Today’s Reading

The Quiet Coup:

In my view, the U.S. faces two plausible scenarios. The first involves complicated bank-by-bank deals and a continual drumbeat of (repeated) bailouts, like the ones we saw in February with Citigroup and AIG. The administration will try to muddle through, and confusion will reign.

Boris Fyodorov, the late finance minister of Russia, struggled for much of the past 20 years against oligarchs, corruption, and abuse of authority in all its forms. He liked to say that confusion and chaos were very much in the interests of the powerful—letting them take things, legally and illegally, with impunity. When inflation is high, who can say what a piece of property is really worth? When the credit system is supported by byzantine government arrangements and backroom deals, how do you know that you aren’t being fleeced?

Our future could be one in which continued tumult feeds the looting of the financial system, and we talk more and more about exactly how our oligarchs became bandits and how the economy just can’t seem to get into gear.

The second scenario begins more bleakly, and might end that way too. But it does provide at least some hope that we’ll be shaken out of our torpor. It goes like this: the global economy continues to deteriorate, the banking system in east-central Europe collapses, and—because eastern Europe’s banks are mostly owned by western European banks—justifiable fears of government insolvency spread throughout the Continent. Creditors take further hits and confidence falls further. The Asian economies that export manufactured goods are devastated, and the commodity producers in Latin America and Africa are not much better off. A dramatic worsening of the global environment forces the U.S. economy, already staggering, down onto both knees. The baseline growth rates used in the administration’s current budget are increasingly seen as unrealistic, and the rosy “stress scenario” that the U.S. Treasury is currently using to evaluate banks’ balance sheets becomes a source of great embarrassment.

Under this kind of pressure, and faced with the prospect of a national and global collapse, minds may become more concentrated.

The conventional wisdom among the elite is still that the current slump “cannot be as bad as the Great Depression.” This view is wrong. What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression—because the world is now so much more interconnected and because the banking sector is now so big. We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries, a weakening of confidence among individuals and firms, and major problems for government finances. If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.

What’s the Ideal Number of Friends:

“You can have friends because of what you do together or enjoy something together like football or shopping, but they’re not as profound friends as those who you love for themselves because of something in their character. And it doesn’t matter what you’re doing with them, even sitting alone in a room.”

There’s a limit to how many close friends like this you can have and it’s probably between six and 12, he says.

Cathy Caruth on Hannah Arendt on Lying, War, and Testimony:

Arendt draws on a number of examples, remarking, for instance, on the disappearance of Trotsky from the history books of the Soviet Union, and the German and French representations of their actions during World War II. Unlike the ancient world in which the notion of politics first appeared, she suggests, the public realm in the modern world is not only the place of political action that creates history but also, and centrally, the place of the political lie that denies it. Focusing on the ubiquity of the lie in the modern world, then, Arendt ultimately, in my interpretation, asks the following question: what kind of politics is possible in a world in which history is regularly and systematically denied? 

A day late and a dollar short… (Iraqi currency cliches continue)

Steve at Cows and Graveyards correctly connects the upcoming oil extraction agreements in Iraq to peak oil. Yes, Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, and as the global demand (mostly due to 40% increase in yearly consumption caused by the burgeoning Chinese economy) outstrips supply, prices will skyrocket unless the US can preserve a pipeline through a puppet government in Iraq. I think that it’s time for us to admit this to ourselves: we’re going to spend $1 trillion for a fraction of that in oil. In a good year, Iraq made $14 billion a year on its oil. To me, this sounds like a bad investment, but perhaps these calculations make more sense when we compare them to the 1956 Israeli invasion of Egypt. Fifty years ago, Britain and France sponsored an Israeli attack on Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Then, the Suez canal was a necessary conduit for importing oil to Europe. Yet this ‘simple invasion’ saddled Israel with its two most troublesome possessions: the Gaza strip and a reputation for doing the imperialists dirty work. Moreover, it distracted the world from the Hungarian Revolution, giving the Soviets time to reoccupy Budapest in force and re-establish democracy communism after the first of many Eastern European insurrections.

When I look at the Suez crisis, I see the parallel logic: the Soviets threatened to shore up Egypt’s defenses, and could have cut off Europe’s oil supplies while hotting up the war in Hungary. It was a potential flashpoint towards World War 3. In our present case, however, we’re just competing with China for oil in the marketplacce. There’s no war, cold or otherwise, between us. Why not invest that $1 trillion in energy alternatives and conservation, or just bite the bullet and pay more per gallon and let the market do the rest? Much as I prefer this brand of power politics and geostrategic Risk to the mealy-mouthed justifications of freedom and democracy for the tyrannized Iraqi people, I can’t help but wonder whether lying to ourselves about our real goals has led us to make a catastrophic blunder. Perhaps the Bush administration thought it was being pretty sneaky, but at this point their noble lie and grand strategy seems to come down to a bit of bad math.

Refugee Life

“We must… build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.” (Giorgio Agamben)

If the nation-state is in decline, it is principally because the nation-form, that coalition of fellow natives born of common blood and soil has given way to the denizen-foreigner: the resident-alien who through dint of illegal entry or barriers to naturalization inhabitants a land in which she is not granted the full rights of citizens. It has become popular to decry the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Citizens for failing to differentiate between human rights in general and those guaranteed only by the state to which one belongs, and no one has done a better job of pinpointing this failure than Hannah Arendt, in her book on totalitarianism, in her essays, and in her self-identification as a refugee without a home or the possibility of return.

Yet if we are to take Agamben’s prescription to heart, we must go beyond the attempts to integrate the fluid populations of mobile workers and refugees of political turmoil into our already existing nation-states. Already, the EU begins to provide a model for a mobile citizenry, maintaining both national sovereignty and the right of transit for those lucky enough to have come from member-states rather than those pariah-states that supply Europe with cheap labor. Yet in size and in delimitation, the EU does nothing more than regionalize the state. It accomplishes no great advances in the science of regimes, it does nothing to reduce the problems of non-citizens or to replace or re-constitute politics around the figure of the refugee.

I find it interesting that the classic ‘civic republicans’ (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau) all conceive of law-giving (constitution-writing, really) as an act of either a god or a foreign wiseman. A stranger must give a place its laws because only a stranger can be trusted to do so fairly; anyone who expected to be ruled by the law would naturally write laws to benefit herself. As such, the stranger appears a divine figure; he (and it is invariably a male figure) necessarily comes from another world, because the world he is constituting is by definition not the world in which he was born. Even Moses got his nation’s laws from a non-Jew (his father-in-law) and his commandments from God. I would argue that we all appear as strangers to the world we would like to build for ourselves, and as such it is wholly consistent to give our neighbors an equal right to this self-rule.

The problem, here, goes beyond the practical question of the advantages sacrificed in order to share our democracy with strangers. In fact, we must really get rid of the notion of local self-governance if we are truly going to embrace the refugee; it is not simply a matter of naturalizing non-citizens who happen to inhabitant our space, but of remaking the juridical and political order so that fresh immigrants and unexpected guests are the equally empowered. This would be a democracy of those who have yet-to-arrive, which is my own version of Derrida’s famous “democracy a-venir,” the democracy-to-come or the future democracy.

And here I run into difficulties: what could it possibly mean to build a politics of those who are not present? I suspect it would involve a hearty embrace of the constitutional process, by which reconstitution was a regular activity rather than a hallowed moment in the dreary history books. Jefferson never thought the US Constitution would last: he figured we might have twenty years of peace before the slavery question, and the general orneriness of the states, drove us back to the bargaining table.

Yet the constitutional moment is also the most exciting indication of the human potential for political genius. It shows us the meaning of political novelty, since what the founders consituted were their own origins. They gave birth to themselves, which is what Arendt loves most about contrasting Heidegger’s being-towards-death with natality. And in so doing they supplied us a potent model, worthy of repetition rather than simply homage and obsequious self-abnegation. And in many ways, that’s exactly what’s at stake in the tradition that treats the US Constitution as a living document, capable of re-interpretation and re-parsing, available for amendation, dripping with infinite meanings, intertextuality, and all the rest of the Lit. Crit. jargon that does away with certainty and literalism.

Of course, new modes of reading won’t help us with the Swarzenegger problem, or the status of Latinos, or national language issues. But it tastes grand, doesn’t it?

Perpetual Peace

The Enlightenment project was, if not exactly founded upon, at least encouraged and made international, by the challenge of Saint-Pierre’s A Project for Settling an Everlasting Peace in Europe. All of the eighteenth century’s philosophers took it up, and while they disagreed on the exact means, all felt that reason could lead the way. Saint-Pierre and Rousseau were persuaded that only an international federation, which brought together various European nations and restricted their sovereigns in military matters, could overcome the amour-propre (overweening self-regard) of monarchs. Voltaire challenged the notion that the rule of law would be sufficient to eliminate colonial violence, since he argued that the worst barbarities were performed by Christians against those whose religions they could not tolerate. In this, Voltaire demonstrates a keen grasp of the growing exportation of violence to the empires of the various European states, and argues that toleration for difference, inculcated through the unprejudiced use of reason, is the only solution. (“Peace, without toleration, is a chimera.”) Yet Kant did him one better, arguing that understanding and logic alone could not enforce toleration, but that specifically moral reason must be cultivated: he eventually recognized that this would require a cabal of reason, a sort of secret Masonry that would attempt to change religious and political institutions from within by exerting slow, but constant, rational pressure. Neither rules nor education alone could accomplish world peace: it would be necessary to change both the institutions and the culture simultaneously, which could only happen over time.

In the twentieth century, we’ve largely given up on the association of reason with pacifism. It has become popular to show that Enlightenment sensibilities bring their own, much more deeply embedded reasons for intolerace and barbarity, such that Voltaire’s hoped-for transition from religion to reason is the primary obstacle to peace. Perhaps the most famous argument for this view is Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization, where he argues that our pathologization of difference has gained the respect of medical experts, who allow their prejudices to become diagnoses, and then torture their subjects in an attempt to make them ‘well.’ Foucault’s work sparked a major shift in psychiatric practice, and his general concerns were popularized by novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22: today, we seem unwilling to electrocute those who make us uncomfortable.

Yet after two world wars, and in the midst of the Cold War, there did not seem to be any hope for a cessation of violence as such: just a softening of the domestic injustices that were close enough and small enough for a citizen to intervene. We have washed our hands of reason, since it seems only to supply firmer resolve in war and more dangerous weapons with which to fight it. What happened to any hope that an international federation like the UN might suppress hostilities? Obviously, the UN can’t accomplish anything without abridging the sovereignty of its member-states, just as Saint-Pierre initially proposed. What about education? Well, with such ambivalence amongst the world’s educators regarding the desirability of violence, it’s no surprise that our children come out as divided as their parents and teachers. What about the cabal of reasonable men and women, committed to ending violence a little bit at a time? In this case, I think the pacifists are losing ground to the neo-conservative, fundamentalist, and totalitarian cabals, since the major problem with secrecy is that it always confounds the means of reasonable discourse.

The fact that reasonable people (libertarians, egalitarians, and thoughtful conservatives) are more concerned with marginal tax rates, identity politics, and electoral mishaps than with sharing their freedom from domination with the rest of the world, means that they’ve abandoned the most important part of their participation in reason. They’ve lost track of which goals are worth striving for and devoting your life to, and which ones are simply amusing or interesting diversions. The fact that many Americans think that freedom can be shared at the business end of a rifle means that they’ve misunderstood the entailment relationship between means and ends. We need, I think, a new course of study in teleological reasoning.