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Notes From Disgraceland populism

Populism As Space Travel

"The history of populism is a repository of failed missions — a true destination of the populist journey is really a problem of imagination."

Below, find a new commentary from Notes From Disgraceland’s Bjarne Knausgaard who regular readers will recall pens some of the best political/economic color around.

Populism as space travel

9. VI 2018

Populism consists of the simultaneous embrace and denial of shit.

The history of populism is a repository of failed missions — a true destination of the populist journey is really a problem of imagination. For the most part of his literary opus, post-modern Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin has been trying to imagine social settings which represent life consistent with alternative and unconventional rules. One such example is offered in his novel “The Norm”, where the Soviet style populism, packed as the vulgar materialistic interpretation of “pseudo-egalitarian” dystopia has settled in and been allowed to blossom to its final consequences. The book was written in the 1980s, when the system’s imminent end was not palpable, and the writer described its long-term trajectory, the very journey of the Soviet “deep space mission”.

“The Norm” is the name for a piece of food that every Soviet citizen considers important, even prestigious to possess, taste, chew, and eat, notwithstanding the fact that it smells bad, almost like excrement. The book is a series of vignettes linked by a moment in each when a character unwraps his or her ration of a substance called “the norm.” It stinks and tastes awful. Children especially hate it, but they, like everyone else, swallow their daily dose. It’s shit, of course, actual human excrement—a pungent symbol of the requisite humiliations of the Soviet system and, perhaps, of life in any oppressive collectivity. Ours included. [1]

There is no rule that says rules cannot be broken

It remains one of the great ironies of the post-1968 West that massive waves of liberation on all fronts ultimately only paved the way for hegemony. This resulted in a drastic reshaping of the possible modes of contestation of different forms of power. How does one rebel against the all-permissive system that shows absolute hegemonic dominance where saying no is meaningless and inconsequential and where resistance is futile? Oppression can be overturned by revolution, but hegemony cannot – it has to be toppled from within. For a rapidly growing majority of those pushed outside of the (shrinking) enclosure of prosperity whose future is collapsing under the crunch of status quo, there is no hope for change. For them, life on this “planet” is no longer possible. The only mode of resistance is rebellion against the established rules.

The world has already seen this type resistance on the global geopolitical scene as a total collective refusal to play by the rules of the neo-liberal world order. The regimes which have refused to follow the established conventions are not new, from Castro and Khomeini, to Iraq, North Africa, Afghanistan and North Korea. The novelty brought in by the rise of the right-wing populism in the West is that it comes from the part of the world that has been the staunchest defender of those rules and is now championing their dismantling.

The war on rules is a decision to exorcise oneself from the existing order of things – it is a declaration of war on oneself, a suicide mission of sorts. It is an exile to another “planet”. Any political or religious leader willing to undertake this mission on behalf of the excluded, is likely to forge a special pact between himself and his constituents. The implicit sacrificial obligation of this commitment, by its very nature, makes that person immune to any defection, or ideological or material corruption, and secures an unconditional, cult-like devotion and support from his following. Even if facts and reality point to his flaws, corruptibility or dishonesty, his commitment alone will ensure a practically unlimited political credit line.

Populism, like space travel, is sustained by the hope that life on another planet is possible. Populist leaders and their followers are faced with the same dilemmas as space travelers. They all carry the willingness to leave the world as we know it and embark on a potentially fatal journey, even if the probability of success is infinitesimal. And that willingness is the most radical act of rule breaking and an absolute weapon against the system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death.

As long as the leaders stick to their promises, people will cut them slack. Populism’s main agenda is continuous breaking of the rules. The more politically damning their actions, the stronger their commitment appears. The more blatant disrespect for the established conventions and rules they show, no matter how futile and meaningless those empty gestures might be, the firmer the bond between populist leaders and their followers. What is normally perceived as a political suicide becomes the main engine of popularity.

Shit as a universal reference frame

The integrity of our lives, as we know them, is sustained by an extraordinarily fine-tuned set of rules and parameters. Disturbing the rules even slightly leads to qualitative changes. If our body’s temperature changes by one degree, we get sick, if it rises by more than four degrees, we are very likely to die. Inventing new rules means inventing new forms of life[2].

This link between rules and life is the aspect populist leaders, predominantly the right-wing kind, and their followers show no capacity for understanding – their most distinguishing trademark is a deafening cognitive dissonance. But what kind of life can we expect on the populist planet? On Mars, for example, the gravitational constant is three times lower than on Earth and water there boils at 10 degrees Celsius, so no coffee, and no hardboiled eggs for starters. Everyone is at least eight feet tall, their bone density different, blood flow probably seriously compromised, and who knows how that affects the brain.

Embracing new rules, like embarking on a deep space mission, requires a voluntary participation ritual. Sorokin’s book, The Norm, describes precisely such ritualized participation. However, as outlandish as it sounds, the book’s extrapolation is not far-removed from our reality. Rules that govern our lives also regulate the flow of shit, its path and direction, how it disappears and how it resurfaces in different forms[3]. We use shit to fertilize soil and grow plants; animals eat those plants and we eat both animals and plants. However, there is a clear protocol in these circular flows. They are important. Changing the rules even slightly profoundly affects our lives.

Like space travel[4], populism approaches shit rationally by throwing it (with everything else) into the big optimizer. The difference between Sorokin’s dystopia and our world is condensed in minor changes in the rules of shit-flow, by cutting the “middleman”. Such approach is hardly a surprise, given the decades of reign of the ideology where the requirement of economic optimization is elevated to a general political principle whereby the system of economic production is also a system of anthropological production[5] — an extension of market rationality to existence in its entirety. The recycling bin of this ideology is the actual birth place of the right-wing populism — a political maneuver championed by the mid-level segment of the oligarchic structure, posing as self-proclaimed defenders of the excluded and purveyors of ideological snake oil for the poor. Their platform is founded on the long ago rejected “free-market” dogmas, which nobody (including them) takes seriously anymore, alive only thanks to the life support provided by the new identity politics.

[1] Ben Ehrenreich, Vladimir Sorokin’s Absurdist Excess, The Nation (4-Feb-2016)

[2] Heterotopias are reminders of this link, as Michel Foucault outlined in his 1967 essay, Des espaces autres, Hétérotopies. They represent real sites that can be found within the culture where social rules and interactions are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted, e.g. boarding schools, in their nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men; heterotopias of deviation like rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons; brothels, puritan societies established by the English settlers in America, or Jesuit colonies founded in South America in which “human perfection” was effectively achieved. Life in these communities is significantly different from that on the outside, but the underlying rules governing them are only slight variations of ours.

[3] This is a deep ideological terrain – different cultures are distinguished by the way they dispose of their shit (the comparative architecture of German and French toilettes is probably the most eloquent summary of the differences between the two cultures).

[4] When it comes to manned deep space missions, bringing food supplies from Earth would take up valuable space aboard the spacecraft as well as increase fuel consumption, which is why scientists are searching for a more economical solution by growing or generating food en route. Astronauts on their way to Mars may be required to eat their own waste in the form of a recycled paste. The innovation is being touted as a possible nutritional solution for long-term manned space missions.

[5] P. Dardot and C. Laval, La nouvelle raison du monde, La Découverte (2010)

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3 comments on “Populism As Space Travel

  1. monkfelonious

    I don’t understand anything this cat writes and I’m not sure I want to. Too many (of his and other whack-a-doodles) absolutes for me. I flee the guys that have it ‘figured out’.

    I’d like to here from him how earth shaking it was that shit could be replaced with pulverized rocks.

    • You have just exemplified exactly why the opposition to populism struggles to coalesce. Your point is well founded on one hand and on the other lazy. You as someone who rejects simple answers to complex problems demonstrate an immunity to the populist dogma yet you also struggle to accept or even consider a complex solutions to complex problems presented to you.

      I’m not saying the author is fully correct, but I will say it is some of the best writing on the subject I have seen. And I spend way too much time looking for the stuff as I am working on research project related to the populist issue in America and the effects there of.

      Here’s to hoping we all make it out alive!

      • I think the author’s main point is great, and this short piece has helped me understand the Trumpists in a way I definitely didn’t before. It does irritate me when people use phrases like “anthropological production,” though. I’m pretty sure that phrase doesn’t actually mean anything, or at least not what he means it to.

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