Monthly Archives: December 2014

System’s Theory

Whoever first started talking about “society” as a “system” has a lot to answer for. The notion that society functions automatically, that dysfunctions can be repaired, externalities absorbed and crime and corruption recycled seems perfectly suited to put people to sleep, precisely when system failure starts to set in. After all, nothing that seems to be happening (whether it’s a decline in productive investment, an uptick in crime, outrageously irresponsible political posturing, riots, protestors calling for dead cops, politicians warmly greeting those protestors, dead cops) can really be happening—it all really is being blown up by the media (itself a familiar part of the system), or activates some reparative mechanism in the system that will restore some pre-determined balance. This way of thinking encourages more irresponsibility—after all, if nothing can really go wrong, what difference does it make how I go about getting my piece of the action?

There is no social “system.” What “system” can, on occasion, serve as a useful shorthand for, and more often serve as a misleading obfuscation of, is the ever emergent articulation of millions of agreements, tacit and explicit, long-term and short-term, some firm and some flexible, between individuals and communities (usually represented by selected individuals). This also means that there is really no such thing as “individuals,” except insofar as individuals are created by those agreements, as a partner in them. Modern individuals are simply those who participate in so many different agreements that they can’t be reduced to or made utterly dependent on any one or few of them. Every gesture any one makes, any word any one speaks, affirms, revises, subverts, rebels against, opts-out of, disputes the terms of, one or more of those agreements.

All that is fairly obvious. Much less obvious is how high faithful participation in social agreements must be in order to ensure that the more fundamental, tacit and long-term of all those agreements remain in force. To take a simpler question, just to use as a model: in a single neighborhood, containing, let’s say, 50 families in 50 houses, how many of those houses must become sites of criminal activity before a critical threshold is reached at which families begin abandoning, irreversibly, the neighborhood, leaving it to be taken over completely by criminals and those with nowhere else to go? How many houses would have to be given over to immoral, if not criminal, activity (parties going all night long, female led households with revolving door boyfriends, a strip club opening up, etc.)? It is very hard to be precise here, but the answer is certainly: very few.

I’d say that 3 houses gone bad is enough to get the ball rolling. On the other hand, the second makes the third more likely. We’re dealing with a version of what philosophers call the “heap paradox” here—when does a few of some item become a stack, become a pile, become a heap? Which pebble started the avalanche? It’s easy enough to see that thinking in these terms would lead to a very “Puritan” approach to social relations. Now, think about how much of the popular culture of the West of the past 60-70 years has busied itself with protecting the inhabitants of those first few houses gone bad, presenting them as victims of a hypocritical puritanism. I too imagine that I prefer today’s hedonism, but that doesn’t change the fact that the wager upon which consumer society depends might very well be a losing one: We (i.e., those who make consequential decisions) can release more and more people from their tacit and explicit obligations, thereby benefiting from the subsequent wealth generation and upward flow of power, because enough consumer goods will be spread around to keep enough people working and enough people passive.

The wager seemed reasonable enough at first: people can now have things they never had before, like homes, and things that never even existed before, like cars and TV sets. All they need to do is show up to work 40 hours a week. Most people accepted the deal. But here we are confronted with the heap paradox: how many is enough? New possible arrangements appear as alternatives: work less, live with less; demand more, hold the system hostage; exploit grey areas in the new set of agreements; make work out of undermining other industries (class action lawsuits, environmentalism, etc.). It doesn’t take much for things to start to fray. It’s no coincidence that, even setting victimary discourses aside, the most consistently stereotyped figure in contemporary culture is the middle class white guy who goes to work, tries to satisfy his wife, get some respect from his kids, and enjoy some leisure. What a sucker! A buffoon—a loser. It’s starting to look like fewer men are signing up—how many would be enough to make a difference? The heap paradox again.

Here’s another paradox, one that I think could be considered a sociological law (I wish I could run it past Durkheim): by the time enough people agree that the more fundamental, tacit and long-term agreements can no longer endure to begin to restore those agreements it will be too late to do so. Maybe this is just a law of civilization, which requires that we not look too closely that those fundamental, tacit and long-term agreements. But that agreement will still be worth arriving at—something always has to come “after.” Those who have arrived at that agreement can, at least, accustom themselves to a bluntness that will seem a bit barbaric to those who think their local agreements guarantee civilization because they are the people who really count. In other words, if the game is over, there’s no point to playing it. Those no longer playing can recover old vocabularies and generate new ones. To refer to my previous, maybe somewhat barbaric, post, a little (mostly indirect) debate on National Review over how far responsibility spreads for the murder of two police officers in Brooklyn is interesting. The more libertarian and “moderate” want to insist that it would be very wrong to consider anyone other than the killer himself responsible. Even if everyone is shouting “kill him,” that is, at a cornered man, only the man who throws the first stone is guilty. (A terror of mimetic contagion motivates this attitude: the same fear upon which modern leftism is based, that the normal is really a barely repressible insatiable appetite for scapegoats.) But Andrew McCarthy made some fairly obvious counter-arguments, using terms that people don’t seem to be very comfortable with anymore, like “incitement.” If you lie (or acquiesce in lies) about specific events (say, what happened in Ferguson) in order to create a bigger lie (that whites in general, and white cops more specifically, are deliberately targeting young black men), and people draw the obvious conclusion that we need to “fight back” against the police, and then, at the end of the chain, a few people shoot at actual police officers, I will say you have blood on your hands. And I will say that anyone who associates with you has a little bit of that blood on their hands. And I will refuse to have dealings with anyone with that blood on their hands (thereby doing my little bit to restore some frayed social agreements). And if that proves impossible—i.e., if there aren’t enough people to vote for, work for and with, listen to, learn from, be friends with, etc., who haven’t signed onto the blood libel—well, what we have then is a heap.

Victimary Terrorism; or, the Brinsley Left

There have been debates, going back to the 90s, at least, over whether ideologues and political figures should be held responsible for violent acts with which they can more or less plausibly be associated. Clinton strongly suggested that right-wing talk radio bore some blame for the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing; more recently and preposterously, many on the left tried to blame Sarah Palin for the shooting of Gabby Gifford (and many others). Of course, people on the right advance this kind of argument as well, for example, holding anti-war protestors responsible for the strength of the Iraqi resistance to US occupation and hence the loss of many lives, Iraqi and American (I plead guilty to that one).

It’s a real question, and the standard rejoinder that only the individual himself is responsible for his actions, while true in a legal and narrowly moral sense, avoids the issue of the discursive environment we are all responsible for creating. Perhaps some people fear the possibility that free speech rights will be threatened by too close a focus on the relation between words and deeds.

Louis Farrakhan recently asserted that the way to fight back against the supposed rash of white police killings of black men is to kill “one of them” for each one of “us”–then, they’ll have to talk. Protestors in NYC, demanding “justice” for Eric Garner, chanted that they wanted dead cops. The very framing of the accusations, in which systematically racist police departments murder black youth regularly and with impunity, is a short step from declaring open season on police. No doubt, most of the protestors and race grifters like Jackson, Sharpton, Holder and Obama, are just “playing”–make some trouble, get some concessions, ensconce your self as “leaders” of the black community, etc. These people thrive on some local, calculated, chaos, but they don’t necessarily want the real thing. But they are playing with fire.

The protestors–who can now apparently take over malls without been stopped or arrested–are following in the footsteps of, and have already been far more successful than, the Occupy Wall Street mob. No doubt many of them are the same people. Maybe there are professional protestors now. I pointed out a couple of years ago that the concept of “occupy” was intrinsically terroristic: the idea is that we are going to shut things down until our demands are met. As Obama himself recently reiterated, people need to be “inconvenienced” a bit in the name of justice. Well, once you say that, the next question is how severe and chronic must the inconvenience be? A severe and chronic as the injustice, presumably; or, more simply, as severe and chronic as “necessary.” Why stop at killing two cops in Brooklyn? We will find out in the coming days, I suppose, how representative Ismaaily Brinsley, the murderer of officers Wenjin Lui and Raphael Ramos, is, but it certainly seems as if he conceived of his attack as revenge for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. And why not? Aren’t we all, and especially NYPD cops, “complicit”? If you think of what you are doing as asymmetrical warfare, police officers are certainly legitimate targets. And why shouldn’t occupiers and inconveniencers think of themselves in this way? What moral principle restrains them? Much chatter on Twitter in the wake of the murders expressed glee and ostentatious indifference, along with some sleazy pronouncements along the lines of “I’m very sorry this happened, but if you are going to let cops gun down black kids indiscriminately, you can’t be surprised…” No justice, no peace, after all–people are just starting to figure out what these cliches really mean, if you take them seriously.

Leading figures in the NYPD have recently declared that they don’t want Mayor Di Blasio at any of their funerals. Unfortunately, they will now be put to the test. I hope they stand by their promise; I further hope that police throughout the country start fighting back against the steady stream of slander and incitement that has been directed at them. The Left relies on the civility of its targets as a cover for its own incivility, and for the police to engage the politics of “policephobia” risks the professionalism they depend on. At a certain point, though, professionalism has to defend itself against forces that wish to make that very professionalism impossible. Perhaps they should themselves bring posters of Lui and Ramos to the anti-police demonstrations they must police. Those of us who prefer the police, with all their human, all-too-human, flaws, to the legitimation of perpetual victimary terrorism implicit in the occupy and inconvenience movement, should at any rate strive to make Brinsley the icon of their movement. They have declared war on the legal system, and the agents of that system, they have insisted that its illegitimacy requires constant pressure from below and forceful intervention from above. So, could they explain why, exactly, killing cops isn’t a perfectly acceptable part of their social justice toolkit? I don’t believe they can, but I’d like to see some of them given a chance to try.

The Brinsley Left supports officially designated victims when they shoot the police.

Civilization, Violence, Oblivion

Humanity presupposes the deferral of violence; society presupposes shared norms enhancing and regularizing the capacity to defer violence; civilization further presupposes entire zones of existence in which the deferral of violence can be taken for granted, which is to say that means of deferral and rules for their deployment, need not be posited, even tacitly. This is the way most of us live now—for almost anyone reading this, if you were to invite me to your home, there would be absolutely no need for either of us to be aware that certain motions, phrases, or expressed desires, would trigger a physical confrontation. This is extraordinary, even though we take it for granted; indeed, its utter unremarkableness is part of what makes it extraordinary, and also part of what makes it fragile.

In order to create such violence free zones, the most pervasive form of human violence needed to be so thoroughly uprooted that we have become unaware of its existence. That form of violence is that characteristic of honor societies: the vendetta. The vendetta is far more intuitive than our everyday peaceful interactions, even though most of us feel spontaneous disgust at exposure to it—much like the disgust we would feel at seeing the cow whose flesh we are to eat as “steak” slaughtered and carved up at the dinner table. When someone transgresses against you, the obvious response is to answer that transgression in kind; a further development of this principle is to answer in kind “plus” so as to defer by deterring the next violent act in advance. But which side can out-deter the other? This can’t be known in advance, since it depends upon non-quantifiable factors like anger, courage, shame, patience and so on. So, social organizations emerge that oscillate between bouts of tit-for-tat violence and periods of peace once all sides agree that the price to be paid for continued escalation is too high—until someone decides, once again, to try their luck. The periods of peace, though, involve their own forms of violence, perhaps in their way even more disgusting: for example, each side is obliged to take care of its own transgressors, or to turn them over, so as to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining the peace; each side must control its own so as to limit the possibilities of potentially uncontrollable provocations—I assume that the most horrific manifestation of honor society, the honor killings of young girls who have transgressed the strict sexual norms of honor societies, even by being raped—follow from this need to demonstrate that possible disruptions will not come from one’s own side, whether through weakness or carelessness.

Under such conditions, everyone’s protection is bound up through family ties to the honor system in such a way that it is very difficult to see how change is possible. And, indeed, change is only possible through much greater violence, that exercised by the “Big Man” who rises from the pack of petty lords and overawes all the rest, destroying those who resist and subjugating and defanging those who submit. From this process emerges “courtesy,” the beginning of “manners,” which doesn’t so much defer violence as involve us all in a shared pretense that violence is so far from our minds that we experience only those desires that can be satisfied without risking it. The kind of human subjectivity that emerges can be understood by analogy to the distancing of eating from the processes of slaughtering I just alluded to—just as we eat our meals, and can only eat our meals, without giving any thought to millions of penned up, systematically slaughtered, chopped up, chemically preserved, shipped, packaged, etc., animals, we freely interact in our violence free zones on the condition that rather massive forms of violence lie in wait for those who cross certain boundaries, not only of legality, but of normality—and that it will never be me who is caught in those traps.

I don’t really need, I think, to tout the virtues of civilization, although a brief expression of gratitude is appropriate—without civilization, trade, art technological innovation and all the rest of our human created cocoon would be impossible. Only breaking what we can now see as the “addiction” to tit-for-tat violence has made our world possible. But the work of civilization is never complete (international relations, for all the efforts of internationalists and pacifists, still works largely on various systems of deterrence), and civilization generates its own resentments (what Freud called its “discontents”), along with fantasies of a thoroughly completed civilization and the return to a carefree, egalitarian primitivism (with the two seemingly opposite fantasies often synthesized into one—modern views of “free love” being such a synthesis, I think). Most dangerous of all, though, is the oblivion induced by civilization, an oblivion much explored by Lee Harris, which, as Harris has argued, makes the category of the “enemy” seem a pathological symptom of the diseased thinking of some of our less civilized compatriots.

I have one question: can we imagine a form of civilization without that oblivion? To do so, we would also have to imagine a civilization without the state, which, for all its democratization, liberalization, and taming through human rights protocols, is still the direct descendent, and still shares the cultural DNA, of those absolutist monarchies that first established civilization throughout Europe. The state, going back to the absolute monarchs of early modern Europe, civilizes and barbarizes, displacing violence from the center to the margins, the imperial margins then and the biological margins now (as the state increasingly deploys health policies to distinguish between more and less worthy forms of life) and, most importantly, imposes oblivion upon us by claiming to have always already (through its control of intelligence, military, financial, punitive, scientific, etc., levers) made us safe. At this point, it would be hard to imagine the results if the state were to simply turn to us, its citizens, and say, “here are the kinds of security I can directly and measurably provide; the rest is up to you”—such straightforwardness would induce massive panic.

There is a libertarian anarchist argument to the effect that the state has always been an agent of barbarism, and that civilization has always been the result of free exchange within and between peoples—free exchanges that the state has always interfered with and exploited. There is a grain of truth to this argument, but I believe it is ultimately wishful thinking—what would have protected peaceful traders from the whims and rivalries of the various honor societies, if not a monarch interested in the wealth of the realm (to, yes, of course, wage war on his fellow monarchs, and to commit other barbarisms we might not like to think about too much)? It would be nice to think that in transcending the state we would be returning to a more natural human existence, one that has been deformed by the state. In fact, a civilized society, especially one as advanced as ours, without a state, would be an innovation, or the result of a series of innovations, as significant and improbable as human history has seen.

A series of innovations, in the social realm, means a series of renunciations. Here, what would need to be renounced is the invocation of the state on one’s side in conflicts with others (without, needless to say, regressing to the level of the vendetta). This would place the onus of keeping peace on all of us, all the time, a thing that is only possible if the responsibility we, and we alone, would bear for failure were to be present with us constantly. The difficulty of such a renunciation should not be underestimated, now that the state has interposed itself in every conceivable human conflict: between husband and wife, parents and children, school and parents, doctors and patients, etc., not to mention within the human conscience itself, that is, our quarrels with ourselves. Such a renunciation would be the moral equivalent of the early Christians’ self-extrication from the debasements of Roman society, involving the establishment of new institutions, including legal ones. It would be far more difficult than the veganism that results for many from the shattering of our oblivion regarding our uses of animals. There would be no point in predicting the likelihood of such a development (even if it is worth pondering which conditions might make them more or less likely), but that doesn’t change the fact that there is no other way of abolishing the oblivion that civilization can no longer survive, because both the enemies of our civilization, and those who aid those enemies because they consider us not civilized enough, are preying upon it.

Civilization and Its End(s)

The paradox of civilization is that renunciation leads to benefits. This must be true even of earlier social forms, what our forefathers insensitively called “barbarism” and “savagery,” to some extent—among hunter gathering communities, for example, the man capable of exhibiting patience and discipline on the hunt would surely acquire “followers” and hence prestige and power. But only in a civilized order does this relation between renunciation and benefit become an open ended dialectic—starting with the rise of the ‘Big Man,” that precursor of civilized order, the possibility of accumulating wealth through renunciation becomes ever more unlimited.

For a civilization to get off the ground and then sustain itself, this relation between renunciation and benefit must be generalized: most everyone must believe that their own renunciations will yield corresponding benefits. But there is another paradox here, one related to the moral problem Kant tried to solve through his “categorical imperative”: for Kant, if you did good in order to be rewarded in heaven, you weren’t really good; goodness was only goodness if pursued for its own sake. This conception has its own perversions, which become evident if one reflects on what would be involved in assuring oneself (first of all) that one only loves goodness and not any praise or love or wealth that comes from its exercise. For the civilized order, though, those pioneers in renunciation who founded the order were not looking for benefits: they were renouncing forms of desire that they perceived led to self-defeating violence including violence to self; their renunciations are acts of liberation in their own right, which others are welcome to follow. Hence the paradox of the charisma emanating from such moral innovators, and the power, wealth and prestige that accrues, if not to them, than to those who most credibly “inherit” their “kingdom of ends.”

Once the model is generalized, though, the relation between renunciation and benefit is subjected to a much more hard-headed cost-benefit analysis. And here two things go wrong. First, once people start asking themselves how much renunciation is strictly necessary for the potential benefits, it is likely that some will decide that the renunciation isn’t worth it, and others will seek out easier ways to the benefits. (They will often be the same people.) This unraveling becomes more likely the wealthier the civilization in question, and the more it can tolerate transgressors and support deadbeats. Second, the relation between renunciation and benefits among those with the most benefits becomes more obscure—to those who have shall be given seems to be the principle, and it makes sense to ask, if they have benefits, and far more than I ever will, without any signs of renunciation, why shouldn’t the rest of us? There is a threshold at which this cynicism breaks the articulation of renunciation and benefit altogether, and that is the point at which civilization becomes impossible, regardless of how long it takes before it collapses.

The only thing that can fend off collapse or, failing that, make regeneration possible in its wake, is renewed commitment to renunciation. On the part of some—how many is impossible to say in advance. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people should start building monasteries (although that wouldn’t hurt!)—there can be many forms of renunciation, and to be politically and civilizationally meaningful, they will need to have a public side. Every renunciation begins with an imperative—a resounding, overwhelming imperative that cannot be refused: the individual who engages in even the simplest renunciations (quitting smoking, going on a diet) hears a voice, more or less literally, saying “you must stop!” The imperatives that found civilizations are more imposing, but take the same form (“you must no longer sacrifice your children to Moloch”).

In a fully developed civilization, these imperatives evolve into multilayered interrogatives, the basis for religions, philosophy, art, and culture (there can be many ways of “sacrificing” one’s children, for example)—but the original imperative remains active underneath, or the questions themselves would not be meaningful. The imperatives that take must emanate from within some crux in the pre-civilized or existing, but decadent civilized order: it is not too hard to see how the Judaic and then Christian imperatives involved renunciations of participation in the depraved violences of Middle Eastern and then Roman imperial civilizations.

It follows from these reflections that politically redemptive activity today (and no other political activity makes any difference now) must be located at the nexus of the victimary (where benefits are demanded and renunciation, seen as a sham, is replaced by denunciation) and a largely rigged globalized political and economic order, where benefits accrue out of any proportion to renunciation. The two poles are in fact closely connected, as the global elite freely uses victimary hysteria to deepen control of economies and the everyday life of people. It’s not for any person to pronounce on what these new renunciations might be (and, to be honest, I don’t have any idea), but one imperative I can take upon myself is speak and write in such a way as to confer responsibility all around, and to resist the corrosions of language that lead us to absolve “victims” of responsibility, to attribute the decisions of the elite to “social forces” presumably beyond their control, and to treat the middle class as itself nothing more than a victim of these pincers squeezing it on both sides. If we lose this civilization, we will all play our role in losing it.