February 09, 2011

The Snake Oil of Unsustainability

As the Egyptian popular revolt rages on, and may, thanks to the ingenuity and perseverance of the people and the mistakes of the regime, engender a revolution, commentary abounds. One of the oft repeated tropes is that of the unsustainability of oppression. It is echoed both by the most radical commentators and by the White House itself. It is a truism. Here is an example articulation by Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel on Mondoweiss:

…a system based on oppression and privilege has a limited shelf-life. Even the most stoic of peoples will eventually rise up and demand their rights and dignity. To ignore this truth in the name of stability and security is like putting out a fire with gasoline. (http://mondoweiss.net/2011/02/israels-egyptian-teachers.html )
To be clear, I’m not picking on Sermoneta-Gertel for criticism. Not only is what he says true, but many of us have said and wrote similar things. It is common knowledge. The US Empire is doomed; it will disintegrate as all previous empires did. Israel is doomed; it will be as short lived as the crusaders’ kingdom. Capitalism is doomed; its logic on a collision course with the survival of the planet, etc. etc.

But taking a larger perspective, is oppression unsustainable? Consider. Over five hundred years after Christopher Columbus started chopping off the hands of natives to impress on them how much he valued gold, over two hundred years after the colony of Honduras, one of the countries engendered by Spanish greed, gained independence, two hundred years after the Monroe Doctrine put Honduras under US imperial rule, fifty years after the "extrajudicial" execution of Che Guevara, Obama’s White House stage-managed a counter revolution in Honduras that, murdering countless activists, re-established the power of its local imperial stooges.

Take another example: four hundred years after the first African slaves landed in Virginia, one hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery, fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and two years after a black man was elected to lead the US empire, the average white US citizen is still ten times wealthier than the descendants of those African slaves, and the most important institution that “deals” with the grievances of the latter is the Prison-Industrial-Complex. Fifty years after Rosa Parks crossed the line of segregation in the Bus of Montgomery, Alabama, Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African American mother, was jailed because she crossed the racially segregated school district line in Akron, Ohio (http://www.ohio.com/news/top_stories/114692469.html )

Is oppression sustainable? You bet! Whether a state called Israel exists or not, will the descendants of today’s Palestinians still pay tribute to the descendants of today’s Israeli Jews four hundred years from now? Will Egyptians still groan under an imperial yoke three hundred years from now, be it the US or any other successor? It is not that these questions do not have an answer, but that we deceive ourselves when we ask them as positive questions. Rather than questions that we can legitimately pose, these are in fact questions that we must answer.

To get to the bottom of the idea of sustainability we need to spend some time understanding the way those in power think about it. By that I do not mean necessarily getting into the mind of a Mubarak, a Netanyahu or a Clinton. The halls of power are often staffed with those to whom the ascription of thought can only be done metaphorically. Rather, there is a body of writing that is as old as writing itself, about time, politics, and sustainability, produced by intellectuals doing what intellectuals are best at, endowing power with the dignity of thought. Allowing for the bowdlerizing that considerations of space impose, the gist of it can be summarized thusly:

The fundamental ideologically conservative political distinction is the distinction between order and chaos. You can find it seeping through Mubarak’s “worry” that his leaving will produce chaos, and you can trace it back through Hobbes’s “state of nature,” all the way to the first chapter of Genesis, in which God introduces order into the chaos by distinguishing between night and day, and between the water above and the water below. Order, however, is not merely the mundane regularity that people need in order to live. The metaphysical distinction between order and chaos rhymes with two other fundamental philosophical dichotomies. The imposition of order on chaos is also the victory of form over matter and that of mind over body (and since in philosophy we are never far from patriarchy, let us not forget that it is also the victory of the masculine over the feminine).

That is, within the political sphere, the human being as a unit of humanity is an element of nature, matter, a brute, chaotic, animal force, destructive, overwhelming, stupid or malevolent, driven by uncontrollable passions and insatiable appetites. Such is the human being of conservative ideology. This is the human condition that St. Augustine, for example, the decisive Christian (conservative) political thinker, associated with the consequences of the original sin.

One can find this idea of the mass of humanity lurking in almost every mainstream commentary of the events in Tahrir square. The leaderless, confused mass, angry, desiring, hysterical, but ”without clear goals”, not really knowing what it is that it wants, a force that can destroy but cannot create. It is true, without a doubt, that colonial racism is fundamental to this depiction. But that shouldn’t obscure the presence of an even more fundamental ideological layer. Colonialism did not invent this idea of the human mass. Rather, what colonialism did, was to transcribe this older distinction between the brute masses and the creators of order in a way that allows the masses of the West to imagine themselves on the other side of the divide, on the side of form, mind, and order. This crossing, however, has always been provisional, relative, and dependent on their continuous docility. It takes little more than some healthy disregard for propriety, or worse, solidarity, to be cast back into the role of the brute.

This conservative metaphysics creates a role and an attitude for the statesman that is psychologically quite rewarding. The statesman is a tragic hero, and his proper attitude is one of rueful pessimism (for not too mysterious reasons, gendered language is appropriate here, even if quite a few women have and do assume this role).

The statesman, like an artist, brings form, intelligence and beauty to dull matter (that dull matter is us!). One needs only reflect on the terms of the cult of the “framers of the constitution” in the US to see the strength of this idea of the statesman; what with the careful, ingenious balancing of everything against everything, the construction of resplendent “checks and balances,” the lassoing of the democratic passions, etc. etc.

Matter, however, never fully surrenders to Form. It resists with countless imperfections that separate anything down here from its eternal and perfect Platonic Idea. This is where we get to the heart of the question of sustainability. For Time is what separates the platonic world of the mind from the world of brute matter. Time destroys. Chronos devours his children. A moralized version of what would later be known as the second law of thermodynamics has been at the center of the oldest philosophical traditions. Everything that is material must decay. Just as the body eventually succumbs to illness, so the Body Politic succumbs to the endlessly chaotic pressure of the popular passions, which slowly corrupt it until it disintegrates. Listen to the famous quip of Benjamin Franklin, talking, with the appropriate condescension, to a representative of the realm of the passions, a woman: we gave you “a Republic if you can keep it.” But of course, he knew already that we won't be able to keep it.

The statesman is the tragic hero of political drama: a hero, because his work is the noblest that is, to impose an Idea, a Form, that is, a political order, on the brute matter of humanity. He is tragic because the effort is doomed. Order will eventually descend into chaos. Therefore, the image conservative ideology makes of statesmanship is one of a rearguard battle against chaos, a battle against the inevitable where there is no final victory yet every day that the battle continues is itself a victory. Raymond Aron, in one of the deepest one-liners of political thought, defined the goal of politics as “making things last”. And here is how Tzipi Livni, no doubt driven to philosophizing by the unfolding of Tahrir square, applies this insight at the latest Herzlyia Security Conference: “every day that Israel exists is a victory.” (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/adrianmichaels/100074993/is-israel-facing-an-existential-threat/ )

There is a further particularity about Capitalism with regards to this understanding of time and politics that is worth pondering. Capitalism seeks to survive by progressively including its exterior. Whereas for traditional political thought matter and time stand outside the Idea, being the source of decay, capitalism brings decay itself into its heart. Thus we get the notion of “the time value of money,” which is also the money value of time. A dollar in the far future has a “present value,” one that is specific and calculable, and that is only a fraction of a dollar. Decay in capitalism becomes a quantifiable property of value. Conversely, “making things last” becomes a measurable stream of future profits with a tradable present value. This quantification of decay is thus also a quantification of the “tragic” role of the statesman in maintaining order.

What do we do then when we accuse a political order of being “unsustainable”? To put it simply, we bargain; and we do it in two different senses. To the capitalists that make a nice living out of that order we propose a choice between two streams of profits, one long and shallow, one short and deep. We claim that the first one, earn little for a long time, is better than the other, earn a lot for a short time. But what for us is an imprecise moralism is for the other side a precise calculus. The two propositions can be entered in a spreadsheet, expanded to include risk and other factors, reduced to a single number and compared dollar for dollar. Most of the time, the bargain we claim to offer is intuitively unattractive. Not only does the time value of money reduce the present value of the “long and shallow” stream so much faster that it loses out, but we forget that the end of a revenue stream is not the end of the world. Once that short stream reaches its end, other streams will most likely materialize. A concession, on the other hand, is only a door to further concessions. The Capitalist, after all, is also a tragic hero, always struggling against the inevitable erosion of his revenue stream. Furthermore, the strength of the bargain is in our resolve, that is, in our ability to cut the short revenue stream short. Unfortunately, the bargain itself undermines that resolve.

For we also bargain with ourselves. That a political order is “unsustainable” is a source of solace. It makes it easier to endure it now, (and even easier to let others endure it), knowing that it is doomed. It reduces the urgency of ending it. It reduces the value of the personal sacrifice that would be needed in order to end it. This is completely acceptable to the other side, because the statesmen have no qualms with the knowledge that their order is doomed. Those in power readily accept it. It ennobles them. Here, the bargain often succeeds, for both sides are in fact in agreement. The side of power is happy to live, tragically, another day in a “doomed” order, while the side of unsustainability accepts as solace an unspecified reward in an unspecified time. That bargain is ultimately not that different from the promise of divine justice in the afterlife, the sort of religious palliative, “opium for the people,” that the secular among us love to mock.

The deepest chant often heard in demonstration is the one that goes “we want < insert your word here > and we want it now!” We rarely mean these words when we chant them. We hold in the back of our mind the knowledge that we are willing to go to our homes once more in a premeditated defeat. We can call ourselves hypocrites, or we can charitably say that we are rehearsing; or both. The rare days when people join together on the basis of that phrase unreservedly are the days that open to revolutions. It is only then that not only is the oppressive present rejected, but also the structure of time that upholds it is punctured. On those days without a tomorrow, when the Now doesn’t wait for the future to come but levels and communes with all other likeminded Nows, those that have been and those that will be, chaos IS order, and “the voice of the people is the voice of God”. Then the hard work begins.

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