Remember Who the Enemy Is

Capitalist Realism author Mark “K-Punk” Fisher on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

There’s something so uncannily timely about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that it’s almost disturbing. In the UK over the past few weeks, there’s been a palpable sense that the dominant reality system is juddering, that things are starting to give. There’s an awakening from hedonic depressive slumber, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not merely in tune with that, it’s amplifying it. Explosion in the heart of the commodity? Yes, and fire causes more fire …

I over-use the word ‘delirium’, but watching Catching Fire last week was a genuinely delirious experience. More than once I thought: How can I be watching this? How can this be allowed? One of the services Suzanne Collins has performed is to reveal the poverty, narrowness, and decadence of the ‘freedoms’ we enjoy in late, late capitalism. The mode of capture is hedonic conservatism. You can comment on anything (and your tweets may even be read out on TV), you can watch as much pornography as you like, but your ability to control your own life is minimal. Capital has insinuated itself everywhere, into our pleasures and our dreams as much as our work. You are kept hooked first with media circuses, then, if they fail, they send in the stormtrooper cops. The TV feed cuts out just before the cops start shooting.

Ideology is a story more than it is a set of ideas, and Suzanne Collins deserves immense credit for producing what is nothing less than a counter-narrative to capitalist realism. Many of the 21st century’s analyses of late capitalist capture – The Wire, The Thick Of It, Capitalist Realism itself – are in danger of offering a bad immanence, a realism about capitalist realism that can engender only a paralysing sense of the system’s total closure. Collins gives us a way out, and someone to identify with/as – the revolutionary warrior-woman, Katniss.

Full Story: K-Punk: Remember Who the Enemy Is

(via Laurie Penny)

Previously: Dystopia Now and Time Wars.

Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays

Peter Turchin (the Cliodynamics guy) has a piece in Bloomberg today:

Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions. Consider the Antebellum U.S.

Full Story: Bloomberg: Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays

While I can understand how intra-elite conflict destabalize society and lead to ever more disaparity between the elites and everyone else, I still don’t quite understand how elite overproduction causes this. If most of these wannabes are locked out of the elite positions, how is it that they’re causing trouble?

See also:

Turchin: Bimodal Lawyers: How Extreme Competition Breeds Extreme Inequality

Mathematicians Predict the Future With Data From the Past

Data Geeks Say War, Not Agriculture, Spawned Complex Societies

Pre-Emptive Counter-Revolution

Charlie Stross on what’s going on in the world today:

The over-arching reason for the clamp-down on dissent, migration, and freedom of expression, and the concurrent emphasis on security in the developed world, constitutes the visible expression of a pre-emptive counter-revolution. […]

I believe what we’re seeing is a move towards the global imposition of a police state in the developed world, leveraging the xenophobia that naturally emerges during insecure times, by a ruling elite who are themselves feeling threatened by a spectre. Controls on movement, freedom of association, and speech are all key tools in the classic police state’s arsenal. What’s new about this cycle is that the police state machinery is imposed locally, within national boundaries, but applies everywhere: the economic system it is intended to protect is transnational and unconstrained. Which is why even places that were largely exempt during the cold war are having a common police state agenda quietly imposed. There is to be no refuge, other than destabilized “failed states” where the conditions of life make a police state look utopian in comparison.

This system has emerged organically, from the bottom up, and is not the result of any conspiracy; it’s just individuals and groups moving to protect their shareholdings in the Martian invaders, by creating an environment that is safe for the hive intelligences to operate in.

Full Story: Charlie Stross: Who ordered *that*?

The Politics Of Legitimacy

Futurist Jamais Cascio has over the past couple years been elaborating on an idea called Teratocracy, “the rule of monsters.” Specifically what he’s talking about, however, is the tendency for those who lose elections to question the legitimacy of the winning parties.

Here’s how he explains it:

Democracy is defined by how you lose, not (just) how you win.
The real test of whether a society that uses a plebiscite to determine leadership is really a democracy is whether the losing party accepts the loss and the legitimacy of their opponent’s victory. This is especially true for when the losing party previously held power. Do they give up power willingly, confident that they’ll have a chance to regain power again in the next election? Or do they take up arms against the winners, refuse to relinquish power, and/or do everything they can to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition’s rule? […]

Unfortunately, it appears that attacking the in-power opposition’s legitimacy may be an increasingly effective way to derail policy initiatives. When a substantial portion (at least 30%, perhaps up to 50%) of the Republican party, for example, believes that not only does Obama have bad policies, he has no legitimate right to be President, compromise and negotiation become difficult at best. Republican leaders willing to negotiate aren’t just compromising principles, they’re aiding and abetting a violation of the Constitution. And while this is currently a Republican problem, there’s nothing to say that Democrats — the political leaders, not just the activists — won’t learn the lesson that this is an effective way to fight once Republicans retake the Presidency.

Fear of Teratocracy

Teratocracy Rises

Teratocracy Triumphant?

Current discussions about a Texas succession are examples of this continuing to play out, as were Donald Trump’s tweets calling the election a sham and calling for a “revolution” to oust Obama.

Most of this is so much hot air, but as Cascio points out, it’s about the opposition party disrupting the winning party’s ability to govern. It’s about distraction.

The problem though is that our system is deeply broken — we have a two party duopoly, broken electoral processes designed to suppress the vote, etc. There were some on the left who questioned Bush’s legitimacy to lead as well, though I’m not sure these concerns were ever voiced as loudly as the Birthers’ claims.

The frightening thing is not that people are attacking the legitimacy of government, it’s a question of who is attacking it (ie, the very wealthy) and what sort of system we are likely to get in its place. Quoting Johnny Brainwash from my interview with him in 2010, which is worth a re-read:

The only way a movement could grow strong enough to take on the paramilitarized surveillance state backed up by an enormous and well-prepared military is if it recruits its own military power from the army and the police.

I don’t say this is unlikely- in fact, it’s a more valid concern than it has been in decades. But by drawing on the institutions of power, it guarantees that it will not be revolutionary in nature. Just a different set of goons on top, and no more hiding behind veils of democracy or what have you.

The Forgotten History of the Bonus Army

Police attack the Bonus Army

For Memorial Day, some dismal reading about the way the U.S. treats its soldiers (yes, this would actually be more appropriate for Veterans Day):

On 11 March 1932 Waters called for a march on Washington and 250-300 men from Portland joined him. They marched behind a banner reading “Portland Bonus March – On to Washington.” The veterans and their families had popular support and the support of some authorities. A Portland railroad offered the use of dung-stained cattle cars to transport the Bonus Army. The Indiana National Guard and the Pennsylvania National Guard used military vehicles to transport the Bonus Army. Toll bridge operators let the Bonus Army march silently across bridges without pay, and police officers refused to arrest Bonus Army veterans for trespassing. Thousands joined the Bonus Army as it marched towards Washington with Sergent Waters as their elected leader. Waters forbade drinking, panhandling, and ‘anti-government’ or ‘radical’ talk.

When Waters and his Bonus Army arrived in late May 1932 they were twenty thousand strong. The veterans and their families camped in buildings abandoned during the Great Depression and in giant shantytowns. Communists showed up at the shantytowns and agitated for their cause among the veterans. In reply, Bonus Army veterans seized the communists, held trials and sentenced them to fifteen lashes. More than two hundred communists were expelled from the Bonus Army camps. But supporters who were not communists showed up at the shantytown with material support. Among them were eight German soldiers, each having fought against US soldiers, each wounded twice or more in World War I, all naturalized citizens and bearing a total of eight tons of food and supplies for the Bonus Army.

On 29 June the US Government announced it would not meet the demands of the Bonus Army and that the Bonus Army had to leave by 15 July. By 5 July there was no food remaining. On 7 July congress offered $10,000 to the Bonus Army if it would simply leave Washington DC. Some did take the money and leave, but many more took the money and stayed while other veterans joined for the first time. One thousand more veterans and their families had joined the Bonus Army in Washington and more were on their way. On 17 July 1932 Congress voted down the bonus and then adjourned. President Hoover went on a vacation.

OVO: The Bonus Army

Somewhat related: Nightline on how hundreds of soldiers wounded in Iraq have ended up owing the military money. That is from 2006. The problem is ongoing. And that’s just one of many of the problems today’s veterans face.

Revolution – history and praxis. Technoccult interviews Johnny Brainwash

Johnny Brainwash

Johnny Brainwash is an armchair activist and disaffected leftist. His past political activity has ranged from blockading logging roads with Wild Rockies Earth First to coordinating a state campaign for Nader in 2000, with lots of other stops along the way. He mostly organizes Discordian bullshit now, because when he fucks up, no forests get cut down and no one goes to jail. He blogs occasionally at Dysnomia and Shut Up You Are An Idiot. You can read his open letter to Obama-haters here and his follow-up here.

Klint Finley: I suppose you should start by defining what you mean when you say “revolution.”

Johnny Brainwash: Well, it’s one of those slippery words, like freedom or democracy, that gets used a lot of different ways. I’m assuming here a political and social aspect, and really focusing on what are sometimes called “social revolutions” or “the Great Revolutions.”

The basic definition for me is a rapid and fundamental change in not only political leadership, but also economic and social relations.

So the American Revolution or the various colored revolutions (like Georgia’s Rose Revolution) don’t make the cut, but the French or Russian Revolutions do.

Johnny Brainwash

True Story: Johnny Brainwash and his compatriots once, while in jail, went on a hunger strike because the guards wouldn’t feed them. It worked.

What made you decide to study the revolutions and their history?

I was an Earth First! activist in the 90s, and had been involved in various other causes as well. We talked a lot about revolution, but never had a solid foundation to build on. It was always based on the world as we thought it ought to be, but rarely took into account the world as it is.

When I bailed on that type of activism, I went back to school to finish my history degree with the pretty clear intention of learning how it had actually worked in the past. I’m drawing especially on a poli-sci class called “Political Violence and Revolutions,” but also on a broad range of other sources I’ve encountered both in school and out.

What are the essential conditions required for a revolution to take place?

Surprisingly, revolutions don’t typically happen when things are bad and getting worse. The classic phrase is “the miserable don’t rebel.” Revolution usually happens when things are getting better but not as fast as people expect, or when things were getting better and have now taken a dive. The key is the gap between reality and expectations. Obamanauts, I’m looking at you.

Also, a very important caveat: anything that meets this standard of revolution has happened in a society that is entering the modern world- typically transitioning from agrarian to industrial economy, and from rural to urban. So to some extent, social revolution belongs to the past. The models I’ll be talking about give us some good ideas of what’s important and what to look for, but I wouldn’t expect them to play out the same way today except in narrow circumstances.

Iranian Revolution

Protesters in Tehran, 1979

Well then, what models are you going to talk about?

I’m drawing pretty heavily on Samuel P. Huntington here, so let me warn you that he’s a bad man. He did a lot of this work in the 70’s on behalf of the military dictatorship of Brazil, helping them forestall a revolution. But that meant he had to get his hands dirty with the details of history, and he’s always insightful, even when serving the dark side.

Huntington basically divided revolutions into two categories, eastern and western. The names are unfortunate, so don’t be fooled- there’s no real geography involved. It’s just that one is modeled on China and the other on France.

Eastern revolutions we can cover quickly and dismiss, since they’re not terribly relevant to our situation. These are the classic guerrilla uprisings, like we saw in China, Cuba or Nicaragua. They involve a revolutionary actor building its strength in the countryside until it’s strong enough to take cities, and ultimately to take the capital. Very exciting, but not likely to happen in our society.

Much more interesting is the western model, such as France, Russia or Iran. Typically this involves a long period of troubles or unrest, leading to the collapse of the ruling elite. Then others can step in to pick up the pieces. There’s typically a struggle at this point, and if the military or another faction of the old elite come out on top, you don’t get real social change. If a group with a different power base and a different agenda end up in power, however, you’ve got a revolution on your hands.

So that’s why you say the American Revolution and the “color revolutions” don’t count? Because the new powers were old elites?

Essentially, yes. The American Revolution, for instance, may have made some huge localized differences, such as in upland New England, but the big landowners were still big landowners, the wealthy merchants were still wealthy merchants, and the slaves were still slaves. Representative government wasn’t a big change, and no big changes occurred (on the large scale) in who was represented. We could say that a lot of big changes followed, but if it takes 150 years, it ain’t a revolution.

Policemen and flowers

What about the Velvet Revolution?

I’m torn about how to view the various post-Soviet changes. A lot of them ended up with party bosses still in charge, but Czechoslovakia was a clearer change. There was a shift from state capitalism to market capitalism, but I’m not too clear on how much social change occurred.

What many of those post-Soviet changes had in common is that the waters are muddied by the absorption of the former communist states into the Western institutions such as NATO, the EU, etc.

Why do you say an eastern revolution unlikely to take place?

A couple of reasons. For one, the traditional model requires a large agrarian base, and all the angry farmers in the US just don’t add up to enough people anymore. More important is the simple question of military power. The only way a movement could grow strong enough to take on the paramilitarized surveillance state backed up by an enormous and well-prepared military is if it recruits its own military power from the army and the police.

I don’t say this is unlikely- in fact, it’s a more valid concern than it has been in decades. But by drawing on the institutions of power, it guarantees that it will not be revolutionary in nature. Just a different set of goons on top, and no more hiding behind veils of democracy or what have you.

Are there means by which groups can engineer revolutions?

Um… maybe. Like I said at the outset, the social revolutions are all a product of the transition to an industrial urbanized society. So we can reason by analogy, but there are limits to how far that goes.

I would say it’s important to look at Huntington’s western model and see how much we would be relying on stepping into a political vacuum. In that case, it’s a matter of organizing ourselves today for something that might not happen for a long time, and pursuing goals short of revolution in the meantime.

You can’t rely on calling up your friends in a moment of crisis. By the time the crisis occurs, you want to have a large network that is ready to go. The only way I know how to do that is to organize today for the things that are in our reach and don’t frighten people away from us. As the crisis approaches, we can ask for more.

Sooner or later, the choice may be stark enough that people will have to choose.


Are there any countries that are close enough to collapse to have a revolution? Mexico, for example?

Mexico is interesting. Close to collapse, sure, maybe. But who would step in to fill the vacuum? Maybe the Zapatista networks could carve out a region in the south, but I don’t know if there’s a strong enough revolutionary movement to succeed nationwide. The worst case is that the drug cartels end up ruling big chunks of the north.

Pakistan, now, that’s a whole ‘nother question. They’re still in the transition to urban and industrial, their government is in pretty bad shape, and there’s a revolutionary movement already taking power in some places the government can’t hold. It’s not the kind of revolution I’d want, but it’s certainly revolutionary.

10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution

Above: photo from 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution

What revolutions have been the most successful overall – the ones you’d most like to see emulated?

I’m careful about saying I’d like to see any of them emulated- the Terror was a logical outcome of the French Revolution, and similar outcomes can be seen in nearly every example. As an old lefty, I’m inclined to point out Nicaragua as a revolutionary state that had less of that sort of atrocity than most, but we never got a chance to see how things would play out there.

In general, revolution is always violent and bloody, and the violence is often indiscriminate. The older I get and the more I learn about history, the harder it is to close my eyes to mass murder. On the other hand, leaving our society as it is amounts to closing our eyes to massive indiscriminate violence as well.

I would like to spend more time learning about how the relatively bloodless colored revolutions work, knowing that they only happened with support from outside powers (like the US) and served only to bring those countries into the western institutions. But the use of civil society as an organizing principle might be of some use in making future revolutions less vicious.

Rose Revolution

Above: Demonstration at the Mayor’s Office, Freedom Square, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2003

Are you suggesting that radicals might be better off working within civil society to bring about change gradually rather than revolutionarily?

I think the choice of whether to commit revolution or not isn’t necessarily in our hands. It depends on material conditions. I suppose at some point we could work on bringing about a collapse, but trying that before we build the strength to exploit the collapse would be silly.

To me, the argument between revolution and reform is old baggage we need to get rid of. We don’t know what the world will do around us, so we should be prepared for whatever awaits. If we start organizing and find we’re strong enough when a vacuum occurs, then great, we’ve got a revolution. If we start organizing and find that the vacuum never happens, then we’d better do what we can with what we’ve got.

Demanding revolutionary action or none at all is simply hubris.

What do you think radically minded activists can do to make a difference in their communities or the world?

Well, I keep using the word “organize,” and I’m not sure it’s one people really get. We’re mostly stuck in the “activism” paradigm, which is very individualistic and focuses on people getting to express themselves. It’s egotistical in that the goal is for the activist to feel fulfilled, rather than to achieve anything concrete.

Real organizing means you have to work with people you might not have a beer with otherwise, and focus on what’s important to them instead of you. It means building an organization or a network that is capable of responding to events instead of building ad hoc groups for every issue.

If you’re thinking of revolutionary change, it means recruiting people who are not as revolutionary as you, and helping them become radicalized as their expectations of Obama are continually dashed.

It also means leadership, organization and discipline, three things that are anathema to many radicals with roots in the old “new left.”

Anti-fur activists

Above: anti-fur activists

Can you point to any good examples of the type of organizing you’d like to see more of?

I’ve got a knee-jerk reaction to say the teabaggers, but without Fox News on your side, you can’t get the coverage that they did. And besides, it’s not like they’re winning or anything.

I have a hard time pointing to much that I like from the aughts, but in the 90s, the two most effective movements (and therefore those worth studying, if not necessarily emulating) were the anti-abortion crowd and the anti-fur people.

More broadly, I would set political baggage aside and study how the modern conservative movement went from the political wilderness in 1960 to the Reagan/Bush/Gingrich/Bush years that reshaped an awful lot of how the country is run. They had a genuine grassroots, combined with a slick political operation that invented a lot of our modern techniques of mass politics.

Do you have any other messages for would-be organizers before we sign off?

Be patient. You can build something that can fit into the flow of events, but no one can simply grab the world by the collar and issue demands. You need time to build, and you need time to understand. A good dose of humility helps as well- you’re not the messiah, and you’re not the only one trying to do good.

Finally, just stay grounded in the world. It’s good to have lots of theories, but nothing gets done until you’ve got some dirt under your nails.

Recession Sparks Global Shoplifting Spree

The global recession isn’t just making jobs scarce and tightening spending — it’s also turning more people into thieves. According to an annual survey released on Tuesday, incidents of shoplifting rose nearly 6% over the past year, representing nearly $115 billion in losses for businesses. One of the more surprising findings: a growing number of new shoplifters are outwardly reputable, middle-class people who are walking off with French cheeses, quality meats, cosmetics, mobile phones, clothing and other goodies that they feel they need to maintain a quality of life they can no longer afford. […]

Though Bamfield says theft by organized criminals for the purpose of resale remains the biggest segment of shoplifting, there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of middle-class people stuffing their pockets — people who are not “stealing necessities to keep themselves and their families alive,” he adds. Worse still, more than a few of these individuals regard this kind of stealing in the economic crisis as fully justified, as the researchers discovered through interviews with shoplifters and police.

“Though most thieves rationalize their acts, the current situation has many people feeling the entire system is broken, that politicians are too corrupt or inept to fix it, and that there’s nothing wrong with stealing from these big companies and fancy stores that — the thinking goes — are themselves making out like thieves,” Bamfield explains. “There’s a real perception among many new shoplifters that if you work hard, put money away and play the game, you’re asking for someone to come along and rip you off.”

Time: Recession Sparks Global Shoplifting Spree

(via Global Guerrillas)

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