The Relentless Ruthlessness of Existential Threats, A History Boy, 31/01/2016

I was originally going to shift my running posts about my aesthetic impressions of Doctor Who production leaders over the years to Sundays. But an idea dawned on me a few days ago that I wanted to get out in the form of a post. 

Here’s what it comes down to. Modern politics are polarized, fearful, demonizing, and violent because it’s now standard to understand your opponents as existential threats.

Millions have died in the last 12 years of fighting the
wars that began with the American invasion of Iraq.
Don't forget that, for all we rightfully attack Daesh,
the leaders and founders of Islamic State were members
of Al Qaeda and other anti-occupation rebels who
met in an American prison camp.
Grounded in Collective Trauma

I'm not the first one to comment that something’s shifted in the way we think about politics in our society. And I’m talking about just straight-up electoral politics,* the political parties who jockey for public support in voting processes to control state legislatures and bureaucracies.

* In contrast to where real politics, the radical transformations of societies, happen – in social movements, uprisings, mass migrations, and cultural revolutions.

I remember the tone of things beginning to change with September 11, the slack-jawed incomprehension at the fawning, worshipful tone so much of the mainstream media took with the Bush Administration and the invasion of Iraq.

We saw a terrible mistake happening, one we knew would have horrifying results – instability across the region, massive violence, the killings of millions with horrible weaponry and the crunching terror of neighbours going house to house, murdering. 

We knew it in 2002 when the marches against the Iraq invasion began. We knew it as we watched all the most nightmarish visions of the anti-war movement come true. The Iraq invasion was a blunt instrument wielded with blatant disregard for even such ordinary tasks as contingency planning. 

Something rotten and horribly destructive took control of the American government. Even the worst interventions of the Cold War – the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Augusto Pinochet’s coup and Operation Condor, the invasion of Grenada, stoking civil wars and paramilitary terrorism across Latin America – weren’t as horrifying as the invasion of Iraq.

Even the Vietnam War had a logic underlying its justification. The “It’s all about oil!” protesters of 2003 were desperate that there be some sensible reason for Bush’s war. But the worst really was true. 

Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and the rest of them all thought you could invade and occupy a country, and they’d be grateful to you for unleashing a society of unrestrained violent mercenaries and stationing a massive military presence in their communities. Then it got worse.

Carl Schmitt, the German philosopher who
first developed the concept of the existential
threat, a social conception of an enemy
whose mere existence is an act of violence
toward you.
Bush League

The reason so many people supported the Iraq war was because they were all so freaked and collectively traumatized over the theatrical terror of the September 11 attacks. The majority of Americans – maybe 200 million people – felt the burning presence of existential threat.

Bush did one respectable thing in this instance – he distinguished terror from Islam and Muslim people. Despite the anti-Muslim racism that grew prevalent in America, he didn’t encourage it. But the existential threat of nameless Islamist terrorism galvanized millions.

And we got used to it. Existential threat became an ordinary part of political thinking for most people. That made it get even worse.

The election of Barack Obama constituted an existential threat to just about everyone in America who still had enough anti-black racism in their personality to consider his Presidency illegitimate. The racial roots of the Tea Party lie in the refusal to accept that a black person legitimately gained and holds the authority of the President’s office.

But the politics of existential threats had settled into the left as well. Bush, if anything was the left’s first existential threat. Bush seemed unstoppable, a demon more than a man. He committed terrible acts that we thought would invalidate him from office, then he won re-election by a bigger margin than he got in the first place!

When Bush left office, he was at his lowest low of popularity. His policies had caused a worldwide economic recession, the Iraq war was a univocal disaster, and the response he oversaw to Hurricane Katrina was so incompetent as to leave hundreds dead and many thousands internally displaced.

I cried when Obama won his first Presidential election, because I thought the nightmare was finally over.

No, there's certainly no racism in populist American
opposition to Barack Obama. Just policy disagreements,
I'm sure.
The Nightmare Truly Begins

I seriously thought it would end. I thought politics would become more rational. But the Tea Party amped it up. The snowballing social collapse among the American white working class – permanent unemployment, economic stagnation, ubiquitous opiate addiction, a suicide epidemic – amped it up even more.

Hopelessness made millions feel as if their lifestyle really was under threat. Because it literally was under threat, thanks to all those social problems exploding from economic stagnation in white America crossing a threshold to become total collapse.

Yet these people didn’t realize that the threat to their culture’s existence was rooted in complex macroeconomic forces that had been unleashed decades ago and culminating in today’s mass social wreckage. Such hopeless people are the natural patrons of scapegoat politics and demagoguery. Hence the rise of Donald Trump.

Everything is an existential threat in America’s Trumpist movement. Refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, gay and trans people, terrorists. All of these are threats to the American way of life for their very existence. 

More than that, even just ordinary political opponents: people who support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, or even people who support Rubio or Jeb Bush for President. To the Trumpist, all of these people are complicit in YOUR destruction. Opponents are not people to work with to someone who takes all opposition as an existential threats.

Existential threats can only be destroyed, because their existence imperils your own. That’s what an existential threat is.

In the words of one group of anti-Harper activists, he
encouraged his supporters to believe that Canadian
democracy was fragile enough that the entire state
institution could be destroyed by a mere change in
government. The heirs of this message in Canadian
culture now talk as if an anti-Trudeau coup is brewing.
Canada Is No Exception

It’s not like my own country hasn’t done this. The opposition to Stephen Harper, from its earliest days, was based in the notion that he was fundamentally un-Canadian. 

The notion that his goal was to undo all the work of social program, human rights advancement, and international peace-building. From the first days of his majority government, radical gestures of opposition followed him. We opponents of Stephen Harper saw his leadership as a fundamental threat to the social fabric of Canada itself.

The weird thing is, we were actually right. He did fundamentally change the nature of the Canadian government and state, and its relationship with its people. 

Harper’s Canada would be in thrall to the globe’s oil companies. Government science institutions would receive their marching orders from resource extraction companies, both oil and metals mining. No dissent allowed.

Canada’s government would be neutered and bankrupted through gutting its statistical data gathering powers and bleeding its public institutions through comprehensive tax cuts and inflated police, prison, and military spending. 

The F-35 boondoggle and other wasteful, misdirected military expansions, would have cost so much government money that no social program, even the health care system, would have been able to continue. 

Total privatization would have been the main theme of a second Harper majority. It may still be, since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have no plans to restore the government revenue that Harper slashed.

Sierra Club activists plant trees in a San Francisco
neighbourhood. Stephen Harper considered these types
of people radical violent saboteurs and agitators.
Harper was an existential threat to the Canada that its progressive social movements and politicians built. And he made good on that threat. But he also based his own electoral strategy on the same hysteria that has reintroduced racist fascism to mainstream American politics.

Harper had always demonized political opponents. This was particularly true of environmentalist groups, which his government frequently lumped in with terrorist organizations. 

But leading up to the 2015 election, his communications vilified opponents as dangerous radical leftists – you know, Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair – whose policies would destroy Canada. He and others in his party also vilified observant Muslims and war refugees as radical, violent killers whose danger was so constant that they needed a special police tipline to inform on our neighbours’ barbaric cultural practices.

This Is Madness

Dealing with all your opponents as threats to the fabric of your society and your ability to live as you wish (or at all) can be very effective in stopping them. But it also causes a lot of horrifying collateral damage.

For one thing, conceiving of people as existential threats encourages actual mass slaughter. It what Hutus thought of Tutsis thanks to that class’ dominance of a colonially-structured state in Rwanda. It was what Germans thought of Jews as Hitler’s racial Darwinist dogma dominated the country’s politics. 

Will this be the face of America's future?
But it also animates politics to the intensity of constant hysteria. Political activity is the daily grind of working through issues among different people to live together peacefully. Seeing any group or type of people with which you live – an ethnic or religious minority, people with political differences – as existential threats destroys the ability to live peacefully at all.

When a person is an existential threat to you, there’s no negotiation. You sincerely and deeply believe that the existence of this person in your community is a fatal threat to you. When you believe that, the different person can’t stay in your community. They’ve got to go.

By any means necessary. We must not become our nightmares.

An Industry’s Peculiar Character, Composing, 29/01/2016

Here’s an idea that Antonio Negri didn’t think of himself, but he explained it really well. An economy's dominant industry becomes the model for the corporate practice throughout the economy.

My explanation won’t be as pithy as Negri’s own. He illustrates the relationship poetically and precisely. If I wasn’t under some ethical obligation to produce blog posts on this project regularly, I’d just post the citation.* But I’ll at least throw a few hundred words together.

The model of work that dominated the 20th century, at
least in its framework of principles. It came with some
perks, like creating a physical common space for easy
worker organization. The pressure of organized
worker demands led to the corporate obligation to
provide workers with a decent living and benefits.
* Empire, section 3.4, pages 285 to 290.

Here are the main examples. Back when manufacturing employed most people in North America, the factory was the dominant model of business. But not just in the quantitative sense that a healthy plurality of people works on factory floors. 

Business people in many different sectors of the economy adapted essential elements of the Ford factory style to their own businesses. In the early to mid 20th century, business leaders and self-styled gurus advocated that the best businesses ran by hierarchical, centralized, bureaucratic management, and a culture of conformity. 

When I was a child and a teenager, I absorbed a lot of the artwork and comedy that attacked this working culture. That’s why I keep referring to Brazil in my posts about the conformity of 20th century corporate culture. 

Aside from perfectly distilling that culture and its most profound critique,** I saw Brazil at a key time in my young life for it to impact my own personality significantly. And on a societal scale, the critiques of bureaucratic corporate culture were in the hearts of millions of workers and entrepreneurs.

** What is that critique? That a company man can never ask for justice, and can never dream.

The end of the 20th century saw the Western economy transition away from the hierarchies and centralization of the Ford model. Instead, the advent of computer technology, and especially the power of the internet facilitated a new way of working. 

Even so, the modern model of total autonomy has its
problems too. We may avoid the cultural conformity of
the Lifelong Company Man, but we've seen a collapse
in the stability of our work and the obligations of
employers that organized workers fought so hard for.
Companies became deterritorialized, if you’ll allow me to speak Deleuzian for a second. It’s a long word, but it has a very real definition. The work that was once done in a specific building can now be carried out among any set of points on Earth.

Most of us in the information industries – computers, technology, design, the arts, communications – work by distance a lot of the time. Or at least we can. There’s actually no need to have everyone in the same building anymore, so few are. This style of flat hierarchies and labour flexibility is now spreading throughout North America’s businesses.

Even factory floors are adopting these principles of the information economy – collaborative management styles, an embrace of individuality and creativity. That’s the nature of an economy’s dominant industry. It’s not just a matter of most people working in such industries, but the adoption of that industry’s style of work in other sectors.

You’ll notice that this is another facet of the purely cultural argument I made earlier this week. Conformity and regimentation has given way to creativity and flexibility as the ideal nature of corporate culture, the best style of running a business.

Returning to the same transition, understanding it from a different angle because you focus on a different aspect of the transition. It’s the same phenomenon, though. The transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and style of work.

The whole phenomenon is too complicated to deal with every aspect all at once. You need to move slowly from one way of understanding it to another. Chapter by chapter. Allow a reader time to reflect on one aspect of the social shift, then let the shift in the context of your own writing reveal something else when you return to that phenomenon.

Unable to experience and think through a complicated concern all at once, we understand the whole by reflecting on many different snapshots.

This Mad British Monster VIII: Laughing Madness, Jamming, 28/01/2016

You’ll notice I skipped ahead by five instalments and about 45 years. Largely because news in the real world interrupted my plan for a slow-moving, once-per-week chronological walk through the production eras of Doctor Who.

Chris Chibnall has been a Doctor
Who fan all his life. Being a fan of
the show (who is also a talented
television writer) is important to
being a good producer and writer
of Doctor Who. You'll force
incredible quality control
standards on yourself because
you know how fans feel about
producers they hate.
Because Chris Chibnall will be the new creative producer of Doctor Who, taking over from Steven Moffat full time in 2018. People have been thinking a lot about what kind of Doctor Who Chibnall will produce, based on all kinds of flimsy speculation. But there’s an easy and perceptive way to think through what kind of Doctor Who the Chibnall era will be.

Look at his Doctor Who stories. And Broadchurch. Broadchurch is important too.

I think what makes me most hopeful that the Chibnall era will continue this period of generally excellent Doctor Who is that he’s capable of changing. If the Chris Chibnall of 42 and Cyberwoman was taking over the show, I’d be seriously worried.

Instead, we’re getting the Chris Chibnall who wrote Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Power of Three, and Broadchurch

Ten years ago, Chibnall’s scripts either paid no attention to characterization, or painted in such broad strokes that he usually had people directly describe themselves in the moment and as people. 

An example. When David Tennant is possessed by demonic enraged star creatures in 42, he’s agitated, nervous, hyperventilating, so desperate to escape their grip that he’s about to flash freeze himself. In the middle of this histrionic, explosive performance of a breakdown, Chibnall writes an utterly useless and superfluous line.

“I’m scared!” So would I have been if the Chris Chibnall of the mid-2000s was taking over Doctor Who.

But instead, the Chris Chibnall of the mid-2010s is taking over Doctor Who. Ten years ago, he was making horrifyingly sexist tripe like Cyberwoman and empty action stories like 42 and Countrycide. In 2012, he was capable of crafting a character like Brian Williams.

Rory’s dad only appeared in two episodes at the end of the Ponds’ time on Doctor Who. But he became integral to the emotional network of that family, a beautiful character who took only a single, already jam-packed 45 minute episode to nuzzle into the viewers’ hearts.

Chibnall remembers how fans treat creatives they think
fucked up because he was one of the first fan
interrogators! In 1986, he appeared on a BBC panel
show tearing strips off writers Pip and Jane Baker for
their terribly flawed stories, particularly Terror of the
. Long before the social media era, he wasn't
afraid to throw punches. He knows what fans can do.
Then he wrote PS, the epilogue to Amy and Rory’s story that, from the perspective of Rory’s letter to his father, made a perfect epilogue to the Pond narrative. It’s a wonderful five minutes. Watch it right now.

Are you done? Wasn’t that fantastic? Do you see what Chibnall can do now? How far he’s progressed beyond his limitations? 

I’m impressed by writers who are good pretty much from the beginning. They have a touch of genius in them at the instinctual level. But the writers who are most impressive are the ones who start as mediocrities, or at least reasonably average.

Then they improve. They keep improving until they become a genius through grinding practice, dedication to aesthetic growth, and attentive self-analysis. That’s more impressive because they’re actually expanding their talents, becoming better than what they once were. 

Any genius can write like a genius. It’s a seriously amazing achievement for an average person to become a genius. Now, I’m not calling Chris Chibnall a genius, but if he continues his developing quality at the same pace as the last decade? That’s where we might end up.

So what kind of Doctor Who will Chris Chibnall write? I have three guesses as to his focusses, all extrapolated from his previous work.

1) Chibnall is primarily a writer of detective stories. That’s obviously true of Broadchurch, but it’s also true of his two seasons of Torchwood, as many episodes involved mystery and crime plots. 

So Chibnall will probably develop the Doctor as a detective, and build stories and season arcs around the investigation of mysteries. 

In all its wackiness, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship still had
the most attentive and finely crafted characterization
work of any story in the Ponds' half of Matt Smith's
third season.
2) We should also see similarly fast character development, set primarily in kitchen sink stories overflowing with characters, images, and ideas. And that character development will be efficient and complex, with more characters that have the depth and power of Brian Williams.

3) They won’t be pure kitchen sink stories. Chibnall is good at making credible stories out of goofy premises and absurd juxtapositions, a skill that’s perfectly suited to Doctor Who. 

Think about some of the images that Chibnall has created. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, the silly weirdness of this premise and setting, and how the story (and the characters, in their more self-aware moments) laughs giddily at its insanity.

Even one of his worst stories, Cyberwoman, contains the simply bonkers moment of a half-cybernized woman punching out a pterodactyl. Torchwood’s visual distinctiveness was rooted in these moments of utterly goofy weirdness, which the camera work depicted as completely normal. 

I have the feeling the Chibnall era is going to get weird and surreal. I’m going to like that a lot.

Also, given Peter Capaldi’s age, Chibnall will probably be in charge of casting the following Doctor during his tenure. 

And as I’ve said, Chibnall understands how to improve himself as a writer and push himself to do new, different things. So he’ll quite likely follow Moffat’s imperative in recasting the Doctor as a woman. 

Vicky McClure gives wonderfully nuanced, deeply
thought performances, and has an arresting physical
presence that would make her an excellent fit to play
the Doctor.
I have some preferences among the middle-aged British actresses I’ve seen recently. Ruth Wilson could bring a rather noir feel to the Doctor, and we know from her role in Luther that she can be chilling when the need requires. It would suit Chibnall’s propensity for detective and mystery stories. 

Or he could pull a Russell T Davies, and cast a remarkable and distinctive female actor who’s starred in a show that made his reputation: Olivia Colman. 

Or Indira Varma, who can be extremely intense if the need requires, but also play charismatic and eccentric. Maxine Peake can be suitably mad. Or Vicky McClure, a talented and unpredictable actor who’ll play the female lead in an upcoming adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, probably my favourite of his novels.

So yes, I’m excited. Optimistic, hopeful. I won’t ever stop watching Doctor Who, even if it eventually goes through a rough patch. I’ll be able to find redemptive readings. 

But I think Doctor Who will be in good hands come 2018.

A Communist Against Communist States, Research Time, 27/01/2016

So yesterday, I stopped dancing around the issue and openly said that Antonio Negri, the writer whose pretty damn interesting, provocative, and compelling ideas was a communist.

My reason for doing so was to chip away at the popular conception of communists as these evil people. The image of Stalin as standing for all communists. That way, you could be open to the ideas of someone who was a communist all his life.

Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo in the attempted
Oscar bait biopic Trumbo. Here, he recreates a famous
photo of Trumbo writing a script from the bathtub
while smoking heavily.
More than this, being a communist doesn't mean you're a loyal communist. I remember hearing this smear in the right-wing and sensationalist quarters of the American press levelled against Dalton Trumbo when the biopic of the blacklisted screenwriter was released last year.

Essentially, those smears against Trumbo the movie said that it was right for the state to ruin the career of Trumbo the man. They equated Trumbo’s anti-capitalist politics and activism to his having taken orders directly from Stalin. They accused him of loyalty to Stalin as leader of a totally unified world communist movement.

This is at the heart of the libertarian smear against all left-wingers. It’s the contention that being in any way critical of unregulated free market economics and politics collapses to being a foot soldier of totalitarian Soviet state communism.

Negri was a communist, but he certainly wasn't loyal to any communist state or empire. He served a prison sentence because of false charges based on the same principle. Because he was a communist, so the argument went, he must be a member of the Red Brigades communist terror group. 

It isn’t just Negri's life and political activism that stands against this principle of total unity among all left-leaning people. In so many quarters, his philosophy emphasizes the creative power of diversity as essential to life itself.

Here's an example of how. At least another one. It's connected to what I discussed a while ago about working people being the engine of the world economy’s creativity. But it discusses the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As a communist, so the argument goes, Negri would necessarily have to lament the end of the Soviet Union, the supposed leader of world communism. But Negri was happy to see the USSR go, and describes in Empire precisely how the Soviet Union’s style of oppression in its last decades hastened its collapse.

We in the West are used to the myths that the Soviet Union fell because they couldn’t sustain their economy keeping up with American military spending and Ronald Reagan told them to change Berlin's urban development plan

Negri argues that the Soviet Union fell for the same reason Western workers rebelled against the conformist Company Man attitudes of mid-20th century American corporate culture. Russian workers were part of the same anti-bureaucratic movement as Americans. 

Dalton Trumbo writing in the bath. This
was seriously a thing that he did.
Brezhnev’s USSR was the embodiment of bureaucratic and conformist management.* American workers at least had leisure time and the personal autonomy in their private lives to escape bureaucratic discipline. But in the Soviet Union, every waking moment was embodied the distilled essence of Franz Kafka’s and Robert Musil’s visions.

* Only Stalin's Soviet Union was genuinely totalitarian, defined by the most intense mass-mobilization possible, the death machine that would consume the world or itself, in Stalin’s case largely turned on its own population when not at war with Nazi Germany.

More than that, the USSR never had the democratic feedback mechanisms that American workers could use to change their styles of governance and employment. 

This more flexible mode of work and employment that broke from conformist norms did more than satisfy workers’ demands for personal and professional freedom. The modern economy is driven by computer technology, and innovation in that sector depends on individual creativity and flexibility.

Heavily controlled bureaucratic management can't adapt to the rapid changes and qualitative shifts of the tech economy. The democratic social, political, government, and business cultures of North America and Europe permitted this shift in the foundations of the economy.

The Soviet Union’s bureaucratic dictatorship had no path to start the creative process required for an innovative computer technology sector. By the time of Gorbachev's liberal reforms in the economy and daily politics, the USSR had already fossilized itself.

Negri knew that the most important force for freedom in the world is the creativity of workers. And he knew that the Soviet system suppresses that creativity in favour of obedience to a bureaucratic state. That kind of politics earns no loyalty.

So You Married a Communist, Research Time, 26/01/2016

So one thing you might not know about Antonio Negri, you can learn from Wikipedia. Antonio Negri is a communist. He’s always been a communist. I’m talking to you about the economic ideas of an enthusiastic communist.

All those insights about the networked nature of the modern economy? The creative energy of working class frustration? Revealing racism to be the ideological justification and prop of imperialist conquest? All these ideas that hold true, or at least compelling? A communist wrote them.

Most importantly, all those analyses of how the modern state developed its most oppressive machinery? And speaking against that oppression. From the mind and pen of a communist.

Why should we think a communist’s insights are valuable for contemporary people? Even and especially people in business, who today profit and gain from the expansion of labour pools and markets that accompany the end of racism. 

We, at the scale of our whole society, don’t expect useful ideas for social progress and the growth of freedom to come from communists. There are reasons for that. I'll talk about a few of them.

The Cold War, especially in North America, vilified communists. This was true throughout culture – in political discussions, of course, but also in art of all media, education at all levels, any kind of popular culture or communication.

But I’m going to tell you what very few self-identified communists today will be up front about. Quite a few of the communists of the 20th century deserved it. Here’s one example. 

The Stalinist vision of communism was a genuine totalitarianism, the perfection of the administrative state's oppressive powers and amping them to their highest intensity. Joseph Stalin’s government killed millions, controlled the Soviet population with a ubiquitous secret police, indulged ideologically-motivated junk science to the point of disaster, committed catastrophic ecological destruction, and violently purged his own party and supporters to maintain his dictatorship.

So why should we listen to a communist like Negri? It starts with one simple fact: Stalin was a communist, but not every communist is a Stalinist.

Joseph Stalin: Colder than ice.
I feel sad that this is something that needs to be said, because it seems obvious, if only because of the large number of other communists Stalin killed. This is the influence of Freidrich Hayek, the economist and philosopher who argued that any form of state involvement in the economy or collective economic action was an essentially communist suppression of individual freedom.

However you evaluate the quality of Hayek’s arguments in The Road to Serfdom, he built himself an enormous fanbase who believe those arguments. That’s why you find libertarian people and communities who call Barack Obama and Jack Layton full-on Stalinist dictatorial communists.

Negri has been accused of being the worst kind of murderous communist, having served nearly a decade in prison because the Italian government trumped up charges linking him to the Red Brigades group that killed former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

But he's really just an intellectual. And a better intellectual in one way than all the hardcore communists locked away in ivory tower university positions: he actually did enough political work and agitation to get himself arrested by his country’s paranoid right-wing government. 

My own political views are much more complicated than doctrinaire communism. Like Negri, I distrust the state and consider it, at heart, a massive tool for controlling the population. I don't like the oligarchical class much either, as they use their money and power to control people so much more crudely.

Negri may be a communist, but his insights and analyses speak to the turmoil of our times, the economic and ecological collapse. His dream for society, which in Empire he rarely describes, is communist. But he does understand the dangers of the contemporary world's capital markets and labour markets. 

Because he's a communist, he can give us the unvarnished truth. He knows you'll be uncomfortable with the knowledge that your economic system causes such destruction. He's able to point it out honestly because he wants to see it fall. So Negri isn't invested in the current world order.

In a world where capital rules everything around me, a communist is the only person who can find enough neutral ground to stand and assess the situation.

A Glorious Future of More Work To Do! Research Time, 25/01/2016

I find one inspirational political concept throughout what I've read of Antonio Negri's work: the struggle for democracy and freedom can never finish.

Now, that's not the same as saying it's futile. The principle is more like this.

There is a propensity to greater freedom and justice in humanity’s potential. But our species also has authoritarian and oligarchic tendencies – we want power over others, authority, fiefdoms, empires, we want the ability to command and be followed.

Fighting injustice and fighting for democracy is a battle in yourself and in your society to fight that impulse to command. And fight that impulse to follow at merely the word of command. That's what democratic activism is.

Because we're imperfect creatures, we'll always fight this battle of our impulse to liberty and our impulse to command. But we can make sure liberty always wins.
• • •
A centrepiece of the New Deal was a
stronger union movement. People
mostly worked in centralized locations
where organizing was easy. And people
easily built solidarity because they
already worked together.
Here’s how it plays out in a few passages of Empire. Negri integrates his philosophical analysis with a discussion of the broad strokes of the history of the global economy. The message is that whenever there’s a sweeping systematic change in the nature of the world economy, the same social force drives it.

We often think it's the business leaders, always looking to innovate. The leaders of business are society's leading edge, and yeah, they take the credit. They have the most marketing money after all.

But when you actually look at business culture, it's very conservative from an innovation point of view. A lot of what's called innovation is just adapting ideas that have recently brought someone else success to your own business. 

As well, it's very easy for a company's and an industry’s leadership to settle into a groove, to presume that what's always worked in the past will keep working long into the future. 

Complacency is a natural human habit. I mean, it’s just the name we use to describe a case of inductive reasoning that turned out wrong. Oil never stayed at $80/barrel and US housing prices could go down after all. The people who got accustomed to the old world of expensive oil and skyrocketing real estate got egg on their faces and lost a lot of money.* It’s a mistake we can all make.

* Unless they got a bailout from the government, but that’s a rant for another time.

Why mess with success? It's the people who are less successful in a given arrangement who will mess with success, because it's not their own success they're messing with. Here’s Negri's walkthrough.

The demands of working people force new developments and transformation in the world economy: because they're the ones for whom the system doesn't produce the amazing results that make the wealthy so complacent in their success.

Something inevitably dissatisfies them, so they push for change. The New Deal – heavy government investing in restarting manufacturing to achieve full employment at high wages and a strong social safety net – was a response to labour activism during the Great Depression. 

But think of how tough it'd be to unionize a business like
Uber. Not only are the workers completely disconnected
from each other, the company's business model actually
makes workers each other's competition. You have to
race against your fellow drivers to collect enough
fares to make a fair day's wages. We'll have to get
really creative to work this shit out.
But people who want riches, power, and authority are always going to find a way to subvert that progress. The ways that work best take advantage of other dissatisfactions among working people. 

In the 1970s and 80s, working people were dissatisfied for different reasons than during the Depression. Many working people in the West were sick of the prospect of being company men. High wages and material security weren’t a good enough compensation for adopting a conformist personality and a boring, dead-end, middle management job.

"Fuck your gold watch and chain,” the intellectual youth said, “I want to be creative! Be my own boss! Control my own working life!” This was the era that came to despise conformity and bureaucracy – it was the generation whose epochal masterpiece film was Brazil.

And the career of the flexible-labour contract worker was born. 

Now we’re in an era where most job opportunities are of this type. And employers are shedding their obligations to workers for benefits and security in the name of this apparent freedom. You take on contractors and let them go. In many cases, that’s okay, but in many others, it leaves people adrift.

It leaves a sharing economy workforce stuck in a cycle of poverty, for instance, working mind-breaking hours at jobs like Tasker and Uber where they take on all the risk of investment and operation to make less than minimum wage. A movement for worker autonomy and freedom became a form of suppression, control, and poverty.

The engine of change and progress toward justice rests where it always has: the creativity of working people.

We Ended Racism So Now We Fight Racism, Research Time, 24/01/2016

Part of what I think is wonderful about the contemporary wave of protest movements is that they’re teaching people about systemic causality. Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and social network feminism all discuss how you can have racism without racists. 

When I was young, I felt alienated from anti-racism
movements because I thought my being white made me
unwelcome in their struggle. That's why I'm glad part of
the outreach of anti-racist movements today makes an
issue of how white people can join without being
condescending, without being some pathetic dork
shouting, "I can't be racist! I listen to Kendrick Lamar!"
But white people can fight white privilege by using
their existing privilege to amplify the message of
peace. I'll always love Kendrick, though.
Systemic racism: A system of institutions and social relations that are generally taken for granted, but which have a massively disparate impact on one group of people over another. 

This is the kind of racism for which punishment and blame make no sense. It’s another thing that reactionaries don’t understand about these movements: they don't seek to punish white people. The goal is education, empathy, and progress toward institutional and social change. These movements seek reparative justice, not retributive.

But that’s not to say that the type of racism whose proper response is a slap to the mouth doesn't exist anymore. 

Antonio Negri has a lot of interesting things to say about racism, as you'd expect from someone whose philosophy comes from such a post-colonial perspective. Better I should say post-post-colonial.

A major goal of Empire the book is describing the difference between the old model of imperialism and the new centreless globalization of empire. One aspect of that I’ve discussed before, the difference between state-driven overseas conquest (imperialism) and omnidirectional market integration (empire). 

Another difference is how people think about race. Modernist racism, the racism of imperialism, conceives of race as a biological category. Race is baked into people’s essences. The difference between whites, blacks, east Asians, and Amerindians is either eternal, or moves at the speed of biological evolution, in epochs so long they may as well be eternal.

The imperialist way of thinking about race considered different races literal sub-species of humanity. They were ranked in power and potential with the same certainty as Linnaeus. 

Only a few decades ago in America, the marriage that
produced Barack Obama would have been illegal. It's
not that progress isn't possible; what's disappointing is
how fucked up and weird institutionalized racism used
to be, even compared to the gross injustices of our era.
Reacting to this, anti-racist activism focussed on how racial differences were the product of culture. Dividing lines between races were cultural conventions, and behavioural and linguistic differences between races were cultural variations among communities all over the globe.

The roots of race lie in the contingency of cultural development, according to anti-racism in the imperialist period. But we can't continue speaking this language, because racism has adapted to that critique.

Racism now speaks in the language of cultural determinism instead of biological essence. The contemporary racist of the imperial / globalization / networked era accepts that racial difference is a function of culture’s contingency. 

But those cultural differences make it impossible for different communities to integrate and co-exist without violence. Here’s an example from contemporary politics.

A lot of the rhetoric against allowing Muslims to move to European and North American countries revolves around cultural differences. 

Muslims, so goes this perspective, are anti-democratic because they demand that all people live under their strict religious laws. All Muslims want to control women, consider rape ordinary, and think nothing of murdering their daughters for minor moral infractions. They accuse Muslims of being inherently violent.

Not only is none of this bullshit true, but it's rooted in stereotypes about the uniformity of Muslim culture. It treats Islam as a total cultural determinant of more than a billion individual personalities. 

These peaceful gun-toting militiamen held a peaceful
protest outside a Texas mosque about a variety of issues
for which they blamed the existence of Muslim people
in America. So that's pretty horrible.
We combat this kind of racism, rooted in ideas of cultural determinism and uniformity, by throwing the singularity of unique individuals in the face of racists. We drag people kicking and screaming into empathy. 

I don't want to say for certain, but I’m pretty sure that an attitude of empathy and genuine understanding is the ultimate cure for racism that, unlike the reaction to biological racism, can't be turned back against the cause of radical liberation.
• • •
One of the things I love about living in Toronto is how ethnically mixed the city is, and how much ethnic mixing goes on in the city. Walk around Toronto, and you won’t just see couples whose love would have been illegal in the days of anti-miscegenation laws. 

You’ll see couples who those old laws wouldn’t even know what to do with. And the kids that those couples produce will contribute to a city’s population that's truly post-racial, and increasingly incapable of racism. They won't even know what race is. 

In a society where love is possible between anyone, the existence of race is impossible.

This Mad British Monster I: A Weird Wizard, Jamming, 22/01/2016

I was going to follow up yesterday’s post about the nature of revolution with further thoughts on Antonio Negri's ideas. But I'm honestly not sure where to go, at least as far as a blog post. 

So I thought I'd dedicate a few Fridays to a set of ideas I threw out a couple of weeks ago, in my post about the end of George Lucas’ long shadow over Star Wars. I wrote a brief paragraph contrasting Star Wars to Doctor Who, which embraced variation and narrative diversity from the beginning.

Phil Sandifer at TARDIS Eruditorum has already done a ton of work unpacking the complex ideas that run throughout Doctor Who. This won't be nearly so comprehensive as his project. I want to talk more about these eras and what they mean to me personally. Maybe you'll gain a different shade of insight from Sandifer's epochal work.

Verity Lambert (right, in case you weren't sure) on an
average day at the Doctor Who set.
Verity Lambert was Doctor Who's first producer, who helped develop the basic concept of the show. Doctor Who was a show that could literally do anything and go anywhere, because it would. 

It could bring its characters into any story – sci-fi adventure, historical drama, comedy. And in any setting – the austere dystopia of The Daleks, the space age colonial contact with The Sensorites, Marco Polo’s caravan across Asia, the Crusades, ancient Mexico, England under alien occupation, just for a few examples.

Doctor Who in the mid-1960s had nothing like the episodic character arc we've become accustomed to today thanks to the style of streaming media. But its central characters were strong and complex, for the most part. 

And an ensemble show as well, since the Doctor wasn't at first designed as a conventional hero. I only appreciated Hartnell's performance after rediscovering the Lambert era as an adult, the phase of the 1960s harmed least by the BBC’s videotape recycling policy. 

Untrustworthy at first and unreliable at best, the Doctor is a mysterious eccentric that the rest of the cast find themselves stuck with. As a child, I was too accustomed to the Doctor as a hero, but his dynamic as a supporting lead crafts the character as a mad wizard.

There’s a strong feminist current to Doctor Who, thanks to the character of Barbara, the Doctor's central foil and sparring partner. 

Jacqueline Hill, who played Barbara Wright, probably
the strongest and definitely the most popular
character of her acting career. Her place as an ethical
counterweight to the Doctor's occasional short-
sightedness made the companion as challenger a key
dynamic of Doctor Who's approach to character.
All that feminism is undone by the waste of Susan's character, though. What started as a star child became a peril monkey all too quickly. It was no surprise that Carole Ann Ford was the first cast member to leave. 

Doctor Who was defined by variety and change, and Lambert herself would leave after just over two years in charge. One presence from her era that would stick around is David Whitaker, who began as a script editor and became a regular writer for the rest of the decade.

Whitaker was not only the best writer Doctor Who had in the 1960s, he also introduced some of the metafictional elements that gave the show its peculiar power for genre play and commentary in the middle of an adventure.

He was also the primary architect of the wizard-like conception of the Doctor, a notion that was explored more deeply in his stories featuring Patrick Troughton, The Power of the Daleks, The Evil of the Daleks, and The Enemy of the World. These three stories, especially Power and Enemy, are true classics of Doctor Who and television sci-fi more broadly.

Whitaker also made a key decision as script editor in the first season, when he junked the historical The Masters of Luxor. This was a story that ended with the Doctor praising praising the British Empire as a force that brought the light of Christianity to the black savage masses. 

It would have made Doctor Who a safe, conservative, authoritarian show. Doctor Who never would have become the remarkable beast it is today if The Masters of Luxor had been made and broadcast. 

Patrick Troughton's inventiveness and subtlety as an
actor was put to great use in the (now almost all missing)
crazy melange of stories in Season 4, but the repetitive
stories of Season 5 didn't serve him well at all.
Doctor Who needed Whitaker to maintain Lambert’s style of inventiveness in the Troughton era. The producers of this era, primarily Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, redesigned the show as an action-adventure serial. Almost every story in Season 5, The Enemy of the World being the only exception, was a standard alien invasion plot that became depressingly samey.

It was a let-down considering the potential of Season 4, which brought the same inventiveness of the Lambert era to Troughton's Doctor and an exclusively sci-fi series of settings. 

An underwater city, a moonbase, a modern airport infiltrated by shapeshifting aliens, a claustrophobic human colony in a sulphuric ecosystem, a mining colony run like an English holiday camp by way of Stalinist indoctrination from a secret cabal of giant crabs.

I’m serious about that last one. The Macra Terror was awesome.

That year, what I call the Innes Lloyd era, was a breath of fresh air following John Wiles, who took over from Verity Lambert to produce the most pessimistic stories of Doctor Who’s history.

The thing is, the epic 13-part Daleks’ Master Plan is one of William Hartnell's best stories. Same with its follow-up, The Massacre. But they’re both stories where the Doctor and his companions make a series of fatal mistakes. 

Sara Kingdom's horrifying death, aged to dust while
entirely conscious in a swirling time vortex, is one of
the strongest moments of the Wiles' era's nihilism and
hopelessness. Sadly, it has competition.
They’re on the run and desperate in Master Plan, nearly five hours of continual violence until the Doctor achieves victory by scorched earth. The Doctor is entirely absent from The Massacre, and main companion Stephen badly misjudges everything that's happening and ends up getting thousands of innocent people killed.

Wiles’ next two stories before leaving the show in production chaos were incompetently made and incredibly racist. His directions for Doctor Who were neither appropriate for a character defined primarily by hope and inspiration, nor were they sustainable for a long-running program.

Doctor Who had to be creative and utopian to last as long as it did, and become the inspiring television that it is. That’s why its most important producers in the 1960s were Verity Lambert (and her executive producer Head of Drama Sydney Newman), Innes Lloyd, and David Whitaker.

Next week, the 1970s.

Trampled Under Feet VII: How Revolution Works, Jamming, 21/01/2016

Continued from last post . . . What would it be to build a better society than the mess of exploitation we can muster today?

It seems so hard to change society because society isn’t just one unified thing, no matter what the political concept of nation and nationhood would have us believe. Society is an aggregate of individuals. 

Large movements can determine individuals, but those large movements are constituted of the actions of many individuals already. So changing the heart of human society means changing the human heart, one person at a time. 

Modern society makes exploitation a virtue. However much we may decry the behaviour of people like Martin Shkreli, Bernie Madoff, Donald Trump, and Travis Kalanick, we're hypocrites about it. We only get upset when the cruelty of their exploitation becomes explicit: 

1) When the exploitation is so obvious that it can’t be ignored, as in the employment conditions of Uber and other sharing economy companies.

Martin Shkreli is actually facing criminal charges not
because of his unethical profiteering from manipulating
the prices of drugs, but from securities fraud. Basically,
he started his current company Turing Pharma to fleece
the startup capital to pay off investors from his previous
company. That previous company was itself started to
fleece those investors to pay off the clients who lost
billions from his incompetently managed hedge fund.
2) When they get caught.

Too often, when we praise the entrepreneurial spirit, we concentrate on the achievement of personal success and wealth. We concentrate on people's right to accumulate a fortune and expect that a few people's achievement of massive wealth will have enough ancillary benefits to uplift a whole community.

But it doesn’t. Praising the mercenary values of entrepreneurship as we too often do simply creates mercenary businessmen for whom personal enrichment is the only virtue. So anything that prevents such a man (and they are so often men) from pursuing this enrichment is, in the values of mercenary entrepreneurship, a form of oppression.

Obviously, this makes a mockery of actual oppression, the systematic articulation of moralities like sexism, which we usually call patriarchy, and racism, which we usually call straight-up racism.

We treat scoundrels like heroes, but we're still enraged when a scoundrel lies to hundreds of people in a pyramid scheme to enrich himself by the billions, or laughs in the face of AIDS victims who can no longer afford the drugs his company owns. 

Yet when our culture values getting rich without any corresponding obligations to use your wealth for any common good, Shkreli and Madoff are where you end up.

So we have to change people’s minds to keep them from praising the values that lead people to exploit others. The 20th century saw quite a few attempts to use the state to change people’s values. 

Whether through formal school education or the oppression of a security apparatus, it didn't work. When an authoritarian structure like a government orders you to do something, the human spirit chafes against it. When chains are as obvious as the ones in a state, we can all see it and we all fight it.

#BlackLivesMatter leader Deray McKesson. Changing
minds and building empathy (or as the terminology
goes, getting people woke) one tweet at a time. It works.
Social movements, organized by the members themselves and publicizing their messages in as many popular media as possible, seems to be an effective way to change minds. 

Because a person’s primary encounter with a social movement is in the visceral image of people who are incredibly upset. The goal is to elicit an an empathetic response: you wonder what could make a person feel this way. You're invited into their experience, their history. You imagine their character as an inner performance.

Once this happens, you join hands. The horizon of your own possibilities has grown and includes fields of human potential that it never has before. This is proper solidarity.

Once we've changed enough minds, we've changed society, because society is the collection of millions and billions of individual people networked together. As I've written before, this is the only way social change can work.

Once you've changed society, you've changed the conditions in which people live. A society with dominant values about empathy and the social obligation of the fortunate to join hands with the less fortunate will have a lower likelihood of producing and promoting people like Shkreli, and similar violent undesirables.

I didn’t always understand this about humanity. It's taken me a long time to figure it out. Maybe over a decade. Some people never do. I consider myself both lucky, and a little happy with myself, for figuring out this process. 

It's not exactly hard. But a lot of people just can’t get past their own stereotypes. I've thought about different people in terms of stereotypes before, I've failed to empathize with people, dismissing them and analyzing them without regard to their own experiences and situations. But I know enough now to try to stop myself from doing that. 

It's farther than a lot of people get in that process. But it's the only way to accomplish legitimate social change.

I didn't realize it when I first read Empire a decade ago, but Negri’s book was part of what primed me to be more receptive to this way of thinking. And there's even more to his complex analysis of modern oppression. . . . To be continued

Trampled Under Feet VI: Peace in the Stars, Composing, 20/01/2016

Continued from last post . . . But what if we ever really did colonize space? It sounds more unrealistic now than it did in the Golden Age of science-fiction. When we were racing to the moon, the prospect of space colonization felt just around the corner.

Our current cultural moment is dystopian in the extreme. Humanity seems to be circling around its own drain of ecological destruction. Mad Max gives more of a flavour of what we think of our likely future than Star Trek. 

I think I can do a lot with solar sail imagery for flying
between planets in a single solar system.
Images of humanity travelling among the stars used to be an ambition we felt within our reach, at least potentially. Now, it feels just as fantastic as Tolkein’s elves, orcs, and hobbits. 

Even high-profile realistic stories of space exploration in a clear Golden Age tradition, like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, depicts space travel as a desperate gamble to escape our suicidal extinction on Earth. The dream would appear to be dead.

All the more reason to keep that dream close to our hearts.

There are two types of story that I want to tell with my character Alice. For a short run-down of what the character is, see this post. But as I’ve developed her character through one film project I'm slowly working on, other related ideas inform her.

Here's another way for a philosophy nerd* to understand Alice. Her personality has a similar fundamental structure as the type of person that Book Five of Spinoza’s Ethics describes. 

* Which, as you can probably tell by reading any random entry of this blog, I am.

Alice is primarily interested in what will make a person a better living machine. What will let them have more productive effects on the world and fewer to no destructive effects. She seeks harmony, and always does her best to act in a way that will restore harmony to every aspect of existence.

One world where I want to throw Alice is ours. That’s what my current film project about her is. The script is about Alice, this enlightened android, living in a world five minutes into the future of ours. She’s a warrior for peace who becomes horribly frustrated with how much effort it takes to push humanity beyond its stupidity.

But another world where I want to throw Alice is much larger, a distant future where humanity has overcome (and barely survived) the current ecological crisis of Earth and somehow made it to the stars. It's been thousands of years.**

** This is the only timeframe that I think is plausible for our culture to conceive of truly achievable space colonization. Back in the 1950s, and even the 70s, we imagined it plausibly happening in the 1990s, or at least by 2001. Was that always a joke? Or is Stanley somewhere very disappointed in us?

Talking on the internet lately, I saw
the suggestion that Ruth Wilson
would make an excellent successor
to Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who.
For all the same reasons, she'd
also make a fine Alice.
Alice is a wanderer in this world of a dispersed humanity, where civilizations thrive on seven or eight very different worlds, but where interstellar flight and communication still takes weeks and months at a time. Thousands of years old already, she and other androids like her are the only ones for whom this isn’t a long time.

This is the world where humanity has colonized space. And even after several thousand years and multiple ecological, political, and whatever other kinds of crises I can think of, we’re still frustratingly dumb. 

We perpetuate the injustices of capitalism, authoritarianism, communism, fundamentalism, racism, all kinds of sexism and genderism, and whatever other axes of oppression I can think of. 

Alice is the one last enlightened one – the perfect exemplar of Nietzschean and Spinozist virtue – who hasn't given up on us. Or at least the one who consistently never does.

With all the cosmic and alien imagery*** of this story, I think I’d prefer to produce it as a comics series if I can build some more of a publishing profile over the next few years and start work with a more-established comics artist. 

*** I’m thinking of enormous cities that would rival Asimov's Trantor, metal world-ships that dwarf the dreams of Iain Banks, existentially terrifying aliens like 50-tentacled giant squids swimming through an ocean contained in a small planet, metal snakes, ant creatures that can bend spacetime with their minds, and creatures from the heart of gas giants whose flesh is made of diamond and whose thoughts are fibreoptic.

But the Alice stories of this distant future have a common problem, or at least a question. If humanity has learned so little over thousands of years, why wouldn’t Alice lose hope in us? 

The answer would be just as useful to us now as in 5000 years on a planet far, far away. . . . To be continued