Tuesday, 8 November 2016

43. The enemy is confusion

Elistism v populism

Elites fear the mass, what's "popular", they need to keep distinguishing themselves as the "true owners" -not even seekers- of beauty, truth, excellence, critique, peace, high quality, culture, consciousness, the light that guides the rest through darkness or whatever. If it's popular, it's  kitsch, ugly, fake, cheap, low quality, delusional, subversive, dark, dangerous, etc.

In this polarisation, democratic forces (and post-modernity) present a challenge to the elites (economical, cultural, political) and their hierarchical structure. It tries to open up some doors and demonstrate that there is a popular consciousness too able to generate art, wisdom, capable of exercising power and in many cases demand a pen to fill in the gaps that History written by elites leave.

The Beatles in a way were an example of this: being deeply popular but able to create the foundations of how music will evolve in the future. Charly García, an argentinian musician, dares to suggest that in musical terms if we were contemporary to what now are called classical musicians, Chopin, with his melodies, would be the equivalent of a pop idol in terms of their appeal, and Beethoven would be a heavy metal rocker, and even imagine that The Beatles will enter in the pantheon of "classical music" of the future. He suggests classical music is the way it is because it hadn't received yet any African influence that brought rhythm to music. This is not meant to not recognise the mastery the classical composers had, but rather to challenge the view that 'high quality' music is something like the art of the dead, petrified, beyond reach.

Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa published a book "La sociedad del espectáculo" (something like 'The show business' society) in defence of elites. He claims that in the past there was a clear distinction of what culture was and somehow asks 'how come everyone think they have culture?'
He claims that in fighting the monopolisation of culture within elite circles, they got a pyrrhic victory, where the cost of this victory undermined the notion of culture itself.

But even from his defence of elites and some good points he raises, he acknowledges that petrification of elites and monopolisation of culture was a problem and he warns against certain 'temptations' that corrupt their purpose, particularly when following a free market logic:

-In trying to massify a message, there is always a temptation of changing the original message for something more palatable and easy to convey. or package it in a way that actually affects its meaning, generating confusion.

-In trying to defend hierarchies and elites and their function, there is always the temptation of petrification, closing ranks and attempt to concentrate more power and halt time and progress, generating confusion too regarding which are the open ways and opportunities to become part of any elite.

Vargas Llosa speaks about the power of critique, and what's offered by the "the distance" elites keep. But who can criticise elites? One of the most significant situations, illustrating the lack of critique in elite circles was the moment the Queen (in the position her own distance gives her) asked academics at the London School of Economics why no one saw the credit crunch coming in 2008. The Telegraph reports about the reply the Queen received a few days later:
The letter ends: "In summary, your majesty, the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole."
The letter talks of the "psychology of denial" that gripped the financial and political world and says "financial wizards" convinced themselves they had found ways to spread risk throughout the financial markets - a great example of "wishful thinking combined with hubris".
Vargas Llosa speaks about elites that are formed by people with "vocation, effort and talent" and criticises elites "by essence". But cultural elites tend to overlook how structurally close they remain to economic and political elites. They look at football with disdain and rarely reflect about how greater inequality and lower social mobility make cultural elites more structurally static, hereditary and far less truly meritocratic than football sporting elites, for example.

Of course, not all popular music will have the significance that the Beatles' music had and not all football players can be Maradona. But both the Beatles or Maradona are examples of excellence emerging from popular places, challenging this notion that excellence seeking has some sort of exclusive proprietary process.

All the anti-establishment movements, standing as far away of the elites as the elites do from them, are trying to articulate a critique. But they also fall into the same temptation of bringing an idea into our physical reality in a false body, in taking the short cut of conveying a complex subject as "the mobility economical mandate of free trade agreements" and "immigration in a context of austerity", in xenophobic terms. Let's bear in mind that people complaining about immigrants are the most reluctant to emigrate, they chose to stay and vote instead. Let's remember too that people and capital move in opposite directions (one follows higher wages, the other lower).

The enemy is confusion and its main weapon is confuse us regarding who the enemy is: pointing out to some visible agent and keep its own invisibility.

Not surprisingly this confusion comes with memes and illustrations, as images are read, decoded and stored in unconscious ways and can be more ambiguous than words.

Elitism and populism are constantly blaming each other of lying without recognising in the other their capacity to generate truth.

The product is the hero: the lie in the truth and the truth in the lie

Market logic always plays within the boundaries of the existing power structures and already accepted codes of acceptance/rejection. It only introduces products and slogans as new intermediaries.

As an example, naming Wonder Woman, a sexist, polarised, american-dominance symbol, as the ambassador of women's empowerment, the UN played exactly to the tune we dance today. It only promotes further Wonder Woman as a product. Brexit was a product sold to "take back control" and Donald Trump might just as well represent the same product for the empowerment of 'hard working white Americans'. Products, playing these symbolic hero roles, promise grandiose and somehow magic solutions to beat the antiheroes, something or someone chosen to carry all negativity and be sacrificed.

These products/heroes falsely embody a solution to a need that is not being addressed/satisfied, the antiproducts/antiheroes embody the threat/the problem that remains invisible and unnamed. Both the need and the problem are probably genuine but not their embodiment. Political discussions can easily fall in the trap of unmasking the lie, without recognising the truth or in trying to recognise the truth, it may appear to be endorsing the "product". No clearer example of this, was Donald Trump twitting about Michael Moore's documentary as if it was an endorsement.

The complexity of this election cycle is that Hillary Clinton does not have enough "distance" with economical elites to be considered such a clear alternative for those with anti-establishment sentiments. In this sense, she does not appear to many as "recognising the truth" they want to hear recognised, and therefore not being a agent of the change needed.

Renowned economist Ann Pettifor writes in "Brexit and its consequences" about the failure of economic elites in leading the UK away from Brexit, and analyses the ambivalence of the Brexit vote. Citing Polanyi and The Great Transformation, shspeaks about how the Brexit vote was both somehow truthful and misguided:

Karl Polanyi predicted in The Great Transformation that no sooner will today’s utopians have institutionalized their ideal of a global economy, apparently detached from political, social, and cultural relations, than powerful counter-movements—from the right no less than the left—would be mobilized (Polanyi, 2001). The Brexit vote was, to my mind, just one manifestation of the expected resistance to market fundamentalism.
By doing so, they confirmed Polanyi’s firm prediction that
the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society … . Inevitably, society took measures to protect itself, but whatever measures it took impaired the self-regulation of the market, disorganized industrial life, and thus endangered society in yet another way.

Brexit has endangered British society in yet another way, but the vote was, I contend, a form of social self-protection from self-regulating markets in money, trade, and labour.
The tedious task

Separating the truth from everything else is a tedious, laborious task often described as finding a needle in a haystack. And it is a process that involves conversation and talking to people who don't agree with us. Truth is found in groups. The Other helps us see different perspectives. However, in the attempt to liberate the individual to express its own truth, we severed connections with groups, somehow suggesting that any group would become a mass which is ultimately deindividualising. Protecting our beliefs, "out truth" from critique meant we cannot recognise the truth that the other might have found. I read a comment today in Facebook that ironically said "to be happy I decided to read nothing but what I say".
Interestingly in this video actor Michael Sheen says:
"Our culture is a conversation. A conversation we have with each other. And it is about voices and stories coming from all over. Opinions that do clash. There has to be a healthy way to have different opinions without each of us becoming offensive and abusive and "you-are-the-worst-shitty-scam for not agreeing with what I think". That's unhealthy. A healthy argument is the one where there are different opinions, different voices and are able to be aired and you are affected by. You telling me that you disagree with me, actually changes me in some way. That's important. If we lose that we are having a one side conversation that goes round and round in circles and everyone misses out, everyone loses because of it."

Culture and politics is where this conversation happens, so when this conversation stops, when there are more silos and filter bubbles, democracy crumbles and violence takes the place of the ordering principle. But there is another danger: Millennials, being the generation with the highest ever level of education and the most affected by the filter bubble, read in the analysis of the Brexit vote that it was the fault of "uneducated" people or the old generation and then some of them quickly jumped to the conclusion that they should not be allowed to vote, probably not realising that they would be denying the vote to many members of their own families, or that it was a discussion that happened a century ago, or even that many of them (particularly women) are able to vote today because some of people (many uneducated) fought for this right. The same conclusions will be drawn should Donald Trump win today. This Bloomberg article denounce how Millennials are being turned off by democracy. I personally find these conclusions scary and I feel like almost begging: whatever happens in today's election, more politics, more conversation is needed, not less.


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