Thursday, August 16, 2018

Dietetic Capitalism

William E. Connolly
Author of Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017)

On a scintillating panel several years ago, Jane Bennett, Bonnie Honig and Melissa Orlie promulgated the health and political virtues of the slow food movement at an American Political Science Convention. One rump group in the room would have none of it. Such a movement, they insisted, is inherently class based. It speaks only to the upper middle class and the rich who can afford such luxuries of time and expense.

The critics were right about a class dimension of this phenomenon, wrong to the extent they thought the situation does not require a radical class response. It is expensive today to enjoy slow, organic foods that enrich the microbial diversity of the gut, encourage brain health, and protect people on several health fronts. But that is because diet exploitation joins other modes of class/race exploitation in several capitalist societies. Dietetic Capitalism joins the stratification of work, consumption practices, retirement opportunities, housing possibilities, pollution, susceptibility to military duty, longevity, and sources of stress. It even helps to solidify them.

I grew up in a Midwest, working class family before fast food became pervasive and two bread winners were so dominant. We did eat too many potato chips and too much ice cream. We also loved hot dogs, but only as special treats. The working class had not yet succumbed to the fast food industry that now afflicts the health of so many in that class and elsewhere.  Additives of sugar and fat were less pervasive; livestock were less subjected to corn feeding and closed feeding pens, antibiotics were thus less needed; obesity was less common; and several other sicknesses were less frequent. It was an unhealthy diet, certainly, but still a step or two above a fast food diet. Whenever as a teen I was invited to my Italian girlfriend’s upscale house for dinner, olive oil, fish, tomato sauces, fresh garlic, red wine and good cuts of meat were on the menu. I spent evenings there often, for several good reasons.

The recent book by Emeran Mayer, The Mind-Gut Connection (2016) gives the lie to critics of slow, healthy food diets. Mayer is not himself focused on the class composition of Dietetic Capitalism, but his review of recent revolutions in neuroscience do carry implications for that issue on every page.  The older neuroscience of the brain as a self-contained computer is on life support. More recent versions, which concentrate on intersections between multiple body, brain culture processes, are undergoing another revamping too. The new scientists often enough appreciate the reality of creative thinking and judgment.

The more we learn about the role of the dense neuronal system in the gut, its numerous imbrications with the gut microbiome, and the complex communications between both of them and brain regions in the head, the more the subtlety of relations between ingestion, digestion, microbial composition, neuronal systems, moods, thinking, and health come to the fore. One focus in the book is on the two way communications between the neuronal system in the gut, the vagus nerve, and  blood pathways for hormones of numerous sorts from the gut. Gut bacteria and the hormones they produce infiltrate moods, appetites, susceptibility to disease, brain health, and vulnerability to inflammation of the immune system. The food we eat and digest affects the quality of the microbiome; its specific composition then feeds back into the character of the food it seeks. The gut is a complex source of desires, feelings and prejudgments.

Here are just a few things Mayer says:
  • "in recent years the gut-brain axis has taken center stage. This shift can be largely attributed to the exponential rise in knowledge and data about the bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses that live inside the gut..."(p. 14)
  • benefits of microbiota for health: "Some of the best documented benefits include assistance in the digestion of food components our guts cannot handle by themselves, regulation of our bodies’ metabolism, processing and detoxifying dangerous chemicals,..regulation of the immune system, and prevention of invasion by dangerous pathogens." (p. 15)
  • immunity and its inflammations. "In addition to the gut-brain communication channel involving the endocrine cells, there is another system involving our gut-based immune cells and the inflammatory molecules these immune cells produce., the so-called cytokines." (p. 62)
  • the hidden mood/salience system: "most of the time the salience system operates below the level of conscious awareness. Trillions of sensory signals rise up from your gut every day and are processed in your brain’s salience network. They remain content to..percolate into your subconscious." (p. 173)
  • transmission of the effects of bad diet to the next generation: "If the human genome.. is the  book of life, then a brain cell, a liver cell and a heart cell each reads different sections of the book. Epigenetic tags are the bookmarks..that tell a brain cell to read one passage of the book and a liver cell to read  another." (p. 120)
  • "Epigenetics violated everything modern biologists had learned about inheritance." (p. 121)

The microbiome begins to establish its specific composition in the mother’s womb, continues to do so dramatically for three years, collects “chemical tags” that propel some of these tendencies to the next generation, and is susceptible to further change by the quality of food ingested and stresses adults face. It can contribute to later bouts of depression, diabetes, Irritable Bowl Syndrome, obesity, Parkinson’s, Dementia, immune disorders, cancer, and probably Alzheimer’s when it is not composed in healthy ways. Our moods and cognitive powers partly flow from interchanges between numerous micro-agents moving back and forth between the brain in the head and the gut system, through both the vagus nerve and the blood system. Olfactory sensors on numerous intercommunicating organs play roles of importance as well. Note, too, how such processes do not have to be construed as blind determinants of thinking and judgment; they can be read as micro-agentic participants in thinking, mood and judgment.  A conversation between Mayer and Alfred North Whitehead could be very illuminating in this respect, since the latter construes such processes to be micro-agents.

Mayer, after probing new research into microbiome, brain and health relations, celebrates a Mediterranean diet high in plant foods, chicken and fish, olive oil, nuts, whole grains, tomatoes, and a daily dose of red wine. This brain and microbiome diet is equipped to help reduce stress and maybe even curtail temptations to listen to manipulative politicians who seek to exacerbate and exploit class and race based stresses. Mayer also emphasizes how several other dietary traditions can contribute to similar effects. It is fast food--highly processed, high salt and sugar content, red meat, soaked with antibiotics, swallowed with diet drinks, and starched with carcinogens--that forms the backbone of what I call Dietetic Capitalism. Diet drinks spawn a bacterial regime that promotes weight gain.

There is much more in this book of particular interest to those who pursue gut-brain health as they think, teach and write about the contemporary condition, including some further refinements of what a few critics call "affect theory".  But here we focus on an upshot not pursued in the book itself:  how the health, mood, stress, and inflammatory benefits and liabilities pondered in this little book are stratified by Dietetic Capitalism.  Working class people, if and when they have slipped away from ethnic culinary traditions, are pressed toward unhealthy diets by their income levels, stress levels, available stores and restaurants, engrained gut demands, and feelings of depression about the future looming before them. Upper middle class people can go to organic stores and enjoy excellent restaurants. Our immune systems are less apt to be compromised if we do so; our brain processes somewhat less apt to fall into Parkinson’s or Dementia; our stresses less often apt to drive us inexorably to comfort foods with spiral effects on health and attitudes; our sicknesses less often to pull us into the stress of medical bankruptcy. Fast food agribusiness, stores, and restaurants treat people and livestock ruthlessly as mere objects of profit, when they can get away with it, pumping as much surplus value out of them as possible.

Not everyone in privileged settings eats a healthy diet, of course.  Intelligence, judgment and forbearance are needed to pursue that course, even when the opportunity is there. Donald Trump, the billionaire, eats horrible food; it shows in everything he does, says and thinks. His diet was once an insistent, impulsive  choice, and it has now become an addiction. Perhaps a fecal transplant could help start a dietary transition. It would only be a first step, of course. My stool sample is available, if needed. But I am not willing to travel to Russia for the operation.

Do not talk about capitalism writ large without including Dietetic Capitalism as an insidious mode of class/race exploitation. Michelle Obama realized this. Drives to reduce class inequality must include demands to increase healthy microbiome opportunities for pregnant women, babies, children, adults and old people in every walk of life. Key words here are “opportunity” and “detailed knowledge”. Information about precisely how such tangled processes work on and in our bodies is critical. Such accounts show us when and where to expect an upsurge of gut pressure and how best to counter it. Generic information in this domain only convinces until it is time to eat.  This is precisely the juncture at which Mayer becomes most pertinent to the war against Dietetic Capitalism.

To work, such detailed knowledges also require intensive support of local and organic produce. The urban gardens springing up everywhere are promising signs. It will additionally, however, require intensive regulation of food additives, food information labels, livestock conditions, the use of feedstock antibiotics, carcinogens, and corporate TV food advertisements designed to exploit the gut. All these must be joined to real reductions in income inequality and tough working conditions to reshape the stress, gut, comfort food, inflammation, and health compromising dynamic now in play.

Dietetic Capitalism reveals a lot about the insidious character of other capitalist modes of exploitation. It slides into the gut, circulates through the blood stream, seeks vulnerable objects to exploit, spawns addictive practices, and encourages denialism. 

Continue Reading →

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Civility Is For Losers

Bonnie Honig
Brown University
Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair

Grab ‘em by the pussy. They don’t resist. Well most of them don’t, anyway. Most give in; maybe it seems easier than fighting. Or they think it’s just the cost of doing business. “Here we go…” – they think. “Here we go!” he thinks, closing in for the kill. Will this one yield? Most do, or perhaps it is just many who do. Or maybe just a few (he does exaggerate). Why do they yield? They are polite, conflict avoidant, maybe a bit blinded by celebrity. They are also thrown off, taken aback by his complete abandonment of the usual rules. Why bother with consent when you can get compliance? Just get what you want. Reach over, she is right there, next to you on the plane, in your office, in the dressing room. There! For the TAKING!

Lie, promise things you know you won’t deliver, bluster, tell them how rich you are, say anything, do anything: whatever it takes. What if she says no? she won’t say no! and if she does, so what? Who will know? Just say you tossed her first! Or call her a liar. Or, better: Demand an apology from her! Ha! That’ll teach her. Most of ‘em let you, anyway. But what if later they complain? then what? No problem: throw some money at ‘em. "Here, don’t say I never gave you anything." "What? You think that was rude? I was just JOKING! Can’t you people take a joke?"

If that last paragraph was a bumper sticker, it would read: “Civility is for losers.” That’s us.

The owner of the Red Hen restaurant seems to be everything the President is not: serious, polite, and well-intentioned. She risked her business out of respect for her workers who, like most restaurant workers, are among those on the presidential hit list. The restaurant business, as Anthony Bourdain made plain, is particularly hospitable to non-conforming people. Perhaps it is the melee of the kitchen that provides an environment in which men – it is mostly men -- who don’t fit elsewhere, find a niche and maybe even thrive. Informed that the President’s Press Secretary was dining in her restaurant this week, The Red Hen’s owner consulted her employees, she did not tell them what to do, and then she represented them, she did not betray them. She took the press secretary outside, presumably to save her embarrassment in front of her friends, and to avoid a scene. “I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” the Red Hen’s Stephanie Wilkinson said later. The desire to avoid a scene is often what leads to compliance. Not this time. Out on the porch, Wilkinson explained the press secretary would not be served dinner, then refused her money, and asked her to leave. The Press Secretary left (note: if you refuse, THEY may comply!).
 The story came out. The Press Secretary preened her moral superiority and said that when asked, she “politely left.” As for the owner of the Red Hen? “Her actions,” Sanders said, “say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” This last statement alone beggars all belief given the almost daily barrage of snide prevarication from the podium. But beggaring belief is surely the point. If Sanders and her boss could, they would make beggars of us all.
 In a decent world, Stephanie Wilkinson’s decency would shine like a beacon. Sarah Sanders was right (even a broken clock is right twice a day): “Her actions,” Sanders said, “say far more about her than about me.” Wilkinson did not yell “fascist,” she did not tweet out the Press Secretary’s whereabouts and encourage a crowd to come protest her, she did not tape their dinner conversation. These are all tactics others might have employed, and all of them are defensible. But Wilkinson found her own way: she toed the line she could not cross, and she did so with civility. It seems to have done her no good. It has done her a world of good. It has done the world good. Yes, she has now resigned her position as executive director of the downtown business association, part of the fallout of her stumble into public life. And her business is attacked by Trump and his Press Secretary. Their aim is to raise the costs of protest and discourage others from such principled action. If no one is protesting, that must mean there is nothing to protest! Just like when an NDA secures a woman’s silence, and the conclusion we are told to accept is that the assault must have not happened. But Maxine Waters, who has known from Day One who and what we are dealing with here, congratulated Wilkinson, and called for more like her to step up. Waters called on all of us. Take courage from this example, she is saying. Take ‘em out on the porch. Don’t let it be business as usual. Don’t just let it go. And now it is Waters, not the pussy- grabber, but the one who dares to call him what he is, who is told she should apologize.
The audacity of civility. Power loves to police the tone of those who challenge it. To be sure, the tone is not the only thing policed. A man who has always taken what he wants without asking now has at his behest the forces of police, military, and the Supreme Court. With the full power of the US government, his game is to see how far he can go. Our obligation is to stop him. No one tactic will do. (VOTE!) No one else will do it. One at a time and all together is the only way forward.
 Stephanie Wilkinson has shone a light. Let us show we know the power of the shining beacon and have faith in the rewards of walking in its path: When Muhammad Ali was asked whether he regretted his draft refusal, given what it cost him (titles and money lost while he was effectively banned from the sport), he said: “I would like to say to those of the press and those of the people who think that I lost so much … I would like to say that I did not lose a thing up until this very moment, I haven’t lost one thing,” he said. “I have gained a lot. Number one, I have gained a peace of mind. I have gained a peace of heart.”
Newly Elected County Commissioner, Mariah Parker, Takes Oath of Office on The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Unseats 10 term Democrat On Progressive-Left Platform

Continue Reading →

Monday, June 18, 2018

Populism or Fascism?

William E. Connolly
Author, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017) and Facing the Planetary... (2017)

In h
is impressive 1944 book, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi reviews how a series of Fascist movements erupted in Europe, the United States and elsewhere after the meltdown of market capitalism in 1929 known as the Great Depression. Sure, Italian fascism preceded that collapse, but its virulence increased after the Depression, and it was joined by the vitalization of similar movements. Some succeeded, crushing communism and social democracy, as they introduced a version of corporate capital tied to Fascist governance. Others failed, largely because of democratic movements trending toward social democracy. One lesson from this cross-regional cluster of movements, Polanyi claimed, is that Fascist movements are not simply reducible to the internal dynamics of a single regime.

 Pressures to Fascism flow from a volatile conjunction of internal and external forces. Internal discontents in Germany after its total defeat in World War I were joined to the devastating cross-regional effects of the Great Depression on middle and working classes. German Nazism became the most virulent mode of Fascism, joining intense racial nationalism, antisemitism, attacks on "slavs", Romani, gays, communists and social democrats to initiation of World War II and the utter horror of Death camps. But other Fascist movements also arose in countries such as the United States (Father Coughlin had a radio following of 30 million), Norway, France, England, Sweden, Hungary, Holland, Finland and Japan. The horror of German Nazism, indeed, can distract attention from how the other movements, too, were driven by both internal and external dynamics.
 It is pertinent to see how the deregulated precursors to more recent versions of neoliberalism ushered in the Great Depression. But market ideologues soon pretended, with Hayek taking the lead, that it is Keynesian policies that place society on “the road to serfdom”. Polanyi was amused by Hayek’s denial of marketeer responsibility for the Great Depression. He therefore felt confident that Hayekism would never return to a position of prominence in western democracies. He was ohhh so wrong on that last point. But his recognition of general sources of the first wave of Fascist movements and our recent experience do suggest that the cross-regional victories of neoliberalism, with its drives to periodic crisis, austerity programs, and attacks on worker security, readily establish preconditions for Fascistic eruptions.
 Today, you might say, new dislocations have emerged to challenge several democracies. The escalation of refugee pressures has been deployed to incite racism in several countries. Job insecurities and stagnating wages, generated by the hegemony of neoliberal regimes and the decline of labor movements, exacerbate these pressures. The droughts in Syria, the Sub-Sahara, and Latin America, linked in part to galloping climate change, already help to spawn civil wars and the flows of desperate refugees. They also pull American constituencies, drawn to the myth of a golden age when coal, oil, gas, massive highway projects, and automobility were kings, to leaders who blame their troubles on immigration, racial integration, trade agreements, and ethnic pluralization. These constituencies become susceptible to false promises to return to a manufacturing era that gave them entitlements. Such developments vary significantly across regimes, of course, but variations are discernible in the United States, the UK, Poland, Italy, Hungary and Turkey. A series of local surges with cross-regional affinities. A new version of the world Polanyi charted for the 1930s.
What needs close attention today, however, is how several authoritative analyses replace the old designation of Fascist movements with that of “Populist” movements. The label Polanyi used to review multiple movements in the 1930s is now refused by many critics. Take, to cite merely one example, the new book by Levitsky and Ziblatt on How Democracies Die. “Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures claiming to represent the voices of the people, wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties…And they promise to bury the elite and return power to the people.” (p. 22)
 Levitsky and Ziblatt do capture aspects of the current crisis in democracy, attending to how the movements they decry undermine democratic norms. And they certainly realize that democracies can die. But they underplay the deeper sources of that erosion and focus too much on how party reform can restore “guardrails” of democratic governance. What, speaking more generally, is deficient about accounts couched as critiques of Populism?
  First, the reduction of the new movements to Populism tends to cover Left Populism and Right Populism under the same umbrella. That encourages the call for establishment guardrails to foreclose both movements from the Left and Right. But it can be argued--I do argue--that a focus on guardrails alone reproduces the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. It under plays how radical actions within universities, corporations, localities, and the state challenged ordinary party politics as it extended the pluralization of civic culture. And it ignores how the market fundamentalism of the neoliberal Right and the pluralizing politics of the cultural Left—while each resisted the other--caught many members of the white working and middle classes in a bind between them. That bind increased their job insecurities, produced wage stagnation, made it more difficult to send their kids to college in an economy where a high school education is not enough, and made them highly vulnerable to the debt and underwater mortgages spawned by neoliberal meltdowns. The bind even encouraged some within the liberal Left to characterize this constituency in disparaging terms it would find to be outrageous if they were applied to Blacks, women, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims or others. Think of the words white trash, hillbillies, and crackers for starters. The binds in which they are caught primed the “deplorables” to listen to the voices of aspirational Fascism.
Second--a related point--while deriding "populist" rhetoric on the Right, generic antipopulists also tend to deflate egalitarian, pluralizing and democratic rhetorical practices desperately needed to counteract the rhetoric of aspirational fascism today. Antipopulists sometimes act as if they want rule by democratic elites to be almost as automatic--once the election is over--as neoliberals pretend markets are when they are left free to rumble. Such an elective affinity between lovers of regular party rule and lovers of untrammeled markets is not too surprising; the two parties had already arranged a rocky marriage contract. What is urgently needed today, however, are democratic activists with rhetorical powers to both activate several minorities and inspire the higher angels of a larger faction of the white working and middle classes. The dispersed working class in fact has become a minority itself today. The leaders must call for radical changes that draw these constituencies closer together, rather than exacerbating divisions between them. More about that soon. They will do so in ways that repeatedly expose the Big Lie Scenarios of aspirational Fascism as they ground their own inspirations in evidence based claims. Think of the differences here between William Barber and Donald Trump. And, on another register, the differences between Hillary Clinton and Barber, with the former too crippled by her own neoliberalism to address real class issues of the day.
Beto O'Rourke and Veronica Escobar Lead March on Tent City
 Third, democracy does not consist merely of representation through open elections, compromises between governing elites, and consensus on guardrails. Representative democracy stands in creative tension with its indispensable double: creative social movements to open up new possibilities in the domains of worker entitlement, ethnic diversity, religious plurality, income egalitarianism, climate action, and gender diversity. The fact that some constituencies on that list have made precarious advances over the last few decades, while the working class has faced declining entitlements and growing insecurities, means that this second dimension of democracy must be widened again. Critics of generic "Populism" do not appreciate sufficiently the need for such social movements. Their one-dimensional definition of representative democracy—often joined to softness on a neoliberalism that demeans social movements even more belligerently—depreciates citizen activism as an essential ingredient of democracy. Such a combination of elite guardrails and softness on neoliberalism, however, promises to reproduce the condition the elites purport to fight against. That, indeed, is how we got here.
 Fourth, while the democratic Left might hope to win a Presidential election with an inspiring candidate, it cannot create large enough Congressional majorities unless it makes substantial inroads into the large fly-over zones between the two coasts. This, too, means that a larger segment of the dispersed white working class must be drawn again into its orbit. Entrenchment by the radical Right in small towns and rural districts--joined to a ruthless ideology and extreme gerrymandering--shows how the politics of stalemate deepens when a Democrat wins the White House. The politics of gridlock, however, is precisely the politics that attracts aggrieved low information voters to listen to definitive, ruthless incitement from authoritarian leaders. A cascade process is set into motion here. 
 Fifth, while ideologues of aspirational Fascism stoke white nationalism, a territorial Wall, fossil fuels, racism, and stories of a climate hoax to return to a golden 1950s era when an old manufacturing regime prevailed--it is nonetheless insufficient to use the language of racism and misogyny to oppose them. Those practices certainly must be identified and rooted out, and it is important to emphasize how the 1950s brought McCarthyism. But, it is now clear: in order to surmount racism and misogyny you must also support general policies to render the infrastructure of consumption more inclusive, to make public college tuition free, to protect low and middle income people from retrograde bankruptcy proceedings after a meltdown, to improve the legal power of labor unions, to reverse finance laws that allow the rich to steal elections, to build a sustainable power grid, to support universal health care, to protect worker retirements after a company closes, and to reduce the income discrepancy between the highest and lowest paid workers in each firm. Several of these proposals would provide more working and middle class people in many subject positions with better jobs and living conditions. But such proposals fall into categories that some pundits place under the label of Left Populism. Neglect or repudiation of such programs incites temptations by caught many in the binds described to tolerate or succumb to aspirational Fascism.
 Is it really wise to define virulent movements on the Right as carriers of aspirational Fascism? One reason it is wise to do so is that it allows us to draw selectively from energies conservative democrats and neoliberals now sink into a vague muddle called Populism. The change in labels additionally underlines how serious the danger from the Right is today. Aspirational Fascists already use Big Lies every day, conspire with hostile foreign powers to rig elections, make vicious attacks on the media as “enemies of the people”, instill racism, engage in minority voter suppression, advance militarism, threaten wars, assert the President to be a Sovereign above the law, strive to turn the Justice Department into a tool of elite gangsterism, make thinly denied appeals to vigilante groups, use the Presidency as a corrupt vehicle for a family business, demand unquestioning support from the courts, and support local police violence. They are already Fascist in both achievement and ambition.
GOP Nominee for Virginia Senate Seat Corey Stewart
What would they do if they succeeded even more on several fronts? They would become more oppressive yet in their use of the IRS, racism, intimidation of the media, corruption of courts, use of Reichstag temptations to mobilize the base, voter suppression, militarism, support of vigilantism, alliances with local police, and infiltration of the academy. They would define all adversaries to be "enemies of the people", as they winnow down what counts as "the people". They would transfigure democratic institutions into mechanisms of oppressive rule. They would deploy the separation of powers as a cover more than be restrained by it. What looked like a Populist movement to proponents of one dimensional democracy before it seized power would surface as Fascism if it consolidated power.

We already inhabit the era of aspirational Fascism, then. It is unwise to assume that the separation of powers and elite protection of old guardrails will suffice to defeat that movement. It may do so, but it is unwise to count on it alone without large doses of citizen activism. It is more wise to recall how a set of neoliberal Republicans-- so recently proud of free trade deals, originalist judges, the “rational” market, tax cuts for the rich, and dog whistles over overt racism--have slunk either into silence or toward ebullient Trumpism. The differences between them and Trump have been squeezed by complementary desires to mobilize a governing assemblage composed of rich donors, leading financial elites, white evangelicals, the white working and middle classes, Big Lie Scenarios, minority voter suppression, a territorial Wall, and a Fascist leader exempt from criticism, judicial action or legislative review. We live during a moment when a new crisis is apt to place democracy even more severely at risk. Citizens who love democracy may soon have to take to the streets, twitter mobilizations, town halls, and phone banks to force accountability from leaders who seek to evade it.
I am aware that a faction on the Left contends that democracy forms a thin varnish on top of capitalism. They exaggerate. Democracy and capitalism do chafe against each other; neoliberal capitalism places democracy under severe pressure; and a neoliberal/evangelical resonance machine places it under extreme pressure, as I diagnosed in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style in 2008. But, as Theodore Adorno found, after the “veneer” had been ripped off Weimar democracy, democracy had in fact been closer to a skin than to a veneer. Tearing it off created a bloody mess. The crisis of capitalism and democracy, in that instance, ushered in Fascism, when many communists had thought it would open the door to Communism. Capitalism with democracy provides footholds and handholds at many sites from which significant change can sometimes be pursued, including radical changes in the growth imperatives that both shape capitalism and threaten the future during the Anthropocene. Late modern capitalism without democracy, on the other hand, becomes Fascism. This is so because extra repression is needed to stifle constituencies accustomed to democratic citizenship. Such repression would find expression in numerous institutions--from localities, schools, churches, police departments, and corporations to governing state institutions of the day. It is thus unwise to wait for democracy to collapse in the hope of installing a new Kingdom of Heaven. That lesson has been taught before; aspirational Fascism teaches it again.
Continue Reading →

Saturday, June 9, 2018

What’s in a Hashtag?: Terms for Tweeting in Alliance

Alyson Cole is a professor of Political Science, Women’s & Gender Studies, and American Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of The Cult of True Victimhood, and most recently, “Precarious Politics: Anzaldúa's Reparative Reworking.” Alyson co-edits philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism.

Sumru Atuk is a completing her doctorate -- “The Politics of Femicide: ‘Woman’ Making and Women Killing in Turkey,” supported by grants from the Mellon Foundation and AAUW -- in Political Science and Women’s & Gender Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sumru and Alyson are collaborating on an article about the promise and limits of #MeToo politics.
For those who remember Clarence Thomas’s hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a televised drama that made “sexual harassment” a household word -- #MeToo felt, at first, like bad deja vu. Betty Friedan argued that women need to name sexism in order to overcome it, but the current digital protest publicizes a problem named long ago. Unlike those 1991 hearings, which focused in excruciating detail on two protagonists, Thomas and Anita Hill, #MeToo lays bare the appalling scale and frequency of women’s daily encounters with men who sexually harass and whose sexual harassment, in violation of the law, is often widely known and tolerated.

Is #MeToo the cresting of a new wave of feminism, a final reckoning with patriarchy? Or is it a perversion of the achievements of the women’s movement? Those who worry it is the latter see a McCarthyism in drag that demands the sacrifice of “good men” (Senator Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers, for example), while reviving Victorian sensibilities about female fragility; a regression into the “victim feminism” of the past when women rebuffed the joys of sex, renegotiated the terms of consent, and incited a sex panic. Critics want to retain a line between a sociable pat on the back and a threat, a disappointing date and an assault; they seek a more nuanced understanding of romantic overtures and a less nuanced understanding of sexual violation. For them, #MeToo’s trial by Twitter enacts a double infraction: criminalizing “locker room talk,” while trivializing rape.

Amidst all the celebration and consternation over #MeToo, one aspect has been overlooked: the sign under which this activism (however it might be characterized or assessed) is taking place. There have been other digital campaigns, such as #WhatWereYouWearing, #SurvivorPrivilege, and #WhyWomenDontReport. But #MeToo is different. And this difference begins with the hashtag itself, rather than the celebrities who became its early public face. To truly appreciate the politics that #MeToo empowers, we need to understand the political grammar of the sign.
Naming the problem is only a first step, as the magnitude and tolerability of sexual violence demonstrate. Equally important is the language those challenging the problem employ to classify themselves. As Simone de Beauvoir instructed, women will remain the subjugated second sex until they learn to say “We” regarding their gender. Feminists have struggled to define what sort of social group “women” constitute, what feminist solidarity entails, and whether feminism can exist without presuming fundamental commonalities among individuals differently situated with respect to race, class, and nationality. #MeToo provides a generative alternative to articulate these collective claims without ignoring the disparate distribution of precarity and privilege among those assembled under the sign. It allows individuals to join together and recognize their “endless variety and monotonous similarity,” to borrow Gayle Rubin’s artful formulation of women’s manifold oppressions.

Hashtags are typically constructed by merging words, but conjoining ‘Me’ and ‘Too’ creates a potent new compound. ‘Me’ upholds individuality, while sidestepping the possessive ‘My,’ the reflexive ‘Myself,’ and the more frequent ‘I.’ In English, ‘Me’ rarely occurs alone in a sentence; it is more commonly used in conjunction with another subject pronoun, especially to establish a relationship. ‘Me’ thus anticipates others, a potential ‘Us.’ It issues an invitation that is not just solipsistic.
 The designation ‘Me’ certainly carries some cultural baggage, especially since Tom Wolfe’s scathing critique of the “Me Generation,” bemoaning a shift from the social activism that defined the 1960s to an atomized individualism, a problematic turning inward he observed in the 1970s. This is where the second term in the hashtag, ‘Too,’ becomes decisive by dislodging the ‘Me’ from Wolf’s tarring, and thereby helping to fulfill the promise already within the otherwise maligned ‘Me.’
‘Too’ signals more than one, a plurality prefigured by another (with whom the ‘Me’ expresses alliance) and invites more “Mes’ to join in. ‘Too’ also homophonically gestures to ‘Two’ and ‘To,’ a trebling of meaning that further destabilizes the singular personal pronoun and simultaneously evokes an imperative form -- the ‘To’ of whatever verb (still to be determined) might follow. Fused with ‘Me’, ‘Too’ creates a plural name that resonates with Luce Irigaray’s conception of a distinctly feminized “more than one.
Expressed through a digital medium, individuals need not detail personal incidents or even what motivates them to retweet. (#MeToo is not the virtual version of Take Back the Night.) The mutual designation is not presumed beforehand; it is achieved. The achievement is indirect; a building of collectivity based not on shared experiences, but on experiential similarity discovered by speaking up with others, what Mlambo-Ngouko terms “accumulated experiences.” ‘Too’ amplifies the plurality of the multiple ‘Mes’, shifting the personal pronoun from “this happened to me” to an assertion of “count me in.”
 Opponents and proponents (such as those who soon declared #TimesUp) are eager to see the digital activism either dissolve or evolve into more conventional forms of politics. In their impatient call for “real” action, they neglect the important political work #MeToo already performs. #MeToo not only raises feminist consciousness, it also raises the possibility of political solidarity among individuals who may never be in one another’s shoes. The workplace harassment a Latina domestic worker endures is not interchangeable with what a Wall Street trader may face. Yet #MeToo created the context for the Campesina women to support Hollywood actresses. The sign invites such solidarities. It summons individuals to say, “Yes, that happened to me too. Not in the exactly same way, but I understand and will stand with you.”
The malleable and horizontal solidarity #MeToo nurtures is similar to what Judith Butler terms “thinking in alliance.” What we might categorize as “tweeting in alliance” requires only a mutual cause, not a shared identity or a common experience. #MeToo thus circumvents the tensions that plagued previous feminist formulations and practices, when different perspectives were ignored or disregarded and voices silenced in the effort to construct a unified account of “women.” There is no universal and ahistorical patriarchy, only the extraordinary resonance of #MeToo.
 Since this digital campaign began, individuals from around the world joined in tweeting #MeToo in different languages, chipping away at long established hierarchical divides between the so-called liberated women of the “West” and the oppressed women of the “Rest,” without adhering to some homogenized account of sexual violence. In China, emojis were used (#RiceBunny) to retain the powerful compound of ‘Me’ and ‘Too’, while defying censorship. When said aloud the words for “rice bunny” are pronounced “mi tu,” a homophone that cleverly evades detection, and emphasizes the importance of #MeToo as a sign.
Many suggest that #MeToo is a flash in the pan, or more precisely in cyberspace, or that it will provoke a backlash. But even beyond measures specific to Twitter, #MeToo has already had a remarkable impact, catalyzing the passage of new legislation in several states (Illinois, California, Oregon, Rhode Island, New York), and propelling the resignation of some egregious offenders. Catherine MacKinnon, the architect of sexual harassment law in the United States, credits #MeToo with achieving more in a matter of months than decades of courtroom challenges. As importantly, and more enduringly, the hashtag offers new terms to join feminists together in their fight against gender discrimination in all its forms.

Continue Reading →