Yearning for Power, Research Time, 31/05/2014

My angry posts about the Ontario NDP have gotten some interesting reactions, not only on the blog, but on my personal Facebook and Twitter feeds as well. For those needing a quick refresher, I have concluded from watching Andrea Horwath’s campaign that she is abandoning central principles of the NDP for the sake of an ideological triangulation, using empty populism more often associated with Rob Ford and Tim Hudak to capture a socially conservative voting demographic. One such reaction came from someone who accused me of ignoring what must be done to win elections.

Two years ago, MacLean's magazine documented me
awkwardly trying to avoid looking at the camera while
seated directly behind Nathan Cullen, one of Canada's
major political leaders.
It’s an interesting critique, because the last leadership race for the federal party found me frustrated with many traditional New Democrats who accused the politicians I supported, Nathan Cullen and Thomas Mulcair, of abandoning the party’s principles for the sake of election victory. In particular, some critics of Mulcair from inside NDP ranks were suspicious of him precisely because he planned to win any elections at all. A popular image of the NDP is as a permanent opposition party, a kind of continual conscience in Canada’s parliament, constantly suffering for standing up for what was right over what was politically expedient. The inevitability of its defeat was a sign of its never having compromised its values. Always being crushed by the powerful implies that you would never sell out your principles for power.

This idea, which I’ve heard being mocked just as often, if not moreso, than I’ve heard it levelled at me, actually has quite a pedigree. Well, really, it’s more of a sad, corrupted offspring of an originally radical idea of the left that appears pathetic as it has come to occur in the context of electoral politics alone. The idea is in the work of Antonio Gramsci. It describes how a truly revolutionary party is supposed to act. Basically, the revolutionary socialist party does not organize itself and its apparatus to take state power in elections. The whole purpose of taking state power should be anathema to revolutionary socialism.* Gramsci’s conception of the state, at least in some of the mid-WWI-vintage papers where I came across this notion this week, is that it’s basically a giant system of elite control.

* This may seem especially weird to some of my conservative friends who equate socialism with the state control of absolutely everything. Few people understand the anarchist ideals of some of these political philosophies anymore. 

State elections, and the parties that contest them, he understands as vehicles for the peaceful competition and exchange of power among various factions of a society’s elites. Writing about 100 years ago, Gramsci is able to critique the Chomskian left for their view that the ruling class of society is entirely uniform and operates conspiratorially. No, the rich and powerful bicker among themselves just as much, if not more, than the radical left. 

You can't write a Gramscian
handbook for winning elections.
But democratic elections enable a society’s elite factions to alternate power over the economic and military monopoly of a region without mounting constant coups. Elections are improvements over open dictatorships in this sense, but do not go far enough for the genuine democratization of a society. After all, the leader who most insults democratic values is the one who only pays attention to what his country’s citizens say on election day.

Because winning power through elections only welcomes you into the circle of elites who now have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to keep its regular access to power, a genuinely revolutionary party should not be interested in winning state power at all.** This concept is the only thing I’ve come across so far that sensibly fleshes out the old Marxist adage that the state ‘withers away’ under communism.

** Alain Badiou once wrote an opera about this very notion, of a revolutionary leader purposely abandoning state power because his goal was to destroy dictatorship itself, not replace the dictator with himself. I mention this detail for two reasons. One is to show that Badiou is not as original as he thinks, as this idea is blatantly in the work of Gramsci. Second, I’ll let that sink in a bit, that Alain Badiou wrote an opera. Yes, I am looking for decent footage. I may post some later.

Taking over the state would immediately corrupt a political movement whose goal was to neuter the coercive power of the state in its military, police, and surveillance apparatuses. It would make the revolutionaries just one more ruling class interest competing for a temporary relative advantage over its fellow elites. I think this is what motivated the fear of Mulcair in the old guard of the NDP: that if the NDP ever gained state power, it would become just another political party.

Politics that is truly effective over the long term is not
about elections, but movements.
I think the actual situations of politics are more complex than this, though in his original form, Gramsci’s ideas are potent and insightful. Indeed, Gramsci’s idea here has come true: every time a socialist or communist party gains state power, it abuses that state power to become fascist or totalitarian. I think the mistake lay in fashioning the revolutionary movement as a party at all. 

Political parties, by their essential structure, have an inescapable relationship with state government, as the logistical apparatus for electoral contests themselves. Movements, meanwhile, should be grassroots organizing of people who think about social and political issues differently. Idle No More is a wonderful, and ongoing, example. They were a group of people very publicly campaigning for an end to an unjust political system of relationships. 

One central goal was to change the way settler-descended people understood the natures of indigenous peoples and the state system that resulted in those injustices. Contesting elections and gaining state control wasn’t even part of the agenda. What mattered was changing people themselves. 

Highs Lows and Prospects for the Future, Jamming, 30/05/2014

After four straight days of philosophizing and networking whose average working length was eleven hours, I needed something of a break. For one thing, the blogging symposium that ended the CPA’s sessions for me was generally too exciting and filled with interesting conversation to take any time during the session itself to blog. 

My thanks to Kathryn Norlock, Patricia Marino, Samantha Brennan, and Tracy Isaacs for getting that symposium together and leading a conversation about taking philosophical discourse and ideas into a public forum that escapes the disciplinary echo chamber. All their experiments in blogging have found interesting ways to articulate philosophical ideas in new ways, and I’m glad that I can now add my name to that community.

Most of the posts that I published during the CPA were largely composed during sessions that grew slightly boring for me. There was one presentation in particular on Monday that, ostensibly defended that there was a ‘right to be ruled.’ I found this title quite provocative, though I knew nothing of the other work of the speaker. Given the title and my presuppositions from my own work, I thought I was going to see a robust defence of subservience to one’s state come hell or Glenn Greenwald. I was looking forward to a vibrant discussion, my intense disagreement with which would fuel some of my own thoughts for the Utopias project. 

But I ended up listening to a rather dry legal theory talk that spent a lot of time discussing the implications for obedience norms of our tendency to voluntarily submit to the decision of legal arbitrators. It’s entirely possible — and by that, I mean it’s really quite likely — that I’ve missed some more important implication. But the whole paper struck me as rather pedantic.

I'm one of those people who read people like
Jürgen Habermas for fun. If you've been reading
this blog, you shouldn't be surprised.
This contrast is my way of saying that no conference is ever absolutely perfect. Sometimes the conversations with your friend who studies a lot of Jürgen Habermas is more enlightening to you than the formal presentation you both had just seen about the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas. And it puts the idea in your mind that you should read some more Habermas sometime soon, if only just for fun, so you have a better grip on some of his concepts and approaches. 

I learned this week that University of Toronto's Dan Goldstick has been attending every CPA since 1966. He told me so himself at the conference beer tent. He can't hear as well as he used to, but he's still at the top of his game. We all should hope to be.

I was also glad that the CPA’s paper awards for junior and senior faculty both went to people I knew, and that the papers were so deserving. My colleague from the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective read a provocative piece about the importance of feminine and feminist perspectives in university philosophy departments, and the importance of understanding the difference between those. One of my old professors at McMaster won the senior faculty prize for a tight paper offering a further foundation for her larger project of systematizing collective duties, obligations and responsibilities. She runs at the problem of material deprivation and inequities on a global scale from a very different perspective than my own concerns, theorizing rights and obligations while I focus on networks of material interdependence and ecologically destructive processes. But I think we both share the same concerns, hoping that humanity can learn to exist a little more peacefully and fairly in the world. Apparently, that makes me naive.

So after a hectic four days at an overstuffed Brock University and a relaxing day at home, I’m back to work tomorrow at my editing job. I’ve made some edits to my proposal to publish the Ecophilosophy project, and I’ll start promoting Under the Trees, Eaten throughout the summer, preparing a multimedia show based on its passages, which I hope will launch this Fall. And I started reading Antonio Gramsci, finally. Enlightening already, after only a few brief essays. More thoughts on that tomorrow, I think. Same with what I’ve been reading for fun in African literature.

Maybe you could give some money to my two favourite Kickstarters as well. Reading Rainbow doesn’t exactly need a lot of help, but it's probably the ethically best cause on the whole site. You should definitely support Phil Sandifer’s Last War in Albion project, funding a massive, beautiful, and fascinating study of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison’s contributions to and place in comics and human culture as a whole.

The Promise of Philosophical Entrepreneurs, Research Time, 28/05/2014

The Congress President's reception took place the other evening after the various sessions. I spoke about some of the philosophy that I saw Monday already, which demonstrated that there were still young people and well-established professors in the university system doing remarkable research. But I've also met with several philosophers and historians already who have been doing remarkable work, suited for public consumption beyond the disciplinary audience.

There was one Scarborough-born researcher who had a manuscript about the first uses of personal computers in astronomical science, and a Waterloo-based historian who had a brilliant manuscript on the work and difficult lives of Arctic scientists and military men during the Cold War. The latter, I think, has definite potential for extreme popular success. Some of the stories he told me of these people that was included in the manuscript reminded me of the people you find in Werner Herzog documentaries.

I've also spoken to several people who are secure in the academy, but who understand the economic shifts the university system faces, which is creating this lost generation of scholars and writers. The fact that they nod sadly or with great irony when I use the phrase 'lost generation' is a sign that I have found an ally, someone willing to lend their institutional support to help my project of independently successful and respectable philosophical, cultural, and historical research and writing get off the ground. My SST Records full of doctorates.

I had a feeling the CPA would be an excellent place to find such people, especially as it has become something of an underdog in philosophical conferences of late. Many graduate students submit papers to the CPA and present them there, which according to the traditional measures of academic prestige harms the reputation of the conference itself. Of course, the presupposition of this status evaluator is that the work of those who have not completed doctorates or had not yet won tenure-track positions is inherently inferior to that of those who have. It's a hypocritical view of course: if the younger scholar is so inferior, and lacks the potential to present their work at the same level as established figures, then they presume that all younger scholars are inferior and inadequate to take on their positions after retirement.

Even more than this, the very practice of the CPA's referee system fights such hypocrisy. Part of what genuinely impresses people in other societies of Congress about the CPA is that we actually select papers for the conference by peer review of the whole papers themselves. Most other societies only review papers by abstract. A wonderful-sounding abstract may result in a terrible paper. I've seen, at other associations, utterly boring research that justifies the dismissive attitude toward student work which was accepted because the abstract described a very interesting subject.

But because the philosophical association reviews the entire paper, every final product of an applicant has to pass the same test. This year, the CPA peer review process accepted a paper by a distinguished emeritus professor with a 60 year career and a bright, promising student in his mid-20s. They faced the same test, the toughest possible test, and passed it.

But there is a more insidious dismissal of the CPA that I think the association should wear with pride. At the University of Waterloo conference in 2012, I attended the CPA general meeting, where a major item on the agenda was a public challenge to the association from a very prestigious position. A prominent tenured philosopher and federal research chair at one of Canada's most prestigious universities made the argument that the CPA did not deserve his membership fees. His reason was that, as a wealthy federal research chair and tenured professor at one of Canada's most prestigious universities, the CPA could provide him no helpful services. Being no benefit to him personally, he saw no reason why he should support the association.

At the time, I listened to the conversation more than I took part, but I was hostile to this standpoint without fully understanding why. My experiences over the last two years have helped me shape what I find truly repugnant about this dismissal. If you have such a position as this man, you have essentially won the tenure game. You don't need help anymore. His position was, essentially, that because he no longer needed help himself, he need not contribute to an organization that exists, in large part, to help people.

This is one of the most pure statements of the politics that I have begun to rage against. The Ghost of Thatcher itself could have made him a ventriloquist dummy. A petty, hateful response to success is to say that no one else deserves help from me now that I have benefited from help. The noble, admirable, and upstanding response to your own success is, having achieved so much, to devote some of your energies to helping your younger colleagues achieve their own potential. The victorious and noble do not turn their backs on their fellows, or worse, look down their noses at them.

The Politics of Mind and Agency, Research Time, 27/05/2014

I have sometimes discussed how I left philosophy of mind as a major discipline for my writing of philosophy. One of the many issues that I have with this sub-discipline was that too many conceptions of mind used a template that was rather like the human model. In the environmentalist philosophical discourses that I delved into after leaving mind circles, anthropomorphism in thinking was considered a dangerous thing.

I agree in the case of mind and consciousness. Sean Smith's presentation was on the rudimentary versions of consciousness that one can discover through analysis of the evolutionary ancestors of modern animals. My own account of rudimentary consciousness is in the fifth chapter of my Ecophilosophy project, which understands such rudimentary consciousness as the basic ability to perceive the world and constitute differential relations in that world through one's movements.  I think my own philosophical ideas on this are already more radical than Smith's because this most rudimentary form of consciousness is common to all forms of life and objects able to move by means of metabolic chemical activity.

This is a very slippery issue because we're all so accustomed to thinking of mind and consciousness in terms of the human model. I personally prefer using a more neutral term, like perceptual subjectivity or fundamental agency, precisely because these terms are a little less loaded. But it is part of a larger point that I develop throughout the project that amounts to a radical conception of agency, that foregrounds the capacity for bodies in motion and interaction as the primary producers of new complexities and new bodies or systems in the world.

This is also my contribution to the environmentalist critique of anthropocentrism in an ontological context. It is a conception of the world where a notion of agency can apply to all developments of new physical structures. Environmentalist theorists want a vision of the world where humans are one peculiar part of a massively complex world that is fascinating and beautiful in all the fractally complicated majesty of its assembly.

Such vision, where humans, and a single conception of what humanity is, are not the measure of all that the world can be, is common across contemporary forms of radical political thinking. One of my favourite sessions today was by Kristin Rodier, who, broadly speaking, focussed on the feminist notion of transforming your own subjectivity through coming to know how the world has constructed you, and your feedback relationships in how forces in your environment transforms you. While this concept is firmly rooted in political practice, there are similar political aspects in other genes of philosophical thinking that are less obviously so.

Like the ontology of complexity and assemblage in my own manuscript, or the redefinition of the mind away from human models in the evolutionary investigation of conscience. I think pretty much all philosophy, no matter the explicit context, has these political implications if you let them inform the wider conception and practice of your life.

Our Desperate Misdirected Search for Simplicity, Research Time, 26/05/2014

I attended a couple of very interesting talks in philosophy of biology yesterday. One was my friend Y discussing his research in the history of evolutionary biology, and the other was a critique of Carl Craver's conception of levels of explanation in biological phenomena. If any insight was common to both, it was that intractable problems arise when you develop and employ concepts for scientific interpretation for the sake of simplifying phenomena.

A short version of what I took away from the account of Craver's idea. Organic and ecological systems are ridiculously complex, so it's a good idea to figure out how to simplify and systematize your understanding of them. In this case, Craver described a series of obstacles and difficulties in making sense of causation between micro, meso, and macro levels of biological phenomena. So at one level of analysis, bodies and processes affect each other through causes. But when processes at one level of analysis affect processes at another level, they don't cause these other processes. Instead, the notion is that these processes constitute each other.

Consider the relationships among our cells. These are incredibly complicated exchanges among chemical processes, which, taken as a whole, constitute a whole organism. The processes between the cells are in relationships of mutual causation. All these processes working in tandem constitute the organism called Adam Riggio.

However, levels of analysis aren't absolute. Think about an army who loses a battle because, in the process of assembling itself for battle, suffers a contagious viral infection among its troops, allowing the opposing army to devastate them. The viral infection, despite existing on a micro level relative to the macro level phenomenon of this multi-nation war, has literally caused war casualties. When such viruses are biological weapons purposely released into the opposing army, then the relationship of causation is even more clear.

If you divide causation from constitution by level, then you won't adequately understand the entire event. Even though conceptually, taking multi-level causation into account is very difficult to handle, you have to do it. If the phenomenon you're dealing with is complex, you won't adequately understand it if you simplify the concepts you use to make sense of it.

It's a common platitude in philosophy, and quite often in ordinary life as well, that if you can't make your explanation of some phenomenon remarkably simple to understand, then you haven't done a very good job of explaining. But when the phenomenon in question is as complicated as a meteorological or climatological phenomenon, an organism's internal processes, or a growing viral epidemic in society, a simple explanation will not do. Simplicity is, in many ways, the worst type of error in thought, because it is precisely so easy to understand. When understanding comes to easily to you, it's incredibly difficult to convince yourself, let alone convincing other people, that your concepts are inadequate. That you have cut away too many relevant aspects of the world from your analysis in the name of simplification.

Correcting that kind of mistake isn't just difficult because you can so easily become comfortable in your simple understanding of events. It also requires admitting that you need to do a lot more work. And no one likes making their lives more complicated. Even if it's necessarily complicated.

My Future in Philosophy and Philosophy’s Future: The Optimistic Case, Jamming, 24/05/2014

You didn’t seriously expect I’d just plain give up, did you?

What are you trying to say, I'm crazy?
When I went to your schools, I went to your churches,
I went to your institutional learning facilities?!
So given the current transformation of the university system along Thatcherian principles, I do believe that philosophy’s continued existence in this system is doubtful. The discipline has had a wonderful run ever since Kant’s day when it was first institutionalized in the modern disciplinary university system of Germany, whose framework provided the template for modern educational/research institutions. At the time, it was the natural home for higher learning — in elite institutions. The democratization movements of the 20th century brought these elite institutions to ordinary people as taxpayer-funded public services. But the institution has changed as its priorities have shifted from public service to profit-making. We’re all familiar with the other conception of ‘institutionalized.’ After all, the system is getting more than a little crazy.

So if institutionalized philosophy has already begun its long, painful road to being squeezed out of a university system that has no place for research that can’t be monetized, where should the discipline go? Just because this particular practice of philosophy is running out of resources doesn’t mean the tradition itself should disappear. Philosophy has great social value as the incubator of critical thought, dissent, fostering ideas and plans for justice in society, and creating new concepts to understand the world. It had a home in universities for a long time, so long that many practitioners (including myself for quite a while) thought that the only way to practice philosophy was in a university setting, and that the only way to continue philosophical innovation was through engagement with academic discourses.

After the Ghost of Thatcher in the job market and the departmental downsizing of contemporary academia hit me in the face last year, I slowly began to formulate a response. A discipline is a specific set of norms for the reproduction of research, evolving through a slow process of piecemeal modification and segmentation into sub-disciplines, usually within the framework of an institution. A discipline that loses its institutional home is dead. But a tradition is much more amorphous, and so more immune to attack.

One thing we often forget in our disciplinary pursuits in philosophy is all those people who enjoyed our classes, may have done well or decently, but ultimately decided to pursue some other course in their lives that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with philosophy. But they still find it interesting, still read, and would still like to read about concepts and theories to understand the world. A discipline speaks only to an audience of other disciplinary professionals. But a tradition talks with anyone who’s interested, and continues through that interest.

That’s why I plan on finding work in publishing over the next year. I think a lot of people in my graduating generation of doctoral philosophers (and in other academic disciplines as well) are leaving university work entirely for other careers. The website Versatile PhD is a gathering place for people with doctorates who are trying to transition into non-academic work. It can be quite useful, but one of my first visits was a very demoralizing read through a forum thread about people joyously selling off their personal libraries and shredding or burning all their old notes and other research material. 

This is a shame, because these are the people who, if my new plans for the next few years work out, would be the sources of books that I would publish. With my own career as a fiction writer beginning, I’ll be like a lot of authors who haven’t hit a Franzen-level public profile of sales figures: a writer with a day job. I think there can be philosophers like that too, researching and publishing engaging books on traditional and new philosophical problems that are conceptually provocative and can be read by other professionally trained people as well as those folks that we would have been teaching, who are interested in reading philosophy, but do something else for a living. 

This audience wouldn’t read some of the books that clutter too many academic presses today, those which are little more than a series of responses to a series of quibbles directed at a previous article that a major journal published. I would like to publish and promote genuinely creative, accessible philosophical works, books that create new concepts to live one’s life and understand the world where we live.

Spinoza, a former political radical who wrote philosophy
and corresponded with the leading institutionalized
figures of science while working a day job, may be the
best role model to continue philosophy as a tradition.
This isn’t about publishing Timecube Men across the country, which is probably the first derisive comment I’ll hear about this idea. There are already plenty of intelligent people with the research skills and careful thought and expression to write credible works of philosophy from outside the university system. The last couple of decades of overproducing graduate students has resulted in thousands of people who have the personally disciplined research and writing skills to produce genuinely engaging works of philosophy. We should not let Slavoj Zizek and Steven Pinker be the only best-selling philosophers in the world. Not that there’s anything essentially wrong with their books, but they could use a little competition. 

There are few groups of people with more potential to upset the established order of things than a generation of energetic, dedicated youth who have had their opportunities and ambitions upended. Part of what I’ll be doing at the CPA this coming week is running this proposal by young philosophers, and veterans who are better established in the university system, whose support we’ll need to get started. We’ll need to start organizing contacts with publishers over the next few years, and in some cases (like mine), training in the publishing business and starting work with these companies. Despite the neo-liberal assaults the discipline of philosophy will face over the next generations that will likely do it irreparable harm, the tradition of philosophy can continue.

Who’s with me?

My Future in Philosophy and Philosophy’s Future: The Pessimistic Case, Jamming, 23/05/2014

This Sunday until Wednesday, I’ll be at the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings at Brock University. This is the annual conference of Canadian philosophers based in universities, which I have attended every year since 2009, having presented a paper or commented on another’s work each time. I plan on updating each morning throughout the week with news, events, and reflections from the conference.

However, this year offers a bittersweet occasion for me at the CPA, as this past academic year has been the first one where I haven’t been a doctoral student or employee of a university. This time last year, I was honestly uncertain if I would ever gain employment in a university again. Tenure-track and even contractual faculty positions were drying up at the time when a generation of retirements would supposedly open them up. As for sessional/adjunct work being paid per-course, the terrible lack of job security in that field has resulted in the unionized units of the universities in my region* doubling down on seniority protections for their current employees. Essentially, the previous generations of PhD graduates have rigged the system to prevent the current generation of graduates from securing the work that we have spent years training to do.

* If you think it’s worth immigrating to the United States for adjunct work, then you haven’t done your research: sessional positions elsewhere in North America pay one-third of what they do in most of Canada. Canadian per-course instructors usually skirt the poverty line even when, as in the best case scenarios, they can acquire teaching gigs at multiple universities.

What makes me truly sad about this state of affairs is the mercenary atmosphere it creates. The desperate expression of self-interest has killed any community values among academics. The problems of the current faculty job market lie in massive cultural and economic shifts in the university sector. Government funding for universities has fallen as enrolment increased. Rising tuition rates have attempted to make up the difference, but they are inadequate in most cases to cover the shortfalls. And because tuition has increased so much faster than inflation or average middle-class income, students have become increasingly dependent on very large loans to finance their education. Even those lucky enough to secure a solid income shortly after graduation carry a debt burden that is often unsustainable.

To cover the shortfalls, universities have increasingly turned to corporate partners in its research. However, these corporate relationships come with their own, ultimately destructive, effects. Sometimes, corporate partners purposely interfere with research to cover up crimes, or health and environmental hazards. But more often, the influence is more subtle. Corporate partners often make demands for capital developments, equity assets that justify their investment. However, these only put universities themselves further in debt through maintenance costs on new facilities, and servicing the debts they owe on the construction costs themselves. 

This has resulted in an unfortunate cultural shift in the university sector, what I’ve taken to calling, mostly facetiously, the Ghost of Thatcher. More often, it’s called the growth of neo-liberalism. This is an ideological concern, as the university sector has transformed how its leaders and workers think of themselves. The notion that universities supply a public service that is funded by public tax dollars and investments has disappeared. Instead, students are conceived as customers, faculty as service providers, and senior administration . . . well, I’m not exactly sympathetic.

While protests like this played a key role in bringing down
the President
responsible for the Buckingham disaster, they
arrive too late to repair the larger institutional damage
to the university system across North America.
A situation like the Robert Buckingham crisis at University of Saskatchewan is only the clearest case of the everyday injustice and unfairness that this new approach to the university as an education business creates. If the top priority of a university’s leaders is balancing its budget, then cuts will be inevitable. Comprehensive universities are not financially sustainable without public support: corporate partnerships bleed them dry with debt service and equity maintenance, and tuition can’t cover their costs without ruining a generation of students with their own personal debt. Since government will no longer support these essentially not-for-profit institutions and corporate clients insist that they be run for-profit, the public university as we know it simply cannot survive this trend.

And I think the practitioners of humanities and social science disciplines like myself have to face the possibility that we and our disciplines will not have a place in the privatized university. Our research does not make money. Researchers in the social sciences quite often uncover injustices that are committed in the process or the name of making money. Researchers in the humanities, especially philosophy, are at their most relevant when they develop the theories that allow people to understand and critique the various orders that underlie their generally chaotic lives. These activities can’t be monetized because they critique the very relations that are largely responsible for monetizing things. Even when philosophical ideas are used to make money, that activity happens outside the university.

Inside philosophy departments, the situation is even worse. As the job market tightens, the desperation to find a simple steady job at any cost often becomes a detriment to innovative research. Any projects that are risky, eccentric, or especially critical of disciplinary norms are often forgotten as the new generation takes as few chances as possible to avoid excessive boat rocking. Of course, such tendencies result in departments that only reproduce the most ordinary teaching and research, making the content of undergraduate programs merely dumbed-down copies of specialized doctoral research. This only feeds into the stereotypes of corporate managers that the humanities are a useless field that teaches nothing of practical importance. As a result, when the inevitable cuts come to make an inherently not-for-profit institution profitable, they are the first on the chopping block, as they were at University of Saskatchewan.

In such an atmosphere, it’s impossible for me to see how philosophy will survive much longer as a university-based discipline. To be continued . . . 

Available This June . . . . . Composing, 22/05/2014

Cover design by my friend Miss K.
After a long process lengthened by the fact that everyone involved in its production and publication also has day jobs, I’m happy to announce that my debut fiction novella, Under the Trees, Eaten, will be released at the beginning of next month, available from BlankSpace Publications. So for this post, I thought I’d provide a formal introduction to the book, how it came to exist, and what you can expect to see in it.

I’ve already spoken about the project quite a lot on this blog, particularly its Lovecraftian influences, twisted visions of Canadiana, and deeply feminist themes. So here are some facts about the history of its composition that you might be interested to know.

I composed this novella on the recommendation of the head of BlankSpace, The Inestimable Jeffrey, who, after a series of conversations we had in late 2012 about the possibility (or rather, impossibility in its current form) of publishing my novel about Newfoundland, A Small Man’s Town, wrote me an email one evening asking if I had any ideas for a science-fiction story. I read that email early in the morning, shortly before going to my day shift at the answering service where I used to work. By the end of my shift, in between answering phones 20-30 times per hours, I had written the initial pitch for Under the Trees, Eaten.

The composition of the story took place in what was probably the most hectic and stressful period of my life. I would work on it for at least an hour almost every night before bed, usually averaging about five hours of sleep each evening. The entire first draft of the closing chapter was composed in a two hour binge where I literally could not stop myself from writing until the story was finished. TIJeffrey and I passed the manuscript back and forth a few times over the last year, polishing the prose, changing a few details, coming up with a wonderful new knocker of an ending, and even pitching an idea for a sequel over the last few weeks.

I seriously want to write this sequel. I’ve come up with some corking good ideas for it. This is why, if you are reading this post (or any of my posts about Under the Trees, Eaten), you should buy my book. Because its success will indicate whether we’ll publish a follow-up.

I primarily wanted to develop a story that would be equally morally frightening as it would be scary in the traditional sense of creepy tones and otherworldly monsters. It’s literally the story of an ordinary woman discovering an extraordinary place, where the presence of aliens in a mysterious underground cavern has warped the surrounding wildlife and physical phenomena. What’s truly disturbing about her environmental encounters here isn’t just that she travels through a land where the trees glow with a crimson-purple fire that slowly proliferates among their branches, where insects and plants have impossibly-shaped bodies, and aliens live in caves that twist into the curled dimensions between atoms themselves. No, what’s really freaky is how quickly she gets used to it, and how some of these phenomena even help her find her way when she’s lost. 

In some of my previous posts, I describe how H. P. Lovecraft was a serious influence on Under the Trees, Eaten, and in many ways, that’s true. But my story goes beyond the limitations of his style, as any new art should. For one, the aliens have a much more complicated relationship with humanity than simply being inspiring terror. My conception of the aliens in this story takes their moral difference from humanity more seriously even than Lovecraft himself did. For me, the aliens are certainly monstrous — they exist in dimensions that humans can’t even perceive, and moving through them permanently alters a person’s mind. They think about the world in a way that’s totally different from the human perspective, and my own story takes seriously the possibility that we’ll come out the worse from the comparison.

The Falsity of False Consciousness, Research Time, 21/05/2014

A core element of Marxist and Chomskian analysis of contemporary Western capitalism and its imperialist activities is the concept of false consciousness. I’m most familiar with the version that exists in Hegel’s work, which is where the concept first originated, even though Marx’s articulation was more popular and influential. Because Marx was such a Hegelian in his foundational concepts, I think I’m in the clear with regard to the focus of my own understanding and critique. 

Stuart Hall's work on Thatcherism would be an excellent
case study for the Utopias project.
Big pile of philosophical names aside, false consciousness is essentially the notion that one’s own framework of thinking, even though it is always basically your own power, deceives you as to how the world truly is. The British left of the mid-20th century spoke a lot about false consciousness. As they watched Thatcherism’s birth, the growth of its momentum, and its eventual transformation of all the basic goals and assumptions of British politics, Michael Bérubé and his central influence in The Left at War, Stuart Hall, describe the British left as convinced that this populist movement was a matter of false consciousness. Eventually, it would be necessary simply to point out the contradictions of bemoaning the modern dissolution of family values and the historical traditions of Britain while their economic policies themselves destroyed those values and traditions. The deception of the working classes would fall away and the conservative revolution would stop.

This did not happen.

Over the last decade in the Western left, particularly in North America, Noam Chomsky’s concept of manufactured consent has come to serve a similar function as the old Marxist adage of false consciousness did. Hall’s central critique of the old British left revolved around a simple idea: they refused to understand how people could actively choose to embrace Margaret Thatcher. As such, they never attempted to understand Thatcherism, only pointed to its internal contradictions as an ideology and waited for the false consciousness to fall apart.

The modern Chomskian left, as far as Bérubé is concerned, makes the same mistake. They presume that people would only agree with modern neo-liberal ideology because the majority have been essentially brainwashed, utterly passive. The elite-controlled media have manufactured the popular consent to their senseless ideology,* so all one needs to do to liberate people is shake them. 

* This is another aspect of the too-simple view of the world as evil agents of capitalism, the passive consenting sheep, and the few faithful who can see the truth. The Chomskian perspective ignores the fact that the so-called elites are governed by a variety of different ideologies, and are more often than not in conflict. There is no truly unified character to the media except a desperation to stay on the air that keeps most people from asking truly difficult questions.

Even for someone considered as remarkably important to
political philosophy as Frantz Fanon, I find it regrettable
that I was never taught about him in any of the
philosophy departments where I've been a student.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon talks about what it really means for a people to be free. It isn’t enough to rebel against one’s oppressors. Even if you win, your mind is still dominated by ideas of rebellion — you are reactive, seeking out enemies from which to continually liberate yourself. In such a mode, you haven’t been freed. Real freedom, he says, comes when you leave the war for liberation behind, having accepted that you have defeated oppression. You use your new free space to create some social or political project with no reference to the oppressor, the struggle, or even the victory.

To believe in your enemies’ ability to manufacture consent renders you entirely reactive, and you believe that the population who you hope to liberate cannot possibly liberate themselves. You are stuck between passivity and reactivity. Real freedom, activity, is not even conceivable, because your enemies have already won thanks to their manufactured consent, the consenting are conceived as entirely passive, and your only recourse is to shout as loud as you can.

Such thinking is lazy dissidence. It refuses to learn a key premise of Anti-Oedipus, the concept that made this book genuinely great. In this book, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari ask, not how the masses are seduced or made sheep, but why they actively choose their own repression. Until we understand the importance of why we choose to live as we do, we can never begin the process of freeing ourselves, or even conceiving of what that freedom would be.

The Myth of Singularity, Composing, 20/05/2014

It’s not exactly novel of me to say that there’s a common mood of human civilization that’s trying to grip conceptually the reality of humanity’s end. If you ask Slavoj Zizek or another Lacanian, he’d tell you that climate change denial wouldn’t be spoken so powerfully if we didn’t all basically know this might be the end. Contemporary human technology, which in my Ecophilosophy manuscript I call enormous industry, is absolutely unprecedented in human existence, and it’s reasonable to say that its effects may ruin us all.

If I were to make a bet on it, I’d say we’d go down to a combination of more extreme weather from climate change wrecking our infrastructure, toxic pollution of our ground water and other food sources reaching a tipping point, and the extinction of pollinating insects from pesticide use crashing our agricultural system. 

There’s been quite a lot of art, among other forms of speculation, produced about the end of Earth and the end of humanity. But the Johnny Depp film, Transcendence, doesn’t seem to be one of those at first glance. Instead, it’s a film about the dystopian aspects of the singularity, the conception of what would happen to humanity when artificial computer/machine intelligence surpasses the power of humans. In his own discussion of the film, my elder compatriot from the social epistemology group, Steve Fuller, describes its Faustian themes and its very Christian take on the singularity, the moment at which humanity transcends itself. But a link that Vaka Rangi sent me to a Washington Post article makes a slightly different point.

The third time Johnny Depp has become a vision of
humanity's sad dystopian end. Jarmusch and Gilliam did it
much better than this, though.
The singularity is another example of the end of the world, but it’s taken to be a positive one. Even if humanity doesn’t survive this process of its machines surpassing its own abilities, it will have created a legacy in those machines themselves, which would carry the human story forward. If we are our narratives, then the singularity, even the dystopian formulations that Transcendence, AI, and the Terminator franchise offer us, is ultimately a utopian vision. Like the dying grandfather of a huge, proliferating family, we continue indefinitely into sempiternity, beyond our mortal deaths.* 

* A note on nerdy philosophical terminology. Sempiternity refers to the continuation of the processes of flowing time indefinitely into the future. Think of the Latin semper, meaning always. Eternity is the kind of immortality that transcends time, an escape into changelessness that negates the reality of time itself. 

All these ideas are important to how I conceive of my Alice stories, the science-fictional imagining where I’m spinning my stories of an immortal android sage travelling the galaxy for thousands of years. There are two story ideas that I’ve thought of so far that would use this character. One has a 20-minutes-into-the-future setting, and the other is in a vastly distant timeframe, thousands of years from now, when humanity has proliferated across light-years, having lived for so long that they may eventually forget where Earth was.**

** I acknowledge my debt to Isaac Asimov’s late Foundation novels, even as the basic ideas with which I’m developing this story is a complete philosophical and narrative rebuke to his own ideas in those books. Asimov was the first serious science-fiction that I ever read, really. His legacy on me is inescapable, even as my own priorities as a writer are completely different.

The story about a sort-of-contemporary Alice will be told from the perspective of an all-too-human human, a colleague of Alice’s human partner and original commissioner. This bastard Dr Farkas will investigate Alice to the point of stalking her, obsessed with how his nebbishy colleague could have attracted such a beautiful, vibrant creature. The irony is that he didn’t attract her; he had her custom-built. 

Farkas will, because of his pretentious and erudite personality, think about such androids in the dystopian way that Transcendence conceives of the singularity. It is a promise that becomes a threat, the type of superiority that augurs our displacement and replacement. Of course, this plays into my repugnant narrator’s personality: part of his motivations for his sexist, exploitive behaviour is a hostility to women. There is fear involved in this vision, though fear isn’t the only factor. I don’t like designing characters with only one clear motive for their actions; it’s very unrealistic.

Farkas’ paranoid vision is inadequate for the same reason that Alice’s other story that I have in mind now takes place thousands of years in humanity’s future. I see nothing incompatible about the co-existence of humanity with artificial intelligence. There have been multiple forms of intelligent life on Earth before (and I believe this is still the case; the complexity of whale sonar signalling and the solemnity of elephant graveyards signify a lot to me). There will be again. Only human arrogance sees our ascendency as a throne with room for only one occupant at a time. 

Alice laughs at that profound arrogance in the same way I laugh at slapstick comedy.

Simplicity Is the Enemy of Peace, Research Time, 18/05/2014

You might wonder why I’m reading this book by Michael Bérubé, The Left at War. It’s actually quite normal compared to a lot of my philosophical research. Since I started this blog, I’ve written about such intense and eccentric authors as Michel Serres, Gilles Deleuze, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. So why am I reading a book by a relatively unremarkable cultural theorist that is largely a polemic against leftists of the Chomskian conspiracist and liberal interventionism hawks?

The first, simplest, answer is that it was there. But the simplest answer is never adequate to the truth. Not false, per se, but not comprehensive. The heart of the Utopias project is a critique of simplicity in political thinking specifically, but also in all thinking no matter its purpose. We are often told the myth about Occam’s Razor, which is that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The principle of Occam’s Razor actually admonishes overcomplication. If your problem is ridiculously complex already, then you will need a similarly complex framework of concepts to understand what is actually going on. 

This notion, that the world is too complex for the simple conceptual frameworks of too many influential figures in the contemporary left, drives Bérubé’s analysis. Writing in the wake of the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, the fatal simplicity of that regime is obvious to anyone who remembers.* If you did not support us in every way, even just to level a minor critique of our methods, you were declared an enemy and demonized. Bérubé’s chapter on the public discourse surrounding the Iraq War is a wonderful refresher on just how much the American government, the media, and the general public fed this attitude that to critique America’s leaders implied a hatred of democracy for which your career and life should be destroyed.

The other day, I saw a clip of Bush-era
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, as a
commentator on FOX news. We were
supposed to indict him for enabling
torture and lying under oath
, not put him on
TV after he grows a beard.
* Incidentally, something that very much disturbs me about modern discourse is the degree to which even people who lived through the Bush years have actually forgotten how horrible they were. Granted, the Obama Administration has done entirely different terrible things in the name of national security (drone bombing, maintaining the widespread surveillance networks and databases that began under Bush), but Bush was a regime that occupied a country as part of an ideological plan to use military invasion as a means to install democracy, twisted ideals that justified the use of widespread torture and the levelling of entire cities, like Fallujah. This was done in the name of democracy and freedom, and no one in the upper hierarchy of the Bush years has any significant regrets!

The type of revolutionary political attitude that the Utopias project critiques displays that same simplicity. The political revolutionary who believes in the realization of simple principles through direct actions, including violence, desires that a complex world behave according to those principles, and any critical or divergent voices are obstacles or enemies. This description is neutral as to whether it is left or right. Anyone who studies the history of the Bush Administration knows that this is the framework of a right-wing perspective. 

But Bérubé’s analysis of the stereotypically left-wing perspective of Noam Chomsky and the followers of his political ideas reveals this deadly simplicity here as well. The framework of viewing the world with Chomsky’s political concepts has just the same structure as that of Bush. Simple ideas and ideals clearly indicate who shares them, and those who do not are obstacles and enemies to the widespread acceptance of their truth.

The Model of Our Era's Highest Nobility Is the Whistleblower, Jamming, 15/05/2014

Over the last couple of days, some disturbing news came out of University of Saskatchewan. I’m referring to the summary dismissal and punishment of Robert Buckingham, who until recently was USask’s executive director of the School of Public Health. Buckingham published an open letter (you can read it at the CBC coverage of his dismissal) denouncing University of Saskatchewan’s administration over a plan called TransformUS.

Dr Robert Buckingham, the new face of transparency and
ethical nobility in the university system. His actions, and
his cracking bow tie, remind me of another great ethical
model in our culture.
The program essentially transforms the entire disciplinary structure of the university, ostensibly with the priorities of saving costs while encouraging innovative research. However, the restructuring plan essentially undoes all of the work that Buckingham put into improving and transforming the School of Public Health over the last five years of his tenure, folding its infrastructure into the university’s medical school, reversing a 2007 decision to create a separate public health program in the first place. Saskatchewan’s medical school itself is in dire need of institutional reform on its own account, as Buckingham’s public letter depicts. The School of Public Health had recently been accredited, and the program looked to continue its course of improvement. Being folded into the medical school would require another institutional review that would likely result in Public Health having its accreditation reversed. Buckingham faced an administration policy that would undo all of the work he had done over the last five years. 

The planned changes to Saskatchewan’s humanities faculties also look to be disastrous, merging several largely unrelated disciplines (Philosophy, Modern Languages, Gender Studies, Religion and Culture) into a single department, and eventually phasing out a number of tenured professorial positions in the name of streamlining a degree program that looks to lack so much focus as to be barely worthy of being a disciplinary education at all. While I have my own issues with widespread habits of humanities education at the undergraduate level, such departmental mergers are not the answer, especially if retiring faculty are not replaced with an equivalent number of tenured professors with the transdisciplinary training and skills to transform a program of study in the required radical degree. 

A cursory review of the TransformUS program reveals that it is clearly a series of euphemisms to justify a senseless austerity plan that pays little to no attention to the quality of its education and research. It appears, to any reasonable observer, to be the most radical example of institutionalizing the corporatized, debt-driven model of public education and research as a business to arrive in Canada.

More than this, however, is the ethically repugnant university policy towards the public, discouraging all free discussion of the TransformUS program. Most of the details are hidden behind passwords that are only accessible to USask students and employees, essentially ensuring that no members of the wider community, the public in whose interest universities are supposed to act, can see them. Even worse, university administrators at all levels are under orders not to criticize the actions of the TransformUS plan publicly, on pain of summary dismissal.

This is exactly what happened to Buckingham this week. Not only was he dismissed from his position, but was denied a professorial position at University of Saskatchewan (the offer of which is a standard practice for departing high-level administrators), and worse, banned from the campus. After his open letter denouncing the university’s restructuring plans and the secrecy surrounding them, he was met by campus security officers the following morning and escorted off its grounds. He was officially informed in a letter from the Provost that he was fired, his relationship with USask was completely terminated, and he was never to return, aside from a visit to collect personal belongings from his office.

His employment contract as an administrator included a confidentiality clause, essentially a gag order prohibiting him (and all other administration figures) from publicly criticizing or disagreeing with university policy in any way. The letter of dismissal defined criticism or any departure from the official priorities of the university as a dereliction of his duty to lead. They even denied him the pension associated with his directorship position as punishment for speaking out. He was re-hired as a tenured professor after the outpouring of public outrage this week, and outrage from the Canadian Association of University Teachers. But this is a small consolation, given that the restructuring will likely still go ahead.

This issue is not just controversy over the unjust treatment of one man. It speaks to the entire political and ethical question of what the university is for. I’ve had conversations with friends of mine that defend the university’s right to treat its employees in this way, on the ground that any business reserves the right to keep its employees in line with company policy. This is largely taken for granted in our society; if you are a whistleblower on the unjust or illegal acts of your employer, the employer has the right to fire you for acting against the company’s interests and goals. While such employees can sometimes win wrongful dismissal suits, it is taken for granted that employees who inform on the unjust actions of their companies (or governments) face punishment. If you were concerned about the activities of a company, goes the conservative argument, you should quit on your own, or not work for the company in the first place.

There is a strong case that a university, as a public institution, operates in the public interest, and should not punish whistleblowers for exposing plans that may go against that public interest, or force them to sign restrictive secrecy clauses that effectively ban all whistleblowing activity. I do not agree with this argument, because I do not believe that ostensibly public institutions like universities and governments are the only bodies bound by this duty to the public.

No, public accountability is a duty of all people and all companies. The puts me in the position of a relative radical in my society. Good.

A political and ethical truth that our society must accept is that the activities of any one of us, whether individual or corporate body, directly or indirectly affect all of us. That interdependence, a fundamental fact of our existence, obligates us all to transparency and public accountability for the effects of our actions, at all scales where human intentionality plays any role in shaping activity, from the individual to the global. In this regard, there is no distinction between a private business, a government, a university, or an individual person. Our moral and ethical obligations flow from our natures, not our legal status. 

The trend of running public institutions like governments, crown corporations, scientific research institutes, and universities according to the rules of private businesses runs counter to this fundamental fact that humanity in the 21st century must accept. Any activity with public effects must be accountable to the public, no matter who or what is causally responsible for that act. Ecological thinking should publicize our private institutions* in terms of their accountability and transparency. The contemporary trend, which has only gained political momentum since the ascent of the Reagan and Thatcher era, is to privatize our public institutions.

* Not in terms of their ownership, of course. That’s a matter of legal status, which has nothing to do with morality and ethics. Besides, bureaucratic state socialism has already demonstrated its totalitarian tendencies and failed through the inability of humans to understand the economic and ecological effects of their own actions.

That route lies economic slavery and social, ecological, moral, political, and ethical disaster.

The Responsible Leviathan, Research Time, 15/05/2014

There’s a curious point in Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War, where he reflects on the philosophy of the Responsibility to Protect. This concept is a fascinating idea in itself, not only for its conceptual complexity, but because it’s probably the first serious philosophical concept to emerge from multilateral and multinational political conversations. I don’t think I could ever write on this concept myself, because of the sheer amount of work that I’d need to do to be taken seriously. Unless I had a head start of something like forty years, I’d never be able to read absolutely everything that has been produced on R2P. I’m rarely intimidated by anything in philosophical scholarship, but R2P has done it.

However, Bérubé makes a fascinating assessment of the centrepiece of R2P, the notion that, when a sovereign government commits terrible violence against its people, it loses its claim to sovereignty. Because so much of his book is based around an extended critique of the political writings of Noam Chomsky, Bérubé mostly focusses on attacking how Chomsky has misunderstood so much of this idea. Essentially, Chomsky is one of the most articulate opponents of R2P on the grounds that it is a humanitarian mask on the bog-standard military imperialism of the near-omnipotently powerful United States as it forces its corporate capitalism down the throats of the world. 

Who knew the United Nations would end up following
principles of Thomas Hobbes so well?
So Bérubé unfortunately ignores the most intriguing element of his reading of R2P to engage with Chomsky, when a discussion of how R2P, this defining concept of liberalism in international politics, is a pure Hobbesian doctrine. This makes for a wonderful collision, given that Hobbes is so frequently portrayed as an arch conservative. The reason for his conservatism is, for one, his actual conservatism as a staunch monarchist, having lived through the English Civil War. But the more widespread philosophical reason for Hobbes’ conservative reputation is his conception of the legitimacy of government as grounded in the people’s literal surrender of their will to a sovereign who rules over them absolutely.

Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben take up this idea of sovereignty in their own ways, which Bérubé briefly mentions before moving on again, because he apparently considers yelling at Noam Chomsky more important than formulating a genuinely interesting philosophical idea in much detail. Schmitt is a theorist of the fascist right, and Agamben of the radical European left, but they agree* on a conception of sovereignty which defines that figure as the controller of the power to make someone an exception to civil society, the rule of law, the basic regime of human rights, and even the community of humanity itself. An illustration relevant to Bérubé’s inquiry is how George W Bush became such a sovereign when he exercised the powers of indefinite detention and extraordinary rendition of enemy combatants. 

* Well, they don’t agree, so much as Agamben is following in the tradition of Schmitt, picking up his conception of sovereignty and developing it in wildly different directions. 

In both Schmitt’s and Agamben’s thinking, the sovereign is a genuinely absolute power. The sovereign possesses the power to cast someone out of their personhood for entirely idiosyncratic reasons, and this power is built into the essential structure of state governance. Their own difference is that Schmitt is quite happy about this, while Agamben is horrified. 

But this isn’t Hobbes’ conception of the sovereign. For Hobbes, unlike Schmitt and Agamben, the sovereign can be made illegitimate, and therefore it is justified to revolt against him and remove him from power. The sovereign, in Hobbes’ thinking, is a product of a solemn contract among all citizens, that they enter this arrangement where one person or institution has an overall monopoly on force for the sake of mutual protection. 

In other words, the Hobbesian sovereign has a responsibility to protect his citizens. The legitimacy of a government is founded not literally on the superior force of arms, but on a promise. Where the sovereign power fails or mocks that responsibility, he has lost his right to govern. Whether an internal revolution or an international invasion removes him from physical power after that failure, such an act is legitimate, because the promise has been broken. 

New Link for Justice, Dialogues, 14/05/2014

Just a brief post today (I open up so many posts like this, even the ones that end up running to 1,000 words), for real this time. I’ve added a new link in my list of interesting people, the blog of Richard Matthews. Richard is an old professor-turned-national-colleague of mine, who currently teaches at King’s College in University of Western Ontario. I first met him when he was my professor for an introductory epistemology course in 2003. We read Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy, A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic, and closed the course with Ludwig Wittgenstein's On Certainty. He might be pleased to know that the copy of Russell's book was the source for some of my references in my forthcoming essay at Social Epistemology (the journal). 

His blog, Neither Victims Nor Executioners, is a series of reflections on the political and ethical aspects of justice in the modern world, and it’s well worth a read. His most recent posts discuss the controversy over Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Visa program, his particular target being the populist rage against the program blaming the foreign workers themselves for taking jobs that would otherwise go to Canadians. Richard makes a firm case for why such anger is misplaced (because it is), since the inequities of the program largely lie with its designers, who have built a visa program that exploits the yearnings of poor people for better opportunities to debase them as a cheap source of labour.

I strongly encourage you to read through his archives. They aren’t too long yet, but you’ll find plenty of stimulating philosophy of justice.

There Is No Hope Against a Manufactured Consent, Research Time, 13/05/2014

Chomsky's political writings offer the comforting
simplicity of a world where there is good and evil.
The second chapter of Michael Bérubé’s book, The Left at War, is basically a long critique of Noam Chomsky’s political writings and activism. The content of Chomsky’s work in this area is literally unassailable. Not because it is absolutely right, because it isn’t, for reasons I’ll get to in a little bit. The reason you can’t criticize Chomsky based on the content of his political writings is that his framework of reasoning incorporates any criticism or doubt as to the truth of what he says as justification of the truth of what he says. 

If you say that there are factors in contemporary global politics more complicated than the mass manufacture of mainstream consent to American neo-imperialism by the corporate oligarchy that controls the military, political, and media apparatus of the United States, then Chomsky’s framework automatically labels you as having been co-opted by that apparatus. Any opposition is already rendered illegitimate, because your opposition to Chomsky is a sign of your evil or false consciousness. Bérubé takes the tactic of arguing against his style, and letting the style indict the problems of the substance. He identifies Chomsky not as attempting any genuine persuasion of people, but simply indicting the mainstream culture of the United States as inherently co-opted into a mechanism of imperial evil. He describes Chomsky as having created a counter-culture around his view of the inevitable imperialism and universal reach of the United States and its military power. 

I think at some point in the past, I could have become a Chomskyite, but the moment passed me by. I’ve always admired him for his devotion to pointing out the unsavoury aspects of American history and international policy, but there is an unwavering simplicity to his political philosophy. I know Chomsky wouldn’t like me saying this, or maybe he would, just writing me off as one more voice that reiterates the imperialist order. When it comes to his political philosophy, you’re either with us or against us.

I don’t really know how effective Bérubé’s argument would be against supporters of Chomsky themselves. Of course, he’s probably not writing to Chomsky’s own partisans, as they would understand his opposition to their obvious truths as one more attempt by the imperial American state to manufacture their consent. But he’s likely speaking to those who could be convinced by Chomsky, but aren’t yet.

At some point, I just realized that the world was too complicated for his relatively simple explanation — that all evils in the world ultimately are direct or indirect reactions to the evils of Western, and particularly American, imperialism. Bérubé discusses the accounts he gave, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, why America remained the truly greatest force of evil in the world. The example I’d like to focus on is his comments about American involvement in Afghanistan, an immensely hypocritical affair. It became common knowledge, as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda rose to the top of public consciousness, that the United States, particularly the CIA, funded mujahideen groups to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan as part of their Cold War gamesmanship. And Chomsky, according to Bérubé’s account, stressed the importance of America’s centrality to the worsening human rights conditions of the Taliban regime and military activity in Pakistan. 

But if the United States really was as omnipotently powerful as Chomsky’s analyses indicate — that America is the imperialist power that pulls all the strings of all the terrible actions of the world — then they would not have become embroiled in such a hideous mess in that country. In many ways, the United States after their own invasion of Afghanistan, became a patsy for Pakistan’s meddling in the region. Quite often, Pakistani support for the Taliban was actively opposed to American interests. Here was an ally of the imperialist power, supposedly on the American page, actively undermining American interests in the region. Their intelligence service, the ISI, was obviously tolerant of bin Laden’s living in their central military city, Abbottabad. Why?

The reason was India, the geopolitical conflict that merits the occasional mention in most Western reporting on the region, but which rarely received in-depth coverage. Pakistan and India have been bitter political and military enemies ever since the departure of the British Empire and independence/partition. Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal regions were the ISI's training ground for the radical Islamist groups who would be sent to Kashmir to drain India’s time, money, and military resources. An Islamist regime in Afghanistan would always be hostile to India as a matter of foundational ideology, so Pakistan always worked within Afghanistan to keep it violently opposed to India. And the United States had nothing to do with this conflict. While the United States’ leaders saw themselves as major entrants into a global political game in Afghanistan, Pakistan saw them as an annoying complicating factor in their continuing conflict with India.

The India-Pakistan conflict is a complication that brings chaos to Chomsky’s well-ordered world of the corruption of corporate America, its worldwide victims, and the elite core of Chomskyites who alone understand the true nature of the world. This is a conflict where America not only has little power to interfere, but about which their leaders remain largely ignorant. It is a sign that the world is more complex than Chomsky’s simple vision can ever understand.

The old linguist is more like W than he’d ever believe.

Agency Is Universal, Research Time, 12/05/2014

Still working on the things that I’ve been working on for the last week or so, with no more interesting developments. I’ve also been taking advantage of the recent merger of my book collection with my girlfriend’s, which also includes some of the old books of her father, who departed just over two years ago. He had some more conservative political leanings that I don’t exactly agree with, but one of the books in his inherited collection that I’ve started to read was The Left at War by the cultural theorist Michael Bérubé. 

When she was in prison or demonstrating against Putin at
the Sochi Olympics, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was a hero.
What would those on the anti-imperialist left say now, only
a few months later, when she's lobbying the US Congress
for sanctions against Putin's Russia
, even though Putin is
now supposedly the ally of free people in the fight against
European fascism and the American Empire?
This book analyzes the political phenomenon that’s been angering me in my recent posts about the growing civil war and Russian intervention in Ukraine: figures on the democratic left lionizing Vladimir Putin as a heroic ally of anti-imperialism, just because he opposes corporate American interest. There are many reasons why this is a ridiculous point of view, not least because the very same leftists who have allied with him on Ukraine called him a villainous abuser of human rights during the Olympics when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was publicizing how the gulag system of Russian prisons had survived and thrived in the modern era. 

Written in 2009, Bérubé’s book instead focusses on the left’s lionization of Islamist terrorist and otherwise radical groups (Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Ba’ath Party) for their resistance to American imperialism in the form of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under Bush-Cheney. He also focusses on the left’s virulent denunciation of Israel that often borders on anti-Semitic, histrionics which only serve to drown out and delegitimize the genuine issues regarding the disenfranchisement of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, and the violent politicization of the Ultra-Orthodox community. 

He calls this kind of leftism the Manichean Left, because of its stark division of the world into a simplistic Good and Evil. The United States, because of their position at the head of modern imperialist capitalism, is Evil, along with its allies, and Good is defined only in terms of opposition to the United States. This is how a democratic advocate for women’s and gay rights would assign herself common cause with Islamic fundamentalists who believe rape should be legal and that women’s literacy is an insult to God. Both oppose the American empire.*

* I, however, no longer believe that a single country can be at the genuine centre of an “empire” today, no matter how much the rhetoric of contemporary anti-capitalist activism, and even the wettest dreams of Dick Cheney, may think this the case. I don’t have the time to go into it now, but essentially, read Antonio Negri’s Empire and get back to me.

I’m just beginning my read through the book at the moment — it’s interesting, but not exactly the toughest philosophical meat in the world. So I don’t have a detailed case to present on its ideas. But I will offer one notion that perhaps speaks in its favour. Bérubé discusses how American meddling in Middle Eastern politics created the conditions for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Quite often, the focus was on the United States having helped arrange the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected president, Mohammed Mossaddegh, in 1953, to replace him with the violent rule of the Shah and his secret police, Savak. Osama bin Laden also justified his opposition to America in terms of their military presence in Saudi Arabian bases as an insult to Muslim people. But beyond this, bin Laden’s own motivations for instituting Islamic fundamentalist government in the Middle East were to restore a unified Islamic government over Arabia and North Africa — the Caliphate. This political unity was destroyed in the aftermath of the First World War, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk overthrew the Ottoman Empire and installed a secular regime in Turkey. 

This particular story complicates the typical narrative of that ever-so-mild gesture of sympathy, if not to bin Laden himself, then to the rise of Islamic fundamentalist resistance to American activity. Here is a motivation for a fundamentalist organization that has little or nothing to do with the direct actions of the United States. 

I consider the work of Edward Said a guide in understanding the meaning, history, and legacy of modern imperialism. And one of the central ideas he focussed on, as a definition of the imperialist attitude, was the notion that colonized peoples had no agency of their own, no histories. That they only held a valid existence insofar as they related to Western powers, peoples, and traditions. When you describe every political act of a formerly colonized people to assert some independence (whether that act is peaceful, violent, or oppressive in itself) as a reaction to the United States, you are essentially describing a world where the United States is the only active political partner. So the actions of a formerly or potentially colonized people would only have meaning in relation to the actions and goals of the United States. In perceiving and defending only the reactive agency of oppressed peoples, you oppress them further by engaging with them as if they had no active agency.