Roundtable in Australian Humanities Review: “What is the Western canon good for?”

Monique Rooney arranged a roundtable in the most recent issue of Australian Humanities Review around an essay of mine entitled “What is the Western canon good for?” Nina Power and other luminaries have graciously provided responses.

On ‘identity politics’

For a good few years now, ‘the left’ has been repeatedly returning to arguments about ‘identity politics’ – whether it’s a proper concern for left political debate and struggle, whether it’s compatible with an analysis of class, whether it’s a distraction, or liberal, or ‘sour-faced’ etc etc. But it seems like these conversations often assume that everybody know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘identity politics’. I don’t think that’s the case – or, better, I think that often critiques or dismissals of ‘identity politics’ are doing two quite different things, although sometimes they’re both happening at the same time and are not easy to disentangle from one another.

Sometimes critiques of identity politics are just the boring Marxist assertion that class comes first and everything else is a distraction (usually combined with some degree of contempt for people of colour, women, queer people etc). And sometimes they are an attempt to distinguish between the liberal politics which demands the inclusion of a wider range of identities within the existing order (so the institution of marriage is fine, it just needs to be extended to same sex couples; liberal democracy is fine, it just needs to be extended to women or black people) and the radical politics which says that the exclusion of particular identities from the existing order offers an insight into the ways in which the existing order is totally fucked and needs to be overthrown.

Žižek, for example, does both of these things, but because he doesn’t engage with radical forms of ‘identity politics’ the impact of his argument on his readers seems to be mostly to encourage the assumption that it’s just not important to think about racism, the gendered construction of class, etc. Which perhaps suggests a useful way of distinguishing between helpful critiques of identity politics and unhelpful ones: is this just a way of saying that concerns about racism, sexuality, colonialism etc. aren’t important, or is it a critique of liberal demands for inclusion which leave the existing system basically intact (although, as Amaryah points out, sometimes identity politics in this mode are not about liberalism so much as survival pending revolution)? If the latter, then where is the radical analysis of the structuring roles that white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and so on and so on play in the existing order of things so that we can’t fully address them without a properly revolutionary politics?

The Funny Games Presidency

Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games portrays a bourgeois family that is gradually destroyed by two anonymous men with an appetite for cruelty. In the face of these destructive nihilists, all the victims’ instincts — negotiation, compromise, and submission — serve only to prolong their suffering. The invaders have no long-term goal, hence there is no “getting it over with” or “meeting their demands.” They cannot be paid off or otherwise satisfied. All they want is dominance and control for its own sake.

We are now entering into the Funny Games presidency. There have been many attempts to make sense of Trump’s beliefs and strategies, and in the thinkpiece literature, he seems to alternate between being an undefeatable genius and an incompetent child. The truth, in my view, is that he is something like a genius in one very narrow field: asserting dominance. The baseline condition for that dominance is that Trump should be the center of attention, with everyone reacting to him.

As long as people are responding to him, he has control over the situation — and as long as he has control over the situation, there is no way out, because he has no other end goal. He cannot be bought off or satisfied and made to go away. As soon as he recognizes that you want something, that gives him leverage over you, and since he is a total nihilist, there is no reciprocal leverage over him. He will only give to you in the context of maintaining his dominance and control. Hence his tendency to tell his followers “what they want to hear,” which always turns out to be Trump’s brazen lies. What is most shocking in this context is how casual those lies most often are. If we review the infamous speech where he proclaimed that all Mexican immigrants are rapists, he does not particularly emphasize that remark. It’s as though he’s “just throwing it out there,” almost like he’s brainstorming.

Trump uses language as a weapon. His utterances are all tactical moves to maintain initiative and destroy his opponents. Hence his tendency, on display last night, to simply throw an accusation back at the accuser. Trump won the election under dubious circumstances, so he hallucinates a situation where Hillary won the popular vote under dubious circumstances. Trump is one of the most corrupt men alive, so he coins the nickname Crooked Hillary. We could multiply examples. The goal is not counterargument — I don’t know if he expects people to take his words literally, or indeed if he’s even thinking consciously to that extent — but to make argument impossible, to take away that weapon from his opponent. If there is no truth, then everything returns to his home territory of aggression and dominance.

He seems to know how to control himself — for instance, to use flattery as he did in his NYT meeting, or to let his opponent twist in the wind, as he did after the Comey revelations. He knows how to string people along and give them false hope. But he cannot sustain those behaviors because they are not where he lives. They are indirect means to dominance, and he prefers to achieve that goal more directly.

How does one deal with Trump? If we stick with the Funny Games example, it seems that the only solution is not to let him into your house in the first place. Once that initial bridge is crossed, he may come to control reality to such an extent that even extreme action proves ineffective.

On taking the Electoral College literally

A lot of stupid things have been said about the Electoral College since it apparently handed Trump the presidency. Much of it is in the vein of Federalist Papers fan-fiction, as in an article that is so stupid that I refuse to link it, which argues that the Electoral College was designed to save us from demagogues like Trump — ignoring the fact that it’s only because of the Electoral College that we’re even in this situation to begin with. In discussions I’ve had on Facebook, there is also a lot of talk of how the popular vote is not a good rallying cry because the campaigns would have behaved differently under a non-EC regime. And of course, there’s also the fact that the popular vote has no binding legal significance.

All these discussions seem to me to elide the distinction between legality and legitimacy. On the Federalist Papers fan-fiction side, we see the position that since the EC is legal, it must be legitimate — i.e., it must have a positive purpose (saving us from demagogues, for instance), despite its negative effects (actually giving us two demagogues within our lifetimes). And the reluctance to use the popular vote mismatch as a rallying cry makes a similar mistake from the opposite direction: since there is no such thing as abstract legitimacy apart from legal reality, we had best accept our fate.

I refuse to accept the EC result as legitimate, in this case or in the 2000 case. George W. Bush never should have been president, full stop. The fact that he was ultimately elected to a second term does not validate the injustice that he took office in the first place — giving him a position that made it much easier for him to mislead and manipulate the American people into giving him power again after he illegitimately seized it. The popular vote is flawed due to the EC regime, but it obviously has greater democratic legitimacy from any perspective. Gore should have been inaugurated in 2000, and Clinton should be inaugurated now. I utterly refuse to concede on that “should.”

Of course, there seems to be very little chance that the current EC result will be overturned. Even if Stein’s recount efforts — for which she is being mocked and derided by fatalistic, defeatist Democrats — wind up changing some state results, hitting the trifecta seems unlikely. And of course, relying on partisan Republicans to “do the right thing” is a fool’s errand in the best of circumstances. And while we’re being “realistic,” it’s probably not politically feasible to amend the Constitution to remove the Electoral College — due to absurd constraints that are themselves illegitimate in my view. The Founders themselves ignored the provisions for replacing the Articles of Confederation when designing the current Constitution; some day, we need to have the courage to do the same.

What should happen in the meantime, then? Admittedly, this is not actionable — I am not an Elector and am in no position to influence any of them — but it’s interesting to play out the possibilities. The most intellectually satisfying way to think of it, in my view, is the way that some Electors reportedly are viewing their activities: if they take the Constitution at its word and act like independent agents exercising their own discretion, then that in itself will delegitimate the Electoral College, regardless of whether the overall result is changed.

What allows the EC to function is the fact that convention (and often state law) has tended to treat it as a purely mechanistic affair. The winner of each states just “gets” the EC votes of that state. The actual vote of the EC usually does not garner significant media coverage, as most citizens seem content with the idea that the news media plays the de facto role of announcing who won. But it remains the case that there are 538 nameable individuals who in fact select the president. They are chosen for their promise to behave in a machine-like way in ratifying the official EC result, backed by a lifetime of partisan loyalty, which reinforces the impression of a purely impersonal mechanism, but they are living, breathing human agents who are in fact selecting the president.

If this fact became vividly undeniable, then the EC would suddenly be intolerable. Actualizing the EC as “originally intended” would immediately delegitimate it — which shows that it is de facto illegitimate right now. Taking it literally breaks the spell. From a Schmittian perspective, breaking that spell is indeed a risky move, and I don’t pretend to know what would happen if, for instance, the Electoral College did choose Hillary Clinton. Maybe it wouldn’t be worth it. Maybe it would break a much bigger spell. But the fact is that the Electoral College is a ticking timebomb, a standing affront to all common sense democratic instincts. All that allows it to keep happening is a constant charade that it isn’t happening — that it’s an impersonal mechanism, that it fulfills some valuable function, that it isn’t 538 individual flesh-and-blood human beings who have the privilege of choosing the president every four years.

Scott Erik Kaufman

I was very saddened to learn of the death of Scott Erik Kaufman. It is shocking to lose such a giant among bloggers at such a young age. Everyone who participated in the often tumultuous debates in the early days of academic blogging will remember him as a tireless and generous interlocutor, the kind of person who will stridently disagree with you throughout a 30-comment exchange and then try to recruit you as a co-blogger. More broadly, he blazed a trail from academia to online writing that others have followed, though not with the same energy and flair.

My personal favorite post of his is DISADVENTURE!, a parody of a text-based adventure game where the player must write a dissertation — and characteristically, I now see that there are actually seven further installments. I invite others to share their favorite posts and memories.

2 Trump 2 Neoliberalism

At New APPS, Gordon Hull has a good response to my post on Trump and neoliberalism, where he argues that Trump can be construed as broadly neoliberal due to his emphasis on branding and competition. There is nothing in the post that I would strongly dispute, and I think that in part it’s a terminological question. Certainly I wouldn’t claim that Trumpism is intellectually robust enough to constitute a radical break with the logic of neoliberalism, so I can understand calling him a mutation rather than something else. When I said that Trump personally isn’t neoliberal, I meant that he’s basically too ignorant to be a principled, self-conscious neoliberal, which does not exclude him being shaped by neoliberalism in the ways Hull lists.

As I ponder Trump’s infrastructure plan, which Krugman critiqued yesterday, I think that we could say that Trumpism is where neoliberalism shades over into open corruption. It always looks like corruption, but Trump’s vision takes the “public-private partnership” to a new level in terms of supporing rent-extraction by wealthy capitalists. That makes sense once you realize that Trump is basically nothing but a corrupt property developer, and if Trumpism’s corruption produces a public outcry while (as is likely) failing to deliver the promised economic boom, that does increase the likelihood of a return to “normal” neoliberalism if no serious left option is on the table.

The problem, as I see it, is that at a conceptual level, all the options for managing capitalism have been done. Whether we’re talking about Keynesianism, neoliberalism, or outright “crony capitalism” — which were all conveniently personified in this election by Sanders, Clinton, and Trump, respectively — all of them are models that presume that capitalist accumulation will be taking place and use specific strategies to promote it while redirecting the proceeds in some way. Capitalist accumulation is a very powerful engine for creating material plenty and technological progress, but we are increasingly reaching the point of diminishing returns when it comes to just letting the thing run and using its leftovers for socially important goals. The undiscovered country is a model that would actually direct production, that would determine that certain things need to happen regardless of whether surplus value can be extracted from them.

Trump and neoliberalism

In Australia and New Zealand, I was often asked after my lectures whether I thought Trump was a neoliberal. I answered that since neoliberalism is a specific set of ideas, it was unlikely to be within Trump’s grasp. Then, on a more serious note, I said that I really don’t think he is neoliberal and that I would actually prefer standard neoliberalism to Trump. Indeed, that preference guided my vote for Hillary Clinton, the virtual incarnation of neoliberalism, over Trump.

If we grant for the moment that Trump is not neoliberal, how does the Trump phenomenon stand in relationship to neoliberalism? The most common narrative seems to be that neoliberalism atomizes the social body, leading to a right-wing explosion of nationalism or other revanchist forms of social identification. In this narrative, the right-wing reaction is somehow external to neoliberalism — it just so happens that these national or racial identities persist from previous eras, as it were — but necessarily entailed as a predictable backlash. This narrative strikes me as a variation on the well-known theory that racial and national identities are extrinsic “distractions” from the reality of economic exploitation.

I don’t find that narrative very satisfying as an answer. Read the rest of this entry »