The Specter of Hitchens

When I signed up to receive free e-mail updates from The New York Times a few years ago, it was admittedly done to provide a false sense of commitment one might also find in posting what seems to be an “important” article on Facebook, skimmed for the additional pithy or ironic remark. At that time, I didn't actually read so-called “mainstream” news—liberal ideology, after a few years surrounded by “activists” while living in New York City, began to strike me as terribly bourgeois—I just wanted to feel like the kind of person who was informed or “in the know,” and who was “radical” enough to find fault in even the New York Times. I was political for the sake of being political, and this required maintaining the fantasy of the romanticized, bitter intellectual. As a result, I now receive what one might call an “excessive amount” of news updates, some of which are repeated, most of which hardly seem newsworthy, and almost all of which I delete without reading. I could, as anyone else might do, remove my name from the list, but I've unfortunately grown accustomed to equally pleasurable (and equally false) sense of importance provided by these unread messages.

All of this is to say that, upon waking much earlier than usual on Friday morning, I discovered I had at that point received only two measly news updates. Their presence in otherwise empty inbox made the subject lines quite noticeable: “U.S. Marks End to 9-Year War, Leaving Iraq Uncertain” and “News Alert: Christopher Hitchens, Prolific Columnist, is Dead at 62.”

For many Leftists I know, this coupling of headlines—given the latter's unabashed support of the former—is pointedly symbolic. Indeed, by the general response I've witnessed it seems most can hardly contain their glee: the two “died together,” as it were, and good riddance to the both of them! As if it weren't enough for Hitchens to die, nor to die of complications from cancer—and to lose his hair and voice and strength in the process—one must also remind those who might consider mourning his loss that, by the way, he used to be a “good socialist” but had since become an imperialist, racist, boorish asshole. In short, while he may have only just died, he's actually been “dead for many years.” Namely, that is, since he stopped agreeing with everything the Left has to say.

I'll admit: I've never really cared much for Christopher Hitchens, either—I may, indeed, have on more than one occasion drunkenly referred to him as a “British twat” and lamented that an entire generation of ressentiment-filled atheists had found validation in his intellectually shallow “critique” of religion. I'll admit, likewise, that few things can make me cringe in quite the same way as the mindless slopping of praise upon public figures many wouldn't have thought about praising otherwise, the insistence that he or she was just the best and that the world will no doubt struggle to continue on its due course (see: the Steve Jobs syndrome). As a writer, however, I could at the very least admire the obvious talent Hitchens had, regardless of whether such writing included favorable references to Marx, Hegel, or the commodity-form. Likewise, that Hitchens was willing stand by some of his more controversial remarks is, unfortunately, more than I can say for most public figures—particularly those of the “intellectual” variety, whose willingness to side-step around political incorrectness and “not offend anyone” makes intellectualism itself look like a rather pedantic affair. (This is later point, of course, has given many the justification they need to say what they will about Hitchens: “He said it about Jerry Falwell first, so I should be able to say it, too!”)

My reason for writing this, however, is not to offer another insipid request to “respect the dead” (I, for one, am not interested in such moralizing). To be honest, I could care less what sorts of emotions the death of Christopher Hitchens might bring to his political opposition. But the added effort it takes to remind everyone of Hitchens' terrible support for such terrible things—making him an altogether terrible person—seems, in short, terribly futile in its pettiness, not to mention fetishistic in its belief that the world is “better off” without people whose views one deems “unacceptable.” That is, while it may seem intuitive to celebrate the fact that one less person is supporting some nefarious cause, this elimination of the political “other” is an ideological fantasy, and the death of Christopher Hitchens has done a remarkable job at revealing its fetishistic core: “I know he is dead, but nevertheless I am going to talk about him as if he weren't.” The “truth” of these remarks is not to “educate” or “remind” others that Hitchens was a neoconservative, or that he supported the Iraq war and hated Islam, but simply to maintain one's fantasy. The words themselves do not “mean what they say.” It is phatic speech, a kind of jubilant performance that amounts, roughly, to the exclamation, “We won!” The mere fact that Hitchens himself railed against Falwell and Mother Theresa after their deaths is less of a justification to say what one wants and more of a proof that Hitchens himself had need to desperately maintain his own fantasy.

I am not asking anyone to like Christopher Hitchens, or excuse those views or actions of his that one may find deplorable. Death does not exonerate anyone. Neither does it offer retribution. That we must almost instinctually continue our negation of a man even after the absolute negation of death, however, I think reveals something fundamental—namely, that we define ourselves, politically and otherwise, through this very negation. To say that Christopher Hitchens died before he died, namely when his socialist views dissolved into the neoconservatism that made him such a prominent and controversial figure, is in fact the same as saying, to borrow from Hegel, “I am I!” The self-satisfaction one receives is no different than, say, a pithy remark about The New York Times that reaffirms “commitment to radicalism.” Hitchens (and others like to him) is the paradoxical embodiment of social relations, the specter, as it were, that continually haunts us all: that which, in our fantasy, we seek to destroy, but which we nevertheless need if we are to maintain the enjoyment of this fantasy.

No Debt, No Capital(ism) - David Harvey

A short clip by David Harvey on the basic relation between capital and debt (credit) as its mode of existence.

The Capture of the Cognitive Frame by Crisis-Capital Ideology (Natasha Kills Ideology)

Q: How do biological humans become subjects in society…? A: By being captured by the commodity apparatus… imaginary recognition, or being a moment of mediation in the labor/consumption process of capital?
Ideology has very little to do with ‘consciousness’ - it is profoundly unconscious…

Ideology… is indispensable in any society if men are to be formed, transformed and equipped to respond to the demands of their conditions of existence…

… the vast majority of (good) subjects work all right ‘all by themselves’, i.e. by ideology (whose concrete forms are realized in the Ideological State Apparatuses). They are inserted into practices governed by the rituals of the ISAs. They ‘recognize’ the existing state of affairs (das Bestehende), that ‘it really is true that it is so and not otherwise’, and that they must be obedient to God, to their conscience, to the priest, to de Gaulle, to the boss, to the engineer, that thou shalt ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, etc. Their concrete, material behaviour is simply the inscription in life of the admirable words of the prayer: ‘Amen – So be it’.

Yes, the subjects ‘work by themselves’.

… the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself’. There are no subjects except by and for their subjection.
[Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses]


I would only like to add how irrelevant the state has become in these matters lately…

The lyrics of this song are shockingly, naively, honestly transparent... they are not trying to hide anything... credit era consumer ideology... "free" : "free"...


Natalia Kills ft. "Free"

I got some money in my pockets and I wanna go shopping
And go buy me some things I like
I saw some kicks up in the mall that I just gotta be rocking
I love to rock them things I like
I’m no material guy, I just wanna look fly
Cool suits, dope boots, doin’ them things I like
‘Cause when I get my gears straight
Them honeys gonna be shocking, shocking, yeah (shocking) yeah

I’m free, I just spent all my money
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing
Free, burn a hole in my pocket
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing

Call me a perfectionist, addicted to immaculate
That hair right, shoes tight
Got to look to dress the part
Nothing in my pocket, got a catwalk for a closet
On my last, only dollar
Lock me up before I hit the store
Wanna be like Midas, when my bank account is minus
Gotta stretch that dollar bill, stretch that dollar
Need a genie in a bottle, change a quarter to a hundred
Gotta stretch that dollar bill, stretch that dollar bill

I’m free, I just spent all my money
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing
Free, burn a hole in my pocket
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing

I wear it once and I don’t pop the tags
The next day, I’ma bring it back
I’m at the store
Can’t find nothin’ cheaper than my credit score
My wallet’s anorexic
Can I pay my rent the next month?
I can hear my name callin’ from stilettos on display
Window shopping’s overrated
If I see it I’ma take it
Gotta stretch that dollar bill, stretch that dollar
This Vogue is only paper
I can’t wear the glossy pages
Gotta stretch that dollar bill, stretch that dollar bill

I’m free, I just spent all my money
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing
Free, burn a hole in my pocket
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing

Get’cha 5′s, get’cha 10′s, get’cha 20′s out

I I got some
I got some money in my pockets and I wanna go shopping (shopping)
And go buy me some things I like
I saw some kicks up in the mall that I just gotta be rocking (rocking)
I love to rock them things I like
I’m no material guy, I just wanna look fly
Cool suits, dope boots, doin’ them things I like
‘Cause when I get my gears straight
Them honeys gonna be shocking shocking (shocking) yeah

I need to marry a man from Bel-Air
One rack, two rack, ladies stare
I can feel the aircraft hangar
With my coat hangers
Bankrupt, it don’t matter
Girls give the eye ’cause they so mad
I could look fresh in a potato sack
Need a overdraft I’ma overdraft
If the bank man calls, just tell him..

I’m free, I just spent all my money
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing
Free, burn a hole in my pocket
But I rock that like it don’t cost a thing

Get’cha 5′s, get’cha 10′s, get’cha 20′s out

I’m free free, free free, yeah
I just spent all my money
But I rock that like it don’t..
Don’t cost a thing
Oh.. it don’t cost a thing

Zizek at Occupy Wall Street

The Transcript:

We are all losers, but the true losers are down there on Wall Street. They were bailed out by billions of our money. We are called socialists, but here there is always socialism for the rich. They say we don’t respect private property, but in the 2008 financial crash-down more hard-earned private property was destroyed than if all of us here were to be destroying it night and day for weeks. They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.

We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath this ground. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street, “Hey, look down!”

In mid-April 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV, films, and novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel. This is a good sign for China. These people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dreaming. Here, we don’t need a prohibition because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.

So what are we doing here? Let me tell you a wonderful, old joke from Communist times. A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” This is how we live. We have all the freedoms we want. But what we are missing is red ink: the language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom— war on terror and so on—falsifies freedom. And this is what you are doing here. You are giving all of us red ink.

There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. we were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.” If the broom [?] is broken, we do not live in the best possible world. But there is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want? What social organization can replace capitalism? What type of new leaders do we want?

Remember. The problem is not corruption or greed. The problem is the system. It forces you to be corrupt. Beware not only of the enemies, but also of false friends who are already working to dilute this process. In the same way you get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice cream without fat, they will try to make this into a harmless, moral protest. A decaffeinated process. But the reason we are here is that we have had enough of a world where, to recycle Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy a Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes to third world starving children is enough to make us feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after marriage agencies are now outsourcing our love life, we can see that for a long time, we allow our political engagement also to be outsourced. We want it back.

We are not Communists if Communism means a system which collapsed in 1990. Remember that today those Communists are the most efficient, ruthless Capitalists. In China today, we have Capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American Capitalism, but doesn’t need democracy. Which means when you criticize Capitalism, don’t allow yourself to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and Capitalism is over. The change is possible.

What do we perceive today as possible? Just follow the media. On the one hand, in technology and sexuality, everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon, you can become immortal by biogenetics, you can have sex with animals or whatever, but look at the field of society and economy. There, almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich. They tell you it’s impossible. We lose competitivity. You want more money for health care, they tell you, “Impossible, this means totalitarian state.” There’s something wrong in the world, where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare. Maybe we need to set our priorities straight here. We don’t want higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living. The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of privatized by intellectual property. The commons of bio-genetics. For this, and only for this, we should fight.

Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here. They are telling you we are not American here. But the conservatives fundamentalists who claim they really are American have to be reminded of something: What is Christianity? It’s the holy spirit. What is the holy spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the holy spirit is here now. And down there on Wall Street, there are pagans who are worshiping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience. The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostalgically remembering “What a nice time we had here.” Promise yourselves that this will not be the case. We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire. Thank you very much.

Marx & Occupy Wall Street

In light of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has now spread itself from the United States and into Europe, I find it important not to forget a crucial passage from Marx's Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.
A distinction, here, is crucual -- that is, between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production (i.e. the 2008 financial crisis) and the ideological forms in which we 'become conscious' of this transformation (i.e. Occupy Wall Street). The global financial crisis was, without a doubt, a major transition within the capital relation that helped in the ever-continuing process of consolidating capital. It was the inevitable Correction of the housing market and the logical outcome of neoliberal economic policies (specifically, the repeal of the Glass-Steagel Act). Speculation and betting against bad mortgages -- in short, those perverse and amoral 'activities' of banks like Goldman Sachs and Citi, the activities Occupy Wall Street has gathered to protest -- are not 'new' for capitalism, nor are they remotely 'excessive' or 'corrupt' or anything else. Quite simply, these acts at last 'made real' what has always been the truth of capitalism: that profits are always-after-the-fact. They either will be or have been -- they never are. Yes, investment bankers 'created money out of thin air' by using mathematically complex formulas called derivatives, but in some ways this has always been true. 'One must spend money to make money', as the old saying goes, but 'making money' only occurs when someone else is spending it (in the case of derivatives, when someone else 'makes good' on their debt). If no one is there to fill the expected consumer-role, capital, as Marx says, "turns to fetters."

Occupy Wall Street is the Notion of change, but I'm not yet convinced it has developed into the proper ideological form. This is not to say that the movement is naive or wrong or any other such thing -- rather, it needs to 'catch up' to history. This is not 1968. We cannot storm the financial district and expect them to give up their capital simply because we think it is unjust. If it is a battle of right against right, they will always win because they have the force, the political and financial capital to protect themselves. While this may sound like defeatism, in fact it is the arena of possibility -- we have to beat them at their own game. We don't like capitalism. We don't like Wall Street. I agree with these sentiments. But rather than 'tossing capitalism out', which may work in less developed countries (and even then, not so easily), I think there is a possibility to move through capitalism toward something else -- to become better capitalists than the capitalists, to shift capitalism into a system in which it no longer sees itself. Perhaps, instead of demanding the end of Wall Street, we should be demanding shares. That is, what if every American citizen had shares in every American company? Would this be capitalism? Or would it be the very communism of which Marx deemed inevitable? The difference, here, is not about the means of production itself, but who owns them. Occupy Wall Street is not angry because capitalism failed -- on the contrary, capitalism has done precisely what it does best. Occupy Wall Street is angry, rather, because only 1% of the population controls the means. The trick, I think, is to take control of capitalism. This may sound paradoxical, but I'm convinced it is the only action with a chance of success given the recent material transformations of capital. After all, we cannot decide for our neighbor what color he may paint his wall -- not, unless, we own his house. And so perhaps this is what the movement should seek to become: the new landlords of Wall Street.

Chris Hedges and Occupy Capitalism

Occupy Rome

Occupy London Stock Exchange: Day 1