Others

MadTree

Last week I drafted a short piece in my notebook about other people, namely my aversion to them. Today I read a passage in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet that puts my piece to shame. This from Pessoa:

Isolation made me in its own image. The presence of another person — one person is all it takes — immediately slows down my thinking … When I am alone, I can come up with endless bon mots, acerbic ripostes to remarks no one has made, sociable flashes of wit exchanged with no one; but all this disappears when I’m confronted by another human being. I lose all my intelligence, I lose the power of speech, and after a while all I feel like doing is sleeping. Yes, talking to people makes me feel like sleeping. Only my spectral and imagined friends, only the conversations I have in dreams, have reality and substance, and in them the spirit is present like an image in a mirror.

The whole idea of being forced into contact with someone oppresses me. A simple invitation to supper from a friend produces in me an anguish difficult to put into words. The idea of any social obligation — going to a funeral, discussing something with someone at the office, going to meet someone (whether known or unknown) at the station — the mere idea blocks that whole day’s thoughts and sometimes I even worry about it the night before and sleep badly because of it. Yet the reality, when it comes, is utterly insignificant, and certainly doesn’t justify so much fuss, yet it happens again and again and I never learn.

‘My habits are those of solitude, not men.’ I don’t know if it was Rousseau or Senancour who said that, but it was some spirit belonging to the same species as me.

Churchill on landlords

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Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains — all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is affected by the labor and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet, by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived…The unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done.

— Winston Churchill, 1909

Muñoz Molina on the novel

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The novel subjects itself to its own limits and at the same time opens itself up to an exploration of depths that are within and without (the writer) and that only (the writer) was meant to discover. You’re writing even when you don’t write. Narrative imagination does not feed on what is invented; It feeds on the past. Every minor or trivial event that one experiences or discovers in the course of an investigation can be valuable or even decisive for the novel, occupying a minimal but precise place within it, like an uneven cobblestone …

… The novel has developed on its own with the unlimited richness of reality and the blank spaces I haven’t been tempted to fill, spaces in the shadows that cannot be illuminated …

…The novel is what I write and also the room where I work. The novel is the fine-point pen that ran out of ink one day when I wrote for five or six hours without stopping and filled an entire notebook. The novel is made with everything I know and everything I don’t know, and with the sensation of groping my way through this story but never finding a precise narrative outline.

— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow. Translated by Camilo A. Ramirez. Published by Editorial Planeta, S.A., 2014. Translation copyright 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

one in the chamber

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Neither mood nor biology shifts according to a calendar. This body runs on its own time. The mind operates in several time zones at once. Electricity powers the heart. I eat almost nothing, fueled by liquids and books and nerves. Love, too.

I try to read the dictionary every day—at least a page. I wish I had the dedication of Malcolm X, who copied the dictionary repeatedly by hand to teach himself to read. He was in jail at the time, a petty criminal whose initial way to the light was religion. He learned that Allah’s message was a necessary truth that had somehow eluded him, had been stolen from his youth. This knowledge became an impetus to act, requiring more study. He became a teacher. His internal truth continued to evolve, much like the reader and the writer of these words.

*

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. — Emerson

*

There’s a case, there’s a man and a case, and that man and his case penetrate time and space. Reader beware, keen reader beware, what you’re reading is rare and took care to prepare.

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

Notes from Jan-Werner Müller

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

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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