May 04, 2011

American "Tahrir" Square

Only weeks after the Arab world began shaking off the rotten crop of imperial stooges that oppressed them for two generations, the frathouse American shabab responded with throwing off the last inhibitions that connected them to the rest of humanity. What a difference!

while celebrations of the not-even-judicial execution of Bin Laden were not limited to campuses, it is clear from the media reports that campuses played an unusual, and fairly unexpected, key role. Indeed, the media sometimes even noted with surprise that celebrations were not led by "the usual suspects" but by college students, for example, noting that "In a Military Town, a Muted Celebration About Bin Laden". It is worth reflecting not only about the existence of this abhorrent spectacle, a point noted quite a lot, but also on its unexpected university setting. The following is just a preliminary thought. I am sure that there will be a lot more that will be said on it.

American universities became prominent together with the rise of the White Collar, the new class of managers, accountants, lawyers, professionals, etc. a class that grew in power from the end of the 19th century as capitalism moved from family owned to shareholders owned and professionally managed. For half a century or more, this was a relatively progressive class. It successfully hegemonized working class discontent in the interest of a reform agenda that increased its power. It was also able to impose concessions on the capitalist class that stood above it. Limits on speculation and accumulation, funding of public services, the extension of civil rights to minorities, and even a cultural ethos based on so-called merit and workoholism, an ethos that forces even the scions of the wealthiest families to masquerade their rent extraction in the form of "compensation" for work.

As Dumenil and Levy show, a key aspect of neoliberalism was the switching of sides of this class, from a partial alliance with the working class in order to win concessions from capitalists, to a fully owned, and lavishly paid, sidekick of the rentier class. Comparing the nationalistic riots over Osama bin Laden's extrajudicial execution to the riots against the Vietnam war is dispiriting. It may be that what we are seeing on US campuses is the ideological completion of that process. These students are expressing in different forms the slogan of Louis XIV, "the state is I." There is complete identification with The Man.

Although superficially similar, and although both linked to imperialism and neoliberalism, there is a significant difference between the US nativism of the subaltern classes that has been so common in recent years and this. The former, even when it identifies with militarism and adopts racism against the other of the empire, particularly Muslims, always has an oppositional edge. It is directed against the professional class, often described as "the liberals," who are perceived as ruling the country without being patriotic enough. The structure of "heartland" nativism is always that of a lack. "The state isn't us," and that is what is damn wrong with the country. In contrast, in the recent celebration of Osama Bin Laden's execution there is no such contestation. It is the pure joy of the master. That is why one can refer to it as the "plus-de-jouissance," surplus joy, that the empire extracts from the knowledge of its (oversees) subjects. ( of course, there is a certain boundary breaking associated with frat-houses, which is a ritual, not a contestation.)

It remains to be seen how the neoliberal proletarization of the university, which is obviously not universal, as the scions still need a degree, will play out in this context. It is also a question of class identification and hegemony at a more comlicated level, as clearly not all these celebrating frat boys will become CEOs of Boeing. There are different modes of identification here, including the logic of the video game. (One is reminded of the music and splashing colors and forms that play on the screen when a level has been completed successfully.) But there is also a more extensive definition of the Master. Just as the CEO now "works" 18 hours a day, the overworked professional can feel part of the ruling class, as long as the gulf from below is growing deeper every day.

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