Notes from Streeck

“Capitalism has always been an improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions.”[1]

“The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configuration make for an ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis.”[2]

“In fact, the history of modern capitalism can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways…The fact that capitalism has until now managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; […] we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its security may fail to show up.”[3]

“Why should capitalism, whatever its deficiencies, be in crisis at all if it no longer has any opposition worthy of the name? When Communism imploded in 1989, this was widely viewed as capitalism’s final triumph.”[4]

“My answer is that having no opposition may be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogeneity, on a pluralism of organizing principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.”[5]

“Capitalism without opposition is left to its own devices, which do not include self-restraint…We are already in a position to observe capitalism passing away as a result of having destroyed its opposition—dying, as it were, from an overdose of itself.”[6]

On oligarchic redistribution and the outcome of the economic crisis of 2008: “The possibility as provided by a global capital market of rescuing yourself and your family by exiting together with your possessions offers the strongest possible temptation for the rich to move into endgame mode—cash in, burn bridges, and leave nothing behind but scorched earth.”[7]

“German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) drew a sharp line between capitalism and greed, pointing to what he believed were its origins in the religious tradition of Protestantism. According to Weber, greed had existed everywhere, and at all times; not only was it NOT distinctive of capitalism, it was even apt to subvert it. Capitalism was based NOT on a desire to get rich on self-discipline, methodical effort, responsible stewardship, sober devotion to a calling, and to a rational organization of life…Weber’s ethical vindication of capitalism now seems to apply to an altogether different world. Finance is an “industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where the revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption.”[8]

“The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.”[9]

“The capitalist system is at present stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption, and international anarchy. What is to be expected, based on capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay, intensifying frictions, fragility and uncertainty, and a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’ quite possibly on the scale of the global breakdown of the 1930s.”[10]

§

[1] Streeck, Wolfgang: How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System. Verso Books, London, 2016: 1.

[2] 2

[3] 4

[4] 59

[5] 60

[6] 65

[7] 69

[8] 70

[9] 71

[10] 72

Fighting in the halls

I returned to my room to find my belongings disrespectfully strewn about. The nurses had dumped the contents of my dresser onto the bed, drawers included. Nothing of my wardrobe remained neatly hung. Books lay scattered like debris in the room, some of the titles lying open and visibly damaged—one page in particular tattooed with a dirty shoe print.

I snatched my suitcase from the closet floor and began packing it, first with books but then removing some titles to pack clothing and other necessities. The two male nurses entered the room as I worked. The quiet one remained quiet.

The other one said: The director wants to see you.

At first I didn’t do anything. Then I nodded and smiled, stepping slowly toward them. I raised the arm without the suitcase in a gesture of acquiescence and surprised them with a sudden charge forth in which I knocked them both out of my way and ran out the door to the hallway, sliding on the tile with my suitcase flailing in my left hand. I heard one of the nurses fall on the tile and then I heard them both scrambling after me. I ran past patient rooms with doors closed and some open to the sound of televisions playing too loud, I ran past faces turning too late to behold the humanoid blur speeding through the hall. What were the blur’s intentions? I turned right at the hall’s end toward the cafeteria but slid into a small depression made for an alarmed exit door. I waited for the nurses to run past me into the cafeteria and perhaps out the cafeteria doors onto the back lawn, but they did not. Perhaps they saw me slide into the depression or perhaps it was a poor decision, premature to try and trick them. The quiet one was there reaching for me with thick fingers, his forearms fertile with black hair. I punched him almost square in the chin with my right. It surprised him and he staggered back into the arms of the talkative one, who regarded me with eyes wide and full of violent delight.

The talkative one said: You’re fuckin dead.

I stepped forward and swung the suitcase up in a wide arc toward his face but it was too heavy and slow and he dodged it easily. The quiet one dove downward and got hold of my legs. I dropped the suitcase and with my hands clasped together brought them down forcefully on the back of the quiet one’s neck. I was able to bash him that way three times before the talkative one tackled me down. The quiet one had fallen asleep from the blows to his neck and only the talkative one remained. He was big and strong. He tried to wrestle me to obtain a dominant position but I slipped from his grasp and quickly got back to my feet. He stood and we squared each other up. He seemed amused but serious. He was wiry and had the composure of someone who’d fought many fights. A small crowd began to gather around us, murmuring like cats. Time seemed to slow so that passing seconds were audible disturbances. I had only been in two or three fistfights in my life, all of them during childhood. But my anger outweighed any trepidation or fear—my lack of fighting experience had been kidnapped by adrenaline. He swung for my face with his left and I dodged it. Then he swung with his right and he was too quick. He got me on the nose and my eyes welled with water. I tried to kick him and he dodged it easily. He laughed and re-centered himself with his hands by his cheeks, moving laterally like a boxer in a ring. I tried kicking him again just to keep some distance while my eyes stopped watering. He lowered his head and charged, tackling me into the wall with a thud and prompting an audible gasp from the observers, now numbering at least a dozen. We fell to the ground with him on top. He pushed himself up and raised his right hand toward his ear and I looked into his eyes to regard pure vacant fury. Then he blasted his hand into my face just under the right eye. My head bounced off the tile to another audible gasp from the onlookers. The nurse raised his fist up near his ear again.

GIBSON! screamed a voice from afar.

The nurse looked from me up to the source of the voice, his eyes wide as clarity and reason began to resurface. He dropped his hand, his chest heaving with air.

Director Hitchens’s shoes clicked on the tile as he ran toward us. A dull pain like a bruise began to spread at the back of my head. My lungs yearned for air but it was too difficult with the nurse atop me. I pushed him off, aware of swelling and extra blood below my eye, hot like lava beneath the skin.

Hitchens slid on the tile as he came to a stop. He seemed tired and haggard. He’d had a long day. He looked at me and then the quiet nurse coming to on the tile next to me and said: What the hell is going on here?

Notes from Jan-Werner Müller

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From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.

*

Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.[1]

Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.[2]

A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.[3]

Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.[4]

Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.[5]

While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.[6]

It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.[7]

Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.[8]


[1] 20

[2] 19-20

[3] 21

[4] 31-32

[5] 35

[6] 42

[7] 91

[8] 103

from Critchley

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Notes from Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance:

“The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism. Philosophical activity, by which I mean the free movement of thought and critical reflection, is defined by militant resistance to nihilism. That is, philosophy is defined by the thinking through of the fact that the basis of meaning has become meaningless. Our values are meaningless and require a Nietzschean ‘trans-valuation.’”[1]

“The human being has a reflective attitude towards its experiences and towards itself. This is why human beings are eccentric, because they live beyond limits set for them by nature by taking up a distance from their immediate experience. In living outside itself in its reflective activity, the human being achieves a break with nature.”[2]

“Ours is a universe where human relations have been reduced to naked self-interest, to unfeeling hard cash, and where all social life is guided by one imperative: conscience-less free trade; a life of open, unashamed, direct, and brutal exploitation.”[3]

“Some wrote in the 1970s that capitalism was over. On the contrary, capitalism under the guise of globalization is spreading its tentacles to every corner of the earth. If someone found a way of overcoming capitalism, then some corporation would doubtless buy the copyright and distribution rights.”[4]

“Politics is not rare or seldom, and to adopt such a position is defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, but they also invite militancy and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and imagination, an invitation for our ethical commitment and political resistance.”[5]

“No revolution will be generated out of systemic or structural laws. We are on our own and what we do is what we must do for ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunning. No ontology or eschatological philosophy is going to do it for us.”[6]

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, London, 2012.

[1] 2

[2] 86

[3] 96

[4] 98

[5] 131

[6] 132

Alley on F

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I decided to stop wanting cigarettes and bought a pack, smacking it in my hand like a ball into a mitt while vehicles swam past on F Street. Still the same plastic string to break, then the foil, still that unmolested, fecund first smell of a new pack. The sun high in its nest but past zenith. I lit the smoke with a match and inhaled, flooded with sensation, injected with memories as if from a dream. As if I’d never smoked but somehow in not smoking I’d smoked ten thousand times. An inhalation toward perfection. I took one pull for my lungs, bronchi stretched taut and sated, and one for the head, spinning slightly but controlled in mellow euphoria. The heart raced, vision was clear, sharpened. I inhaled the air around me.

I didn’t know what else to do so I ate in a diner. The food was excellent but it made me sleepy. I ordered a coffee to go and called my wife. She was upset with work. I listened, reassuring her, and promised to call before bed. The waitress brought my coffee in a paper cup and took my payment. I left the diner to smoke in the alley next to it. The air smelled of burning wood from a stove. My wife was passionate about her work in music and perhaps sometimes too passionate but long ago I conceded that I’d rather have a passionate woman than the alternative. A thin trail of single-file footsteps cut through the icy drifts down the center of the alley toward Tenderfoot on the other side, drenched in sunlight. Even with the snow cover I could smell garbage, spoiled food, piss. Something moved to the right of me and I turned to see a woman seated on steps at the back door of a business, smoking. I smiled at her and she looked at me as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. Her eyes were brown and she wore a red knit cap. Her fingernails were trimmed and painted black. I drank my coffee. Like the town itself the buildings in the alley were old and I wondered how many drifters stood in my exact spot, how many starved cowboys, how many Kerouac copycats and rafting junkies stood here like me staring at the old masonry and pondering their next move. Cat prints laced the alley snow like scars. I inhaled again and the smoke and cold air were ice in my lungs. A tall figure entered the alley from the sunlight at the far end. It was bright but the daylight wouldn’t last. Nothing lasts, nothing endures. I heard steps on the snow close behind me but it was too late. He’d come from the sidewalk near the diner’s entrance and hit me with pepper spray. Daggers ripped my eyes apart. He kicked me into a drift and I sank deep into it, my back crashing into something like steel. I cursed and could open my eyes just enough to make out two of them. Hornets swarmed and stung my face, my ears. The woman in the red hat was gone. Where’s the case? one man said. I’d never heard the voice before. He must have been talking to me because when I didn’t answer I got punched in the face, but my attacker lost balance and fell into the snow next to me. I pounced on him, grabbing him by the neck and squeezing, his stubble digging into my palms. I reared back to hit him, my face ablaze, my eyes swollen closed and filled with crushed glass, sinking deeper into the snow with each movement. Then I was pulled from behind and tossed away like a child. I landed hard on my shoulder and attempted to see but couldn’t. The snow on my face and up my nose was heaven and I stood to fight but the big man pulled the other up with powdery dust flying off him. They had dark ski masks, both of them. The man I’d fought pulled a revolver up from beneath his snowy overcoat and said, Where’s the fuckin case?

What case? I said, but the words were like saliva dripping out. My lips were burning, numb.

Someone must have walked by on the sidewalk because they both looked in that direction. Their eyes were dark rimmed with white beneath the masks.

I said: I don’t know what the fuck you’re—

Shut up! shouted the man with the gun, thrusting it toward me. His eyes were mean. The big man put his big arm out to try and quell the other man’s rage, or intent, or boldness.

Then the man with the gun said: Let’s go.

They took off running down the alley toward Tenderfoot, stumbling and breathing heavily in the deep snow. I put my face in the drift and just lay there. That asshole got me good, right on the nose. I was close enough to smell his coat. It was him—he’d been in my room at the motel the day before.

I felt a soft hand on my back. Someone said: Are you all right?

Someone else: Is he dead?

Institutionalized

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…I’ve stayed in all types—fancy hospitals, but mostly non-descript hospitals of ill repute. Most are run by condescending men and women dressed as business executives, with methods to match. Hospitals are not all the same, and I’ve slept in them all. There are big, airy, clean places, and there are the opposite. Places with cigarette butts swept into corners, rats and roaches under the bed, human shit on the walls. Some hospitals allow pets. Those places are privately owned. Many places you’ll see the patients and nursing personnel all drugged beyond words, and if you watch closely you’ll see facility staff jaunting tiled corridors they’ve just swept to perfection only to sneak about rooms they shouldn’t. I knew nurses who’d arrive at work some days gentle and tender and other days gritting teeth and grabbing patients roughly, with meanness. I’ve seen all kinds of meanness. One place I lived brought in a clown with a cartful of iced cream every summer. The patients lobbied to allow the clown and his cart year-round, a request the director denied outright. He wouldn’t hear of it. The patients orchestrated clandestine meetings at night by candlelight and organized in solidarity against the director. Patients who otherwise bickered and hated one another united to subvert the director, to sabotage his hospital. Then suddenly the director was transferred to another hospital as often happens and a new director was installed in his place. As a sign of good will from the director to his new patients, the clown was immediately allowed to peddle from his cart even in winter. Gone was the focus of the patients’ anger and frustration. The energy that unified them was replaced again by boredom, pettiness, lassitude, and the banality of living each day of one’s life in a hospital, where the pulse of life is one of military or prison-like rigidity. Doors open and close and people move through them. Voices scatter and retreat. You only know what day of the week it is by the smell emanating from the kitchen. I’ve slept in government-owned hospitals where people buy and sell drugs in plain sight. Staff, patients, visitors. The patients sometimes disappear from those places. They exit unseen in the night or they don’t wake in the morning because someone put them to sleep. I don’t want to be one of them and that’s why I write this, that’s why you’re reading these words. My story is like all others: it requires a voice to tell it, to leverage my life in the eternal war against the abyss. How do I mean? One hundred years is about as long as a person can expect to live under the most favorable circumstances. Earth is about four-point-five billion years old, and that’s just a fraction of what astronomers estimate to be the age of the universe. O, the brevity of our existence! The clock on the wall and the device in the pocket are constant reminders of how soon you’ll depart this place and how insignificant you are. Each day the sun rises and you’re older than you were—another giant step toward the vast expanse. In a house broken by violence I was a slave to time, conscious of its brutal inflexibility, its moments of intolerable duration. It’s the same in all the hospitals I’ve lived since. Only reading and writing eliminate time from my awareness. Only through reading and writing I can learn about the world and my purpose. Why bother to live without purpose? Knowledge and creation buoyed me up above the depths. I had to understand why I was the way I was but more importantly, I had to create something to speak for me following my departure.

study in repose

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The young man looked at Desmond Paul, at his face, an expression grave and elsewhere, his eyes tense and electric. Paul walked with his head down, bent slightly forward, one hand stuffed tightly into a trouser pocket and the other clutching his notebook. This is the most intense human being I have ever met, the young man thought, and walked alongside him, following him and not, past another set of large lobby windows looking out upon the rote morning ascent toward noon, windows looking inward toward nothing familiar at once save the careful arrangement of mystery inside us all.