Tag Archive: Politics

fomenting “rebellion”

I’ve just read Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article on “The billionaire Koch brothers’ war against Obama”, which I’m happy to see is publicly available online. It’s a good summary of what corporate watchers have been saying for years (see, e.g., here and here), but with a lot of interview material updating what the libertarian duo have been up to more recently, including their connections with the Tea Party movement. (I really should be putting “libertarian” in scare quotes, since good people like Noam Chomsky use the term to refer to a love of liberty, though their definition of liberty is much more substantial than the kind of free-for-all-for-the-wealthy that the Kochs stand for.)

Charles and David Koch (pronounced “Coke”) are on Forbes’ list of 20 wealthiest people in the world, and they, along with Scaife, Olin, Searle, Bradley, Coors, and other millionaire family foundations, have provided the funding that’s built up the network of conservative, libertarian, and right-wing organizations, think-tanks, pseudo-populist front groups, and spin machines that has kept this country in a right-wing holding pattern for the last three decades.

It’s true that their “more than a hundred million dollars” spent on these causes is a drop in the bucket compared to their multibillion dollar fortune, but the money gets amplified as it works its way through the system — which is why Americans for Prosperity, which has fought health-care reform and cap-and-trade climate legislation, among other things, can plan to spend another $45 million dollars between now and November on electoral races around the country.

On the Kochs’ climate and environment connections, see Joe Romm’s piece from last April, this update, and David Levy’s piece here.

Jon Stewart gives up

Just had to share this.

Hat tip to Reconciliation Ecology.


Being TV-free (but wifi-capable) in the wilds of northeast Vermont, Facebook has become my main news source about the G20 protests in Toronto.

I’m taking the liberty of posting a snippet of (anonymous) conversation involving a friend who is there and a handful of interlocutors watching from a distance:

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First, for anyone living in a JonStewartless alternate universe… Stewart (and Samantha Bee) giving Glenn Beck a history lesson (about progressivism) was pretty funny. Beck may be a cheap target, but it’s also a cheap (free) history lesson. Take this country back, Glenn, way back…


Next, Denmark’s new tourist ad campaign by Lars von Trier (well, if only…), courtesy of The Onion. (Thanks to Graham for the tip.)

Finally, this discussion about Avatar: while Glenn Kenny delights in “Pandora’s bestiary of psychedelic monsters” and “the way all these elements moved, and the way Cameron’s cameras, those virtual and those real, moved around them,” curmudgeonly Jim Emerson provides a hilarious counterpoint:

“The letdown for me came from feeling that this wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before: on those Yes album covers by Roger Dean in the 1970s, on backlight posters in my childhood friends’ bedrooms, in the Thomas “Painter of Light” Kinkade shop windows at the mall, in the floral fiber-optic lamps at Thai restaurants, on the comic-colored packages for Sea Monkeys. I wanted a world of mystery and wonder; instead, I saw a retro-cartoon rainbow of fairyland clichés in fluorescent blue, purple, pink, yellow and green. That phosphorescent Astroturf jungle is enough to make Werner Herzog, seeker of new images to transcend the ones pop culture has exhausted, want to poke his eyes out with a glow-stick.”

Valery Lyman’s 16-minute film, One of These Mornings, captures the pain, the joy, the happiness, and the excitement embodied in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency.

Now, a year and a couple of months after that election, Ben Ehrenreich’s Slate piece on the dramatic failures (already!) of the international, but especially US, response to the Haiti earthquake disaster, Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians?, forces us to confront the fact that changing the world is not brought about by an election. If Ehrenreich and others are right, it appears that through a combination of knee-jerk militarism, systemic racism, and the pursuit of economic interest even in the midst of tragedy, Haiti’s most needy have not been getting much of the relief that the global community has generously sent out through personal donations via social networking media alongside traditional aid channels. That’s a scandal in itself, and it calls for serious reflection on why so little has changed in this country.

The other big moment of contradiction this past week was the U.S. Supreme Court decision about corporate “personhood” and unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns — which is the biggest single setback to democracy this country has seen in a long time. But, there being a silver lining to every dark cloud, this may also be the moment for Obama to step in and take the reins of his multiple-majority power lock and do something with them. (Why is it when Bush had to work with a Democratic majority in Congress he still managed to do so much damage, and when Obama has clear majorities in both houses, his hands are tied? We know, of course, that it’s largely because of the beholdenness of all American politicians, wimpy “moderate” Democrats no less than others, to the special interests who fund them — which the Supreme Court decision has just made that much worse.)

The decision is an easy target for Obama, and at least some of the more moderate Republicans (such as McCain, who’s initiated campaign finance reform in the past) as well as Democrats would be hard-pressed to support the decision. As he prepares for his State of the Union address this Wednesday, any American who supports him should take some time in the next couple of days to send a message to the the White House and to, at the very least, sign the MoveOn.org petition against the Supreme Court decision. For this “progressive” president to act on his promises, he needs to feel the country behind him. One step can lead to another, generating momentum for at least some of the change he had promised; but that first step has to be taken.

Real change is not brought about by a single election, nor by the expression (audacious or otherwise) of hope. It’s brought about by the hard work of enacting that hope into practice. Once the conditions are set for a moment of good feeling like that embodied in Valery Lyman’s film, we need to ensure these remain not just moments but movements, the moments of jubilation being the froth spraying off the tops of the waves, whose repeated breaking on the shores of our consciousness changes that collective consciousness. Hope needs to be set into motion along multiple vectors — cultural and institutional — and at multiple scales. But it requires political leadership, and leadership, in a system of politics as financially corrupted as this one, only comes with repeated kicks from behind. Friendly, soft, but persistent kicks.

Thanks to Ron Burnett for sharing the Vimeo link. Of the bloggers I’ve read commenting on the Supreme Court decision, Sara Robinson’s at Campaign for America’s Future, Chris Vitale’s at Orbis Mediologicus, and Brendan Demelle’s at Ecological Buddhism provide inspiring and interesting perspectives. And see Rebecca Solnit’s piece on the disaster of media coverage of Haiti.

exquisite corpse

Michael Bérubé’s In praise of humility is so good I can’t resist posting a link to it. Why, indeed, has the Obama revolution lost its steam? I think Bérubé must be aiming for Andrei Codrescu‘s job as NPR’s occasional commentator extraordinaire. Read it and weep (at least until you realize what’s going on).

Incidentally, Bérubé’s latest book The Left at War is well worth reading and discussing, even if one doesn’t agree with all of it. And, incidentally, the title of this post, which refers to a Surrealist method of collective anti-authorship, isn’t intended as a comment on Bérubé’s piece but rather about what he is describing. Politics as a stumbling around in the dark, a piecing-together from the bits left by the last guy, with no idea what will come of it. At least Codrescu has the good sense to smell it and marvel at its texture.


While Clint Eastwood’s new film Invictus has little to say about ecology or ecopolitics, it does have a lot to do with the relationship between identity, affect, and territory — a topic that was an important concern in my first book and is the main theme of one of the two manuscripts I’m currently working on. I’m guessing Invictus may get nominated for at least the best actor (Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela) and best director (Eastwood) Oscars, so I’ll hazard a few initial thoughts about it, having seen it a few days ago.

There are many things one can say about its individual pieces: Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela, Eastwood’s directorial prowess and editorial conceits (e.g., masculinity and its transformation through individual experience), the film’s characterization of post-Apartheid South Africa, and the accuracy or inaccuracy of its portrayal of the actual story of the South African national rugby team’s, the Springboks’, stunning rise to victory in the 1995 World Cup. What interests me most, though, is its depiction of mass affect and collective emotion, which are portrayed in two of the main variants these take in today’s world: sports and politics.

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Also published at Indications.

It’ll take some time before the dust settles and we’ll be able to make sense of exactly what happened at the Copenhagen climate summit. But what’s becoming clear is that this may be a genuine turning point in the history of global politics.

The most remarkable thing that will come out of the meeting is not whatever set of policies will be agreed to tomorrow: this is because the key player, the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, is hamstrung by a conservatively poised party (his own Democrats) in power in the two houses in which he needs support in order to pass significant legislation. The most remarkable thing, rather, will be what happens to global civil society and its relationship to the structures of national and international power.

National governments, and none more so than that of the US, are deeply encumbered by the stranglehold of corporate lobbyists and other economic interests on their political systems — which is why nongovernmental and civil society groups are necessary to solve the issues that traditional political actors cannot. But while the NGOs and civil society groups speak of “democracy,” they are not elected and are, arguably, not representative in an obvious way. The democracy they speak of is of a different order than the one that’s doled out once every few years to the voting citizen of a given country.

What the activists mean by “democracy” is the activity and mobilization of citizens taking things into their own hands. And, unfortunately, that’s a kind of democracy that’s just as open to those on the right, from the Glenn Beck Tea Partiers and climate denialists in the US to racialist nationalists and religious fundamentalists around the world. So the lesson here, I think, is that we are now on a new and different political terrain — a terrain that is global and much more open than what we’re used to, and that really is a struggle for the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The climate justice activists in Copenhagen, fortunately, are sending a clear message to the rest of the world that there is a consensus emerging around basic matters of eco-social solidarity: that we are all in this together, and that the rich won’t get away with plunder any longer. As George Monbiot puts it, this is “a war between human decency and sheer bloody selfishness.”

A big piece of this message is that the industrial society that has grown over the last two centuries is hitting a wall, a limit point, beyond which something has to give way at a deep level. As David Loy argues, this limit point is forcing a test of people’s capacity to identify with humanity at the collective, global level and to internalize the lesson of interdependence. Assuming that the science is accurate — and science being what it is, we don’t and can’t know anything with 100% certainty, but we do know that the majority/consensus of climate scientists is strong in its conviction that anthropogenic climate change is most likely to be well on its way — then we are hitting a capacity limit that is comparable to the population density limits that triggered the shift from foraging societies to settled agriculture several thousand years ago.

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on politics & ontology

(For some reason, this didn’t go out over Google Reader, so I’m re-posting it…)

The Speculative Realist blogosphere has been abuzz over the relationship between ontology and politics. Nick Srnicek’s post at Speculative Heresy – and the many comments on it – provide a good entry point to this discussion. Nick has wisely redrawn his initial arguments in ways that represent the counter-arguments quite well, so that both (or all) sides seem smarter and more clear-headed coming out of the process than going into it — which is what good philosophizing should be about.

The key, as he presents it, is to define politics in a viable and useful way: is it just about relations between humans and other humans (as he first assumed), or is it about ‘the way of being-with amongst entities’, ‘the act of deciding exclusion and inclusion,’ ‘the space of the im/possible’ (a Derridean formulation that needs more clarification, so see Nick’s elaboration on it), or something else. Nick argues that “if we’re not careful, everything becomes politics, and nothing gets changed. Art becomes intrinsically political. Ineffective protests become political (rather than spectacle). Writing blog posts becomes political! Politics – if it is to mean anything, and if it is to escape the nihilism and apoliticism that Nina rightly criticizes – must have a narrower definition than these neutered conceptions of the political.

I agree with Nick that the definition of ‘politics’ should not be fully subsumed within the definition of ‘art’ (or ‘philosophy’ or religion’ or ‘science’ or ‘nature’ or anything else) — losing the distinctiveness of each of these terms renders the world less distinct and gives us a weaker grasp on things. But art, philosophy, etc. can still be political, and identifying overlaps between these categories can do important work for us.

Politics, to my mind, is about relationality — ‘the way of being-with amongst entities’, ‘the act of deciding exclusion and inclusion,’ etc. — but it doesn’t just describe that relationality; it affects it. Something becomes political to the extent that it effects change in relations, and specifically in power relations — that is, to the extent that it opens up, closes down, or somehow reorients or reconfigures capacities (one’s own and/or others’) for acting and for effecting change in the world.

This seems circular, but I’m trying to be consistent here with a process-relational ontology. To say that ‘politics’ is about ‘effecting change in the ways change can be effected’ is to render politics open in a world that is itself open. If voting cannot effect change, then it is not (any longer) political; or rather it is negatively political to the extent that it closes down the possibility for change, for instance, by creating the illusion that one is making change when one isn’t. Politics, by this definition, consists of those adjustments, negotiations, and struggles by which we reconfigure power in the world (where power is not just ‘power over’ but power-to, power-with, etc.). This can be done through art or philosophy, i.e. through the expression or conceptual formulation of new or different ways of relating, to the extent that these then affect actual relations in the world. But it is not identical with them.

And it can be not only between humans, since humans aren’t the only entities acting within a shared world. But humans have been pretty effective at changing others’ capacities for acting on their worlds, so politics – cosmopolitics, in Stengers’ terms – should today be about the nonhuman as well as the human .

plutonomy, Michael Moore, & Canada

I’ve written before about William Connolly’s notion of the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, a description of the cozy relationship that’s developed between the economic right and the social-moralistic right over the last couple of decades in the U.S. It’s not merely an alliance of converging interests, since the two groups’ interests don’t always align with each other at all; nor is it only the kind of discursive alliance that poststructuralist analysts like Laclau & Mouffe describe with their notion of hegemony as a process of co-articulation of interests between differently positioned subject-groups. For Connolly, there is also a micropolitical level of resonance that takes in affect, feeling, sensibility, ethos, and other things taking place in pre- and sub-rational dimensions of individual and collective life. (The updated version of Connolly’s piece is found in his book Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.)

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which I just saw a few days ago, is a good example of the effort to forge a popular alternative to that. Moore tries to work on both the cognitive-discursive and the affective levels to, in effect, forge a kind of Christian-socialist-populist resonance machine — Christian in that it explicitly and repeatedly invokes the Jesus of the gospels (in a kind of reclaiming of the “what would Jesus do” discourse of the evangelicals), socialist in the small-s sense of valuing public control of our institutions, and populist in the way its critical barbs are aimed at, well, mostly bankers.

(On the Christian bit: see Moore’s interviews with Sean Hannity, rounds one and two, where the two tangle, sometimes in a friendly way, sometimes less so, over which of them carries Christianity in their heart (among other things). It makes for fascinating viewing…)

(And on the ‘socialism’: Every political-economic system in the developed world includes some mixture of small-s socialism and small-c capitalism, i.e., some combination of public and private ownership, management, and/or oversight of institutions, where “public”, in a democratic context, means by elected officials and “private” means by individuals or corporations pursuing their own goals. The difference is in how the lines are drawn between the two, with the U.S. erring on the side of minimizing the public role and most other countries seeking greater balance. Moore comes in somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, but what he explicitly advocates is not socialism but democracy — which is another word for public oversight with the details being determined according to what’s in the public interest, not in the interest of the wealthy few.)

As a result of its discursive-affective strategy (with part of the latter being citizen Moore’s persona) the film won’t convert the unconverted unless they’re already leaning in this direction. But he does present a handful of tasty informational morsels that will hopefully send some viewers to their computers — as they did me — to find out more about them. One of those interesting bits is the idea of “plutonomy,” which comes out of a piece of political analysis developed by a trio of Citigroup financial advisors in 2005, well before last year’s economic crash. Jodi Dean has helpfully posted the group’s report here, along with its follow-up, and I highly recommend reading them. “Plutonomy” is similar to “plutocracy” (rule by the wealthy) and “oligarchy” (rule by a dominant class), except that it is not the direct power of the wealthy as it is its economic force that drives things (thus the “-nomy”). Investopia defines plutonomy as

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