Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Manic Style in Political/Economic/Climate Discourse

As an example of "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstadter cited the 1964 Senate testimony of a witness who had driven all the way from Bagdad, Arizona to denounce the regulation of interstate shipment of firearms as "a further attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government." According to the witness, Dr. William Gorder, the proposed Dodd bill would "create chaos which can only aid our enemies." Dr. Gorder further expounded on the theme of a sacred bond between gun ownership and freedom:
Article II of the Constitution was based on the unalienable or natural right of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without the means of defending his property a citizen's life and liberty will be gone. No man can take this right of the citizen away because it is his duty to defend himself and has been so since time immemorial.
Two other witnesses from Bagdad made similar claims about the imminent threat of a Communist takeover and the connection between gun ownership and freedom. Thurman Gibson explained that "the gun is the standard of freedom in the United States of America." Burr D. Marley -- a maintenance superintendent at the Bagdad Copper Corporation -- was more explicit about what "freedom" and "liberty" meant to him:
I think most Americans today feel they were born into this Nation, into this world, in this United States, free, and we feel that the world owes us nothing as an individual. 
What we get out of this life is what we are able to get for ourselves, through our individual initiative, our hard work, and this is the way we get to the top. And this represents freedom.  
Now, to me, freedom does not come without some effort. It is a price I must pay. Now, I think in all of the gun legislation discussion this morning, we realize that there is a problem when we own guns. Somebody is going to get shot. 
Well, this is part of the price of freedom that we are going to have to pay in order to have freedom. And I, as an individual, am willing to take this chance along with some other things.
Burr Marley's credo of independence, initiative, hard work, sacrifice and success may seem trite and innocuous alongside his "paranoia" about a Communist takeover but actually it provides the key to deciphering the enigma of the resilience and persistence of such "paranoid" politics, which were once regarded as fringe.

"What is so seductive about conspiracy thinking?"

Robyn Marasco has argued that in sidestepping the psychoanalytical tradition from which he borrowed his defining term, Hofstadter failed to achieve a "genuine critique of the paranoid style." Instead, he uncritically assumed a supposedly neutral, "moderate" position on the political spectrum as the embodiment of rational deliberation.

"What is so seductive about conspiracy thinking?" Marasco asked in her 2016 article, "Toward a Critique of Conspiracy Reason." Her answer was that it "is precisely that which dissolves the distinction between the cognitive and the affective, the rational and the passionate, knowledge and belief, truth and fiction." "For Hobbes," she observed, "fear was a rational passion. For us, paranoia is what remains of the social contract." In Marasco's view "conspiracy theory is chiefly an idealization of the state – and power, more generally – even as it works to unmask secret government plots and cover-ups."

In passing, Marasco noted the apparent anomaly that overt displays of state power are conspicuously exempt from conspiracy theorizing. For example, the government's urgency, during the 2008 credit crisis, "to rescue the financial sector from collapse" escaped suspicion as a conspiracy because "this is the very task assigned to the bourgeois state by a capitalist economy."

Marasco did not elaborate, however, on the psychoanalytical implications of the bourgeois state's role of rescuer of the financial sector. In "Explaining modern economics (as a microcosm of society)," Vinca Bigo relied upon Melanie Klein's and Donald Winnicott's psychoanalytic theories in the effort to explain mainstream economists' persistence in using mathematical-deductive models in spite of their poor performance. "Such persistence with methods that seem not to be fruitful by their own (explanatory and predictive) criteria," she maintained, "would appear to be akin to something pathological."

It is not simply the preference for a particular failed methodology that Bigo questioned but more symptomatically "the widespread insistence that all economists adopt the mainstream method… and that a reliance upon it is constitutive of what the mainstream supposes economics to be." Allied with this insistence on orthodoxy, in her view, is an "attitude of unfounded belittling of those who adopt practices different to one's own." This imposition of hierarchy -- called a "fantasy of supremacy" by Bigo -- also occurs in the broader society.

Closely allied to the fantasy of supremacy is a fantasy of prediction. Bigo claimed that the priority given to the mathematical-deductive method "is largely because it is thought to enable us to predict an open and unpredictable future, a situation, that is, of ontological delusion (or inherent omniscience)." The gap between the presumed superiority of the method's predictive power and its empirical lack of predictive success is what calls for a psychological explanation.

Central to Bigo's analysis is the psychoanalytical account of ego development and the use of defense mechanisms in situations where there is a great deal of anxiety. Bigo associated the fantasy of supremacy with the situation in infancy where trauma arising from separation is dealt with through the defense mechanism of depreciating the other upon whom one felt dependent. Similarly, the fantasy of prediction is associated with trauma arising from a sense of mortality and the corresponding defense mechanism that features "pretence of control over the future."

While the connection between infantile defense mechanisms and mature cognitive predilections and preferences is indeed plausible, Bigo's explanation seems oddly unmediated, as is her account of the relationship between the economic mainstream and the broader society. Tony Lawson -- whom Bigo had cited extensively in her article – found her explanation incomplete, pointing out that mainstream economists wouldn't survive long if they relied on the same behaviors in everyday life as they do in their economic modeling:
However important in society at large may be the mechanisms and processes that Nelson and Bigo identify, the practices they bear upon and contribute to explaining seem to intensify and become rather more bizarre as individuals become positioned participants in the economics academy. Something more must be going on as well. 
For Lawson, that "something more" was ontology – or the lack of critical reflection on it. The solution to methodological rigidity, in Lawson's view, would be "a return to critical, philosophically, including ontologically, informed thinking, as a systematic and sustained programme." One may wonder, though, whether that might not constitute yet another fantasy of superiority. How much "ontologically-informed thinking" goes on in society at large, anyway?

Neither Lawson nor Bigo paid more than passing attention to society at large. There is, however, a considerable literature that seeks to apply psychoanalytical theory to society. A "Section on Social Responsibility" of the Psychoanalytical Division of the American Psychological Association was established in 1999 and papers on "the manic society" were presented at its inaugural meeting. There are recent articles published on such topics as manic defenses in contemporary society, a psychoanalytic view of the 2008 credit crisis, decoupling as a neoliberal fantasy and commodity narcissism as an impediment to sustainable consumption.

In addition to Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek are frequently cited in the literature. The spectre of Sigmund Freud, of course, hovers over the entire discourse. Long before Freud, economic events were associated with mania from early in the 19th century. An 1801 tract, "Notes and observations, on the pine lands of Georgia," by George Sibbald, referred twice to the "speculative mania, which for many years led people to the purchase of anything, that bore the name of Land…"

The perils of citing Slavoj Žižek to make a tangential point

In "Dilemmas of Economic Growth," Duncan Foley cited Žižek's argument that "increasing returns in the appropriation of rents for intellectual property simultaneously obscure the origin of the resulting enormous incomes in the pool of surplus value appropriated from productive labor and mystify the factors behind the increasing inequality in the distribution of these revenues." This was relevant to Foley's analysis because it undermines the case for "immaterial" growth of GDP through expansion of the service sector. Although the incomes of financial intermediaries are counted statistically in GDP, they are paid for out of inflating asset prices and represent no new production.

In Žižek's analysis, the secret to social stability under the new regime of mystified surplus value arose from the very arbitrariness of the evaluative procedure used to decide who gets a surplus wage and who doesn't. "The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success." Hierarchy, demystification, contingency, and complexity are four "symbolic devices" that enable the less fortunate "to avoid the painful conclusion that someone else’s superiority is the result of his merit and achievements." If such a response sounds "irrational" that is exactly why psychoanalytic theory may be of service.

Žižek did not view the stability he attributed to the arbitrary social hierarchy as durable. He qualified capitalism's success at having "privatised the general intellect" as "in the short term at least" and cited the vulnerability of "lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie" as "the obvious candidates for belt-tightening" in times of crisis. Their protests against proletarianization further undermine the stability of the system.

A subsequent article by Armon Rezai, Lance Taylor and Foley cited Foley's earlier paper as questioning "[w]hether growth is socially sustainable." Ambiguously, though, they proceeded to either leave that question up in the air as a caveat or evade it by passing from "mainstream growth theory" to "the alternative Keynesian tradition." The passage from mainstream to Keynesian traditions doesn't resolve the question of the social sustainability of growth – nor does it address even minimally Žižek's arguments about the privatization of the general intellect or the arbitrariness of the social hierarchy of "postmodern capitalism." Instead, Rezai, Taylor and Foley pulled their climate policy rabbit out of the hat by liquidating the high-level and low-level "salaried bourgeoisie" and re-instating good old fashioned wage labour and capital.

Man's Triumph over Nature

Why does the prospective success of a proposed policy have to be vindicated by projections of economic growth, as well as by reductions of greenhouse gas emission and abatement of climate change? Is it because growth is the trophy of "man's triumph over nature"? The fantasy of prediction gives an illusion of control over an uncertain and disquieting future. Economic growth is exceptionally suited for prediction because it exhibits a high degree of regularity as well as some variability. The triumph of man over nature was the formula propounded, for example, by Victor Cousin in 1828:
Industry, I repeat it with pleasure, is the triumph of man over nature, whose tendency was to encroach upon and destroy him, but which retreats before him, and is metamorphosed in his hands: this is truly nothing less than the creation of a new world by man. Political economy explains the secret, or rather the detail, of all this: it follows the achievements of industry, which are themselves connected with those of the mathematical and physical sciences.
By Judge Peter Grosscup in 1893:
We all share personally and materially in the advancing national wealth; In Its present benefits and in the hope for the future that it inspires. The wealth of the civilized world, after all, is only the trophy of man's triumph over nature. It measures what, from barbarism to the highest civilization he has rescued from the forces of his environment. It belongs, not sentimentally merely, but in every-day reality, to every individual of the race.
By Robert White Stevens in 1963:
The crux, the fulcrum over which the argument chiefly rests, is that Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist, believes that man is steadily controlling nature."
It goes without saying that "nature" in these homilies to "homnipotence" is malevolent. In a word, it is death. Melanie Klein described fantasies of omnipotence as "what first and foremost characterizes mania and, further (as Helene Deutsch has stated) mania is based on the mechanism of denial."

Donald Winnicott further defined the characteristics of the manic defence as "omnipotent manipulation or control and contemptuous devaluation." These defences manifest through "denial of inner reality, flight to external reality from inner reality… denial of the sensations of depression… employment of almost any opposites in the reassurance against death, chaos, mystery etc." In his explanation, Winnicott pooled the denial of sensations of depression and the reliance on opposites to identify "a series of opposites commonly exploited in their omnipotent fantasies… by patients who are in a state of manic defence." "The key words," he emphasized, "are dead and alive – moving – growing." Although he did not dwell on it, Winnicott noted in passing the connection with economic activities:
While looking round for a word that might describe the total of defences against the depressive position I met the word 'ascensive.' Dr. J. M. Taylor suggested it to me as one opposite of depressive, and it is better than the word 'buoyant' which is familiar as an opposite of depressed in Stock Exchange reports.
Or as Burr Marley had put it, "this is the way we get to the top."

The figure of growth, then, operates as a manic defence against anxiety about death -- or, more prosaically -- as a buffer against sadness, despair, hopelessness. Rather than mourn the impoverishment of the most vulnerable people, the insecurities of vastly larger populations and the destruction of the environment carried out to feed the industrial machine, the economist reaches for the reassuring balm of economic growth and produces a model that predicts ever more of it (under specified assumptions).

Fifty-two years ago, historian Lynn White traced "the historical roots of the ecologic crisis" to a distinctively Western, Christian tradition of technology and science, centered on the dominion of man over nature, which originated in medieval Europe and became established by the 13th century. Among the "different order" of environmental threats faced today, White listed the hydrogen bomb and "the combustion of fossil fuels [that] threatens to change the chemistry of the globe's atmosphere, with consequences which we are only beginning to guess."

It is easy to notice the presence of the notion of man's triumph over nature in the burning of fossil fuels for energy and the resulting emission of an increasing volume of carbon dioxide. The more subtle danger is that the same impulse also prevails in most proposals for mitigating climate change through a transition away from fossil fuels. Rising global temperatures and catastrophic variations from established climate regularities are, after all, nature's responses to the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The transition away from fossil fuels rests on the premise of continuing to rely on extraction of copious amounts of energy -- just not from the combustion of fossil fuels! By these means, then, man will presumably triumph over climate change but leave intact the technological and scientific traditions that brought it on. Instead of "triumph over nature" we get the infinite regress of triumph over nature's revenge for the hubris of triumph over nature.

This is not to say that there is no difference between mitigating climate change and carrying on with business as usual -- only that the difference is less substantive than we have been led to believe. What most mitigation strategies gloss over is the gratuitous violence that already has been done, is currently being done and will continue to be done in the future to ourselves, other living things and their – and our -- habitats. What is needed, psychologically, is grieving the losses, taking responsibility for the harm done and making reparation. Moving on heedlessly to a "more ecologically-sustainable" triumph over nature begs repetition of the cycle of paranoid or manic coping strategies.

The trouble with mourning, taking responsibility and reparation is that it offers no blue print for a solution to ecological crisis. That is to say, it offers no illusion of a solution. Nurturing a culture that is more conciliatory toward nature than controlling of it is a tall order in itself. Moreover, a conciliatory relationship cannot afford to be sentimental or, as Winnicott suggested, "reaction must surely set in." Repressed destructiveness and aggression is unhealthy while "all aggression that is not denied, and for which personal responsibility can be accepted, is available to give strength to the work of reparation and restitution."

Triumphalism, after all, does not deny aggression against nature, it aggrandizes it. But it does deny the aggression that underlies the relationship between the rich and the rest of us. Judge Peter Grosscup maintained that "we all share personally and materially in the advancing national wealth." In 1894, as if to demonstrate his unbending fidelity to this principle of sharing, Judge Grosscup issued an injunctions against striking Pullman Palace Car Company workers "so broad and sweeping that interference with the railroads, even of the remotest kind," was criminalized, leaving it up to George Pullmans to decide when and how much of the advancing national wealth would be shared with the workers whose labour produced it.

Adopting an unsentimental class-conscious perspective on the ecological crisis requires breaking with White's contention that today's ecological crisis "is the product of an emerging, entirely novel, democratic culture." His argument was that the fusion of the formerly aristocratic tradition of science with the plebeian engagement with technology was unique to Europe in the middle of the 19th century and was "surely related to the slightly prior and contemporary democratic revolutions." Post hoc ergo prompter hoc! A less sentimental view of the relationship would be that anthropocentric dominion was and is both a mystification of and a justification for social domination and that democratic upheaval was a response to rather than a cause of emerging scientific forms of domination.

Winnicott's warnings against sentimentality can also serve as a prophylactic against the "posthumanist" academic faddism of simply proclaiming a "democracy of things" in which human agency plays no privileged role. The fact is that anthropocentric hubris got us into the ecological muddle and mending it requires conscious, conscientious intervention from mature human subjects.


Magpie said...

In 2014, the average inhabitant of Burundi emitted some 40 kg of CO2 (yes, that's not a typo!). The same year her counterpart from Qatar emitted approximately 45.42 metric tons of CO2: over one thousand times more CO2.

I struggle to see how a Burundian's human agency could play a privileged role in solving that "ecological muddle", or how one can speak of "anthropocentric hubris" without making allowances for both cases.

For that matter, I think to put a homeless person in any rich country and Roman Abramovich in the same bag is kind of strange, considering that the latter owns a 160+ metre-long yacht, while the former owns whatever junk he/she can carry on a stolen supermarket trolley, which he/she pushes around.

That's particularly perplexing after you mentioned elsewhere the link between growthism and inequality denialism.

Sandwichman said...

"A less sentimental view of the relationship would be that anthropocentric dominion was and is both a mystification of and a justification for social domination..."

My last paragraph was a bit of a digression meant to distinguish what I am saying from what those "new materialists" advocate. Sometimes "taking responsibility" requires a strict disciplinary structure in which offenders are given no other option but to comply. So my point is not that Roman Abramovich and a homeless person are equally responsible but that the yacht and the supermarket trolley are not going to be the agents making the decisions and taking action.

Magpie said...

My last paragraph was a bit of a digression meant to distinguish what I am saying from what those "new materialists" advocate.

I'm not sure what those "new materialists" advocate and how it differs from what the "old materialists" advocate, but of one thing I am absolutely sure: it's to all effects impossible for some to reduce their ecological footprint. That's not a matter of willingness to take responsibility; it's a matter of objective -- material -- fact: as in pretty much everything else, there's no homogeneous "we" in the "ecological muddle". At least on a first approximation, neither "we" are all equally responsible for it, nor "we" all will suffer it equally.

So, whatever else one may advocate, calls for a collective atonement seem -- to me, at any event -- in principle mistaken. If there's such a call to be made, it should be addressed to those responsible. Maybe "anthropocentric hubris" is also unequally distributed.

And -- call me pessimistic on top of "old materialistic" -- but I also think chances are such appeals will be largely ineffective:

Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand
by Mark O'Connell (Thu 15 Feb 2018 17.01)

I don't think the collapse of liberal democracies is the only explanation to rich people's upmarket doomsday prepping. From where I stand, a comfy New Zealand retreat would look very attractive, whether in case of political or environmental disasters at home.

Sandwichman said...

"...calls for a collective atonement seem -- to me, at any event -- in principle mistaken. If there's such a call to be made, it should be addressed to those responsible..."

I agree to a large extent but not entirely. Aside from those directly responsible, there has been a lot of complicity and compliance. A lot. I am not referring to Burundians.

Andreas Malm addresses the so-called new materialism in Progress of the Storm. Let me just say that what is "new" in the new materialism is not materialist.