Noble Enough to Fall Short, Research Time, 23/05/2018

The last chapter of Paul Patton’s book about the political aspects of Gilles Deleuze's ideas contains what I think is an exquisitely concise argument about the weaknesses of liberalism.

I mean, aside from the weaknesses we’ve been talking about for the last few days already. But this late passage in Deleuzian Concepts walks through a summary of a very profound problem that I don’t think the liberal approach to politics can handle.

So it goes like this. Because we’re philosophers, Patton focusses his argument on a beautiful summary of what John Rawls was doing in building his reconstructive liberal concepts. We go to the source of the most intense innovation in the concepts themselves – that’s the philosophers. And if you’re talking the 20th century revival of progressive liberal political philosophy in the North American academy, you’re talking about Rawls.

There's a lot to admire in Rawls philosophy, but I've
always found it kind of frustrating. I think it's because,
even before I could fully articulate it, his liberalism felt
inadequate to me, incomplete. As if I could tell he was
leaving out something important, without quite
understanding what it was.
The desire for your own enslavement, your own
disempowerment, your own depression. Politics as
suicide.
Patton teases out four political purposes in Rawls’ liberalism. They’re very noble purposes. But they leave out one important part of human existence. Here’s how it breaks down.

Purpose of Liberalism 1. Discovering the common principles among disputing political factions.

This is a wonderful thing to accomplish – the original position, followed through faithfully, does help you isolate what components of your identity are shared across all people. It helps identify the common ground that can be a slim anchor for peace in an intractable conflict.

Purpose of Liberalism 2. Harmonizing the goals of individuals and communities.

Another product of that original position – where you have to imagine what a community would look like when you have no idea what your place in it would be. So you have to think about the good of your community when you could end up as the lowest of the low in it.

So the original position thought experiment becomes, in this context, an exercise in sympathy with the good of your community – not just of yourself or your family. Not that you’d sacrifice yourself or your family for your community. But you’d be more amenable to helping yourself and your community at once.

Rawls gave us a reminder that there need never be a zero-sum game in life. We need this reminder badly, especially at times like these.

Purpose of Liberalism 3. Demonstrating the limits of conformity possible in a community.

This is a product of the full scope of liberalism, beyond just his original position thought experiment. One of the main goals of liberalism is to allow individual freedom, and so in that simple sense, conformity of culture of any kind is a severe problem.

In that, Rawls comes closest to inching into thinking becoming. But he only ever conceives of being a divergent character – not actually diverging. Oh, well.

Purpose of Liberalism 4. Exploring the limits of possibility for practice social progress in the near-term – a gradual utopian movement of better society.

Because in conceiving of a society where no one is badly off means conceiving of a better society than we live in.

It all sounds great, but there remains one shortcoming. How do we actually get there, once we imagine it? Is that still philosophy? I think so.

It Makes No Sense to Call Us Liberals, Jamming, 22/05/2018

Carrying on with another short reflection about liberalism. I went to the Andrea Horwath rally up in Brampton today. It seemed like the most exciting thing to happen in Brampton in years, though in this context, we are dealing with a pretty low bar.

As I work more in the different vectors of resisting oligarchy and nationalism in North America, one thing annoys me. It’s just a contingent little quirk of the rhetoric,* but it just plain bugs me.

* And if you want to get a little too poetic about the whole mess, aren’t we all, really?

Why do nationalists keep calling us liberals?

I mean, in a way, I’m happy to be misidentified by the people with large private arsenals of weapons. They might not be the most accurate in tracking us down, so they’ll kill some of their own when they invade the cities to end the liberal slime once and for all.

I hope it's at least recognized that my side of politics recognizes
liberalism for the inadequate model of thinking it is.
I snapped the photo myself after her speech in Brampton's Bombay
Hall yesterday afternoon. Stood on a chair. I think that's a cute
moment – I love photos of photos.
Conservatives and nationalists that don’t have large arsenals of weapons? Them I’m okay with. We can talk, even if I find some of them jerks.

The Dershowitz Problem I talked about yesterday is the perfect example of this. Paul Patton explores more of this idea in one of the most interesting passages of his book on Deleuze and Guattari’s political thinking.

See, liberal philosophy** is fundamentally about identifying and protecting rights against state violation – a boundary of personal sovereignty around yourself that every other personal also shares.

** I’m distinguishing the singular character of the philosophy from a lot of the ways liberal politics have been done over the years. All political projects end up including aspects of every relevant philosophical concept that it interacts with as it develops. But the concepts themselves are pure structures.

Liberalism’s essence as a philosophy is the civil right – the negative right to be free from interference in expressing yourself. That’s why liberalism is such a great philosophy for protecting people from privacy violations or defending them from state intimidation and power.

But it’s awful for protecting you against the corruption of your economic system. It won’t protect you against the oligarch, the robber baron, the pirate hedge fund. They won’t steal from you specifically, but they’ll change the conditions under which you can earn your keep. Yet there’s no liability on liberal principles because the zone of personal sovereignty only regards direct, personal violations.

If you aren’t directly and intentionally seeking to cause some particular harm in your actions, you aren’t responsible in a pure liberalism. Even if you’re looting the public treasury with tax breaks and industrial contract giveaways, defunding to dysfunction a state institution that people rely on isn’t a harm.

Because there are no responsibilities in a pure liberalism to each other beyond leaving each other alone. So you’re free to do what you want, no matter the indirect harms your actions cause. You only have your civil rights.

Civil rights definitely can’t be dispensed with. But in terms of what we need to live well, civil rights are incomplete.

A Principle Without Limits, Jamming, 21/05/2018

So I read this fascinating and very sad article about Alan Dershowitz. He pretty much single-handedly invented the political theory and ideology of civil libertarianism, the activist path of the principles in John Rawls’ liberalism of ideal fairness.

Very short version – because I actually want to keep today’s post short. The article is a pretty detailed argument, based on Dershowitz’s history and approach to his career, that his natural ego is leading him into a substantive mistake. He doesn't want to leave the media limelight yet, and so he’s continuing to advocate for the rights of a prominent individual against government scrutiny.

Trouble is, that individual is Donald Trump. Now Dershowitz’s rhetoric has gotten pretty slippery, probably because the atmosphere of his more frequent conversations on FOX News* will tend to push you into more heated casual declarations than you’d make if you were able to think for a second.

* If you're going to defend Donald Trump, then this is the only American network that’ll have you on quite so regularly.

Consider for a moment what kind of person would think intuitively
that civil liberties are always of absolute importance. It would be
someone who never had to question seriously his access to the
material grounds of all the other liberties he needed.
Read the article as Dershowitz becoming an example of the limits of his own ideas. Ever since the brief flowering of open naziism in the United States last summer, circles on the left have been talking about the paradox of tolerance.

If you're going to allow free speech for all perspectives, that has to include perspectives that all those who live differently than me deserve no rights. So the liberal, taking his views to the absolute, can allow people to destroy liberalism. People can elect a dictator at the ballot box who will never allow them to exercise democracy again. And they’ll want it.

A liberal can’t conceive of someone who would want to be enslaved, or would want to enslave others. They’re unable to conceive of enemies.

The nationalist right can definitely conceive of enemies. I see it every day in the everyday talk of nationalist circles online. Their entire political agenda is based on identifying the enemy and purging it from their society.

So we on the progressive side have to overcome both problems. We can’t think of the nationalist as an enemy on the racializing terms that they do – that would make us nationalist. We also can’t accept the liberal paradox of tolerance – that would leave what social freedoms we have open to attack.

Our answer is that we recognize our enemies in those who would define politics as eradicating enemies. And instead of eradicating them, we neuter them. We block them from building power. Instead of a strong leader, show them a greasy criminal. Mock their dehumanizing rhetoric as the bullying it always was.

Always encourage people to conceive of the power of their own potential, their own ability to reshape the world if they join in the effort even a little. Let society become revolutionary.

It's Toughest of All to Accept, Research Time, 18/05/2018

A brief few paragraphs to have a go at a quick classification. Following on from what I talked about yesterday, here are some substantive ways that the animating concepts of Deleuze and Guattari’s political philosophy set them apart from what’s still the mainstream.

I mean, I do consider the academic ghettoization of the many different philosophies smacked with the “Continental” label to be shameful territorial pissing. One of those paths of thought so smacked is Deleuze and Guattari’s. That annoys me, because their ideas include solutions for a lot of the conceptual problems that are roadblocks for mainstream North American university philosophy.

If you follow their ideas all the way to their natural conclusions, they tend to take out the whole road along with the barricades. But aside from a little rubble, the way forward is clear.

You know she won't live. But then again – Who does?
So what are those ideas?

One. Evaluation is always context-dependent. That goes for moral, mathematical, scientific, empirical. Anytime you examine a process, try to make sense of it, identify a value – that assessment is always specific to a contingency, a particular way the world is.

It’s never necessary and universal, because even the existence of the universe it contingent. It need never have been. Period.

Think about this example. You might think that a context-independent, universal, necessary truth is that chattel slavery of humans is wrong. But if there never were humans at all, would this truth have come to exist?

If the Cambrian extinction had never happened and the Earth’s biosphere developed in totally different directions, any question to do with humans wouldn’t make any sense because there’s be no humans. Ever. Not in future, present, or past. They’re inconceivable. Vague fictions at best – certainly not the sort of things you’d expect to find any truth more solid than the canon of a tv franchise.

Two. Nothing has an endpoint that sums up its existence. Processes stop. Death doesn’t bring anything about a life into a neat little bow. Death just ends it. Authors do that, but they do it by stitching events into narratives. That’s not a life – it’s a story.

Three. Anything that can change can blow to pieces and destroy itself. So everything can destroy itself.

It’s not a comforting world, if you need certainties to comfort you. I recommend cultivating strength of character. Not a perfect process, never really complete, always more work to be done. But then that's true of everything.

What Kind of Politics Is This Anyway? Jamming, 17/05/2018

Yesterday, there was no energy at the end of a long – but very pleasant – day for me to blog. Right now, I have barely any energy left, but I want to throw a short reflection together.

I wrote earlier this week about one of the limitations of Paul Patton’s book Deleuzian Concepts – It’s too securely rooted in the academicians’ sub-discipline of ‘Deleuze Studies,’ so he doesn’t explore the most interesting directions that come from what he finds in Deleuze’s work.

He’s writing mostly for an audience of academics who specialize on writing secondary material on Gilles Deleuze’s books and life.

What the conservative disciplines of philosophy call "Continental" is
just the stuff that they reject for challenging their own ways of
thinking too much. If John Searle couldn't understand what Derrida
was on about
, we should just dismiss what any of their contemporaries
had to say. Because John Searle is such an admirable guy.
There’s another, wider audience he’s talking to. Unfortunately, it isn’t a wide enough audience to reach that most interesting path of thinking either. There’s a part as well where Patton talks about political theorists throughout North America.

His argument – which did apply quite broadly – was that Deleuze and Guattari should be read as political philosophers. Their major run of joint works were fundamentally political – from the long sections of Anti-Œdipus that were explicitly an analysis of capitalism and statism as a political-economic processes.

And so on for all the other works they made together. Kafka: A Minor Literature was about a mode of cultural resistance to a hostile and racializing mainstream. I feel like calling it multi-vector creole resistance. A Thousand Plateaus contained several different analyses of different dynamics of stability and chaos rooted in human life – psychological, political, economic, cultural, ethical. And beyond.

All of it deals with issues of progressive politics that are quite mainstream now. But in the academy, they aren’t considered political theorists at all. Patton doesn’t say it, but he means that they’re still called “Continental.”

But all the designation really means is that Deleuze and Guattari are rejected by departments across North America because they don’t speak the typical language of liberal philosophy. They don’t talk about rights, principles, and universality.

They come up with entirely different language to talk about things that are much more important for how societies actually work at all. They talk about the material dynamics among institutions and forces that destabilize – maybe it’s a better description to say “deterritorialized” – human societies. Among other things, but that’s a major focus. That’s inherently political – and yet they aren’t political theorists.

So Patton effectively calls out the mainstream of North American philosophy departments. But he does it without saying so. Because no one will read a call-out. A call-out is – from the perspective of the called-out in our university faculty – ‘terribly rude,’ ‘an unnecessary hostility,’ ‘a crude polemic.’

So you trick them. Explain the true nature of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas in words they’ll understand. Simple language. Basically, it’s just, “Guys, they’re just not liberals, okay?”

I mean, it doesn’t go so far to say that this is a better philosophy than liberalism. Maybe I’ll write about that part tomorrow. Or on the weekend.

You Don’t Know When It Happens But You Know When It Has, Research Time, 15/05/2018

A few paragraphs about a curious metaphor. It might be a metaphor, and it might be an application. I’m honestly not sure, because it only comes up for a couple of pages. Even though it could be a whole book.

What am I actually talking about? It’s a passage in Paul Patton’s book Deleuzian Concepts. It shows up about halfway through the book, as he’s working through different ways to explain the nature of iterability.

I’m not going to get into Patton’s concept of iterability in much detail. In very short form, he understands becoming and change as the repetition of a process with a few chance variations each cycle. What I found interesting was how he used this concept to describe a complex political and historical process.

Too much philosophy forgets the real suffering of the people caught up
in the radical transformations of the real world. If philosophical
thinking remembers them, it would become epochal again.
Colonialism. It’s impossible to say for sure, in the middle of a colonization process, when the place truly transitions from a free land to a colonized space. Some white dude showing up in the middle of a forest in Gaspé and saying, “I claim this land for France!” as he plants a flag in the ground is fundamentally ridiculous. He’s a bloody cartoon.

By the time the government is taking your children away to boarding school to have their culture beaten and raped out of them, you can be certain you’ve been colonized. Patton is exploring how we think of this transition from the ridiculous to the terrifying.

You can follow the transition, the small changes that make up a massive transformation. As a process, you can see it all unfolding, bit by bit over time. But what is the event of colonization?

See, this is where Deleuzian Concepts suffers from an unfortunate tendency in academia. When you specialize in writing secondary material in a particular main figure – like how Paul Patton always writes books and articles about Gilles Deleuze – there’s often a tendency to think of their work as a unified system.

So you produce articles or book chapters about, say, how to reconcile two concepts of the event in Deleuze’s work. Before he started working with Guattari, Deleuze thought of the event largely through a Stoic lens – the sudden transformation, the moment when everything changes. Afterward, he started thinking of events as processes – transformative processes whose changes are fractal pretty much to the Planck length.

Here's one way in which I've been thinking of Russian global policy
these days. Among many things I've been thinking about the Russian
government lately. We Westerners have been raised, pretty much, to
think that international relations have moved past this weird way of
fighting over territory on Earth. That's not the model of politics that
we developed international law for – it's a game of Risk, not politics.
But Russian leaders these days act like they never got the memo.
Maybe they really didn't.
Those two ideas don’t go together – if you try to call them both “the event,” the conceptions just about contradict each other. The only reason you’d try to reconcile them is because of the unfortunate tendency in philosophy scholarship to think about a figure’s works systematically instead of historically.

If you thought historically, you’d actually have to think about the concepts themselves, and the thinkers themselves as people. You’d realize that the question has a pretty simple answer. Ask why Deleuze developed these two seemingly incompatible concepts of the event?

You won’t get anything all that philosophically fascinating. You won’t get some complicated attempt to build a system of philosophy, a hermetically sealed “Deleuze Studies.” No, you’ll get the ordinary story of a writer who thinks one way for a few years, then a happy encounter convinces him that he’d been barking up the wrong tree. So he went in a better direction.

And in all this academic posturing, the events at the heart of the example are forgotten. Because you actually could use the tension between the two concepts of the event – instantaneous transition and slow process of variation on variation – to develop a complex, powerful, and illuminating conception of how colonialism works.

As a whole book, it would be an transdisciplinary blend of history, indigenous narrative, economics, ideological analysis of racism, and social ontology. But Paul Patton is not such a writer. He specialized in Deleuze Studies. So two pages is all he’s got.

I know what the better book would be. And Patton didn’t write it.

Spinning Our Own Futures, Research Time, 14/05/2018

This has been a busy weekend for me. It was my first working in the campaign office of a major party’s election race in a densely populated urban district. It’s intense sometimes, but it’s so much fun.

I went on a little reflection on Twitter last night, about how happy I am that the New Democrats have stopped pandering to the ideology of marketization. Often, that’s called capitalism or neoliberalism. But I feel like using a more descriptive term that isn’t quite as much of a catchphrase as those two.

The words ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘capitalism’ work as tribalisms as much as descriptive terms themselves. So let’s try getting more explicit so you can really see the process in the word.

I'd love one day to ask Andrea Horwath to compare how she felt on
the campaign trail in 2014 to 2018, when the messaging she was
delivering was so different each time. I'd like to know which set of
talking points – taxpayers or care – is closer to her heart. I have a
decent idea, but I want a better picture. To contribute to her
posterity, if not my own writing career.
There’s a discussion New Democrats in Canada have been having for decades. It’s whether the party crafts its policy with an eye to winning power or an eye to political principle. Well, the general idea of running every institution in your country on free market principles is running out of steam – a good plurality of us now know that total marketization leads to the disaster of oligarchy.

So you don’t have to choose principle or power. Western people are catching up to the reality that marketization’s marketing is a pack of lies. The principles of the people are now our principles. Now we start the job of repair.
• • •
I still see parallels in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. As I slowly assemble the research points for Utopias, I feel like this book will be one for our time. By the time I’m probably ready to publish the thing in the early-mid-2020s, it should catch the wave of democratic pushback against 21st century fascism. It’s just building steam now.

In Deleuzian Concepts, Paul Patton writes about the concept of utopian thinking that emerges from Deleuze’s thinking. See, one of the reasons why utopian thinking has been largely dismissed over the last few decades is the totalitarian character of state governments run on marxist principles.

The Soviet Union, Mao-led China, Khmer Cambodia. They were all states that killed millions to remake their population’s culture according to radical communist programs. It was – to the tune of genocide after genocide – the biggest mistake of the Western left. The notion that a state could craft cultural transformation through police and military action.

To craft a population in your own image takes weapons much more
subtle than gulags and secret police. You need ideas, and you need
the people to embrace these ideas on their own terms. Only then
will people ever accept an idea – if they've thought of it themselves.
Gilles Deleuze calls philosophy utopian. Paul Patton calls Deleuze’s political thinking utopian. I consider my own approach to political activism utopian. But it has a very different meaning than the utopian thinking of those old statist totalitarian leftists.

A philosophical concept gives shape to an ongoing development – in many contexts, like thought, technological invention, psychotherapy, politics. Not as a blueprint of the perfect endpoint – that’s the totalitarian way of thinking.

The diagram of a concept is like a character sketch, or a personality profile. But of a complex transformation – like someone re-evaluating his morality, developing or implementing a new kind of machine, or managing a centreless political movement.

When you know the personality of a political movement in this sense, you don’t think in terms of an endpoint. You think in terms of potential – what that movement can do as it adapts to the dynamics of a world in flux. As the world always is.

Utopia properly done is a style. How you adapt to the problems that life will throw at you. How a culture develops, grows, changes. There is no endpoint. Only stopping eventually.

One day the sun will burn the oceans away. Then there’ll be no more politics.