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Brandon Istenes

The Present US Electoral Moment from 10,000 Feet

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This is not a very original analysis, and not very deep. But I figure I should state it somewhere.

I’m going to use “fascism” and “socialism” in very loose terms. I’m going to be excessively general. If this all seems obvious to you, read something else. If it's surprising to you, read this blog more.

Bad times yield disillusionment with the status quo. At present, the status quo is liberal capitalism. This, the aftermath of the Great Recession, is a bad time.

In the history of liberal capitalism, this disillusionment has yielded two strong movements in reaction, pulling opposite directions: fascism and socialism.

Trump won because he spoke to this disillusionment, with the spirit (if not the letter) of fascism. Hillary lost because she did not speak to this disillusionment at all. Fascism and socialism speak to disillusionment and dispossession. Neoliberalism and centrism are incapable of doing so.

Since the Red Scare, the US political establishment has being fighting to suppress socialism. There are now few countries in the world where communism is less understood and taken less seriously than in the US. So now that we arrive in a moment where people are looking for radical change, and public discourse is weighted toward fascism.

The worse everything gets, the more people will look for radical answers.

The Earth is warming. Mass environment-driven migration is on the horizon. The future is not looking rosy.

So there’s a race to see how the remains of our ravaged planet will be divvied up: so that everyone can survive with some kind of dignity, or so that the übermenschen can achieve all the power they will themselves to. A humanistic ethic against a Nietzschean one. Right now, as socialists, as humanists, we’re both losing and fighting an uphill battle.

If Democrats continue trying to pose as the bastions of normalcy, defenders of the respectable and moderate, they will either continue to lose or trend rightward. The only answer is the reintroduction of socialism as a real political possibility. Its discourse is already finding purchase. We have a choice: we can make the Democratic party the political vehicle of socialism, and in doing so normalize this discourse. Or we can watch it spiral in a miserable death-embrace with Republicans into Bolsonaro-esque neoliberal fascism.

Stop Denying Them Agency

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I have never heard "you're denying them agency" used in a way that deepened analysis.

Imagine, you're sitting around with friends attempting to describe a system of oppression. You're sussing out the forces that impact the lives of the oppressed. Suddenly, someone who's had very little to say busts into the conversation to let everyone know that they're "denying the agency" of the oppressed.

Are they suggesting that oppression is irrelevant to those oppressed by it? No, that would be silly. Are they saying that your analysis views the oppressed as fully determined by their oppression? They might be, and you should consider whether it does, but it probably doesn't, because you're not a shithead, and it's actually kind of hard to accidentally say that the free will of the oppressed is muted entirely by the oppressor (and because you've read Domination and the Art of Resistance by James Scott, and it was dank).

Are they engaging in some vacuous moral posturing? Probably.

No Love for Foodie Culture

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This is a personally challenging one. I was reading All About Love by bell hooks yesterday. During a passage on the dominance of the culture of greed over a culture of love, I started to feel uncomfortable about having just bought some fancy pu-erh tea.

My pu-erh habit is an artifact of foodie culture. Foodie culture prioritizes connection with food-as-commodity over connection with human beings. Foodie culture is in this way a specifically capitalist culture.

I got this feeling even though I bought the pu-erh explicitly toward a fantasy of sharing it with friends. This doesn't break with foodie culture, either— it's often said that what matters most about fine dining is who you go with.

But this seems troubled. How do we reconcile an ethic of love, which prioritizes human connection, with our knowledge that consuming nice things can be profoundly pleasurable? I suggest three routes.

One is to take Frankl over hooks, take meaning over love, and to also say that there can be some meaning in pleasure.

Another is to say that the pleasure of a friend's cooking or a partner's lovemaking participates in love. I think hooks would agree if we're careful about how we define "participates." Applying this to Marx yields that commodification, the abstraction of goods from the labor that produced them, tears pleasurable things away from a context of love. Commodities are things that have lost their ability to participate in love.

But perhaps commodities can be re-imbued with meaning and again participate in love, as gifts. Perhaps sharing an experience of the same commodity, the same amazing food, can participate in love. This is our third route. People-oriented foodies would be vindicated.

I suspect that each has some truth to it, in different measures. I still have the feeling that connecting with a friend over some pu-erh is less loving than making them lunch, and that tasting pu-erh with a friend comes at the expense of connecting with that friend, themselves. Maybe there's value in variety among these things, and each has its time.

Sorry for more rambling than usual. I can't promise that it'll stop.

Stop Using the Word "Terrorism"

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Why on Earth do we consider getting "terrorism" to be applied in a way that's less racially biased to be a legitimate progressive project?

As recently pointed out by CNN, 'The US Code of Federal Regulations defines it as

the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

"Terrorism" is therefore necessarily a reactionary label. It's a word that identifies any kind of political violence with "terror"-as-goal. It's a pejorative for anyone engaged in a violent struggle against a state or political system, whether Osama bin Laden, Che Guevara, Hezbollah, the Zapatistas, ISIS, the Free Syrian Army, or the Black Panthers.

The burden of proof is on whoever invokes the word "terrorism" to demonstrate that its referent actually has "to terrify people" as its goal. It's a hard sell, and almost certainly politically deflationary.

The Real Grotesque

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The aesthetic of punk was anticapitalist in its celebration and glorification of the unmarketable. Unmarketability is at the heart of the artistic left’s fascination with the grotesque.

But as Mark Fischer points out, capital is incredibly adept at marketizing. “Punk is dead” announced the moment that capitalists learned how to market to punks. The last inroads of attack on capitalism must remain the Lacanian “Real”:

The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us. Environmental catastrophe is one such Real.
Capitalist Realism, p. 18

The aesthetization of the grotesque is not so much an uncovering of the Real. It’s a way of taunting capital by flaunting territory it can’t conquer. But the grotesque Real, the unmarketable grotesqueness which capital produces in the world, is not a kind that any humanist could celebrate.

Crust punks might hold some last little bit of territory. But I hear there are nice (somewhat expensive) skin probiotics you can get to manage the healthy ecosystem of your eternally unbathed skin.

And with that, Merry Christmas! 🎄

The Morality of Relativism

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I often find myself in conversation with people who believe that there is no coherent unique "reality" which all of us perceive and to which we all refer; or that to form consensus about such a reality is impossible.

Interestingly, this is generally defended not on philosophical grounds (on which it's not very defensible), but rather on historical-ethical ones. The idea is that Eurocentric, totalizing theories helped justify and drive imperialism and served as the foundation of imperial ideologies. Therefore, totalizing theories and fixed ontologies are imperialist.

If we are going to advocate relativism on ethical grounds, we have to ask: What is the impact of relativism on the world? If we are going to boil down philosophical claims to their moral import, then perhaps we should subject this approach to its own metric.

With respect to imperialism and neocolonialism, we consult Paul Farmer (well, young, radical Paul Farmer), who works intimately and critically with global systems of development and aid. He points out in Pathologies of Power that moral relativism has been instrumentalized to render acceptable the suffering of nonwhite people. So the anti-imperialist function of relativism seems to have been turned on its head.

Looking at the broader cultural impact of ontological relativism makes it clear that it has failed as a progressive ideological project. The scientific consensus tends to offer a reading of reality conducive to the pursuit of human liberation. It admits that the Armenian, Jewish, and Native American genocides happened; that non-white, trans, and poor people in the US have dramatically worse health outcomes than their wealthy, cis, white counterparts; that there is enough food for everyone to eat and enough houses for everyone to live in.

The most popular, visible, and impactful ways in which people’s versions of reality diverge from this are almost invariably horrifying. Alternative facts like Holocaust denialism; the idea that there is a hell that gay people and everyone who falls within their sphere of influence will go to; Pizzagate — these are the points for divergence from the modern ontological consensus that actually impact the world around us.

Traditional indigenous belief systems, herbal medicines, and the guidance of ancestors are, frankly, comparatively politically irrelevant in the modern US. Yes, we should support cultural rights, and yes, we should oppose capitalist imperialism, which desecrates everything it can turn into a market and forsakes the rest, and yes, we should support the fuck out of indigenous resistance. But the reality of the current political moment is that the alternative ontologies sometimes bundled with left anti-oppression movements hold no political import in the US.

To be a US American leftist advocating for ontological relativism right now he’s like advocating for “states’ rights” while earnestly believing that it’s actually about direct democracy and having a sense of agency in one’s life. It’s simply has nothing to do with present day political reality.

This is not to say that we ought to heed modernist interpretations of reality. Modernism, the regnant philosophical interpretation of capitalism (for its sympathizers) up to the ascendancy of neoliberalism, is defined largely by its optimism. It is the basis of all liberalism. (It is also, it should be noted, the basis of classical statist communism).

Admitting that we are talking about the same world as (most) capitalists and politicians allows us, for one, to excoriate them when they lie about that world. But moreover, it does not restrict the interpretive framework through which we seek to understand the world more broadly. It is these interpretive (not ontological) frameworks that provide a moral evaluation of capitalism, and suggest other possibilities beyond it.

Med-Anthro Pomos and Maternal Death Rates in the US

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In a friend's class they talked about how maternal death rates in do United States are higher than in any other industrialized country. The explanation offered was sort of two claims that bleed into one another.

The first is that in the US medical complex, pregnancy is pathologized. The second, which is possibly supposed to be read as a result of the first, is that pregnancy in the US medical system is supposed to be tightly controlled, that everything about the mother and fetus need to be a certain way, that everything needs to be done a certain way, and these constraints don’t allow for the natural variations in the course of pregnancy and birth. That many unnecessary C-sections are given.

This is the culture of biomedicine, the claim goes, further exhibited by the fact that “birthing happens from the perspective of the doctor rather than the mother.”

Two things stand out to me about this.

The first is how surprising this interpretation is. While many statistics do a good job of obfuscating inequality, I would expect maternal death rate to be a good measure of the quality, or lack thereof, of healthcare among those least provided for. I would expect the US to have a high maternal death rate based solely on its famously inequitable medical system. I would believe the offered explanation only if it is demonstrated that the higher maternal death rate actually correlates positively with some aspect of medical care. That is, for instance, if a disproportionate number of maternal deaths occur secondary to C-sections.

All of this constraint, this opposition to nature, is chalked up to culture of biomedicine. This is a perfectly typical postmodern anthropological take, not just in its content, but in its completely ignoring the structural context in which the culture of biomedicine is subsumed.

The practical critiques offered, those of the ways in which pregnancy and birth are contorted to fit an unnatural and homogeneous template, are probably sound. We probably preform a ton of unnecessary C-sections, at the very least. But to attribute this to the culture of biomedicine, rather than the complex of insurance companies, hospital finance, statistics-based doctor pay, and pharmaceutical boards which surrounds it, is plain capitalist apologism.

The culture of biomedicine is, after all, scientific one, and therefore one that’s capable of responding at least to maternal mortality rates, even if not to the fleshy critiques about humanity and what gives life meaning. Capitalist medicine is neither scientific nor concerned with human life.