The Contemporary Condition

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Giving Voice to Climate Silence

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

A (slight) majority of Americans accept the reality of human-induced climate change. Yet even many of those who do attach a low priority to the issue. Even worse, some join in opposing any constructive steps. As Subhankar Banerjee, editor of Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point puts it, “we have arrived at a climate impasse. The US government hasn’t done anything meaningful to address the climate crisis, despite lofty rhetoric from Obama. On the contrary, the government has done, what it can, to foil the international efforts…”  This impasse seems especially dangerous as many climate scientists now move toward even more negative prognoses.  Work published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the ability of the Arctic ice to reflect sunlight—known scientifically as albedo—has decreased dramatically since 1979, with the calculations showing the region's ability to reflect sunlight diminished more than twice what previous studies have shown. As less of the sun's rays are reflected back into space, the open ocean absorbs more heat leading to additional ice melt in the region. The problem is both self-feeding and a source of deep concern for scientists…” Mean global temperature may increase more than 2C—with severe social consequences-- even if dramatic moves are made now. Nonetheless if an earlier scientific consensus—and even public acceptance of it—could not sway our national and international environmental agenda, these more dire warnings—even well documented-- may not do the trick either. As the mean climate science position is becoming more stark the instinct to procrastinate appears to be solidifying.  How this paradox has emerged may be one key to reversing it.



Notre Dame economic historian Philip Mirowski points out that one large factor is “neoliberalism’s” capture of the political dialogue today. By neoliberalism, Mirowski means the conviction that markets are the solution to all problems. They are the ultimate information processing machine. They do not, however, emerge spontaneously. They must be imposed by a strong state and protected from political interference.  

Oil, coal, and petro chemical interests have flooded the airwaves with climate science denialism. It is clear that this campaign has had an effect, but as Mirowski points out this tactic is only part of a larger strategy.  The think tanks and lobbyists promoting denialism know they are going to lose the science battle. It is merely a delaying tactic.  But their fallback position, right out of the neoliberal playbook, is equally problematic:
“The project to institute markets in emission permits is a neoliberal mid-range strategy, better attuned to appeal to centrist governments, NGOs and the educated segments of the populace, as well as to the financial sector. In effect, the strategy is an elaborate bait-and-switch manoeuvre, where political actors originally bent upon using state power to curb emissions directly are instead diverted into the endless technicalities of instituting and maintaining novel markets for carbon permits and offsets, while carbon emissions grow apace… {C}arbon trading doesn’t work – and was never intended to do so. Once permit trading is put in place, lobbying and financial innovation will flood the fledgling market with excess permits, offsets and other instruments, so that the nominal cap on carbon emissions never actually stunts the growth of emissions. This, in turn, leads the prices of the permits to trend towards utter collapse,… Money that might have been used productively to transform energy infrastructure instead gets pumped into yet another set of speculative financial instruments, leading to ultra-short-term investment horizons, windfall profits for traders and all the usual symptoms of financialisation.”
Neoliberals are already preparing their own approach for the collapse of the carbon trading market: “extreme turbulence in the markets does not perturb neoliberals, since they take the longer view. The neoliberal fallback after the ‘cap-and-trade’ model inevitably fails will be geoengineering, which derives from the core neoliberal doctrine that entrepreneurs will innovate market solutions to address dire environmental problems… Geoengineering is a portmanteau term covering a range of intentional large-scale manipulations of the Earth’s climate. It encompasses such phenomena as Earth albedo enhancement through ‘solar radiation management’… ( CO2 sequestration.. and direct weather modification…Like most neoliberal prescriptions, the most important aspect of this tortured marriage of science and corporate commodification is that it doesn’t work. Geoengineering presumes corporations can take unilateral actions violating international treaties and not have to own the consequences. It doesn’t resolve the root problem – increasing CO2 concentrations – and it will not stop ocean acidification.”




I would add that the neoliberal financial agenda contributes in other ways to inaction on climate. The very instability and job insecurity it fosters forces on the population a fixation on the here and now rather than long-term investment horizons. Financial deregulation coupled with the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing—free money for investment banks—has encouraged speculation in essential commodities—further destabilizing long term prospects. Chronic unemployment has become the norm for modern neoliberal economies.  
Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has compared reaction to capitalism’s current crisis with the 14th century plague. He speculates that if a public opinion poll had been taken in the midst of the tragedy, large majorities of the population would blame themselves for its occurrence. Problematic as this mindset is for progressive causes, including the environment,  it is not insurmountable. A dramatically higher minimum wage issue is becoming an increasingly popular cause among even Republican voters. It places no strain on the Federal treasury. Indeed it may lessen the need for some federal expenditure. It also provides an opportunity to work oneself out of poverty. The very experience of a decent job and the respect that comes with it can alter one’s self-identity.



Mirowski’s neoliberal thought collective is also not a free-standing, totally autonomous movement. In the US case one would need to examine the role of social conservatism as well, a theme William Connolly has developed in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.  Though many neoliberals do not share social conservatives’ hostility to reproductive choice or gay marriage, both groups embody hostility to liberals and a sense of entitlement, a feeling that they are oppressed if their agendas are questioned or not fully embraced by all. These sensibilities resonate with each other, helping to foster a powerful electoral and social alliance.

Some social conservative have advanced the neoliberal agenda in one other way, and progressive environmental advocates need to learn some lessons from them. Many already accept the likelihood, indeed even certainty, of an environmental apocalypse, though one attributed to God, who is seen as controlling the climate.  In such apocalyptic visions ultimate redemption both of virtuous individuals and nations is envisioned. The fear of death is addressed, though in ways that most liberal modernists could not embrace.



Climate science and some environmental activists now offer predictions of civilizational collapse, widespread death, and a planet perhaps inhospitable to all human life. These scenarios may, however, contribute to the very inaction activists hope to avoid.  Has climate science reached a point where it can predict with certainty the uninhabitability of the entire planet? And if technologies such as geoengineering cannot save civilization as we know it, does that mean technology and human resourcefulness are utterly unavailing in securing life somewhere?

How do we face the prospect of widespread environmental/social collapse without becoming immobilized? Cultural attitudes to death can intensify these challenges. Nonetheless. populations facing widespread death have on occasion responded with extraordinary courage and mutual support. Witness the determination of citizens of Leningrad to support their troops during the Nazi siege by eating wood. Though “defense of the fatherland” inspired their actions, other causes may equally inspire.


Thus ethical/ religious questions must also be in play. Viewing death as punishment or even as an inadequacy of the human condition to be perpetually resented only intensifies the urge to find compensation is techno wonders and belittling others. (Usually some combination of both.)

Can the fear of death itself be defanged? The right to die movement can be seen as growing out of and fostering a diminished fear of death and an emphasis on the quality rather than quantity of life. But one of the consolations easing anxiety regarding death, the chance to die in relative peace surrounded by loved ones, may not be possible if the more extreme scenarios are realized. But here too there are alternatives. Christopher Hedges cites comments of Dr. Marek Edelman, the last survivor of the Warsaw ghetto uprising: “Traditional concepts of right and wrong,… collapse in moments of extremity. Edelman spoke… about a woman doctor in the ghetto hospital who poisoned the sick children on her ward as the Germans entered the building. 'She saved children from the gas chamber,' Edelman said. 'People thought she was a hero. So what, then, in that world turned upside down, was heroism? Or honor? Or dignity? And where was God?' Edelman answered his own question. God, he said, was on the side of the persecutors. A malicious God. And Edelman said that as a heart surgeon in Poland after the war he felt he was always battling against this malevolent deity who sought to extinguish life. 'God is trying to blow out the candle and I’m quickly trying to shield the flame, taking advantage of His brief inattention….He is not terribly just. It can also be very satisfying because whenever something does work out, it means you have, after all, fooled Him.'” The Hedges piece led me to picture victims of 9/11, but this time afforded opportunities beyond the hideous choice of being burned alive or jumping from the towers to their deaths.

Perhaps in the face of widespread destruction preservation of the human species in both as diverse modes and in as many locales as possible can be a compelling goal. Such a goal can grow out of and constitute a response to the anxieties surrounding death and the certainty of our identities.  This goal need not be exclusively anthropocentric or unmindful of the preservation of other beings.   As Jane Bennett points out, agency and the diversity it occasions is not confined to human actors: “The starting point of ethics might lie in the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality. We are vital materiality and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it. (p. 14, Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.) Such a perspective might help sustain an Epicurean sensibility that appreciation for the pluripotentiality of existence is more compelling than the length of life itself. 


Movements for international survival depend on efforts to reduce the psychological, economic, and even religious pressures to secure collective and individual identity by demonizing an other.  Survival also depends on a regard for things as important in themselves rather than merely as objects of consumption.  Cultivating a capacity latent in many to appreciate a world of multiple sources of agency in organic and inorganic life is crucial.  But also vital-- and clearly related-- is appreciation of growing diversity in religions, languages and backgrounds, family structure, sexual orientation, music, dress, food. The Pentagon is preparing for war against the immigrants sure to be displaced by floods and draughts. Environmental and social justice advocates need to prepare now for a different future by collaborating across borders to provide subsistence for all in developing nations while slowing and finding alternatives to the mindless and self-defeating growth compulsions in affluent societies.

Our notions of courage might be broadened to include bravery on behalf of our global neighbors and openness to what they bring coupled with a willingness to question our fixed certainties.  I fantasize a new navy that might live up to the boasts of its recent ads, a “global force for good.”


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Choice Feminism’s Honey Trap

Michaele L. Ferguson
University of Colorado

The other day, a colleague drew my attention to a blog post at xojane.com, “I’m the Duke University Porn Star and for the First Time I’m Telling the Story in My Words.”  The author, writing under the name Belle Knox, is paying her way through college by performing in pornographic films.  Yet recently, she was outed on campus by a Duke fraternity member, and ever since has been subject to online slut-shaming.  She reports, “I was called a ‘slut who needs to learn the consequences of her actions,’ a ‘huge fucking whore,’ and, perhaps the most offensive, ‘a little girl who does not understand her actions.’”  Reading this, it is hard not to feel outrage on her behalf.  




Yet what I find intriguing about her blog post is how clearly it manifests a certain kind of pro-sex argument that strongarms the reader into endorsing – and even celebrating – Knox’s decision to be a porn actress.  This is what I call the choice feminism honey trap.  The honey trap makes it seem as if validating – and even celebrating – the author’s choices is the only possible feminist position one could take.  This is a manipulative argument – but one whose ability to coerce the reader relies upon our accepting certain premises about feminism, sex, and liberation that we quite simply do not have to accept.

The choice feminism honey trap has two stages.  First, it presents some outrageously misogynistic and/or paternalistic view that feminists are likely to agree is deeply problematic.  In Knox’s case, she invokes the slut-shaming from her male peers.  The vicious and personal attacks on Knox are – I think most of us would agree – reprehensible, to say the least.  This generates sympathy with the author:  she has done nothing to deserve this misogynistic abuse.  Indeed, this abuse is why she is speaking out in response:  to draw attention to “the abuses we inflict on sex workers.”



Cue the second stage of the honey trap, in which the feminist explains that she does not deserve misogyny and paternalism because she is a liberated woman who makes her own free choices.  In this spirit, Knox offers a defense of her work in pornography in terms of her first-person experience of porn as liberating.  “For me, shooting pornography brings me unimaginable joy. … I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else.  In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality.”  Knox is choosing freely to do this kind of work, and she gets to work in an environment characterized by acceptance and celebration of her sexuality – completely at odds with the culture of slut-shaming.

Suddenly, we’re trapped like flies on honey.  We’ve agreed that the frat boy harassment is reprehensible:  shaming women for being sexual is bad.  But now suddenly we find that we also have to endorse Knox’s participation in porn, because to do anything less would be to join forces with the frat boys, to condescendingly tell her that she isn’t empowered, in control, and free to make her own choices.  Knox deftly cuts off several classic avenues of critique.  She tells us she is aware that other women are abused in the porn industry, but she isn’t – so we can’t assume that she is the victim of coercive producers.  She tells us this is her free choice, so now we are just being paternalistic if we start to question whether she is in denial about some childhood trauma that led her into porn.  She may star in rough sex films, but she’s engaging in these sex acts consensually, so it is “a horrifying accusation” to suggest that her work perpetuates rape fantasies.  And don’t forget:  she’s the victim here – so we have to stand with her, just as she is standing with other sex workers against abuse, or else we are standing with her abusers.

By accepting Knox’s frame, we are rendered incapable of offering any critique of pornography.  The porn industry can’t be all bad, if it is possible for a high-achieving, ambitious, and sexually liberated woman like Belle Knox to freely choose to participate in it.  We’ve come a long way since Catharine MacKinnon!




What has happened here is that pornography has been reframed entirely in terms of individual choice.  This is choice feminism applied to sex work:  if a woman chooses to engage in porn, then we should all validate that choice.  Her choice is even to be celebrated:  look how liberated she is from sexual shame!  Suddenly, any critique of porn is rendered ineffectual because to criticize porn is to criticize Belle Knox and her choices.  That would place us on the side of the frat boys, and we certainly don’t want to be in their company!

But what if we were to reject the choice feminist framing altogether?  What if we were to shift the question of pornography to be a question not about individual choice, but about the manufacture and commodification of sexual desire?



If we could do this, we could start to ask a variety of questions, questions that are not reducible to the chosenness or shamefulness of one woman’s participation in making pornography:

How does viewing porn affect desire?  Does it shape desire, or does it merely reflect desire?  Does the act of viewing pornography cultivate exploration of desire on one’s own terms?  Is there a monolithic “porn industry” that manufactures norms of desire?  Or are there porn industries that through their competition create a free marketplace of desire for the consumer to explore?  (These are the kinds of questions provoked by both Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs:  Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture and Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman.)  

Does porn liberate us from shame and other constraints on our desire?  Or does it give us an ideological sense of liberation, while surreptitiously directing and shaping our desire in particular ways?  Are there kinds of porn that are more or less liberating?  Or have we confused arousal with desire, and desire with liberation?

What are we to make of the alleged phenomenon of porn addiction?  Is it possible to become addicted to pornography?  Does porn alter the structure of the brains of those who view it?  How might porn addiction be impacting the lives of the partners and children of those who suffer from it?  Does the ubiquity of porn contribute to a culture of instant gratification, and undermine our capacity for sexual intimacy with others?



By moving towards a choice feminist orientation born of fear of sexual shaming, feminists have largely abdicated the critique of porn to the conservative right.  Those feminists who critique porn are often condemned by other feminists as anti-sex.

But there’s another kind of critique possible that is pro-sex.  By asking “how does porn – its material production, its normativity, its wide availability, and its ubiquity in pop culture – affect our desires and our capacity for intimacy?” feminists can offer a critique of porn without falling into the honey trap.

The issue isn’t whether Belle Knox is participating in porn of her own free will.  Trying to figure out whether she is accurately reporting a subjective experience of empowerment, or whether she is victim of false consciousness, is an absurd – and indeed, intrusive and offensive – task.  The issue isn’t whether porn is liberating for her.  The issue is:  is porn liberating for us?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Meet Mike Rogers, al-Qaeda


Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Edmund Burke wrote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Seriously, what did Burke know about evil? He may have lived through the French Revolution, but given the opportunities it created for his “romanticized” fantasy life he was also one of its jubilant participants. More importantly, while he may have known republican fanatics when he saw them, he also had the good fortune to deal with literate fanatics—unlike today’s Republicans. Robespierre may have a lot of blood on his hands, but at least he could read Rousseau—and in the original French! But I digress.

As is now well known, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, aided and abetted by Saddam Hussein, launched murderous attacks against the United States in late summer 2001. While bin Laden knew he could not defeat the United States militarily, he did believe he could provoke America into self-destructive overreaction, as if this country were governed by warmongering hotheads. Over a decade and two wars later, however, he appears to have been vindicated—his rather unmanly assassination in the middle of the night while at home in his jihadist pajamas notwithstanding. The country has spent trillions on wars it cannot win (even rhetorically) and has done irreparable damage to the basic principles of liberty to be found it its governing political document. Though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down (regarding American involvement anyway), the assaults on the Constitution continue. Their effectiveness has been remarkable, suspiciously so in fact, which means that we should be suspicious. Suspicion, of course, constitutes grounds for suspicion. There is no such thing as an accident.

This being so I must bring to public attention the presence among us of one of the very enemy we have spent so much life and treasure fighting. I proceed here with deep regret and sadness, and, I might add, despite the obvious dangers this truth-telling will pose for me, my wife, and especially our children and family dog, Rambo, who in particular has been feeling the stress but remains steadfast in his loyalty and support in these trying times. As a great patriot once said, “we’re all in it together.”





Representative Mike Rogers, Republican from Michigan, 8th Congressional District, Chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, belongs to al-Qaeda. He is on a list of American members of al-Qaeda that is currently in my possession, disclosure of the location of which would mean its disclosure, which cannot be risked, of course.



Representative Rogers may not have declared public war against the United States as any real, self-respecting terrorist would do, but he has achieved notoriety of late for his numerous assaults on the Constitution of the United States and its citizens. Among other things, Jihadi Mike (it’s his official terrorist nickname, bestowed at a secret al-Qaeda ceremony celebrating jihadist of the month) has recommended the assassination of Edward Snowden, the democratic citizen who exposed unprecedented NSA wrongdoing at great personal cost and sacrifice. What’s more, without any evidence and in an effort to discredit Snowden’s democratic activism, Rogers has suggested that Snowden must have been assisted by and thus working for Russian intelligence: “I believe there's [sic] questions to be answered there,” Rogers said. “I don't think it was a gee-whiz luck event that he ended up in Moscow under the handling of the [Russian intelligence service] FSB”. This is the kind of slander that any democratic citizen who challenges or opposes his or her government’s prosecution of the war on terror can expect. Rogers himself, meanwhile, seems unconcerned by the NSA’s efforts to spy on everyone, anywhere in the world on behalf of American national security (both political and corporate): “You can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know your privacy is violated”.



Rogers has also effectively called for the arrest and trial and Glenn Greenwald, an American citizen, political-legal analyst, and civic-minded journalist who routinely brings governmental and corporate criminality to public attention, for selling classified stolen government material: “And if I’m hocking stolen classified material that I’m not legally in possession of for personal gain and profit, is that not a crime?” As Rogers knows, since he was in the Army, even if only to infiltrate it, First Amendment protections enable the media to play a structural role in the American system of checks and balances. Rogers would destroy this check on state power by criminalizing the very possibility of investigative journalism. He does his insidious work out in the open before a disbelieving world, but he knows that in America, if you keep saying something long enough, people will probably believe it.

This is Mike Roger’s notable public record to date. What other purpose could he have in mind than our utter destruction? Mike Rogers belongs to al-Qaeda.



Who is this Mike Rogers? We are told that he graduated from Adrian College, which is located in Adrian, Michigan. Has anyone ever heard of Adrian, Michigan, let alone Adrian College? I didn’t think so. Does the college even exist? Sure, it has a website, but everything has a website these days. He is listed among Adrian’s notable alumni (all six of them!), but isn’t this just a little bit suspicious, no doubt planted there just in case someone decided to conduct a background check? After all, one of the other six Adrian notables is credited with “having completed a summer internship in Washington, D.C.” As impressive as this may sound, the list is not like any other I have seen.



Rogers is noted for having served in the United States Army, which would make him one of our most insidious government sleeper agents. Think about it: he supposedly served from 1985-1989, at which point the American military was taking a break from important global imperial activities and merely keeping limber by toying with the likes of Libya and Panama. What better time to be in the army and not have to actually endanger your life? Just a coincidence, you say? I think not. Is it just a coincidence that al-Qaeda was formed at roughly this time? I think not.  What’s more, Rogers’ own Congressional website says Mike “was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at the University of Michigan.” Does this mean he served in the military by never leaving a college campus? Who does this (aside from Republicans who love to talk tough about war without any actual experience of it)? Someone who wants access to young impressionable minds, someone who must live to fight another day in another, more important forum, that’s who does it.



Mike Rogers also worked, though briefly, for the FBI, specializing in public corruption and organized crime. Isn’t this perfect professional experience for infiltrating the American system of government, starting at the state level and working up to Congress? No one seems to suspect him.



When I “met Mike” on the biography page of his Congressional website, there was no mention of his religious affiliations. This is the lifeblood of Republican politics in America. It is a litmus test every politician must meet. And yet Mike is somehow silent on the issue. What is he hiding? What won’t he tell us? Is he like Socrates? Does he not believe in the gods in which we believe? In what gods does he believe? It is said that Mike has a wife and two children, one son, one daughter. Isn’t this a little too predictable, a little too statistically perfect? Next thing you know we’ll hear about a house, two-car garage, and the red-white-and blue GM truck equipped with gun rack he drives. Besides, has anyone ever actually seen all four of them together, in one place, and asked for proof of their identification? They could be part of the front. Have they been investigated? How long are we going to let Mike Rogers play us?



Now that I’ve spoken up and done my Burkean duty, it’s time for Mike Rogers to speak up as well. Why do you hate us? Why do you want to destroy us? What did we ever do to you? Didn’t we give you everything? Don’t you owe us everything? Is this how you repay us? By belonging to al-Qaeda?



Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Political Drama Without Politics: The Nihlism of House of Cards

Simon Glezos
Lecturer at University of Victoria 

House of Cards was the first series released in online film distributer Netflix's plan to start producing their own content. In an attempt to create a splash, Netflix sought to provide it with strongest pedigree possible, bringing together Oscar winners David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) and Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, LA Confidential) to work on that most prestigious of genres, the political drama. A dark and searing indictment of the hypocrisies of the Washington establishment. The show was a tremendously success, nominated for 9 Emmys, winning one for Best Direction (the first webseries to ever win a primetime Emmy), receiving strong critical praise, and becoming one of the most talked about political dramas since The West Wing. Its success, both critical and commercial, is important, as it says something about what kinds of stories about politics were are interested in hearing today, and what kinds of critiques we are comfortable with. With Season two about to premiere in less than a month, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the vision of politics that it advances.
The show centres on Spacey's character, Francis Underwood, the (Democratic) representative for South Carolina's fifth congressional district, and House Majority Whip. The first episode begins with Underwood anticipating being named the new secretary of state, his promised reward for having helped the President get re-elected. However, when he finds out that he is instead being passed over for another nominee, he embarks on a scorched earth campaign to get himself appointed to a position of greater authority. Over the course of the first season he manipulates, blackmails, slanders and (spoiler alert) eventually even kills to get himself chosen as the replacement nominee for the Vice-President (given that his goal is a position of power, one presumes that he doesn't intend to remain satisfied with just the vice-presidency. Stay tuned, gentle viewer).
 The show's pedigree, however, is more extensive than just the writer and director. The Netflix House of Cards is, in fact, a remake of a beloved British miniseries, also titled House of Cards, which premiered in 1990 (itself based on the 1989 novel of the same name by author Michael Dobbs). In the British version, Francis Underwood is Francis Urquhart, Majority Whip in the House of Commons. The overall plot trajectory is roughly the same; Urquhart is passed over for a cabinet position he expected in return for getting the Prime minister re-elected, and, in retaliation, he too embarks on a trail of betrayal, blackmail and murder that results with him becoming Prime Minister (The mini-series was popular enough to be followed up by two sequels). 
In many ways the two shows are quite similar; both are headed up by charismatic anti-heroes (with a penchant for breaking the fourth wall and instructing the viewer on the intricacies of politics and the deviousness of their plans). Both men are driven only by a desire for personal power, seeing all of their relationships - personal and professional - completely subordinated to naked self-interest. Both provide the visceral pleasures of watching a brilliant but amoral protagonist unwinding complex and devious schemes. 
And yet there are subtle, but key, differences between the two shows, differences which speak to the distinct ways in which political narratives are handled in Britain and the United States respectively. 
 In the British version, Francis Urquhart is entirely a man of his time. The series starts on the eve of the first post-Thatcher election, and Urquhart is the archetypal post-thatcherite Tory. Combining the worst aspects of Aristocratic self-regard and Bourgeois self-interest, Urquhart's political machinations spring directly from Tory ideology. When Urquhart subordinates all of his personal relationships to his own self-interest, he is simply expressing the radical individualism embraced by the politician who stated that "There's no such thing as society". When he seeks to acquire more power, he is simply expressing the divine right of the strong to exercise power over the weak. When, as majority whip, he gleefully speaks about the need to "put the stick about", he is embracing that neoliberal penality which knows that the only way to provide order is through force.
Urquhart springs full blown from an ideology, and embodies a particular belief system. He is a symbol of his time, and to the extent that we're disgusted by him, we recognize how disgusting the world around us has become, and to the extent that we're enthralled by him, we recognize the ways in which we are affectively vulnerable to fascistic calls for authority, order and hierarchy. (Urquhart's frequent claim to the viewer that he succeeds because we, the public, both need and want him, serves as a nice illustration of Deleuze and Guattari's puzzling question 'What makes desire desire it's own oppression?"). 
 Contrasted with this, the American version of House of Cards represents that strangest of North American genres - the apolitical political drama. Where the UK's Francis Urquhart is the living embodiment of a time and an ideology, the US' Francis Underwood is a political cipher. Underwood is a Democrat (undoubtedly a choice made to avoid having the show appear as the supposedly usual liberal-hollywood-elite bashing the conservatives), but also a Southerner (all the better to make his Machiavellian actions standout against his folksy, non-threatening manner). Already we see the problem. Where Urquhart was representative of a recognizable type - dripping with class privilege and oxbridge mannerisms - Underwood is representative of a vanishing breed in American politics - the Southern Democrat. Indeed, a quick look at the current rolls shows that just one of South Carolina's seven representatives is a Democrat. Now, it would, I suppose, be possible to tell the story of Underwood as a relic, an artifact left over from the days of the solid south, as still pop up now and again (although less and less, and Underwood is a little young to claim Robert Byrd status). The trouble with this, of course, is that we have absolutely no sense of Underwood's politics or beliefs. Over the course of the show, we see him campaign for an education bill which substantially undercuts teacher's unions, and then go on to push for an environmentally friendly watershed development act. This political ambivalence could also be seen as an indictment of the increasing centrism and banality of the Democratic party, but words like Democrat and Republican are almost never uttered, and questions of belief, ideology, or political world-view are almost completely absent from this story ostensibly about politics. 
All of this is to say that - unlike Francis Urquhart, the archetypal Tory - Francis Underwood is not, I would argue, intended to be the archetypal Democrat, or the archetypal southerner, or the archetypal 21st century congressional representative. Rather he is intended to be the archetypal Politician. Unconstrained by party or belief, Underwood represents the politician as completely corrupted by the process of politics, a radical evil marked only by the pure desire for power - power without reason, power without ideology, power without end (or rather, power only as an end in itself).
This image of the problem of politics being not a problem of any particular party or belief system (nor, it should be noted, to head off possible anarchist affinities, any particular institution) but rather simply of politics itself is a common staple of North American political commentary and satire. It is represented in frequent calls for bipartisanship, which is another way of saying the desire for an apolitical politics. We see it in the view that politics itself (and not just electoral politics) is inherently corrupt, and therefore inherently corrupting. We see it in attempts to view the problems of politics as coming equally from 'both sides' (As happened, for example, in news coverage of the government shutdown). Take, for example, the way in which The Daily Show, America's foremost source of political satire, impugns in the same breath both Tea Partiers who believe that president Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, and anti-war advocates who accuse Dick Cheney of being a war criminal. (Forget that one is an easily debunked conspiracy theory while the other is, at the very least, a clearly debatable claim under current international law. Both are engaging in 'politics', and therefore both are 'part of the problem'.)
In these contexts, satirical and dramatic accounts serve to reinforce our sense of superiority by pointing out how much better we are than politicians and politics (for differing versions of this process, see Warren Magnusson's The Search for Political Space, and Jonathan Coe's recent discussion in the London Review of Books on the effects of political satire). In this regards political dramas and satires in North America don't just tend to be apolitical (i.e. presenting themselves as coming from a place devoid of political ideology, and therefore attacking no particular ideology, but rather the practice of politics itself). They are also depoliticizing (by making us believe that the political sphere is fundamentally dysfunctional and corrupting, and therefore we are better served by simply avoiding it altogether. See Bill Connolly's take on this process here.
This depoliticizing move brings out another point of contrast between the UK and US versions of House of Cards; that, crucially, they are not just separated geographically, but also temporally. The UK version took place in 1990 just after the Thatcher revolution. The context is thus one of a completed, but not fully naturalized neoliberal revolution. In the UK version the violence, the cruelty, and, most importantly, the class-warfare based nature of neoliberalism is placed front and center (especially in the second mini-series, when the newly established Prime Minister Urquhart finds himself opposed by the new King who seeks to whip up public concern for poverty and homelessness. This struggle between bourgeois class-interest and aristocratic noblesse oblige reminds us of a time when the claims that 'there is no alternative' was contentious, rather than simple common-sense). While Urquhart stands as a symbol of the arrogance and privilege of neoliberalism, it is clear that he is merely an expression of a wider ideology and system. Indeed, the final miniseries ends with his assassination and replacement as Prime Minister, reminding us that, though the individual is gone, the ideology, the system, and the revolution go on. 
Contrast this with the American version, in which all we have are individuals. Every character in the show is out for themselves, pursuing a narrow self-interest (those few characters who seem to hold some sort of political belief are invariably shown to be hypocrites or ineffective naifs). Even the Underwoods' marriage is an uneasy alliance between power-players. It is a world-view which has perfectly absorbed Thatcher's dictum that there is no such thing as society. (Indeed, the fact that it shows politicians as inherently corrupt or incompetent only reinforces neoliberalism's cynical take on the public sphere against the private). In the last episode of the season, Underwood, afraid that his schemes might have failed, finds himself in a chapel and delivers a long monologue, seemingly both to God, and the viewer. He ends by saying "There is no solace above or below, only us, small solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself. " It is a sentiment that Thatcher couldn't have put better, and yet, unlike the British version, it doesn't seem that we are supposed to be disgusted by Underwood's nihilism, or pity his alienation. Rather, in many ways, the show sets him up as a prophet, telling us the uncomfortable truths that only he is honest and serious enough to admit (neoliberalism as 'tough love', a tried and true trope). Contrary to the critique of neoliberalism that the UK version carries forward, the American version manifests as a neoliberal critique, a stinging indictment of politics qua politics, and a reinforcement of an individualized and depoliticized image of society. The problem of politics, in this account, isn't any particular ideology, or system. Rather it is the greed and avarice of individuals, a question, ultimately, of virtue, not politics.
The point here isn't to replace this account of politics with an optimistic image of American politics as the purview of committed and passionate civic minded individuals (call this the 'West Wing' gambit). There is, and must be, a place for a deeply critical perspective on politics in narrative. But it is dangerous when such critiques begin and end with questions of personal virtue, or simply repeat tired tropes of the corrupting influence of power and politics. The best political narratives (much like the UK House of Cards) go beyond the individual to critique systems, ideologies and institutions. They are attentive to the way in which they portray politics. Such perspectives can still be dark, can still be cynical, can still be tragic even. But they also recognizes the way in which cynicism can simply play into the hands of those entrenched forces which profit from a system in which the majority perceive politics as an inherently broken and corrupt system. Ironically, Fincher would have seemed to be the ideal director to walk this tightrope between pessimism and apathy. Think here of the final lines of his breakout hit, Seven. There, a defeated Morgan Freeman intones the words "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part.". It is, perhaps, the most telling fact of our current social climate, that Fincher was able to muster greater optimism in the face of serial killers, than politicians.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

To Taper or Not to Taper: Is That the Question?

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

What hath QE wrought? QE is the Federal Reserve’s regular purchases from its member banks of long- term bonds, mortgage- backed securities, and other assets. The Fed’s decision throughout the crisis to provide extraordinary amounts of liquidity to member banks has raised hackles among libertarian conservatives while stirring at least qualified hope on the part of influential liberals, including Paul Krugman. Both, however, misunderstand modern banking. 

The liberal defense of both the direct bailout of banks through TARP and of the subsequent quantitative easing has been that the banking system was near collapse. Though an orderly bankruptcy with systemically vital creditors being paid off while firing bank officers and placing strict limits on compensation might have been desirable, such actions were not legally available.  This excuse is questionable. Citing the Federal Reserve’s legal limitations becomes suspect in the face of quantitative easing itself, which clearly stretches the limits of the Fed’s authority.

Conservative fears regarding the inflationary impact of the Fed’s easing were equally misplaced. As Paul Krugman pointed out at the time and as history has born out, with interest rates already near zero, pouring more liquidity into the banking system could not drive interest rates lower.  Therefore these purchases could not cause an avalanche of inflationary pressure. To his credit, Krugman has always been skeptical that with nominal rates already zero anything other than fiscal policy, direct government spending, would end the slump.

But Krugman’s understanding of the nature and role of contemporary banking is quaint. He underplays the role of investment banks in occasioning the volatility of the financial system. Krugman views banks as mere intermediaries between “patient savers and impatient borrowers.” However, the role of banks in lending money helped occasion a debt induced boom, and their fierce determination to cut back when debts seemed unsupportable exacerbated the decline. Banks—not government—have in essence printed money. As Australian economist Steve Keen puts it, lending by banks is a different phenomenon from one saver transferring his/her spending power to another with zero net impact. It involves creating new spending power via debt creation. CNBC contributor John Carney nicely summarizes this process: “the basic infrastructure of banking is not built on a foundation of a bunch of cash that is then lent out. It's built on the loans themselves, with capital and reserves raised to meet regulatory requirements.”

The willingness by banks to make and borrowers to take out loans can go on indefinitely. As private debt escalates crisis becomes more likely though one cannot predict exactly when, just as one cannot predict when an avalanche will occur.  Krugman’s treatment of banks as mere passive agents removes an element of flux from his economic models. This move gives him more confidence in economics as a predictive science with equilibrium as an economy’s default state. 


In the US, banking has had its own volatile history. It has coevolved in complex relation to industry and commerce. Hyman Minsky’s classic work points out that in the immediate post World War II period, banks, burned by the experience of the Depression, were cautious. They loaned only to sure things. But the very success of those loans in a growing economy led many to conclude that they had been too restrained. They responded by taking on more leverage and engaging in more speculative finance. Speculation included financing innovative industries and technologies. They helped fund the process of creative destruction celebrated by Joseph Schumpeter. These changes required far more than the funds of Krugman’s patient savers. But as success in such ventures further increases profits and opportunities, eventually all caution is thrown to the wind. What Minsky calls a “euphoric economy” with multiple instances of ponzi finance emerges. Ponzi financiers cannot pay interest on their loans through ordinary operating profits. They depend on sale of assets expected to appreciate via sale to other investors holding the same expectations. Eventually these debts cannot be paid, but the damage done goes far beyond the ponzi artists. Fire sale of their assets leads to deflation and increasing debt burdens even for more prudent investors.  A vicious circle leading to deep depression is soon underway.  Stability breeds instability.



Above all else the triumph and the tragedy of finance suggests that distinctions between finance and “the real economy,” Main Street versus Wall Street, do not fully hold. Each has had a powerful influence, both for good and ill, on the development of the other. 


Finance today could be said to combine over caution via local commerce and industry with renewed exuberance in the creation and marketing of speculative instruments.  As Naked Capitalism blogmaster Yves Smith argues“The central bank has happily allowed banks to become fewer and bigger even before the crisis. But megabanks run their branches like stores, and allow managers little discretion. That means they don’t engage in character-based lending and aren’t able to use local market intelligence to inform small business lending decision.”



If quantitative easing has at best kept a moribund banking system from collapse, it has at worst laid the foundations for a future crash of at least as significant magnitude. Cheap money has not stimulated real business investment, which would depend on a healthier, less debt- ridden consumer. Nonetheless, it has spurred a renewed range of merger and acquisition, IPO, and corporate buyback schemes. As Wolf Richer, also blogging in Naked Capitalism, puts itFor the first time since 2009, the global top five were our too-big-to-fail friends on Wall Street. ...They’re all celebrating their phenomenal success in extracting massive fees from a wheezing economy… But it’s also a warning signal: Financial engineering looks good on paper for a while, and the markets love it, and the hoopla makes everyone feel energized, especially those who take the cream off the top, and it feeds off the nearly free money the Feds hands to Wall Street. But after these financial engineers are done extracting fees and altering the landscape, they move on, leaving behind iffy debt, shares of dubious value, wildly growing tangles of risk, and other detritus. And a lot of these financially over-engineered constructs won’t make it in an environment where money isn’t free anymore.”



To QE or not is hardly the question any more. The more ominous issue is the size and structure of the banking system. It has never been more imperative to reduce concentration in finance, to extend to student and home owner debtors the same forgiveness banks received, to spend on green infrastructure projects, to restore the Glass-Steagall separation of commercial and investment banking, and to change banker incentives.