Koert Debeuf writes: The anti-forces of the liberal order, authoritarian nationalism and religious extremism are back with a vengeance. The most obvious example of the return of authoritarian nationalism is Russia. The same trend is also clear in most member-states of supra-national Europe, not the least in Hungary and Greece. Religious extremism is on a scary height in the Arab world, but also in parts of Africa, India and Myanmar.
The US and Europe seem to be too tired and powerless to halt this decline. Even though both liberal powers know what they want, both are deeply divided. It looks like both powers are facing a global system failure and have no idea how to deal with it. Both know that their influence and power is not what it used to be, but they haven’t found a new role yet. It’s not an exclusive Western problem. The entire world is plunging into an identity crisis.
What is an identity crisis?
An identity crisis or existential crisis is a psychological state of mind of — mostly high-achieving individuals who feel depressed, angry and lost and question the very foundations of their lives. It usually occurs after a traumatic experience such as an extreme disappointment, a broken relationship, the death of a loved one or a sudden loss of status. These traumas result in a loss of confidence and self-esteem.
In trying to find a way out of this depressive disorder people tend to take four different paths: anchoring, isolation, distraction and sublimation. Isolation is an attempt to keep all negative feelings outside. Distraction is trying to prevent the mind from turning on itself. Sublimation on the other hand is refocusing on positive energy in order to keep the negative away. However, the path that most people with an identity crisis are taking is the one of anchoring: finding a well-known fixation point such as religion, closed social groups or one particular idea or ideology. People are looking for the security and warmth of a group, or what I call a tribe. In Arabic there is a word for this: qabaleya, or tribalization. It is the choice to go back to the tribe, its warmth and clear-cut identity. What’s interesting is that psychologists have found that in looking for a way out of an identity crisis people often prefer a negative identity rather than a weak identity.
What counts for individuals counts for groups as well. It makes sense to say that societies can suffer from an identity crisis too. The first study of the psychology of the masses was written in 1895, by Gustav Le Bon in his book ‘Psychologie des foules’. Since then many Social Psychology studies have drawn similarities between the psychology of individuals and that of groups. Psychiatrists too have been researching how groups can suffer from a kind of equivalent of the mental disorders usually only attributed to individuals. Psychiatrist and politician John Lord Alderdice even suggested psychologically informed strategies to address such crises in the psychology of large groups including the regressive pattern I am calling tribalization and other phenomena such a fundamentalism, radicalization and the cycle of terrorism.
Societies –just like individuals –can suffer traumatic experiences too. The anthropological study of René Girard shows how traumatic experiences make tribes focus on their core identity, returning to a stronger emphasis on law, culture and the sacred, and how they deal with their fear and aggression by turning against ‘the Other’ — — the scapegoat mechanism. Just like individuals societies often respond to traumatic experiences with an identity crisis by regressing back into what they know best from the past — what I am describing as tribalization. They go back to the tribal (old) ideas and tribal (old) behavior. These tribal ideas are mostly based on myths of a great past as the only way towards a great future. Tribalization is a process that almost always includes the creation of enemies. [Continue reading…]
Peter Brannen writes: At 5:30am I awoke to the sound of the diesel chug-chugging of a lone lobster boat carving into the glassy Atlantic. An audience of shrieking gulls hushed in the engine’s wake as it rumbled through the narrow strait that separates the United States from Canada. After the boat pushed out into the open ocean, the gulls resumed their gossip, and I began preparing for a day on the water, still groggy from the night before, after joining a group of researchers over beer. I had come to Lubec in Maine with a bizarre question: what was 9/11 like for whales?
I sleepwalked to the pier and helped pack a former Coast Guard patrol boat with boxes of underwater audio-visual equipment, as well as a crossbow built for daring, drive-by whale biopsies. A pod of 40 North Atlantic right whales had been spotted south of Nova Scotia the day before and, with only a few hundred of the animals left in existence, any such gathering meant a potential field research coup. ‘They even got a poop sample!’ one scientist excitedly told me. The boat roared to life and we slipped past postcard-ready lighthouses and crumbling, cedar-shingled herring smokehouses. Lisa Conger, a biologist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), manned the wheel of our boat, dodging Canadian islands and fishing weirs. As the Bay of Fundy opened before us, a container ship lumbered by to our stern: a boxy, smoking juggernaut, as unstoppable as the tide.
‘After 9/11, we were the only ones out here,’ Conger said over the wind and waves. While this tucked-away corner of the Atlantic might seem far from the rattle of world affairs, the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC of 11 September 2001 changed the marine world of the Bay of Fundy, too.
Conger leads the field team in Lubec for Susan Parks, a biology professor at Syracuse University. As a graduate student, Parks found that right whales were trying to adapt to a gradual crescendo of man-made noise in the oceans. In one study, she compared calls recorded off Martha’s Vineyard in 1956, and off Argentina in the 1977, with those in the North Atlantic in 2000. Christopher Clark, her advisor, had recorded the Argentine whales and, when Parks first played back their calls, she thought there must be some sort of mistake.
‘It was older equipment – reel-to-reel tapes which I’d never used before – so I went to Chris to ask if I had the speed of the tape wrong because the whales sounded so much lower in frequency than the whales I had been working with.’
In fact, Parks discovered, modern North Atlantic right whales have shifted their calls up an entire octave over the past half century or so, in an attempt to be heard over the unending, and steadily growing, low-frequency drone of commercial shipping. Where right-whale song once carried 20 to 100 miles, today those calls travel only five miles before dissolving into the din. [Continue reading…]
Sean McElwee writes: There’s a lot of talk of Karl Marx in the air these days – from Rush Limbaugh accusing Pope Francis of promoting “pure Marxism” to a Washington Times writer claiming that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is an “unrepentant Marxist.” But few people actually understand Marx’s trenchant critique of capitalism. Most people are vaguely aware of the radical economist’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, but they often misunderstand why he believed this to be true. And while Marx was wrong about some things, his writings (many of which pre-date the American Civil War) accurately predicted several aspects of contemporary capitalism, from the Great Recession to the iPhone 5S in your pocket.
Here are five facts of life in 2014 that Marx’s analysis of capitalism correctly predicted more than a century ago: [Continue reading…]
Eliane Glaser writes: Two hundred years ago this month, groups of artisan cloth workers began to assemble at night on the moors around towns in Nottinghamshire. Proclaiming allegiance to the mythical King Ludd of Sherwood Forest, and sometimes subversively cross-dressed in frocks and bonnets, the Luddites organised machine-wrecking raids on textile factories that quickly spread across the north of England. The government mobilised the army and made frame breaking a capital offence: the uprisings were subdued by the summer of 1812.
Contrary to modern assumptions, the Luddites were not opposed to technology itself. They were opposed to the particular way it was being applied. After all, stocking frames had been around for 200 years by the time the Luddites came along, and they weren’t the first to smash them up. Their protest was specifically aimed at a new class of manufacturers who were aggressively undermining wages, dismantling workers’ rights and imposing a corrosive early form of free trade. To prove it, they selectively destroyed the machines owned by factory managers who were undercutting prices, leaving the other machines intact.
The original Luddites enjoyed strong local backing as well as high-profile support from Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein alludes to the industrial revolution’s dark side. But in the digital age, Luddism as a position is barely tenable. Just as we assume that the original Luddites were simply technophobes, it’s become unthinkable to countenance any broader political objections to contemporary technology’s direction of travel.
The promoters of internet technology combine visionary enthusiasm and like-it-or-not realism. So dissent is dismissed as either an irrational rejection of progress or a refusal to face the inevitable. It’s the realism that’s particularly hard to counter; the notion that technology is an unstoppable and non-negotiable force entirely separate from human agency. There’s not much time for political critique if you’re constantly being told that “the world is changing fast and you have to keep up”. Which is a bit rich given that politics infuses the arguments of even technology’s purest advocates.
As Slavoj Žižek has noted, the language of internet advocacy – phrases like “the unlimited flow of information” and “the marketplace of ideas” – mirrors the language of free-market economics. But techno-prophets also use the lingo of leftwing revolution. It’s there in books such as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, and in Vodafone’s slogan, “Power to You”; in the notion that blogs, Twitter and newspaper comment threads create a level playing field in the public debate; and it’s there in the countless magazine features about how the internet fosters grassroots protest, places the tools of cultural production in amateurs’ hands, and allows the little guy immediate access to information that keeps political leaders on their toes. This is not Adam Smith, it’s Marx and Mao.
In fact, both rhetorics – of the free market and of bottom-up emancipation – serve to conceal the rise of crony capitalism and the concentration of power and money at the top. Google is busily acquiring “all the world’s information”. Facebook is gathering our personal data for the coming world of personalised advertising. Amazon is monopolising the book trade. The abandonment of net neutrality means corporate control of the web. Once all our books, music, pictures and information are stored in the cloud, it will be owned by a handful of conglomerates.
At Open Democracy, Paul Rogers writes: The authorities are undertaking a legal and judicial counter-offensive against the “occupy” camps that have sprung up in central locations in New York and London. But scores of camps remain across north America and western Europe, part of a diffuse and dispersed phenomenon that has acquired a life of its own within a few short weeks.
These protests echo others earlier in 2011, including the turbulent actions in Greece and the extensive mobilisations in Spain (see “A time of riot: England and the world”, 11 August 2011). They also connect with developments elsewhere: the mass student demonstrations in Chile that moved from opposition to a failing education system to a much wider campaign against marginalisation, and the protests by middle-class Israelis against their more restricted life-chances (albeit such conditions are still far outranked by the great poverty in the nearby occupied territories, notably Gaza).
This upsurge of demonstrations is largely a response to the renewed economic crisis and to the enduring spectacle of financial institutions paying huge salaries and even larger bonuses to their elites while the majority of populations bear the brunt of government-imposed cuts. More broadly it recalls the large-scale anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s, not least around the Seattle (1999) and Genoa (2001) summits. This movement receded after 9/11 and the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – but it has now returned, albeit in a different guise, as a result of the accumulating economic crises of 2007-11.
These protests, demonstrations and movements may well be sustained or they may (at least in the short term) recede. Yet in a global perspective they reflect two processes that lend them deep importance. [Continue reading…]
Slavoj Žižek writes:
Repetition, according to Hegel, plays a crucial role in history: when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding. When Napoleon lost at Leipzig in 1813, it looked like bad luck; when he lost again at Waterloo, it was clear that his time was over. The same holds for the continuing financial crisis. In September 2008, it was presented by some as an anomaly that could be corrected through better regulations etc; now that signs of a repeated financial meltdown are gathering it is clear that we are dealing with a structural phenomenon.
We are told again and again that we are living through a debt crisis, and that we all have to share the burden and tighten our belts. All, that is, except the (very) rich. The idea of taxing them more is taboo: if we did, the argument runs, the rich would have no incentive to invest, fewer jobs would be created and we would all suffer. The only way to save ourselves from hard times is for the poor to get poorer and the rich to get richer. What should the poor do? What can they do?
Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.
There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he pushes in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards find nothing; it is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves. The guards were missing the obvious truth, just as the commentators on the riots have done. We are told that the disintegration of the Communist regimes in the early 1990s signalled the end of ideology: the time of large-scale ideological projects culminating in totalitarian catastrophe was over; we had entered a new era of rational, pragmatic politics. If the commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era is true in any sense, it can be seen in this recent outburst of violence. This was zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented.
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
Pankaj Mishra writes:
In India, tens of thousands of middle-class people respond to a quasi-Gandhian activist’s call for a second freedom struggle – this time, against the country’s venal “brown masters”, as one protester told the Wall Street Journal. Middle-class Israelis demanding “social justice” turn out for their country’s first major demonstrations in years. In China, the state broadcaster CCTV unprecedentedly joins millions of cyber-critics in blaming a government that placed wealth creation above social welfare for the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou last month.
Add to this the uprisings against kleptocracies in Egypt and Tunisia, the street protests in Greece and Spain earlier this year, and you are looking at a fresh political awakening. The specific contexts may seem very different, ranging from authoritarian China to democratic America (where Warren Buffett, the world’s richest man, publicly denounced a “billionaire-friendly Congress” last fortnight). And the grievances may be diversely phrased. But public anger derives from the same source: extreme and seemingly insurmountable inequality.
As Forbes magazine, that well-known socialist tool, describes it, protesters everywhere are driven by “the conviction that the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class” (and the working class too, whose distress is not usually examined in Forbes).
Certainly, the strident promoters of globalisation – politicians, big businessmen, and journalists – will have to work much harder now to bamboozle their audiences.
For years now, the mantra of “economic growth” justified government interventions on behalf of big business and investors with generous tax breaks (and, in the west, the rescue of criminally reckless investors and speculators with massive bailouts at the taxpayer’s expense). The fact that a few people get very rich while a majority remains poor seemed of little importance as long as the GDP figures looked impressive.
In heavily populated countries like India, even a small number of people moving into the middle class made for an awe-inspiring spectacle. Helped by an entertainment-obsessed and “patriotic” corporate media, you could easily ignore the bad news – the suicides, for instance, of hundreds of thousands of farmers in the last decade. However, the carefully maintained illusions of globalisation shattered when even its putative beneficiaries – the educated and aspiring classes – began to hurt from high inflation, decreasing access to education and other opportunities for upward mobility.