Monday, March 22, 2010

Obama and Sun Tzu

Today I’ll celebrate Obama, rather than, as has been my habit over the past year, knocking him.

Obama’s campaign was impressive for exactly the reason that – in the final stretch of the healthcare debate – Obama’s renewed energy in pressing for the House bill was impressive. The reason is easy to find, as all readers of Francois Jullien’s Treatise on Efficiency know – Obama – and in this he is like Lincoln – is very much a Chinese strategist:

Two different modes of efficacy result from these two different logics [of the Western strategists and Sun Tzu] on the one hand, the relation of means to ends with which we in the West are the more familiar; on the other, a relation between conditions and consequences, which is favored by the Chinese. When strategy consists in getting a situation to evolve in such a way that, if one allows oneself to be carried along by it, the effect results naturally from the accumulated potential of the situation, there is no longer any need to choose (between means) or to struggle in order to attain an ‘end’. Abandoning the logic of model-making (founded on the construction of an ideal end), you can switch to the logic of a process (note the importance of ze, “as a result”, in the construction of Chinese discourse). On the one side, the causal system is open and complex, and an infinite number of combinations are possible; oin the other, the process is closed, and its result is implicit in its evolution.”

When Obama dismisses D.C. and the political entertainment industry, this is what he means. The enemy must take a position, while Obama waits for a situation. The GOP has taken the position of pure opposition to any healthcare bill. What this position really means is that the GOP is defending the present system. Obama took the situation – the discontent with the system, and the manifest fears of not being insured, along with rising insurance rates – and simply let it develop as his argument. However, to remain master of the situation, one must look within and understand your own relationship to it. Obama failed to do this – in essence, he nearly shoaled the situation by negotiating with the GOP. The loss of the Senate seat in Massachussetts was actually a good thing for Obama – it taught him that the situation was not changing towards what he wanted, but away from what he wanted. He had lost his formerly correct sense of how to press on the situation.

That sense is not created in the political entertainment industry or in response to it. Obama and his people are not at all the instant response kind, vide Clinton’s people. In this way, they let the enemy forces stake their position. By negotiating with the GOP, Obama helped them hide their position behind mere opposition to the bill. This almost cost him the whole campaign. But the bill’s passage is a turning point. For opposition to a bill in process is much different than repealing a bill that has been passed – the latter requires that you enumerate what is wrong with the bill, and explain why you want to sacrifice such things as the reform of the pre-existing condition part of the bill. At this point the enemy has to ride the situation they have created.

The healthcare bill is not the only battle being fought, of course. Jullien points out the five-fold conditions that are laid down by the Chinese strategists – some of which are natural (the weather) and some of which are subject to human change (the ground). The natural condition at the moment is the economy, with its horrendous unemployment figures and the fact that 25 million homeowners are a little or way below the value of the house that they are paying the banks for. Surely the waste of last year should bring wrath down upon the incumbents – which are majority Dem. But having passed a bill that was so fiercely opposed, the Dems might have gotten a taste for rushing into battle. In which case, they might have a chance in November.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

ritual of not seeing iraq

I have a bad habit of dropping issues where I simply get crazier and crazier in response to the mirages manufactured by our governors. I had to get off the subject of Iraq the way some men have to get off the booze.

But occasionally I return. Returning, I see that the same mirages, shabby at the edges and full of bullet holes, are still floated by the ever clueless American press. The foreign correspondents for the NYT, the Washington Post, and the tv media (from what I can tell from the blogs – I’m not dumb enough to actually watch tv news) have, since 2003, been searching the length and breadth of Iraq, trying to assemble a picture of public opinion – as long as that public opinion spoke English, was pro-American, and had a proper appreciation of free enterprise. Now, it so happens that there were two class features of the Iraq war.

1. The professional class, being heavily Sunni or involved in one way or another with the Ba’ath regime that ruled the country for fifty years, fled. They didn’t have a lot of choice. As the professional class in all third world countries forms the natural constituency for free enterprising pro-Americanism, at the very onset of the war, Bush and Co. destroyed its natural allies – and, such was their ignorance, did not understand what they were doing.
2. The majority of Iraqis are poor, and the vast majority speak no English. They live in areas that are shirked by the newsman who wants to preserve his life. And when he meets their spokesmen, they repulse him. They aren’t at all the kind of starry eyed exile type that make the newsman feel like a liberator.

In the Iraqi elections of 2005, as I pointed out countless times on Limited Inc., these two factors came in to utterly confound the news coverage received in America. Thus, I counted up, at one point, some vast number of references to Chalabi via Factiva – was it 20,000? – and an almost comic number of references to Maliki – maybe 100. Chalabi, as it turned out, received something like .01 percent of the vote. The NYT, on the eve of the 2005 election, published a confident news story about the three men most likely to be prime minister of Iraq. In fact, none of the men even came close.

Because the news model of today is based on Love Story’s definition of love – news is never having to say you’re sorry – the NYT learned precisely nothing from this prestigatator’s debacle. Thus, once again, as the Iraqis prepared to vote, the reporters gave us starry eyed portraits of Allawi and such. So, when the vote came, they reacted as though some sudden earthquake had opened up under their feet. In fact, the vote was predictable: poor shi’ites support, and have supported, Sadr.

“The followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a radical cleric who led the Shiite insurgency against the American occupation, have emerged as Iraq’s equivalent of Lazarus in elections last week, defying ritual predictions of their demise and now threatening to realign the nation’s balance of power.”

The unspecified “ritual predictions of their demise” is, I suppose, a way of saying, we fucked up again, and we always fuck up. Anthony Shadid has covered Iraq long enough to shake hands with the class composition of Iraqi politics. Myself, I have never been to Iraq, but have absorbed the pertinent facts about the place long ago. Of course, I am not equipped with the upper class American innocence that keeps away any fact that does not align with current status quo in America – one in which newsmen routinely show that they think the median income in the U.S. is 100,000 per year.

The uppercrust has compromised with the irreality of ‘meritocracy’ by pretending it is all true. That upward social mobility in the U.S. is trending towards the Mexican model is not something they can either accept or even see. The predator class spawned by Reaganism has, like any predator class, made itself a media bubble in which it gets all the facts that are fit to think – and not a fact more.

Shadid continues:

“Their apparent success in the March 7 vote for Parliament — perhaps second only to the followers of Prime MinisterNuri Kamal al-Maliki as the largest Shiite bloc — underscores a striking trend in Iraqi politics: a collapse in support for many former exiles who collaborated with the United States after the 2003 invasion.
Although rivals disparaged the Sadrists’ election campaign, documents and interviews show an unprecedented discipline that has thrust the group to the brink of perhaps its greatest political influence in Iraq.”

Unprecedented discipline? Rather, the predictable result of the polling booth. Unprecedented discipline will have to be applied in the next year or two, as Maliki joins with the Sunnis and the Iranians to death squad Sadr’s groups into inexistence.


For the sake of contrast - oh, that there were the least bit of contrast! - here is what I wrote on Dec. 19, 2005 about the last election:

To understand what is happening in Iraq through the medium of the American press is much like estimating the height of a distant mountain through a heavy fog. But sometimes the fog lifts. This election, for instance, has thrown a startling, and no doubt ephemeral, contrast between the agencies of projection – the media, the D.C. clique, and the Snopes cocoon - and reality. The NYT today, which had based its delusional reporting on John Burns’ paen to the latent Americophilia in the Baghdad streets on election day and an account, echoing an account in the WP, of an obscure secularist candidate in Basra to which reporters had been herded, no doubt, by U.S. army spokesman, now gives us this hilarious phrase:

“What was also apparent was the staunchly religious nature of the electorate, in a country that many experts had proclaimed before the American-led invasion to have a large secular middle class.”

Ah, the passivity of experts, and the coyness of reporters. The machine has written, and having written, passes on.

Still, for that vast, vast minority that actually pays attention, a few things to note.

1. The election was proceeded by the publication of a poll, conducted by the Oxford Research Institute and supported by the BBC, ABC, etc. The poll was much discussed on the blogs. LI thought that the poll vastly overcounted one segment of the Iraqi population – that “large secular middle class.” Well, LI can gleefully say we were right. The ORI poll isn’t even within shooting distance of the results. While that seems a small and parochial thing, it indicates a large and non-parochial matter – the American press, and the American political establishment, simply can’t penetrate to or establish any relationship to an Iraqi populace that, at the moment, is undergoing incipient civil war plus incipient Great Depression. If Iraq really is suffering a rate of unemployment of 60%, the underlying and real American policy towards Iraq – privatize the oil – is a pipe dream. It is not only a pipe dream, but it is being pursued by means that are blowing up in our face.
2. The neurotic pattern for discussing this war is to ignore these moments of clarity and delve, infinitely, into the American cocoon. That is why the hot issue remains the invasion itself, instead of the occupation. LI was opposed to the invasion, but our opposition was not based on what was good for Iraq. It was based on what was good for America. It was good for Iraq that Saddam Hussein fall – that was obvious, and has been obvious. It would have been good for Iraq that Saddam Hussein be captured by Iraqi partisans and be given the Mussolini treatment.
3. However, what was bad for Iraq from the getgo, and is now a disaster for America, was acceding to the imperialist impulse and occupying a country that could handle its own affairs better than any foreign proconsul could. Immediate elections, a cancellation of Iraqi debt and war reparations, and withdrawal of the Coalition forces by the end of 2003 – that would have been the wisest course for both parties.
4. We know how Iraq has suffered due to American incompetence and war crimes. But take a look, for a second, at how American interest has suffered. American interest can’t be to liberalize and seize the oil sources in the Middle East – that will lead to less oil, for one thing, as oil becomes a victim to violence. American interest should be to stabilize the Middle East to the extent that two of the region’s main players, Iran and Israel, come to some non-hostile accord. Instead, this happened: just as the Iranian revolution led to a surge in Islamic fundamentalist violence throughout the region, the American incubation of Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq has been the predictor of the hard line victory in Iran. First Basra, then Teheran – that is the structural logic here. It is, of course, not even seen by Americans who think the world is watching American Idol with breathless anticipation. The world isn’t.
5. To those who think that it is good that America loses in the Middle East, I would ask who bears the cost of that loss. True, American prestige is probably fated to either diminish or transform as time goes on – this is what happens to debt-ridden empires. But American power is a wild card, and simply baiting it is a game in which other people – millions of people – are hurt. And, frankly, living inside the Behemoth, I have no desire for the Behemoth to be scattered to the winds. Jeremiah was ascetic enough to like living in the well into which he’d been thrown – but yours truly likes his trips to Whole Foods. The idea that American losses under Bush give us room to jibe at Bush is, well, a contagious infantile disorder. There is more going on here than sticking it to the retarded Texan. American narcissism knows no ideological boundaries.

PS - those who like their news from Iraq to be all happy and pro-war might be interested in this column in the New York Sun -- which is somewhat to the right of the NYPost -- written by one of those adorable Iraqi bloggers cultivated by the Neocon crowd. Lovely stuff like this:

"Iran's mullahs, who are increasingly getting belligerent across the board, pulled off a coup in Baghdad right under the very noses of the United States."

We also liked the comment about Sistani being a communist. Wow, and I thought the Iraqi communists, solidly supporting Allawi, were proof positive of the new, democratic wave sweeping through the Middle East! I guess it is time for the old switcheroo, and bringing out the commie menace card. We are menaced by the commies that we are fighting for... A little confusing, no? I'm just so... surprised that Chalabi has a constituency of 0.00001 percent in Iraq, when it comes down to it. Gee, besides having guessed it in almost every post I've ever written about Iraq, I gotta say: who coulda guessed it? Especially as the NYT and the Washington Post have featured him with a monomaniacal intensity every time they talk about the political leadership of Iraq. How to put the whole ridiculousness of that? It is as if one were to include a discussion of Jerry Brown in every article about the political leadership of the U.S.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Marx and the discours amoureux

Crossposted at Limited Inc

Marx is an altogether slippery subject for biography; the reason lies with the biographers. On the subject of Marx, libidinal investment is always just below the surface. Do you want a demon? Fritz Raddatz’s supposed “political biography” of Marx, written during the Cold War, is a hit job by a ‘leftist’ who has been blinded – in the midst of the 1970s – by the brilliant truths of Bakunin. Politics, in other words, as an infantile disorder, which made Raddatz a tool for the Springer media types. He went on to pathographies of Heine, etc. Of the biographies I have picked up so far, I’d recommend Jerome Siegel’s for its judiciousness. Wheen has written a popular biography which makes good points as well. So often, as in the case of Raddatz, one feels like one is reading a flea with rabies – the manic biting into poor dead Karl’s hide is an itchy business.

Of course, the other, hagiographic tendency was its own curse – censoring letters, providing infinite defense lawyer explanations for Marx, and never, ever putting him in historical context – thus pressing him into the stamp album of “heroes” and thus tossing out the window everything he’d ever written about the historical method.

That method, of course, would ask about the material determinants and opportunities within which Marx lived.

One of my favorite essayists, James Buchan, whose book on money, Frozen Desire, is written with a range and a style I absolutely love, falls down on the job, alas, when it comes to Marx. He has the intuition that Marx’s life and Baudelaire’s should be seen together – with which I heartily agree – but then fails to understand both Marx’s life of exile and agitation and – what is worse for the book – Marx’s theory of money. Worse, from his description, one would think that Marx was a humorless and tragic figure – and so one would be, to say the least, surprised that Capital is, among other things, a very funny book – at least the first volume. The humor of political economists is usually as thin and dry as port at the high table, but Marx, with his Goethean culture, is continually surprising the reader with this or that reference or connection.

There’s a much commented upon love letter – a lovely love letter, called, by one of Marx’s cold war commentators, Frank Manuel, with his narc’s vulgate, a “bombastic” love letter – unlike the sweet modest ones that were presumably being penned by the leaders of the Free World at the time - that Marx wrote his wife Jenny from Manchester in 1856. Jenny was in Trier at the time, and Marx evidently missed her – he begins it with the tone he so often takes in letters, of the complaint: “… it annoys me to converse with you all the time in my head without you knowing or hearing or being able to answer me.” Thomas Kemple, in his book on the Grundrisse, Reading Marx writing, puts this letter in relation to Marx’s writing at the time – and one does overhear, even in those common words, a note that is sounded in the Grundrisse and in Capital concerning commodities – they run through our head all the time, and yet they never speak to us. As Kemple points out, the letter, which is an outpouring of love to Jenny mediated through Marx looking at her photograph, is very much about the power of fetishes. This isn’t a Freudian reading – it is a Marxian one. For Marx is teasing himself as well as his wife in this letter:

“Bad as your portrait is, it gives me the best service and I now understand how even “the black Madonna”, the most disgraceful [schimpfiertesten] portraits of the mother of God, can find indestructible admirers, and even more admirers than the good portraits. In any case none of these black Madonna pictures have been more kissed, ogled and adored then Your photograph, which really isn’t black, but sour, and completely fails to mirror your sweet, kissable ‘dolce’ face. But I improve the sun’s rays, that have painted falsely, and find that my eyes, as much as they are decayed by lamplight and tobacco smoke, can still paint, not only in dreams, but also waking. I have you bodily before me and I carry you in my hands and I kiss you from head to foot and I fall before you on my knees and I moan out, “Madame, I love you.” And I love you in fact, more than the Moor of Venice ever loved. False and foul the false and foul world mistakes all characters. Who of my many detractors and snake tongued enemies have charged me with the fact that I am called upon to play a staring lover’s role in a second class theater? And yet it is true. Had those rogues the wit, they would have painted the “relations of production and trade” on one side, and me at your feet on the other. Look to this picture and to that. [in English] – they would have captioned it. But dumb rogues they are, and dumb they remain, in seculum seculorum.

Momentary absence is good, for in the present things look too like in order to be distinguished [ in der Gegenwart sehn sich die Dinge zu gleich, um sie zu unterscheiden.] Even towers appear dwarflike up close, while upclose the small and everyday grow too big. Thus it is with passions. Small habits, that through the nearness through which they adhere to the body, take on passionate forms, disappear, as soon as the immediate presence of the eye is withdrawn. Great passions, which through the nearness of their objects assume the form of small habits, grow and take their natural measure once again through the magical effect of distance.”

To be continued

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

mene tekel, and other zona news from la la land

There are two important figures in the News today. One is $3.99. The other is 10.6 million. One is a measure of the America’s deeply broken sense of justice, the other is a measure of the delusive dreamscape in which the political system is fighting its battles.

Here’s what you get in California for pinching a package of shredded cheese, priced at $3.99:

“On Monday, more than a year after a man was arrested outside a market in California with a $3.99 bag of Tillamook shredded cheese in his pants he had not paid for, a judge decided to go relatively easy on him, sentencing him to seven years and eight months in jail.”

It is hard not to laugh when you read in the U.S. Press criticism of the ‘barbarism’ of countries like Iran, where you can be executed for sodomy. They should take a lesson from our radiant and humane justice system!

“Prosecutors in Yolo County, Calif., outside Sacramento, had originally asked for a life sentence under the state’s “three strikes” law, arguing that the man, Robert Preston Ferguson, was a menace to society because of prior burglary convictions.”

What can you say about a country that, on the one hand, cheers on an ex VP who claims to have ordered torture and is proud of it, but fears the menace of a man with a packet of shredded cheese in his undies? It is beyond insult. Insult gets its energy from the absurd – from the man who fucks his mother, from the man who is born from a female dog. Insult is a geek show. But as reality in the U.S. is a geek show as well, insult and reality merge.

As for the second number, here are the appropriate grafs from David Leonardt’s NYT column:

““The strength of data we saw at the end of last year exaggerated the strength of the underlying economy,” Richard Berner of Morgan Stanley, says. “And now we’re seeing some pullback.”

This is especially troubling because the economy is still such a long way from being healthy. Lawrence Katz, the Harvard labor economist, estimates that 10.6 million jobs would need to materialize immediately to return the job market to its condition when the Great Recession began. For it to get there four years from now, the economy would have to add 316,000 jobs a month. That pace would be faster than in any four-year stretch of the 1990s boom.””

Clear your head of any other figures, as this is the predicative one. It tells you what you need to know about housing, income, and the national mood. The crisis was masterfully attacked, to the approval of people such as those who write on the Business page of the NYT, by an elaborate game of hide and seek. This rescued the richest from the results of their years of predation. But the state cannot rescue the richest forever. In point of fact, though the worker may, as Marx says, depend on the capitalist, ultimately the capitalist depends on the system. The system of American capitalism now reflects thirty years of backward motion in which public investment was outrageously stinted, and the grossly dumb theory that free markets allocate capital efficiently was made the mantra for the orgy of peculation that gave itself the name, The Great Moderation. Just as the Great Depression was a reflection of a fundamental shift in the economy – the collapse of the agricultural sector as an employer – so, too, we are suffering from a long term ailment – the collapse of manufacturing as a high wage employer – that can’t be addressed within the fundamentalist parameters of free enterprise. Thus, the unreal struggle of the hollow men of D.C., as Dems and Reps grapple with their mind forged manacles, and the rest of us are left to the mercies of D.A.’s looking for that score.

Although the reader might object that I am downplaying the menace, the terror of the cheese thief:

“According to the Sacramento newspaper, Mr. Ferguson’s defense lawyer, Monica Brushia, argued that his six other burglary convictions had taken place three decades ago and noted that his conviction for misdemeanor assault came when he was a teenager and had thrown a can of soda at one of his siblings. She also noted that the psychologist’s report had concluded that Mr. Ferguson was mentally ill. He has biploar syndrome and struggles to control his impulses to steal during manic phases, she said.
She concluded that his most recent thefts were petty. “We’re talking about a pack of cheese,” she said.
Leaving aside concerns about whether the long sentence was just, some observers in California asked if the cash-strapped state should really be spending between $50,000 and $100,000 a year to lock up a cheese thief.

The last graf reminds me of something I’d been reading, recently. Where was it? Oh, here: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relation with his kind.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

no Ségolène!

Fortunately, Ségolène Royal’s opinions about philosophy are not, shall we say, pertinent to her job. But at a time when the stuporous Sarkozy and his evident, all embracing ignorance of French literature has at least discredited him with the reading public – why, oh why, does the former leader of the Socialist party intrude herself into this ridiculous affair of Bernard-Henri Levy, as though to even the odds between connais pas and connais pas? Levy is like the philistine American’s idea of what a French intellectual is. His intellectual influence in the world has been, happily, null – even smaller than the contemptible group that sought to plunge France into Bush’s Iraq adventure, people like Andre Glucksman.

That Mitterand, that canny politico, felt that he’d gain some credit and ease some minds by embracing Levy’s revivalist anti-communism in the late seventies was a small price to pay for power (the larger price was supporting the emplacement of cruise missiles, but let us not go there). Royal’s invocation of Mitterand to defend Levy’s factory made philosophy is a gesture that is, indeed, royal – it has the old, perfumed air of the Versailles court, with its favorites and intrigues. There’s no “manhunt” against Levy – in fact, his 128 page ‘philosophy’ work would doubtless sink into obscurity if he hadn’t livened things up by quoting an obvious joke about Kant as a serious analysis. When was the last time Levy read Kant? When he was twenty? It makes me sad for Royal, actually. Couldn’t some friend have taken her aside and asked her not to make herself even more ridiculous than Levy?