poorly or not done at all, the only consequences will be invented consequences in the way that we invent and impose harsh consequences on people who cultivate illegal plants.

Not only will the failure to perform unnecessary work have no meaningful consequences, but the diligent pursuit of the duties of those made-up jobs won't produce any tangible good.  Such work can provide no sense of accomplishment unless one takes seriously accolades like employee of the month or top sales achiever for the year.

In Federico's view, and in my own, the belief that every human must toil and earn a living serves mainly to prevent people from imagining any alternative.  It is one piece of a belief system that serves the neoliberal establishment's goal of quashing any inkling of an alternative vision.

As I was reading David Graeber's ideas about the self-reinforcing agenda of the neoliberal establishment, I recognized a part of his argument from my recent forays into the writings of Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber.  In his manifesto, Kaczynski debunked the notion of the leftist crusader as a rebel who opposes the techno-industrial system by pointing out that you cannot oppose the system in terms of the system's own values.  

If an activist opposes the polluting practices of some industry on the grounds that pollution harms human health and imposes a burden on local communities, the system can relent and reform itself just enough to defuse the discontent which motivated the protest. This process of relenting and reforming actually makes the techno-industrial system more resilient. The would-be rebel, in pointing out the ways in which this system is out of alignment with its own professed values, strengthens the system against further criticism and protest. Kaczynski is particularly critical of would-be opponents of the techno-industrial system who focus on social justice issues.

“Many radicals fall into the temptation of focusing on non-essential issues like racism, sexism and sweatshops because it is easy. They pick an issue on which the system can afford a compromise and on which they will get support from people like Ralph Nader, Winona La Duke, the labor unions, and all the other pink reformers. Perhaps the system, under pressure, will back off a bit, the activists will see some visible result from their efforts, and they will have the satisfying illusion that they have accomplished something. But in reality they have accomplished nothing at all toward eliminating the techno-industrial system.” -Theodore Kaczynski


To actually oppose and weaken the system, the would-be revolutionaries must oppose the system on grounds that the system cannot accept.  Kaczynski gives the example of biotechnology.  You cannot weaken the techno-industrial system by arguing that biotechnology is harmful to human health because promoting human health is a value that the system supports. The system can implement new safety standards, new methodological protocols and monitoring systems.  

In fact, increased regulation is good news for the powerful.  When government imposes a new monitoring regime and establishes new requirements for the biotech industry, that actually strengthens the established players in the techno-industrial system because onerous regulations favor the large companies that can afford to devote considerable resources to regulatory compliance. The burden of complying with government regulation raises the bar to entry into that sector and prevents the established players from having to worry about competition from upstart competitors.

If, on the other hand, one opposes biotechnology on the grounds that it is an affront to nature, God or the sanctity of life, those are not values that the system can agree with or on which it can afford to give ground.  When pushed at a point where the system cannot afford to give ground it can only reject the complaint as baseless. Critics who continue to push where the system cannot afford to give ground can expect to be denounced and vilified, and if they assemble in large numbers, they can expect violent repression from the system.

The rebel, Kaczynski argues, doesn’t want to reform the system. The rebel wants to provoke the system. The rebel wants a fight.  The critic who continues to push when the system responds with violence and repression rather than minimal compromise and reform is the true rebel.

David Graeber makes the argument in his new book, The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement, that one place where critics of the system can oppose the current neoliberal establishment is on the moral value of work and debt. A central tenet of the neoliberal orthodoxy, and one on which it cannot afford to give ground, is the idea that people must pay their debts. This belief has some under-appreciated nuances. For example, it seems beyond question that powerless people who earn money with their labor must honor their debts to wealthy people and organizations that make money by financial speculation and collecting tribute. In stark contrast, the debts that the powerful owe to one another are negotiable. The debts that the powerless owe to the powerful are sacrosanct and must be honored, even if paying them off is mathematically impossible.

“The morality of debt and the morality of work are the most powerful ideological weapons in the hands of those running the current system. That’s why they cling to them even as they are effectively destroying everything else. It’s also why debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand.” -David Graeber

Returning to the theme of the war on imagination, I wonder what I can do to empower people to imagine over, around, or through the roadblock of debt as moral obligation and employment as a good unto itself. Learning the real history of current institutions is a good start. Graeber informs his readers that the framers of the US Constitution, our so-called Founding Fathers, deliberately and explicitly designed our system to preserve privilege for the few and to prevent the mob from exercising democratic power to cancel debts and redistribute land. The propaganda that institutions present to children (and to childish adults) as history rarely benefits from a grown-up examination of actual history.

I enjoy history, but I’m no expert, so the project of aiding the human imagination by teaching it to use historical jiujitsu against the neoliberal establishment will have to be one for the long-term. I welcome your suggestions.





1 comment:

Daniel Kirk said...

I've recently been thinking about the nature of freedom and if it is possible to be free. In your post you talk about debt, and that is where people's ability to be free becomes limited. David Graeber says that, "...debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand." Real freedom would also require cancellation of tax debt.

Debt like credit card debt or loan debt is something we can pay off or get out of. We can avoid it from the beginning or acquire significant enough wealth to pay off what we have. What we cannot avoid is tax debt.

Since the globe is sliced up into nation states, and those states demand that we pay them for services that we have never signed up for, we cannot live freely. Some may argue that the state protects our freedoms, and in the best places it may, just enough to satisfy just enough of the population to avoid serious uprisings.

We live under the constant threat that even if we can sustain ourselves by the fruits of our labor to an acceptable level of comfort without loan debt, tax debt could rob us of all we have during moments of weakness when we are too old, too sick, or unable to sell enough of what we make to satisfy the revenuers.

In the system that we live in now, tax debt will haunt us until our deaths. We cannot live nowhere. We have to rent, own, or squat. The first two options require some kind of property, which is taxable. The third option, H. D. Thoreau's choice, means always living with the fear of eviction.

Even if we hold no debt to banks or other creditors, the state will keep us on the employment hamster wheel just to cover our tax debt.