WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

I.

Agustin Rodriguez wrote, back in 2009, that representing the marginalized will remain problematic as long as we do not recognize that they operate on a different rationality, a reality starkly different from our dominant modes of representing social reality (especially its noticeably Western and cosmopolitan modes of representation). The context behind his observation was the aftermath of the second EDSA People Power Revolution of 2001 which caused the downfall of President Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada, a president who ran on a clear populist platform, claiming his close affinity and genuine concern for the masses.[1] The downfall of President Estrada saw a wave of reactionary protests by supporters of the deposed president who, by then, was facing multiple cases of graft and corruption. Supporters flocked to Erap’s residence to stage a vigil for the deposed president and denounce the prosecution as a vindictive act of selective justice imposed by the political elite against the ally of the masses. This political drama reached its climax when the supporters of the deposed president tried to stage their own EDSA People Power Revolution (mockingly referred to as “EDSA Tres”) and their own storming of Malacañan palace, an event marked by violence when police and security forces fired on the demonstrators. For Rodriguez, the reactionary demonstration at the aftermath of the second EDSA Revolution were attempts by the marginalized to express itself according to its own terms and assert its autonomy from an elite-led dominant mode of social representation.

The political language of the time was filled with appeals to the “masses”. President Estrada is an ally and defender of the masses (despite being part of the social elite and that the only semblance of Erap being a defender of the masses was of him portraying poor people in action movies); his political supporters call themselves the “Puwersa ng Masa” (Power of the People); EDSA Tres was the “EDSA Revolution of the masses”, led by the masses for the masses. The popular appeal of Erap’s presidency owed itself to the populist appropriation of leftist rhetoric. This historical malady became significant because of the reaction from the political mainstream: liberals and social democrats event the communist left denounced the demonstrations and disowned its participants.[2] For Rodriguez, the disparity between the masses who supported Erap and the reactions of the political mainstream prove that the masses by itself have their own modes of thinking—one that is characterized by its repressed outrage against the political system and a distinctively rural conservatism where social relations are built by system of mutual reciprocity and patriarchal and filial patronage. This is a mass totally different from the organized sector of workers, farmers, and urban poor who are part of the progressive and leftist sectors of Filipino politics. I leave it to sociologists and anthropologists to better described the specific details of the ethnic character of the “masses”. My primary concern lies on Rodriguez specific point: the masses, as the wholly Other of our political discourse, operate on a rationality (which in Lacanian terms can be read as a distinct symbolic system) that is different from the one that forms the set of representations of our democratic institutions. This resulted in the masses seeing the state as an intrusive entity that oppresses its daily life with concepts that it could not understand much less participate in.[3]

Between the state and the marginalized masses is an irreconcilable gap, wherein a minimal correlation can only be established by a fragile discursive action based on mutual respect and recognition that the Other could never be fully assimilated within the dominant system. Rodriguez is clearly aware of the place of his theory’s enunciation i.e. as a university discourse trying to produce a discourse of the unknowable and inconsistent entity that stands in clear contrast to dominant forms of political representation. For that reason, he is content with a simple ethical solution that maintains the otherness of the other (that it cannot be totalized) as a political constant.

I find this both problematic and radical at the same time. Rodriguez’s theory of the masses is problematic primarily because it sees the masses as a “hyperobject”. Speculative realists define hyperobjects as objects whose magnitude and properties always exceed human cognition and its structuring abilities (Timothy Morton); objects, therefore, have their own realities and sets of relations acting independently of cognitive and epistemological structures (Graham Harman). The same can be said of the marginalized masses: “a marginalized majority comprehends the world through the optics of its various rationalities.”[4] The masses possess their own cognitive mapping and, thus, have their own object-world, containing its own inside and outside.[5] This implies that we do not merely have multiplicities of rationalities, but multiplicities of technically irreconcilable realities in perpetual contradiction with each other.

Thus, when Rodriguez writes of the state, bureaucracy, and government mechanisms as being alien to the marginalized, he makes a disavowed admission of the contradiction between the marginalized and the democratic institutions that represent them. This is where we can find the radical aspect of Rodriguez’s position. He describes an uncomfortable political reality: we can no longer speak of the masses as the political agent capable of knowing its objective conditions and who can, based on such knowledge, properly express its demands and aspirations. Unfortunately, the masses exhibit a kind of masochistic jouissance that Jean-Francois Lyotard found in the English unemployed. “They enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening.”[6] Income inequality, precarious labor conditions, and the lack of robust systems of public services have made poverty an inescapable reality for the masses especially in the city and the provinces (intensified by feudal land ownership and primitive accumulation); faced with this grim reality the masses, limited by their cognitive mapping based on popular religiosity, traditional values, and filial patronage, see their condition as a vicious circle of temporary pleasures and constant poverty, a reality enforced by an unwavering faith in spiritual reward or with a fatal nihilism that builds up their repressed outrage against the system finding its expression in anti-social resentment.

For the above reasons, we can no longer ascribe to the masses the privileged political agency of insurrectionary and millenarian justice. The theoretical twist of the 21st century is that the much maligned populist wave gained its political legitimacy from the masses.

II.

            Poverty does not make the masses unaware of the objective conditions of their place in the capitalist economy; on the contrary, they fully know and experience the objective conditions of their situation, but they nonetheless see it as inevitable and unchanging reality that can only be altered by a power beyond themselves.

Thus what we lack is a proper conception of subjectivity. It could not be ascribed to the masses in its present condition, but in what it can be in the face of present political situations. A theory of subjectivity rejects any notion of political spontaneity from the margins. There is more to political agency that the act of intervention into the present state of things, it is a process by which agents, as a community, formulate and assert a conceptual structure for itself, one that it builds in clear contradiction from its present state.

Subjectivity as a technique of conceptual production holds that any act or a program for action, always emerges from the struggle of a community of subjects to build a conceptual notion for itself. Hence, neither an event nor the logic of the non-all can guarantee a subjective position; it is in the difficult struggle to define and maintain a communal stable conceptual notion that they become subjects. Consider the struggle of the urban poor led by members of Kadamay advocating for public housing, the struggle of the organized workers combatting precarious labor, unsafe work conditions, and low wages, or the struggle of the disenfranchised farmers demanding agrarian reform and access to agricultural technology; these struggles are not simply defined by the events that turn them to political subjects or by the mere discovery of their place as part of no part of the neoliberal economy. Their act of struggle by which the transcendental unity of capitalist ideology is destabilized, is formed by their struggle to conceptualize themselves in relation to the changes and conditions of political reality. Moments of failure and small success become points of struggle for subjects to examine and strengthen the conceptual notions of their communal identity.

Subjectivity as the constant struggle of a community to create and perceive themselves as conceptual artefacts demands more political hard work and competency among political agents. But isn’t the hard work and constant militancy the essence of emancipatory politics?

[1] This political rhetoric worked in 1998 when, during the administration of Fidel Ramos, a policy of privatization of public utilities (like water distribution, power generation and distribution) and economic deregulation led to the enrichment of the both the entrenched oligarchy and the new oligarchs (who emerged wealthy and politically absolved after the Marcos dictatorship) at the expense of the urban poor who face precarious employment and stagnant wages, made worst by weak public services.

[2] Agustin Martin Rodriguez, Governing the Other: Exploring the Discourse of Democracy in a Multiverse of Reason (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2009), p. 200.

[3] Rodriguez 2009, 11.

[4] Rodriguez 2009, 42.

[5] Francis Wolff, Dire le Monde, pp. 11-12 quoted from Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 6.

[6] Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton-Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 214.

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WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

Introduction to a text called “A Critique of Ascetic Reason”

I am releasing a draft of a projected work on Ascetic Reason. The reader should be aware that the text is a work in progress (and might be in such a situation in perpetuity).

In some cases, some of projected essays might appear in this blog

access it here: preface-to-a-text-called-a-critique-of-ascetic-reason

Introduction to a text called “A Critique of Ascetic Reason”

Spartan Socialism or the Formation of a New Socialist Leisure Class

Socialist dystopias portray the reality of socialism in bleak images: a totalitarian surveillance society, post-war nuclear fallouts, the depressing situation of the everyday man lining up for bread, and so on. But what they portray with bleak images serve to advance a point where the individual man resists against all the mechanisms of the state. The underlying liberal politics of these dystopias tries to warn its audiences about the dangers of aspiring to build a utopia based on the ideas of a perfect society of fairness and economic equality. In their own right, dystopias prefigured Fukuyama’s end of history that by depicting an impossible future, history has already reached its pinnacle in the Anglo-American ethos of individual freedoms and market society.

A few dystopian novels depict a multivalent socialist reality. Andrei Platonov and Alexander Bogdanov’s sci-fi utopias slowly gain the attention of contemporary theorists (Mckenzie Wark most prominent among them), because of their depiction of a socialist utopia as a struggle for the creation of a new collective culture and a new relation to the Earth. However, it is in Platonov’s Happy Moscow that we find the disjointedness of socialist life as the gap between the utopian aspirations of Stalin’s USSR and the actual life of everyday Muscovites. The comedic aspect in Platonov’s story is the ambiguous character of Moscow Chestnova who embodies the aspiration of Stalin’s vision of a new socialist people and culture and the remnants of the old Muscovite pre-Soviet cosmopolitanism.

Satire and sci-fi often portray reality far accurately than anything Socialist realism has portrayed. The latter often creates myth out of economic miracles and collective actions; the depiction of men and women moving in synchrony directed by the march of history in a divine ballet, epitomized in the Maoist Cultural Revolution cinematic operas, depict the singular body of the proletariat in a unified cultural and utopian goal. However, it is in the disjointed and satirical language that the gap between the fantasy of a unified proletariat under socialism and the attempt to satisfy the gaze of the big Other arises in the theatrical performance of collectivity.[1]

I mention these examples from sci-fi because of how the reality of really existing socialism’s failure is portrayed without the accompanied apologia for liberalism. We can still see the dialectical progress of the socialist vision, as a struggle to imagine a new culture for a new society and not just a state. This issue brings us to an interesting development in socialist administration.

One can argue all day whether Chinese market socialism reaffirms the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought or a lapse to a rightist revisionism within the party. Whatever course of action the Chinese communists have taken, the progress of Chinese socialism has led us to another development in socialist culture different from the collectivism of Leninism and Maoism. Roland Boer, optimistic about the developments of Chinese socialism, noted how the 19th Party Congress generated a renewed socialist culture: lessons on Marx and Mao were popular, the use of the word “comrade” reappeared in common use, and so on. In addition, the documents of the 19th Party Congress and the articulation of Xi-Jinping thought expressed the orientation of the Chinese government towards the free development of all (echoing Marx’s Manifesto), generating equal opportunities for its citizens. While the economic reforms generated a huge wealth gap between the new tycoons and the rest of the nation, the second decade of the 21st century saw that wealth gap slowly being bridged. This was achieved by raising the general populace to the middle class, concentrated in the urban centers. This generates a debate whether any state which takes the word “socialism” as its system should be oriented in the enrichment of its citizens or to the generation of an egalitarian culture (similar to Cuba and Venezuela). Whatever theoretical case we might take regarding this issue, it is necessary that we see it as a way of redefining what the proletariat means after the revolution.

In the case of China, while the party spoke of harmony, the Xiaokang society (小康社会), or “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”, one cannot deny that Chinese socialism is leading towards its own Spartan society, a Spartan socialism. Economic prosperity has lifted the lives of the Chinese people, building on the foundations laid down by Mao up to Xi; the market was simply an instrument by which other sectors of economic and social life can be improved and to boost the productivity of Chinese industry. The improvement of the lives of Chinese citizens however is a product of global market society. Production concentrated on Chinese factories, boosted by its discipline is aided by a new culture of consumerism in Japan and in the West reaping the rewards of the bubble economy, raising the demand for commodities. As the contradictions of the market society worsen and populisms in the West are pushing for economic protectionism, China has become the beacon of globalization, defending the well-oiled system of international production and exchange. But what it defends as the strong interconnection of the different potentialities of different nations obscures the fact that Chinese capitalism, in its dependence on African oil and minerals and production outsourcing in the third world, strengthens the Spartan mode of production that sustain its own Spartan egalitarian society.

Xi-Jinping thought pushes for harmony, not just among its own peoples and its state apparatus but also in the market, eliminating risky financial speculations and promoting the development of its neighbors. Chinese investments on agro-industrial technology, infrastructure, technology, and others boost its interests of maintaining the social harmony among its citizens. The new Chinese middle class is the new leisure class of global capitalism, a development in the conception of the proletariat that Marx and Engels have not envisioned. Communism, in theory, would make us more human, more ethical, and responsible for the collective development of our comrades. The Chinese middle class maintains that collective spirit, but in the collective pursuit of enjoyment and individual fulfillment. To maintain the middle class and its sense of fulfillment is the primary objective of the state. And to achieve this, it depends on a new class of helots from the global peripheries. Its domestic policy of equality and prosperity for all meets its obscene underside in the state’s economic attitudes with the rest of the world.

[1]It is an interesting reality that even Mao Zedong himself tries to out-Mao himself in the cultural revolution, while the leftist party apparatchik tried in a similar way to out-Mao Mao Zedong

Spartan Socialism or the Formation of a New Socialist Leisure Class

Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

The Jacobin Moses

Gance’s Napoleon concludes with the young general’s departure for the Italian campaign. What makes this climactic part interesting is not the novel panoramic triptych that allows us to view the sight in panorama even before panoramic cameras were used in film making before, but in the way the panorama determines both the past and the future as an organic whole. What Gance does with the triptych is to portray Napoleon’s Italian campaign as the beginning of his storied career. The film builds up to this scene by establishing Napoleon’s prodigy: as a child, he was astute and intelligent, hampered only by his Corsican descent. As a young officer in the army, he had to endure the oscillations in the revolution as well as the incompetence of the generals in the new revolutionary army. Hence, after suppressing a Royalist counterrevolution, Napoleon, given command of the Army of Italy (by then one of the Armies protecting France from Austrian incursions from the South). Before departing for Italy, he enters into an empty convention hall, the young general reflects on his plans not just for the campaign, but for the future of the revolution itself. Staring at an empty hall, the ghosts of the former members of the Convention appeared. In the midst of the different ghostly figures, the main icons of the revolution appeared. The ghosts of Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Saint-Just, and Couthon appeared before him, depicted as larger than life figures, occupying the screen in a double exposure sequence. The ghostly figure of Danton asks him about his plans, demanding from him the continuation of the revolution and its expansion beyond the borders of the country. The figure of Robespierre demanded that a strong authoritarian system of government had to be constructed to protect the revolution from its internal and external enemies. Amidst this ghostly figures, Bonaparte promises a unified Europe under a single Republic, the liberation of all men from crowned heads, and a centralized system of government. All the ingredient of a benevolent dictatorship. What Gance develops in this scene is to contrast the Italian campaign as part of Bonaparte’s own exodus and descent into the unknown.

ghosts of the revolution
The Ghosts of the revolution appears over Bonaparte

The appearance of the figures of Danton and Robespierre shows how Gance understood the legacies of Danton and Robespierre as two complementary ideals. Danton was the figure of the Republic and its roots in the popular sentiments of the masses. Robespierre, on the other hand, was the stern dictator and a cold pragmatist, seeing the need for strong authority to hold the revolution together as a cohesive system of government that can protect the interests of all citizens and not just the interests of the middle class. Gance’s portrayal of these two figures divides the two tendencies and abolishes the antagonism between the two. The growth and expansion of Republican ideals and the need for a centralized system of authority are two inherently antagonistic ideas that address the external and internal contradictions within the revolution. However, Gance performs a vulgar dialectic. Bonaparte is the figure where the expansion of the revolution and its stability are possible.

Gance depicts the figures of the revolution as the sole authority of the revolution; they are the authors who generated new ideas to create the revolution, inspire the people, and hold them together. The revolution as a cataclysmic event owes itself to the ideas of individuals and their approaches to the republican aspiration. What the Thermidorean reaction brought was stagnation, depicted as a chaotic storm of people. The appearance of the “gods of the revolution” before Bonaparte legitimizes him as the authentic continuation of the struggles of the revolution.

tryptich
Napleon, the Jacobin Moses

The speech he makes before the Army of Italy echoes the exodus narrative that Gance builds beforehand. The triptych scene depicts Bonaparte in the middle screen in a worm’s eye view, side by side with a shot of the army from a birds eye view. Both figures are framed as two parallel gazes of each other, creating a common fetish. Napoleon becomes the object of the gaze of the soldiers and the people are becomes the object of the gaze of the individual. Despite this relation’s inherent non-rapport, the rapport between the people and the the figure of the leader is mediated by the signifier by which the figure of the leader introduces to the dualism. In the case of Bonaparte, he makes a promise to the people: to lead them to the fertile plains of Piedmont and subjugate towns under their rule. This portrays that Bonaparte’s exodus into the the Italian campaign is their pilgrimage to the promised land and Bonaparte is their Jacobin Moses. The Grand Army is the Israel of the Egalitarian cause.

Romanticizing the Body of the Leader

Gance’s depiction of Napoleon relies on a fundamental Lacanian insight “desire is the desire of the Other”. The scene from the empty convention hall to the triptych portray Bonaparte as he sees his destiny in relation to the revolution’s expansion. The soldiers see Napoleon as the savior, the person that can deliver them to some form of dignified existence.

The important element in Gance’s depiction of Bonaparte is that he shows us not the desire itself, but the framing of desire as a formal system of relations. Bonaparte’s story is not a historical flick qua history as a narration. Its politics is not depicted through a set piece where lines in the books are spoken by actors. What Gance portrayed is not a Bonaparte that is simply a product of the politics of the revolution, but to portray a myth. Hence, we do not see a chronological retelling of important events in Bonaparte’s life, but of scenes that generate the myth.

Romanticizing the body of the leader entails that the story of an individual is a convergence of genius and the destiny set upon him by the high gods of the revolution. Life becomes an irony between determinism and the sheer force of the will. Destiny retroactively determines the contingent occurrences in an individual’s life and sees them as part of a singular narrative that leads solely to the destined point. Hence, the myth of the genius is generated: the precocious boy becomes suited for military campaign. The leader is a man with destiny inasmuch as he is a product of his own time and context.

The romanticization of the leader’s body is far from the idealist enforcement of the leader’s authority, but of a vulgar materialism that served as the obverse of a scholastic and theological realism, grounded on the divine. Its materialist expression is the central role of nature and of the human being as the foundation of values and systems of knowing. Hence, any populism is not built around the concept of an idea, but of an attempt to address concrete reality as part of a greater reality. The populist always seeks justification through a continuation of an ideal (the “spirit” of democracy or the revolution) set against a determined moment of stagnation. As a populist figure, Gance’s Bonaparte frames the general as the savior of the revolution, its genuine inheritor.

 

 

Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

Žižekian Political Pragmatism: On “The Courage of Hopelessness”

The Pressure of the Political

I just finished Slavoj Žižek’s recent work, The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a Year of Acting Dangerously (2017);  the subtitle of this book reflects his short book on politics published in 2012 as The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, but deviates from the fundamental spirit that informed his 2012 book. While in the 2012 book he dealt on the wave of protests that erupted in response to the financial crisis and the Arab spring protests that deposed well-entrenched Middle-East dictators, his recent  book on politics reflects the cynicism he always had with explosions of collective outbursts. Even in his The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, he expressed his dismay in the disintegration of the Bolivarian revolution to a caudillo administration, contradicting its grassroots base, and the explosion of new fundamentalisms that followed the Arab spring revolts (ISIS in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the sectarian division in Libya). In The Courage of Hopelessness, Žižek puts this same cynicism for calls for action against the interesting rise of right-wing populists from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen.

In combating the “Big Bad Wolf” of politics, the liberal-left is entrenched in making compromises with the establishment just to counteract its perceived enemy. This is embodied in the “Clinton compromise”; where Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is perceived as the only option to combat the vile character of Trump and the values he set against the liberal politically correct politics. Žižek saw this dynamic in the public space as the very deadlock of liberal-leftism that allowed for a figure of Trump to emerged. To put this in perspective, the candidacy of Trump is marked by his opportunism of middle-class woes, taking their problems and presenting them an enemy to blame, while at the same time presenting an economic policy that is moderate by Republican standards (nothing of that anarcho-capitalist pipe dream) from lower taxes to decreased government spending. In contrast, the Clinton compromise took the multi-culturalist and identity politics route and presented it side by side with the interests of Wall Street. Both candidates actually do not propose anything new to the political climate, but it was Trump’s clear pandering of common people’s problems that allowed the fundamental antagonisms in American politics to arise.

The defeat of Bernie Sanders indicates the lack of political imagination within the established Democratic Party, cementing its incapability to organize itself at the grassroots level, opting to make moral platitudes about unity in diversity, instead of embracing the fundamental antagonisms that split American society as a whole. The situation Žižek describes is the difficult situation of being pressured by the political. Sanders and Trump claimed to speak for the common people; while Trump utilized the woes of the common people to catapult his political victory and push for the Republican agenda, Sanders’ campaign synthesized multiculturalism and human rights activism and the basic Leftist stance of economic justice. The appeal of the Sanders campaign is precisely that it vocalized what cannot be said in American politics (if Sanders made such statements in the heyday of McCarthyism, he would’ve been called by the congress and made to admit of his association to the Communist Party and accused as a Soviet spy) i.e. the rift between ordinary Americans and the Wall Street elite that caused the economic collapse in 2008. The Clinton consensus took the multicultural struggle and human rights activism and threw the fundamental antagonism that informed it in Sanders’ campaign; the result was a highly PC discourse aimed at demonizing Trump and his supporters, while at the same time conniving with Wall Street elites and Middle Eastern financiers in a horrible rainbow coalition.

The Clinton compromise was an attempt to reduce the political to a set of struggles opposing the vulgarities of the Trump administration while at the same time retain the same economic structure that rendered more power to the financial elite. Its PC discourse attempts to throw the unhealthy baby of the Trump administration as well as the dirty water of political struggles for economic justice, hoping that pristine democracy can be achieved. However, as the 2016 elections showed, the liberal counterattack failed. Žižek does not mince words when he vehemently criticized the liberal establishment for its incapability to draw from the mass base by embodying its woes and placing it within the struggle for economic justice. Instead, the response from the Democratic party is to hope that everything will renormalize and that Trump is part of a democratic cycle that would eventually allow for more tolerant political climate later on. It is precisely this hope for a renormalization that placed the liberal-left in the quagmire incapable of organizing around a popular base.

Confronted with the emergence of right-wing populists using every opportunistic measure to pander on the common man’s woes, Žižek tries to avoid a lot of the political tendencies that abound both in the enclaves of the liberal and the radical left. While the liberal left hoped to find opportunities in the administration to swing the electorate back to the Democratic party, the radical left (or whatever stands for it in the American left-wing movements) is divided among sectarian lines on how to struggle against the enemy. Explosions of counteroffensive violence, clashing against right-wing nationalists and organizing “Love Trumps Hate” demonstrations do not suffice for an effective approach against the Trump administration. Furthermore, leftist positions oscillate between its cynicism with state mechanisms and its interstitial relationship to it when it comes to moral obligations to accept refugees. Mixed with PC discourse and guilt, the liberal left is causing its own demise, putting itself in the cross-hairs of right-wing propaganda. Given this situation, Žižek’s proposal is highly pragmatic, but surely enough to madden PC sensibilities.

Žižekian Pragmatism: Back to Bureaucratic Socialism

Žižek proposed that a sensible solution to the refugee crisis is to construct an effective bureaucracy to screen and accept refugees, rejecting all forms of humanist blackmail. By removing the status of the refugee as the Levinasian face of the other, he breaks down the only fantasy that sustains the liberal-left’s approach to the refugee crisis. While to PC sentiment a strict immigration and acceptance policy reeks of right-wing demagoguery, the proposal is, at best, the most democratic. The liberal-leftist call for “opening of the borders” is an extra-democratic demand that violates the very principle that bind the nation-state as a concept i.e. the right to defend its borders and internal security. Allowing hapless and victimized refugees inside without screening, one should not be surprised to find among them latent jihadists posing as refugees. While not all refugees are closet jihadists, the possibility of one of them being one is dangerous for the refugees as a whole, submitting them to the unbridled anger of ultra-nationalist gangs. The measure of allowing the refugees to pass through a strict screening process allows for security measures to be done early on.

This proposal is modest and pragmatic. It clearly places the duty of processing in the capacity of the EU and the nations where such centers are to be placed. The immediate criticism that such a position will elicit from liberal leftists (and some in the radical left) is its lack of sharing solidarity with the refugees, submitting them to suspicion through strict screening processes. However, I agree with Žižek here; as someone who experienced lining up to get a US visa and staying for half an hour in the immigration lines just because my name is common to both Latinos and Filipinos, screening is a normal process by which someone proves his innocence to a legal body. Allowing an open border policy to refugees is similar to visa free travel with a huge possibility of wrecking havoc on the host country. At its most basic, Žižek demystifies the refugee, while they are victims of the war, they not innocent victims with pure personalities and attitudes.

Žižek’s demystification of refugees and proposals to systematize the process of accepting refugees reflect the political pragmatism at work in his recent political commentary. One of the crucial sections of his recent book is “A Plea for Bureaucratic Socialism”, what he does is to dispel another leftist mythic alternative to global capitalism i.e. localized politics governed by federal councils instead of a centralized state system. Such position is founded on a fundamental anarchist fantasy: since global capitalism has made nation-states subservient to its cause, an efficient way to combat it would be to abolish the nation-state bureaucracy and give power to a local council to oversee the affairs of different regions. What such position try to do is to transpose the revolutionary role of the multitude to a governing body, hoping that it won’t disintegrate and form another elite body of administrators. Such position reflects its incapability to build from popular political movements to the morning after of political administration. Žižek perceived the left as incapable of dealing with administration, but, at the same time, the moment that it can administer presents a decisive blow to liberal cynicism.

Žižek, in his recent book, echoes a pragmatic approach to political administration. The left is divided within sectarian lines when it comes to the question of the party and the state. While Žižek is critical of vanguardism, one should situate his criticism on vanguardism being merely vanguardist i.e. to simply gather and organize without the goal of administering to those it tries to represent. Žižek challenges all leftists to take the question of administration as part and parcel of the struggle. For all leftists, being drunk on revolutionary fervor leads us to confront the hangover the morning after; the problem with recent left-wing attempts at government is that it thought it can have its cake of leftist administration and eat it with capitalism, only to find themselves being punished by the market. Confronted with the real of the market and its expansive logic of exploitation, the challenge is how should a leftist confront the capitalist real without risking the return towards the old ways within the new.

Ascribing the term “pragmatism” to Žižek’s politics will reek of political and parliamentary reformism, however, it should be clear that for him, the measure of a revolution’s success is not to simply organize the mass base, but to effectively administer to the mass base, changing the coordinates of everyday habits that people do after the revolutionary event has dissipated. The Bolsheviks were aware of this after their victory in the Civil War, knowing well that allowing the proletariat and the farmers to go back to their old ways before the revolution would destroy all the work done before and during the revolution. Lenin expressed this when he wrote in 1918 that the one of the immediate tasks of the Soviet government is to promote open debate in meetings as well as discipline among the ranks of the proletariat and the party. Trotsky reflected on post-revolutionary culture in his article on cinema, vodka, and the church, demanding that in a proletarian state, the cinema presents a higher level of educational culture to replace the cheap entertainment provided by religion and alcohol. Lenin’s pragmatism and Trotsky’s left-wing puritanism resonate the attempt to revolutionize society sponsored by the Soviet government by introducing disciplinary measures and government sponsored forms of amusement (like state-owned theaters). Small measures like this as well as the New Economic Policy (NEP) renewed the Soviet economy after World War I. To Lenin, the NEP was a slow, but necessary, step for the betterment of the Soviet Union.

The modest proposition that the left should be the embodiment of discipline and restraint in contrast to the vulgarity of right-wing nationalist is a strong one and would most likely be rejected by those who see the left as the political spectrum of unbridled freedoms. However, the liberal establishment has already coopted the idea of individual hedonism, with millionaires from Silvio Berlusconi and his orgies and the baller lifestyle of the founders of Uber, making headlines. In such a case, the idea that individual hedonism is set against fascist obsession for order totally misses the point. While the left should fight for individual rights (gender equality and economic justice), such struggles are part and parcel of the leftist administration of the state. Currently, the postmodern left is afraid of the state, content with interstitial distance, hoping the status quo can be coaxed to answer the needs of the majority. However, the Clinton compromise shows us that this is impossible and downright counterproductive.

The ideas of “democratic centralism” and discipline within the party needs to be resuscitated.  Such concepts are widely accepted by the national democratic front. Perhaps, the West has a lot to learn from the party discipline of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Žižekian Political Pragmatism: On “The Courage of Hopelessness”

Filipino Nationalism(s) Under Dutertismo: An Urgent Warning

Those who read this blog know perfectly well that I have written and will continue to write essays on the concept of Dutertismo. Since the concept itself is problematic, defies strict definitions, and difficult to pin down on the left-right political spectrum, my position has been to assert that Dutertismo embodies the class tensions in Filipino society, ranging from cooperation among different elements of the classes, complete apathy sustained by postmodern capitalist ideals, and open class struggle goaded by the inherent contradictions generated by the late capitalist mode of production (from outsourced production to extraction of intellectual work through the digital service sector). Class tensions in Filipino society are either openly antagonistic or non-antagonistic. I hold that the former is repressed and the latter is sustained by different ideological discourses and processes that fill the void that obfuscates class struggles and expresses it in different forms. Such form is expressed in different concepts: ruralism (which is synonymous to traditionalism), nationalisms, and liberalism. All three are responses to the postcolonial situation and attempts to define the contours of Filipino identity in response to globalization and the syncretism of culture that marked Filipino consumerism and everyday life. Moreover, all three are reactive in the pure Nietzschean sense of the term that sought to express the resentment of many at the face of its own failures as a nation that embodies the agenda of the masses.

Ruralism is an idea formed by a nostalgia. City life, especially in Metro Manila where everything seems to be out of joint, creates a nostalgia for the good old times where food is a matter of going to the local market or asking people what they have to share. Ruralism is a nostalgia in response to the perceived decadence of urban life. When confronted with the apathy between neighbors in a gated subdivision, one dreams of a time when neighbors are close by and intimately known. One dreams and desires what one does not have or have lost; ruralism, however, is not a desire for something we have lost, but something we do not possess in the first place. Hence, ruralism is a reactive term inasmuch as it supplied us an ideal that is neither past nor future. It occurs only as a an exercise of thought, a fatal abstraction from attempts at subtraction from the currently perceived decadence of urban life. When urban life becomes too alienating, when the very idea of community is an amalgamation of houses and nothing more, we strive for something that was in the past, untainted by the demands of city life. As a reactive concept, ruralism thrives on the dichotomy between the urban and the rural, where the urban is an actual material reality and the rural a name for a loss that was never there, standing only as a placeholder for what the urban is not. It is an expression emerging from a melancholy.

I see ruralism as an expression of alienation. The demands of capitalist production are embodied by the city; consumerism is a temporary respite from the demands of capital that contains a double demand: spend and consume to relax, but work in the next day and pay for your credit bills and so on. City life is a matter of dealing with abstract and bureaucratic life, organized by strict time frames and production quotas to achieve. Even with the emergence and proliferation of the digital information industry, the mode of production simply moves to a more abstract level that cannot be simply molded to the Marxist labor theory of value, since intellectual labor fully exploits creativity through precarization. To sustain this dynamic, late capitalism is marked by its capability to morph and adjust to the cultural demands of its nodes.

The duality of Western postmodern capitalism and Asian-values capitalism revolves around two distinctly polar tendencies: the permissive Western capitalist dynamic and the traditional and highly exploitative capitalism with Asian values embodied by the state of Singapore and China. Clearly, Filipino capitalism does not fall exclusively to either tendency. Hence, I will go so far as to argue that Filipino capitalism is an Asian values capitalism sustained by the illusion of abiding by a Western spirit of capitalism (a similar ideal was prevalent in the Sonno joi movement during the Japanese Bakumatsu  period where in order to maintain Japanese tradition and Western development rallied under the slogan: “Japanese Spirit, Western technology”). By the “illusion of abiding by a Western spirit of capitalism”, it implies that our economy is fully open to the agendas of the globalized system of capitalist production. The effort of all post-1986 governments has been to force the country’s participation in the global market, allowing as much liberties to global transnational companies to exert their demands upon the Filipino economy. Such a globalizing project is rife with contradictions and it entails the precarization of different labor sectors to provide ample opportunities for transnational companies to maintain its foothold. Hence, as an Asian values capitalism, the effort to remain within the global capitalist network is to assert traditional values, expressed a national identity. It is not surprising that the effort to liberalize the economy is also accompanied by highly conservative Catholic and Protestant law makers who argue for open economies on the left and strict moral family codes on the right. Communism is the name for the disturbance in the national body.

Days before Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, he underwent a so-called “spiritual exercises”. In his diary entry of 29 March 1972, he writes “The permissiveness of society must be balanced by authoritativeness. The two poles must be given weight and equal importance…And the permissiveness of our society has spawned the many evils that will wreck our Republic. It must now be balanced with authoritativeness and that is martial law. However, I put as a condition the occurrence of massive terrorism which would alarm the people as well as the authorities.” (cited from Manuel Quezon, III, “Martial Law and Parental Guilt” available here ). What then is the permissiveness he sought to counteract? In 1972, it collectively meant “Communism” under which long-haired hippies, drug addicts, rebellious students, and Voltes V belong. Hence, speaking at a national conference on the children and the youth, Marcos wrote: “This requires a national effort. This requires the effort of everyone whether in government or outside government. There will be a great need for the resources and services of agencies and organizations outside the government. There will be a need to mobilize free and voluntary services dedicated to the welfare and development of the youth. Unfortunately, many of the parents must answer for some, if not many, of the ills of our society. Many of our parents think that after they have sent the children to school their responsibility is finished. This is not true and many regrettable mistakes in our society are due to the fact that the parents have failed in many instances in performing their role in society. And yet we blame the young. We keep on blaming the young. When we speak of drug addiction and we speak of the waywardness of the young, we have an inclination and a tendency to point to them and say, they belong to this drug-addicted generation. Perhaps, we should look inward and into ourselves and ask ourselves how far have we as parents fallen on our job. I speak as a parent. As President I am a busy man. I sometimes work up to 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and yet, I have a feeling that notwithstanding the fact that we may be very busy there are certain obligations you and I cannot shy away from and they have to do with the care of our children. When my children were here, even if I was very tired or very occupied, I always tried to see them before they went to bed. When they were working on their lessons or when they were whiling away their time I tried to talk to them even for just a few minutes. I am certain that many of those who are drug addicts among our children will say, will tell us, that it was because we the older generation didn’t care enough that they turned out that way.” (Ibid) Communism was the name of an external conflict, an invader accompanied by the rabid permissiveness of radicals, posed against the values of the nation embodied in the family. Drug addiction, rebellion, and radicalism can be resisted by the simple time a parent can give to his children, properly honing them to the values of the nation.

However, it should be clear that Marcos’ nationalism accommodated itself to outbursts of nationalisms. Back then, the Marcos dictatorship is a nationalist reaction with a populist appeal; today, the nostalgia for the Martial law years reverberates in the outbursts of nationalisms that decry the decadence of contemporary cosmopolitan life. Disobedience to authority, rebelliousness, apathy, consumerism and so on are highlighted as repulsive values of the urban life. To counteract this, nationalism(s) revolve around the mystification of the past of rural Filipinos who cooperated with their leaders for the betterment of society, regardless of political color. In this case, market society offers a level playing ground upon which traditional values must inform the relations between people while at the same maintaining a highly permissive workplace. Hence, one can complain about work and at the same time obey with commitment. The organic unity of society is sustained by perceivable enemies: drug addicts, drug pushers, rebellious students, decadent bourgeois thinking and so on are seen as external bodies that disturb the harmonious flow of the organic body, the removal of which guarantees the continued healthy lifestyle.

Confronted with latent and all-out outbursts of nationalisms, liberalism sought to a middle ground. Provide a Filipino democracy founded on good values of cooperation and kindness. One can live a highly opulent and occidental lifestyle, but contribute to charity and make acts of philanthropy. Liberalize the economy to such an extent that the oligarchy becomes more wealthy, but make time for progressive programs. A totally ridiculous example of this can be seen in how SM justifies its prolific building of malls; in an advertisement, a clip of a storm hit town was shown in all its brutality. After which, the ad goes to successive pictures of a SM mall and its built-in flood control structure, accompanied by interviews from locals thanking SM malls for the project. This is Filipino capitalism at its most elementary: unfettered free market sustained by nationalistic tendencies and traditional morality. Liberalism panders on both tendencies, attempting a balancing act between allowing nationalistic outbursts or promoting an economy for global capital.

Dutertismo and the recently termed “Dutertenomics” (which echoes Reaganomics) shows that liberalism is waning at its own weight unable to control the contradictions inherent to the economy, politics, and society. Here, nationalisms are directly accommodated and named as a form of nationalism (or Duterte’s use of the word “Filipino”).  At the same time, here the law is taken to its full inherent transgression, providing the police and the army a free reign to inflict their policies under the guidance of the enforcement of the law. In the political arena, dissent is seen as a violation of national stability; destabilization emerges with disobedience and rebellious attitude.

Dutertismo now stands as a politics for the lost ideal. Nationalisms aim at trying to assert the lost ideal as a political category. The debate between supporters and detractors of Martial law were reduced to a matter of regional affiliation. Nationalistic tendencies played on either side as one stand for national stability and close ties to cultural roots and the other for the protection of civil liberties against the encroachment of a new authoritarianism. What the debate on the notion of nationalisms tell us is the untenability of  a post-colonial politics that relies on unraveling marginalized rationalities that seek to inform dominant rationalities, seen to be more dynamic and tolerant of cultural difference.

The way out of this deadlock is to assert a politics of universality. In this case, there is no authentic regional ethnic roots to fight for whether Taglog, Visayan, or Mindanaoan.  No true regional culture to stay true to. Of course, this does not mean an abolition of culture and the imposition of universal values by force. A politics of universality is a politics of universal struggle. Such a politics was apparent in the Lumad crises, different tribes from the North to the South converged in Manila not to celebrate their being a tribe, but to fight for the simple right of land and a dignified sense of self-sufficiency. In a joint statement, their leaders denounced transnational companies that played on tribal antagonisms to further its exploitation of the land. They were not content with simple ethnic recognition as such. This is universalism at its finest.

 

Filipino Nationalism(s) Under Dutertismo: An Urgent Warning