GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 27, 2015

Victimary Feudalism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:08 pm

The recent dust-up between transgender activists and what I suppose we would have to call “paleo-feminists” (who are retrograde enough to believe that to be a woman is to have a vagina) brings to the fore, in real time, the question of hierarchies in victimage. Is it a question of who is more “oppressed” (according to what measure)? Is it a question of who is able to leverage some blind spot in another’s victimary claim (so, to the extent that an anti-Islamophobia activist could point out that a black American really, in his defense of the primacy of race, shares assumptions with straight white Christian males devoid of all victimary credentials, Muslim would trump black in that case)? Is it a question of sheer political utility, on the part of leftist political groups (from the Democratic party all the way down through the splinter queer groups on a college campus)? Is it a question of being the latest on the scene? The most aggressive, or pathologically uninhibited? Surely the answer is “yes” to all of these questions, so we have not yet succeeded in putting order into the current victimary scene.

I’d like to bring to bear my recent inquiries into “civilization” and see if that can help. Part of being civilized is being tacitly aware of the fragility of the boundaries protecting civilization, and therefore being trained in the detection of transgressions of those boundaries. The boundaries are fluid because in distinguishing our own level of civilization from that of others (whether to learn from or elevate ourselves above them), we introduce new gradations (I think most college instructors can point to a process of learning how to point to student errors or deficiencies over time, as we come to feel the barbarism implicit in criticisms that emphasize the institutional rather than functional authority of the teacher. To learn how to say something like, “let’s try another way of looking at this” instead of “no, you’re misreading it,” is to introduce a civilizational gradation—even while “no, you’re misreading it” introduces a civilization gradation from a rap on the knuckles.).

But this means that one can always find something barbarous in what passes as civilized behavior, and that this capacity will be subject to (barbaric) mimetic law, i.e., competition. It’s not so hard to look around at what people do and imagine there’s no way anyone will still be doing that 20 years from now. The policing of civilized behavior contains the elements of new forms of barbarism, in the form of competitive displays of moral exhibitionism (a form of conspicuous consumption). To one caught up in such competitive displays, what is to be avoided at all costs (what makes one a loser) is to be exposed as naively accepting some civilized norm as unproblematically present. Think of the liabilities one opens oneself up to with a naïve outburst like “We treat women pretty well in this society—look at what things are like for them in the Islamic world!” One includes oneself in a “we” that presumably has the prerogative to treat women well or not, one claims, complacently, to be overlooking all of “us,” as if mistreatment of women in many places may not be much worse than one thought, one scores points for oneself through an invidious contrast with an other (and how did they come to be “other”?) rather than looking to better oneself, etc., etc. Anyone involved in the oneupsmanship of moral exhibitionism instantly sees someone resting on the laurels of civilizational gradations others have introduced, rather than introducing a new one himself.

This game is a source of endless conflict because in order to introduce a new civilizational gradation one must take for granted the whole mass of gradations already sedimented within our civilized way of life—we are all, at some point, like that guy who says “We treat women pretty damn well!”; and there will always be someone who can acquire moral capital for himself by locating that vulnerable spot. What, most fundamentally, one accepts tacitly, and can never completely root out, is the basic premise of civilization, one embraced by the most radical academic, with the lifelong marriage, single child brought painstakingly from elite daycare through the Ivy League so as to acquire the cultural capital of the 1%, a nest egg to last decades of austere retirement: deferral and discipline, in particular self-restraint regarding being a judge in one’s own cause, brings prosperity. This is both the most fundamental and the most vulnerable claim of the civilized order, because in actual fact it is very often false; it may even be false more often than not. Plenty of people work hard, play by the rules, and fail; plenty of times they never really had much of a chance in the first place. Indeed, civilization could only have been installed under conditions where its premise could only be true for a small minority. And yet the bearers of civilization (parents, teachers, rulers, thinkers, professionals, etc.) must insist that everyone act as if it’s true—even if, in their own individual case, it wasn’t.

This is where civilization, at its most basic, qua civilization, produces its victims. The roots of victimary thinking lie not just in the Shoah, but in an appropriation of that event as the irrefutable demonstration of the reversibility of all civilized norms in the name of exceptions licensed by the norms themselves. The victimary claim, in other words, is that the extreme barbarism of the Nazis was carried out in the name of the precepts of civilization, reduced to their essence: the white, heterosexual, Western, bourgeois, etc., man’s “burden” to civilize the world. The Nazis just saw this required measures more extreme then, but not conceptually incompatible with, European imperialism, or the American conquest of North America. What rouses the victimary ire, then, most elementally, is the demand by one party claiming to have achieved the discipline of civilization that another take that discipline upon him or herself. References, even when mediated through impersonal, institutionalized practices, to the “irrationality” of women, the promiscuity of gays, the higher crime rates among blacks, and so on, are advanced from the position of one demanding that another submit to the discipline whose acquisition is, tautologically, demonstrated by one’s demand that the other submit to it.

So, I can now propose the following hypothesis: any victimary position will be accorded greater protection to the extent that counter-attacking on its behalf exposes the vulnerability of the civilizational demand for discipline to further civilizational gradations that defer that very demand for discipline. This hypothesis accounts for the vulnerability of normal, civilized, people to those more skilled at creating civilizational gradations, i.e., to the white guilt purveyed by the competitive moral exhibitionists, and the receptivity of the hyper-civilized White Guiltists to the actual (if often self-appointed) victim groups, who intuit that the former have no source for their civilizational gradations other than their grievances. It also accounts for the paradox of a cultural development that on one level loads us up with deferral, the material of civilization (more refined “rules of engagement” in everyday life), while more fundamentally releasing the most destructive desires and resentments. Once the demand for discipline is seen as the source of violence (once the civilizing process has been completely forgotten), there is no way out of this paradox. The ultimately, largely unacknowledged, goal of the victimary revolution is the totally therapeutic order, in which all desires and resentments undergo an incessant process of absolute exposure, universal recognition and reciprocal adjustment. The fantasy is that the results of civilization can be preserved without the discipline.

So, we can see the various victimary grievances orbiting a single center of imperious commands to submit to discipline, and each becoming, under specific conditions, the center or periphery of the constellation of victimary grievances mobilized to counter-attack—grievances that are potentially unlimited if not necessarily practically so. (I wonder, in fact, if the heavy investment in the Pickett’s Charge of the transgender movement—which cannot really get much popular traction, being so obviously marginal and idiosyncratic—won’t turn into a kind of Waterloo—to mix military metaphors. Certainly not a fatal defeat, but perhaps a debacle sufficient to slow the momentum and dent the perception of inevitability—not coincidentally, the same thing we are waiting for with the Islamic State.) Insofar as this constellation coalesces and acquires some stability, it take the form of a kind of fluctuating early feudalism, with everyone scrambling around to see which of the lords of victimage can actually grant the protection one needs to navigate daily life. As with any system of fealty, it is essential that you ostentatiously attribute all your successes to the grace conferred by your victimary protector. Whatever one has been able to do is due to the courage of those victimary revolutionaries who have broken this or that boundary. Perhaps we will find out next year if victimary feudalism has thoroughly infested the American political system as well.

February 21, 2015

Random Political Indexes

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:29 pm

It is becoming clear that a country can have Muslims, or it can have Jews, but it can’t have both. It may be when Muslims reach a certain percentage of the population, or when the Jewish/Muslim ratio hits a certain point, but (my hypothesis would be) every country does get to the point where, along with the virulent antisemitism imported by Muslims, the host population finds it too annoying, exhausting, and/or dangerous to bother defending the Jews against them. Indeed, when it gets to that point, it becomes convenient, and even obvious, to blame the Jews for the Muslims’ hatred towards them, and other, sedimented forms of antisemitism re-emerge. This is distressing, of course, but what is interesting is that such a hypothesis is unthinkable in liberal (in the broader sense) terms. To imagine that different categories of citizen, different “demographics,” are simply incompatible within a given national society, is confess the failure of multiculturalism (of course) but also the notion of a modern political order as such. Which would leave us without the barest beginnings of a shared political vocabulary and grammar.

Many American blacks will long remember that, not only did a majority of American whites vote against the Obama (a substantial majority the second time around), but they voted in a Republican congress capable of frustrating Obama, and turning the first black President into the abject failure he will surely be seen as. Many American whites, meanwhile, will long remember that we would not have been saddled with the most destructive President in American history without the virtually unanimous support of African-Americans. How many? Enough to show Abraham Lincoln to be the greatest political prophet in history?:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln, of course, is referring to the war itself, but perhaps it has never really ended, however much the sides, and their respective moral stature may have changed, perhaps that 250 years of ill-gotten wealth has not yet been sunk, or perhaps we have to account for all the wealth made possible by that piled by the bondsman; perhaps the blood drawn by the lashes must be paid by that drawn from guns and bombs and who knows what else—but it is perhaps fitting that an idiotic attempt at racial redemption on the cheap should re-activate the sinking and drawing.

The idea behind the sexual revolution was that once fear of pregnancy and all the surrounding social norms and moral rules tying sexuality to marriage and procreation were overthrown, the pleasure taken in sex would be uninhibited, unobstructed and frequent. But maybe, as reported declines in sexual interest in Japan (for example) suggest, that’s not the case at all. If there’s no desire to have children, there’s no inclination to get married; if there’s no inclination to get married, dating seems pointless; if dating is pointless, all the preparatory activity (flirting, gossiping, going to parties and bars, shopping, attending to personal appearance, etc.) becomes uninteresting. There will always be the random hook-up, but once you get past the point where lots of young and men and women are in close and constant contact with each other (i.e., college), that probably becomes too much trouble to be worth it as well. So, while Heather MacDonald has made a plausible case that the draconian new sex codes on college campuses represent a roundabout, if unconscious, way of restoring a workable sexual morality, it might just as well be the case that these codes are a way of making sex high-stakes once again, and therefore dramatic and interesting. At least for a certain segment of the younger “demographic,” sexual enjoyment relies upon the thrill of creating a new sexual morality—more explicit, micro-consensual, mappable in all of its moves and experiences. In that case, these rules would be nothing more than an attempt to impose a single, fairly idiosyncratic sexual fantasy on everyone else—a particularly noxious form of tyranny.

It is very possible to reduce politics to the conflict between those who save and those who borrow. Those who borrow have an interest in inflation, money printing, government growth, and bailouts, while those who save have an interest in more minimal institutions that do little more than protect people and property and stable currency. Beyond these direct conflicts, borrowers are likely to be more libertine or “socially liberal,” savers more continent and “hung up.” The two, moreover, are interdependent—from whom else are borrowers to borrow, if not savers? At the most minimal level, savers are not necessarily dependent upon borrowers, but the greater the discrepancy between savers and borrowers the greater the interest (literally) the savers have in lending—this is what has been known as “usury,” like “price gouging,” a concept completely devoid of all content aside from resentment toward its referent. But lenders must rely upon some agent of force to collect from their debtors, and unless they are to rely upon private security forces (which they do, of course, to some extent), that means the state—at the very least, they rely upon laws that allow for coercion to be used in the collection of debts. Savers had the upper hand politically for quite a while, playing a central role in the emergence and consolidation of civilization: for quite a while debtors were imprisoned, and countries with debts to civilized countries and banks occupied. Saving money, after all, is a most basic form of deferral, and one from which many others flow. Today, lenders are deeply plugged into the circuits of power, but that’s not the same thing as a politics favoring savers: now, those who lend money function as distribution and redistribution mechanisms of the state, getting the new money before anyone else does and when it is worth a bit more. They are the conduits of a political order, one that draws wide support across all classes, aimed at increasing borrowing and keeping later borrowers sufficiently afloat to generate enough money for the earlier borrowers and their political facilitators. The contemporary left struggles mightily to frame politics in terms of the struggle between lenders and borrowers, but are themselves part of the postmodern politics aimed at mocking, demonizing, subverting, and ultimately fleecing savers. The notion of “pump priming,” used to describe Keynesian spending measures aimed at goosing the economy, really better describes the production and reproduction of the borrower class, which comprises a set of historically new psychological types: worshipful of celebrity, resentful of limitations and therefore contemptuous of externally imposed norms, entitled, conspiratorial, terrified of being out of step. When there is a flood, they will loot the store owned by the guy who had the foresight to buy and stock lots of water pumps, their political representatives will denounce him as a price gouger, and their flatterers in the media will immortalize their fist-pumping as they splash through the broken glass. Saving provides the ballast of civilization—how much of it do we still have in the bank?

Foreign policy bureaucrats, and the pundits who feed them their lines, like to say that we should only go to war “in defense of a vital US interest,” or something along those lines. But they never say what we are supposedly interested in, much less vitally, and why. You could make a list: maintaining global free trade, sustaining the flow of relatively safe energy, protecting democracy, etc. But on what grounds could one ever say that some other country’s participation in trade, or accessibility as a source of oil, or another country’s freedom, is a vital interest? Approaching things in this positivistic, ultimately nihilistic, way is incoherent and destructive. We are interested in supporting our allies and weakening or destroying our enemies. (We are all hostage to each other.) How vital the interest depends upon how much that ally can help us fight our enemies, and how much it is willing to risk to do so, and how much harm the enemy can do us or our web of alliances. How do we choose our enemies; or, how do they choose us? That’s another way of asking who we are, which is in turn defined by who is attracted and repelled by us. But, of course, our allies and enemies are always already given (however we might trace back their conditions of possibility), revealing us to ourselves, and we can always start by simply cultivating those alliances and, in confronting those openly committed to doing us harm, clarifying which alliances are worth cultivating. The really difficult question is when to treat non-state actors—private citizens and associations—as allies or enemies. We can answer that question only when we have answered a previous one: do we want to destroy our enemies (and take responsibility for the resulting systemic confusion) or weaken then but keep them in the game. How good a game is it?

One can always deal with evildoers, and sometimes one must. It should be possible to deal with evildoers while continuing to be honest about them—we would only deal with them out of some very compelling interest and we can assume they must see us similarly to how we see them and therefore only deal with us out some compelling interest of their own—an interest that would override any insult our honesty might occasion. In other words, we should be able to say, “you’re a bunch of thieving, murdering, raping SOBs, but we’ve got to go through that pass and if you let us do so we’ll send you enough food to tide you over this famine”—and they would presumably respond in kind, if they really don’t want to starve. We become abject when we assume that dealing with evildoers requires that we not call them what they are—first of all because we thereby communicate that dealing with them must be of greater value to us than dealing with us is to them. We are further compelled to treat as a “problem” anyone who exposes the lie we tell to cover our cravenness—and that means not only anyone who speaks honestly about the evildoers but, even more and especially, their victims, whom we must then discredit, slander, and trivialize. But the first lie is the one we tell ourselves, that there is not so much difference between us and the evildoer. But once we tell that lie it becomes true, and thus easier to believe.

February 13, 2015

The Rhythm of Civilization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:58 pm

Civilization represents a break from the hostage-taking mode of agreement constitutive of barbarism. Not necessarily a complete break, and never a permanent break, but “enough” of a break. Enough for what? For other forms of agreement to germinate. What other forms of agreement? Those you are ready to let a third party adjudicate. Hostage-taking is radically one-on-one—something dear to you (a loved one, your peaceful existence, your peace of mind) is held by the other, who is ready to destroy it. The threat of hostage-taking must be as terrible as it is if that threat is to keep the peace (indeed, you must be ready to pre-emptively take your own people hostage in order to prevent “rogue” players from implicating you)—but the problem is that the point will come when one side feels strong enough to blackmail the other with impunity (and if they are wrong it is even worse than if they are right).

To acknowledge the authority of a third party, both sides must agree that there is some shared “substance” and shared space—there is room for both sides, and a roughly equal allocation of goods that exists “objectively,” beyond the desire and will of either side, is imaginable. Such a possibility is already implicit on the originary scene, but actualizing that possibility in relations between closely related groups, rather than individuals within a single group, poses new historical problems. The actual third party will probably emerge from the party that rightly feels strong enough to blackmail others with impunity, and who can therefore impose his will on all concerned. Once this party has established pre-eminence by suppressing all rivals, he will want order, which means he will want resentment toward himself and amongst his newly acquired subjects neutralized (since recourse to simple repression risks disorder). Such neutralization requires procedures, and once such procedures start to work, we have the makings of civilization.

But what makes the procedures work? From what I have said so far, all we have is the fear of the subjects toward the hostage-taking power of the sovereign (and fear of each other, if the sovereign were to fall). But that wouldn’t be genuine neutralization (even if we have never yet had a civilization without that fear lurking somewhere in the background–ultimately, all we ever do is defer the order of hostage-taking)—everyone would still be looking for that next chance to re-arrange things more favorably. That the procedures are “fair”? That begs the question of how the subjects arrive at a sense of fairness. Only obedience to a sacred imperative, to a divine interdiction on hostage-taking, can account for that sense of fairness. Something like the monotheistic revelation, or a philosophical disclosure (more or less widely spread among the communities involved, or the elites of those communities), is needed. Possible resentment toward the sovereign is then recouped within a measure of the sovereign, and each subject carries around a “third person” (what Adam Smith called an “impartial spectator”) rather than a set of commands backed by terror. Such an interdiction on hostage-taking is wide ranging from the start, bearing on ritual practice, political order, and family life (monogamy, for example, will sooner or later be discovered to be essential), but it deepens and extends even further over time (centuries), as we discover all the ways in which we have been engaged in hostage-taking without realizing it. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” has virtually unlimited ramifications—indeed, when this humble blogger and generative anthropologist hypothesizes the end of our (sinful?) civilization, is he really saying anything else?

Some vanguard of the new sacred, then, sets out to propagate and enforce the interdiction against hostage-taking. What uprootings of traditional practices must this involve! And only those whose communities are already embroiled in some crisis of their own sacred order will be open to the new order. Far more than persuasion will be required—only civilizational fanatics will have the stomach for it. At a certain point, they will find themselves taking hostages themselves, or getting the sovereign to do it for them. It’s not quite a return to the “old ways” (although according to some measures it might be “worse”), but it will generate resentments that take the form of a “heresy” (or that accuse the propagators of heresy), re-activating the need for a third party. Eventually a period of relaxation sets in—the diastole to the systole of civilizational fanaticism. The interdiction is loosened, reinterpreted—“remissions,” to use Phillip Rieff’s term, are introduced.

Remissions make the subjects prey to doubt, skepticism, cynicism, exhaustion, dissolution, nihilism. If the interdiction need not be obeyed in its original, rigorous, sanctified form, then how? Why at all? The period of relaxation is one of limit testing and boundary inquiry. Assuming the elasticity of the interdiction is discovered, and the order it inaugurated not irrevocably broken, a new form of the “third person” emerges—now that the civilizational fanatic has been “exposed” as insisting upon an unnecessarily strict form of the interdiction, his desire is now included among those that lead to dangerous forms of violence. The civilizational fanatic becomes a subject of satire and is ultimately reduced to the epithet “hypocrite”—his pleasure is really in denying others theirs. The new urbanity might be historical wisdom, and it might provide a model for leaving off defense of civilized standards. Now the benefits of civilization can be reaped in earnest, and the forgetting of the civilizing process is underway. Much freer forms of speculation, inquiry, artistic experimentation—along with wealth production and power acquisition—become possible. In theory, we are now free enough, disciplined enough, and informed enough to tighten the reins where necessary, and loosen them where possible. In practice, sometimes as well. The problem is how to draw the line between loosenings and re-barbarizations, between inquiries into that boundary and attempts to subvert it, and between new forms of civilizational fanaticism and re-barbarization. The 20th century saw all kinds of grotesque articulations of hyper-civilization and the depth of barbarity. The solution to the problem lies in whether one takes those positioned as third persons hostage, or presents issues to those potential third persons to adjudicate. Perhaps that requires a discussion of the “grammar of civilization,” which I hope to get to next.

February 12, 2015

A Note on Civilization and Periodization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:08 am

Retrieving the category of “civilization” as a central term in the human sciences provides us with a way of revisiting familiar historical periodizations and, ultimately, answering the most important question: what is happening right now? If the period known as the Renaissance involved the completion of the civilizing process that had been ongoing since Europe began to recover from the fall of the Roman Empire and the initial Islamic invasions, it also involved an awareness of what had been accomplished, a vivid remembrance of the recently suppressed barbarism, and the beginnings of the figuration of the civilization/barbarism distinction in terms of varied speculations on “Nature.” The subsequent period, known to us as “modernity,” could then be understood as a dual process in which the fruits of civilization were reaped while the civilizing process was gradually forgotten. The two sides of this development complement each other: constitutive of a fully developed civilization is the distancing of its denizens from the systematic “addiction” to violence civilization had to transcend, and the naturalizing of civilized habits. The “originary” reflections of the Enlightenment, which project the modern bourgeois citizen back to a pre-social state, provide a perfect example of this forgetting (as does the very term “modernity,” suggesting, as it does, the possibility of a new beginning ex nihilo). The final forgetting of the civilizing process is the emergence of the normalizing process in the 19th century, in which all the obstacles to civilization are internalized, made into therapeutic and educational issues rather than moral questions or problems of manners.

We can, then, shed the following light on “postmodernity”: in response to the stirrings of barbarism in class warfare in the Western world and renewed experience with it in imperialism across the globe, Westerners resistant to normalization (a very imperfect process, one must grant) cultivated the following resentments towards their civilization: first, the insistence that Western civilization was really nothing more than a disguised barbarism, a criticism that targeted (especially in the wake of World War I) the failure of the West to suppress “atavistic” forms of violence once and for all—a critique that then inevitably directs attention to a wide variety of other barbarisms hidden behind a civilized “veneer’”; and, two, an outright defense of the suppressed barbarisms and savageries as modes of freedom more worthy of preservation than the unsatisfying and “uptight” freedoms of civilization—for a while, this defense of barbarism and savagery was a kind of play (in certain kinds of Romantic and avant-garde “decadence,” in the championing of sexual liberation, the hippies of the 1960s, etc.), although even much of that took a devastating toll, but now we have the real thing with the renewed Islamic war against the West, which our rulers and elites are completely incapable of addressing. These two anti-civilizational resentments are logically contradictory but politically complementary. This analysis would explain why no one has come up with a better term than the feeble “postmodern”—these contrary impulses, which civilization has been absorbing with decreasing resistance, and which make civilization unsustainable, also make a coherent account of this historical “period” impossible. If civilization is restored and those resentments marginalized, we will have our new period; if civilization is destroyed, who will care?

So, what is happening now is the sharpening of the anti-civilizational pincer movements, which have lost their play character and the inhibitions that accompanied it; the defense of modernity, under the assumption that attacks on it are mere parasites, rather than an auto-immune breakdown; and the search, more or less conscious, for a new rhythm of civilization, in which a renewed civilizing process can simultaneously keep the perennial threats of barbarism and savagery in view. Civilization replaced hostage taking, which presupposes, like the prisoner’s dilemma, that we are locked in together, as a mode of agreement, with the protection of spaces (property) that allowed for a diversity of exchanges, or agreements. Ensuring that no individual must enter the gift circle with one, and only one, specific individual, served as an enormous lever, deferring manifold forms of violence. But this new space of property locks us in together in a new way, creating new interdependencies that make hostage taking possible again. Victimary politics is as effective as it is because a few individuals can make enough of the assumptions of civilization problematic to extract concessions in the hope of return to normalcy. We have just barely begun to get a glimpse at what forms of hostage taking politicized hackers might invent. This is the central problem of any re-civilizing process: to neutralize these proliferating new forms of hostage taking.

February 1, 2015


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:32 am

This is a term generally credited to Michel Foucault, to describe what comes after the “disciplinary society,” when social institutions no longer just normalize subjects but intervene in the production of the population from birth (and even before) on up—when all politics becomes concerned with the health of the population, considered as a source of wealth. Foucault’s The Birth of Bio-Politics is almost completely concerned with historical and contemporary liberal and neo-liberal thought, including Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Gary Becker—there is currently a little debate among leftists over whether the later Foucault went over to the dark side (i.e., conservatism, or at least free marketism), and this book gives grounds for such suspicions. Foucault examines these thinkers in detail, sympathetically, without the slightest hint of animadversion—a Foucauldian leftist could console herself that he simply laying bare the obvious horror of these ideals, in a style very familiar to readers of Foucault (never once, in his famous “Panopticism” essay, does Foucault explicitly condemn the phenomenon in question). Maybe, but it reads to me more like Foucault is approaching these ideas with a real sense of discovery and even common interests. The main question he poses is, once we see the “self” as “marketable,” and society as composed of as the infinitely complicated interplay of all these selves on the market, what is left for the government to do. It doesn’t seem to me that Foucault arrives at a very clear answer, other than “not very much,” but, implicitly, the real answer is to intervene when these selves make “irrational” decisions that will interfere with both the market chances of those individuals and the smooth functioning of the market as a whole; but, since the government can no longer operate vertically, with explicit decisions that are obeyed by subjects and enforced by the police without destroying the economy, these interventions must operate on incentives—through what Cass Sunstein calls “nudges” (the government doesn’t tell people what to choose; rather, it influences the “choice architecture”). The interventions are very indirect, then, but very thoroughgoing, as there is no end to irrational choices that will impair the individual’s marketable and increase costs to society—diet, exercise, mold in one’s house, driving habits, sexual practices, gun ownership, etc.—assign a few bureaucrats to make up a list and you’ll see that nothing of our lives is off-limits. A very different kind of thinker, Mark Steyn, in essence agrees with this point when he regularly points out the inverse proportion between the importance given by a government to healthcare, on the one hand, and national defense, on the other: once the government takes primary responsibility for the health of its population, there will be no resources or will remaining for traditional state functions—in a sense, to sound another Foucaudian theme, health becomes the primary security concern (and security concerns become health concerns, with terrorist attacks and even—why not?—foreign invasions posing health risks to be measured against cancer, traffic accidents, planetary warming, suicides caused by bullying and gender confusion, etc.). We could add to this form of bio-politics ongoing (and sure to intensify) debates over the private and public uses of medical information, the genetic engineering of food (and people), changing legal regimes regarding drug use, the proliferation of pharmaceuticals, itself tied to questions of intellectual property—all of which at least suggests that bio-politics can be contentious rather than dystopian and totalitarian.

I would like to use the term a little differently, perhaps in an even more disturbing sense (or, perhaps, I am simply including more under the concept). In the United States, over the past 15 years, voting patterns have so stabilized as to leave no more than 5% or so of the population as the “swing vote” that will decide the Presidential election. We can be pretty sure that the 2016 election will come down to who wins, at most, 4-5 states—Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado. There are a couple of others, but too small to matter much, and we can really reduce it to Florida and Ohio. This means that we know whom everyone votes for, and I’m going to tell you right now:


Single women
Government employees (excepting police officers and the military—but not necessarily prison guards)
People on welfare or disability
Union members
Trial lawyers
Members of the “helping professions” (social workers, nurses, teachers—not necessarily doctors)


Church going Christians
Married couples with children
Those employed in the private, non-unionized sector

Now, there is plenty of overlap here, and we could put together a very interesting Venn diagram showing which category prevails in the case of a conflict (married black couples with children still vote Democrat, for example; as do white academics and government employees—which is really to say that the categories in the Democratic column siphon off votes from those in the Republican column—otherwise, Republicans would get 70% of the vote); there are some demographics that fall out of these categories and are less “reliable” voting blocks (who knows about unemployed single men in their 20s, for example; Asians lean Democrat but still seem to be wavering, among other, minor, anomalies); and, needless to say, lots of exceptions. But I think these categories hold, for anywhere from 70-90% of the groups in question. And the tendency is for them to harden, for reasons of political pragmatics: if you are a Democrat candidate in a tight race, which is going to seem the better bet: trying to convince 5% of married evangelical women to vote for you, or trying to push your share of single women from 70% up to 80%? The latter is the path of least resistance, requiring the least in terms of compromise or antagonizing other parts of your “base.” From such calculations is the crazed rhetoric of the “War on Women” born.

The point is that politics is becoming “bio” in the additional sense of becoming “demographic.” It would be very interesting to chart changes in the use of the word “demographic” over the past 15 years. I believe such a study would show a shift from referring to “demographics” as something that “is,” as referring to a mapping of the entire population, to “demographic” as something one “has” and does things with—I now regularly see, especially in younger commentators, the use of the phrase “a demographic,” or “their demographic,” as a way of distinguishing one group from others (“demographic” as noun, that is, rather than adjective, as in “demographic composition”… ), thereby replacing older terms like “ethnicities,” which then slides into seeing them as agents, as having moral qualities (the “white male demographic” is, of course, especially reviled), or being possessions that might be deployed in certain ways. This is an important shift because ethnicities (like races) are seen as “natural” groups which, in a mobile, modern society like America get diluted and may shrink, but are beyond the control of politicians—one could speak of winning over the Italian vote, but one would never think of producing more Italians, much less trying to reduce their numbers. But the term “demographic” suggests just such an “elastic” possibility, and it is only a matter of time before the political parties direct their attention away from trying to encroach on the other side’s “demographic “and towards the more basic problem of transforming the demographic make up of the country itself—i.e., adding to its numbers and subtracting from the other’s. In fact, for the Democrats, that time has come, as it is widely acknowledged that their passion for legalizing and naturalizing the tens of millions of illegal aliens presently in the country (and how many more to come?) is a result of a shift in focus from the “white working class” “demographic” lost to the Republicans to the “emerging Hispanic” one. Welfare and related policies, including those dis-incentivizing marriage, can also be seen as bio-political in this sense of producing more of one’s demographic. It is also no coincidence that friends of the left have become comfortable proclaiming the need for certain demographics (elderly whites) to die off so that we can finally pass a crucial threshold in our racial and sexual politics. (Not to mention Islam’s demographic strategy in Europe; or that Israel and the Palestinians have engaged in demographic politics for a long time.)

We’re all familiar with the most infamous 20th century case of trying to increase favored and decrease disfavored “demographics,” so there are still some inhibitions to be overcome here. But we live in an age where inhibitions tumble like dominoes: we look, for the most part untroubled, upon mini (so far) genocides in Africa and Mesopotamia committed by murderous Muslim groups; we have a President who eggs on racial rioters, and takes counsel from a supporter of pogrom-like mob activities; we have protestors who call for the killing of cops, and much more. The inhibitions for the most part hold on the Republican/conservative side, but those may be weakening as well, first of all through a growing obsession with government surveillance, the heroicizing of law-breaking “whistleblowers,” and some cheap anti-cop rhetoric (on the other side of the question, the open contempt recently displayed by the NYPD toward Mayor Di Blasio suggests a lowering of inhibitions regarding civil/police distinctions and lines of command—can it be too long before members of the rank and file military display such contempt for a leftist Commander-in-Chief?). Anyway, it is in the nature of things that one side alone cannot bear the burden of the inhibitions comprising civil society. It is hard to see how, other than through the unlikely prospect of restrictive (and enforced) immigration laws a conservative demographic politics would work on the national level (a “natalist” policy, for example, would seem to come up against too many constitutional and ideological obstacles; one could support pro-marriage policies so as to increase the married “demographic” but marriage requires deferral and discipline so it’s much easier to create policies that increase the single “demographic”), but there is much more promise on the local level. The demographic wars are underway here as well, as the Obama administration pushes policies aimed at breaking up the suburbs and imposing upon them the “demographics” of the cities. Here, though, it is the Left that has the uphill struggle. There is nothing more sacred to the middle class than the “demographics” of their neighborhoods, and people will clear out at the least sign of demographic shift. And they have plenty of tools to fight with. A right-wing demographic politics would involve the creation of enclaves in which demographic balances are assiduously maintained, first of all in subtle ways so as to avoid running afoul of civil rights laws and social consensus, but ultimately less so, through transformation of or defiance of the laws and consensus. We would see the return of something like the restrictive covenants outlawed after World War 2, not necessarily focused on race, but on other demographic markers: criminal background checks, the exclusion of the unmarried, the favoring of those expected to join one of the local congregations, etc. Along with other measures, such as a tight control of school boards and therefore curriculum, it would be possible to produce and maintain the desired demographic. Within this context we could then see overtly natalist policies, or at least social pressure in that direction. Right now pro-life politics makes a point of not distinguishing among “demographics,” to the extent of insisting that the post-Roe abortion regime has entailed a veritable black genocide. Once the prospect of changing national policy and culture on this issue fades, it is likely that pro-lifers will turn their attention to the “demographics” they are most able to influence, and the demographic war will be more fully engaged: one side increasing its demographic through immigration and state subsidization of enlarged “demographics,” and the other through enclaves, even, shall we say “no-go zones,” in which abundant life is celebrated and an armed citizenry (an ascendant “demographic”) makes it difficult for an increasingly bloated and incompetent state to impose its rule. It will not be long before eugenics adds fuel to the fire, with wealthy state and corporate elites and gay and lesbian couples, concerned with distinguishing their own demographic from some of their allied ones, demanding access to the latest in reproductive technologies, and the possibility of healthier, smarter and stronger children will surely entice the more affluent in the suburban enclaves. Bio-politics in the Foucauldian and post-Foucauldian senses I opened this post with would be drawn in as well, given the intense interest in managing life at each step along the way, that is, and creating the behavioral set must likely to reproduce one’s demographic.

At the very least, this “prophecy” involves a hypothesis that we can, in a rough way, test—how strong are those inhibitions on, first, speaking of, and then acting on, “demographics” as malleable objects to be transformed and, if necessary, eliminated. What would it take for us to start speaking of the relative worthiness of life of various forms of life? (Perhaps the current particularizing and spiteful slogan “#blacklivesmatter” will, paradoxically, push us along this path.)

I haven’t explicitly addressed the morality of these possible developments, because it doesn’t seem to me clear-cut. Genocide is an evil form of bio-politics, but trying to distance yourself from, out-reproduce and out-health those who wish to control and exploit your lives is not necessarily so, however uncomfortable it makes the liberal in each of us. It would simply mean that we no longer see conversation and persuasion as the currency of modern civilization, but isn’t that, in the end, an empirical question? Maybe in the next stage of civilization we will let our DNA do the talking.

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