What is human?

Note: This essay was my contribution for an issue of the Turkish publication Sabah Ülkesi on the very broad topic “What is human?” Knowing the text would be translated, I aimed for a simple style, but readers of Turkish will have to judge how much I facilitated the translator’s work.

When philosophers and theologians attempt to define what is human, they almost always end up talking about what is not human. That is to say, most definitions of the human proceed via contrast or negation. So one might say that a human being is not simply an animal, nor is it a god, an angel, or a jinn. In this procedure, we learn that animals are lower than us, and gods, angels, and jinn are higher—but what we actually are remains a mystery.

Continue reading “What is human?”

On living authors

Last night, I shared with My Esteemed Partner some of my latest gleanings from a systematic Agamben reading project I have been working on over the past couple months, she asked whether I had ever had such an intensive knowledge of any writer before. The only comparison I could make was Zizek, at least at the point when I wrote the book (and for about the next five years). In both cases, I believe I am seeing a gradual development in thinkers that most critics try to either vindicate as truly systematic from day one or else dismiss (or sometimes praise) as merely fragmentary and occasional.

I wonder about this preference for systematicity. Why would it be somehow *better* if Agamben and Zizek had done their “whole thing” from their very earliest work and were just filling in the details of the system? In American academia, I most often detect scorn for people who seem to continually rewrite their dissertation without thinking many new thoughts. And do we really want to think of *ourselves* as trapped in those incohate youthful insights of our earliest work? Again, why would this be better?

It seems to me that this desire for absolute systematicity over time is unique to literature on living authors, and it may almost be a “marketing” issue more than anything. It’s as though there’s a fear that no one will want to get on board with a thinker unless they can be assured that they represent a Whole Big Thing — or perhaps an anxiety that no one will view it as worthwhile to read and study their complete corpus unless it all belongs together.

For my part, I think it’s more interesting to think in terms of development — even if that term has progressivist connotations — because that makes the living thinker more of a model for our own work. How do you rethink and recombine your key insights for new purposes? How do you decide what to keep and what to leave aside? How much do you emphasize the change or leave it to your audience to figure it out?

Our post-apocalyptic condition

I have often joked that I would be willing to write a regular opinion column whose sole purpose is to remind people that George W. Bush existed. The Bush years were when I first became politically aware, and I remain deeply scarred by them, and deeply offended by how quickly those horrific events have been forgotten or explained away.

I’m not even thinking of the fact that Bush himself has become a kind of “cute grandpa” in media presentation. It’s less about Bush the man and more about the absolute disaster he unleashed upon the world. He presided over the worst foreign attacks on US soil since Pearl Harbor and the worst financial crises since the Depression. He left a great city to die. He introduced chaos and destruction into a whole region of the world, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and and global refugee crisis. He undid the tenuous progress toward action on climate change and virtually made climate denialism a pillar of Republican ideology in a way it had never quite been before.

In short, he blighted untold lives and contributed materially to the odds of human extinction. And what is most horrifying, perhaps, is that — for some of us at least, those with a certain level of privilege and security — it was all survivable. Things “went back to normal,” even if the new normal was an institutionalization of Bush’s state of exception. The fact that people can even argue that Trump is worse than Bush is a sign of the deep amnesia of American life. What does Trump want to do that even could be worse than the Iraq War? What does he want to do that is a greater crime against humanity than setting up torture camps all around the world? It is not promising, in this respect, that the one thing that may indeed be worse than a similar action by Bush — his abandonment of Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane — is the thing that has gotten the least attention.

Maybe he will turn out to be worse than Bush, and maybe that will turn out to be — again, for some of us — survivable. But the utter lack of any historical sense among American elites means that settling into a permanently worse condition can feel like “getting back to normal.” We can just keep waiting it out, keep letting the system work, keep on surviving — but mere survival cannot save us from the extinction-level event that is coming, and in many ways has already come.

On civil war

Ever since Reagan, Republicans view any branch of government they have ever controlled as their birthright. Clinton and Obama were illegitimate in their eyes because the Republicans own the presidency. The same goes, but even more, for the Supreme Court. Media commentary seems bizarrely fixated on the idea that the Republicans are just now securing control of the Supreme Court, but they have actually held a majority for most of our lifetimes — secured in part by appointments from Republican presidents installed against the popular will. In reality, Democrats had their first shot at a majority in almost a generation, and the thought of allowing that was so unthinkable that the Republicans were basically willing to burn down everything. And the media went along with it as a case of “political hardball,” rather than the unprecedented insult to the American people it really was.

This points to a deeper crisis in our system. You can’t have a party-based representative democracy when one of the parties refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other party. The premise is that you alternate power and each party has the right to implement its agenda while in power. Republicans reject that premise. For them, any Democratic president or congressional majority is a state of absolute emergency. The number of Republicans willing to engage in traditional horse-trading politics while in the minority has dwindled sharply, while there are plenty of Democrats willing to play ball — Joe Manchin, most dramatically, but also many others who have voted for Trump cabinet and court appointees on the principle that the president has a right to appoint people who share his views, as long as they are otherwise qualified. Republicans refuse to even consider a Democratic Supreme Court nominee who would change the partisan balance, while many Democrats happily voted for the boring conservative who was nominated for the “stolen” seat and only mounted serious opposition when Kavanaugh turned out to have a cloud of sexual abuse and violent alcoholism in his past. And again, Republicans treated these reasonable concerns as an unprecedented outrage — because they own the court.

At this point, by continuing to play along with the system as it exists, Democrats objectively exist to give procedural cover for Republican rule. And it’s not clear to me how to break out of that pattern, because the public discourse is so systematically corrupt and false. Republican voters have been so brainwashed to believe that the Democrats secretly control everything that they are effectively inoculated against the idea that Republicans are rigging the system. The mainstream media has no interest in dispelling these illusions. Even if the Democrats managed to thoroughly delegitimate the Republicans in the eyes of their own base, they have no means to exercise institutional power — and hence they would only provide further justification to the Republican habit (accelerated under Trump) of governing only on behalf of their “base” and viewing the opposition party and public opinion with contempt.

Like many, I find the idea of delegitimating the Republicans and, with them, the whole Constitutional system deeply appealing. But in the absence of a plausible alternative with a claim to popular legitimacy, delegitimizing the system creates a situation where force decides, and I think we all know who would win if push came to shove. Yet surely there comes a point when the attempt to avoid civil war becomes a way of conceding victory in advance. Perhaps push has already come to shove — but in that case, it is very unclear how to proceed. Electoral victory is one option, but the Republicans have already primed their base to reject the validity of election results.

The last time our country was on the brink of civil war, the slavers had a stranglehold on institutional power and the terms of debate and yet continually viewed themselves as oppressed victims — and as soon as an opposition president took office, they decided to blow up the country rather than accept his victory. Like contemporary Democrats, Lincoln was conciliatory to a fault, but the slavers would not take yes for an answer. Lincoln was, of course, actually able to become president in the first place despite the slavers’ opposition. If a Democrat won the 2020 election, would they even be able to take office? Would Republicans control enough state-level governments to steal the Electoral College outright? And then what?

Lies and neoliberalism

Under neoliberalism, lies become an accepted feature of political leadership. The goal is purely to instrumentalize democratic legitimacy, in order to gain the power to make the necessary decisions that ordinary people can never understand or be persuaded of.

The fact that Obama was so astoundingly honest compared to all presidents in recent memory contributed to his weakness, because he was surrounded by habitual liars and cheats. He thought he could make the neoliberal consensus positively legitimate again, instead of just a default option supported by “spin” and demonization. That the lies that propelled Trump to the presidency were specifically about Obama is thus fitting — as is the fact that they propelled him to the presidency in an obviously democratically illegitimate way.

As ever, Trump is the parody of the neoliberal consensus, which shows us the truth of its intellectual and political bankruptcy. And the neoliberal Democrats’ answer is not to mobilize the population in protest, not to take direct action against an obviously illegitimate political structure — but to double down on elitism and technocracy by imagining that the FBI will somehow save us.

Abolish the states!

As is well-known, the US Constitution includes two major institutions that do not operate according to the principle of majority rule. The first is the Senate, where both California and Wyoming receive the same representation despite their vast difference in population. The second is the Electoral College, which in our young century has twice delivered the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Critics of these institutions emphasize their obvious anti-democratic character, while defenders point to the special role of the states in the federal structure set up by the Founders. Though the system does go against our majoritarian instincts, the story goes, these so-called “laboratories of democracy” are crucial to America’s unique form of constitutional democracy.

Lost in this debate between democratic intuitions and the Founders’ intentions is the empirical question of whether the states as they currently exist actually fulfill a legitimate role in our system. One way to answer that would be to ask what states would have to look like to justify providing them with special representation even if it meant overriding the popular majority at the federal level. Clearly the states would need to have robust and meaningful democratic legitimacy on their own. They would need to represent coherent communities with identifiable and distinctive interests and values, and they would need to display an engaged political culture among their citizens.

Though each of our existing states would fare differently, it is clear that almost no actual-existing state meets those minimal standards of democratic legitimacy. Continue reading “Abolish the states!”

We are not the ones we have been waiting for

A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article about how “we” almost stopped climate change. It is a remarkable piece, rich with detail, about how scientists and public officials raised the alarm on climate change and nearly succeeded in getting a binding international treaty capping carbon emissions. I am among those who was very critical of the framing of this story, which concludes with breezy generalizations about human nature that would be more at home in an undergraduate essay than the paper of record. In reality, the general public is not heard from at any step along the way — this is all a story about a power struggle among elites. And all the evidence points toward an obvious conclusion: hardline conservatives in the first Bush administration, following up on the climate nihilism of Reagan, wound up torpedoing the effort, with results that are by now familiar to us.

This critique is obvious. What I wonder about, though, is why the author would choose this framing when it is such a poor fit for the story he is telling. Clearly one motive is to avoid “politicizing” the issue and alienating conservative readers. Indeed, perhaps there was even an effort to highlight the fact that Republicans and industry representatives contributed positively, to encourage them to do so in the future. But it is interesting to me that this attempt to avoid partisanship should take the form of a gesture toward collective guilt. After all, there is evidence that pro-corporate Democrats also stood in the way of action, so why not go for standard both-sidesism? Why blame the people at large for something that happened almost exclusively behind closed doors?

The author of this piece is hardly alone in gesturing toward collective blame, which is one of the most characteristic gestures of contemporary political discourse. For instance, today on Twitter I learned that “we” made a mistake in adopting an ad-driven model for the web. I do not recall being consulted on that decision, nor on so many others where “we” are reportedly to blame. This discursive tic becomes most absurd, of course, when we are talking about the actions of the Trump administration, which was installed against the wishes of the American people, who continue to despise him at record levels. But since an election happened, whatever resulted from it, however perverse, must be “our” collective fault — presumably “we” should have arranged for a population transfer of tens of thousands of liberals into the Rust Belt states in anticipation of the election. Shame on “us” for not thinking of that!

In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown talks about the neoliberal strategy of “responsibilization,” which systematically invests formal decision-making power in the bodies least equipped to exercise it. In her example, a university decides to shift health care costs onto individual departmental budgets rather than handling them on an institution-wide basis. The predictable result that departments move toward more part-time labor to avoid ballooning health care costs was presumably what the upper administration was aiming at, but by using the strategy of “responsibilization” they get to blame the individual departments for their “choice” of adjunct labor.

The gesture of collective blame, where “we” are all responsible for political and economic outcomes, is the ultimate extreme of “responsibilization,” and like all strategies of “responsibilization,” it aims ultimately to displace blame for decisions that are made elsewhere. This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.

The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?

This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.

How do we — in the non-scare-quoted sense of actual people with actual identifiable collective interests — respond to this situation? Two possibilities present themselves. The first is to call the elites on their bullshit. “We” didn’t torpedo climate change action, Bush’s asshole chief of staff did. “We” didn’t despoil the planet, corporate elites did. Human civilization has been placed on a trajectory toward extinction by identifiable individuals with institutional power. But to make good on those accusations, we need to take the bad-faith accusation of collective responsibility as a prophecy and become the collective agent that they say “we” already are. That will require developing new institutional forms and modes of leadership, with many contemporary movements giving us promising models. If “we” have any genuine responsibility at the present political moment, it is precisely to become a non-scarequoted we that can really take responsibility.