Sadomasochism in America and Turkey

Since the beginning of the semester we have been exploring two related processes: on the one hand, the unproblematic expansion of capital throughout the world, and, on the other hand, the somewhat more problematic proliferation of market distortions globally as pockets of resistance emerge in the face of global integration. Our models predict that this combination of forces inevitably give rise to political extremism. Two stories from the BBC this week, one from Turkey, the other from the US, bear testimony to this increasingly common outcome.

The first story (see below), features a mother and daughter. The mother describes how she fled to a uniformly European American community in Georgia to escape the diverse communities by which she feels threatened. The daughter, by contrast, describes her attraction to the variety of languages, cuisines, cultures, and experiences she has encountered at university.

The second story (see below), features a left-leaning scholar in Turkey who fell afoul of authorities in the restored Erdogan regime following last years attempted coup. Turkey reminds us of the enduring legacy of capital’s expansion in the 19th century, but also of the strained transfer of global dominance from Great Britain to the United States that began in the early 20th century and completed itself following World War II.

Our model shows how capital expands most efficiently where particularities — e.g., purely local or regional laws, regulations, customs, and practices — are either eliminated or trivialized. Most familiar is will be the process whereby an imperial power — France, England, Holland, Spain — cultivates relationships with indigenous oligarchs who collaborate to bring local laws, regulations, customs and practices into better alignment with the requirements of capital expansion for the imperial power. While this is never a smooth process, it eventually gives rise to a colony groomed, under post-colonial conditions, to participate more or less transparently in the networks of trade familiar to us throughout the post-colonial world. The process itself almost always entails the suppression and often the elimination of those segments of the colonized population reluctant to shed their particularity and whose resistance, therefore, imposes constraints on capital expansion. Still, the very process itself whereby purely local or regional social forms are eliminated often strengthens oligarchic political forms which can themselves stand in the way of efficient markets.

But it is precisely here that we need to identify a valuable distinction between the initial resistance offered by communities shaped by pre-imperial social and cultural forms and ongoing resistance offered by communities shaped entirely by the novel social forms introduced by the colonizer. When we listen to the mother who has fled to Georgia to live among her own people and escape from the flood of non-European Americans, we are clearly listening to a hybrid resistance narrative. Optimally, capital expansion eliminates or trivializes particularity, either rendering non-European Americans indistinguishable from their European American counterparts, or simply trivializing the differences; reducing these differences to food, clothing, and sanitized personal interest spots. This trivialization is evident in the cosmopolitan daughter’s embrace of what we are here calling “sanitized” difference. The mother, by contrast, feels victimized by a capital expansion among whose visible consequences has been the attraction of non-European Americans to shores that she (mistakenly) identifies as her own. In other words, our model makes room for both the mother’s xenophobia and the daughter’s cosmopolitanism, each of which are normal, expected responses to capital expansion and global integration.

And, yet, clearly the two responses are not equivalent. In the daughter’s response, global integration and capital expansion are experienced as positive processes that bring the world closer together. Politically, therefore, it makes perfect sense that the daughter would favor Hillary Clinton. The mother, by contrast, experiences global integration and capital expansion as threats. Does this mean that the mother might have supported Bernie Sanders? Yes, but only if she enjoyed a more realistic understanding of the mechanisms that have made her a victim. In that case, she might have recognized her common cause with the non-European Americans expelled onto the shores of North America, who, with her, are equally victims of capital expansion and global integration. Instead, she is brought to credit her victimization to the very surface phenomenon celebrated by her daughter — purely cultural, linguistic, or genetic differences, which she is then encouraged to credit for her insecurity. Judged analytically, of course, the role she ascribes to culture, language, or race is without foundation. And, yet, her fixation on these surface expressions ought not for this reason be judged arbitrary.

Surprisingly, globalization and integration are themselves implicated in her fixation. Capital does not expand evenly. Purely local and regional walls are erected or reinforced to protect or advance interests that capital expansion threatens. So, for example, local, regional, and national oligarchs in Mexico needed to be brought on board in order for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to enjoy success. Similarly, had labour been among the factors freely traded throughout the Americas, not only would this driven down wages for documented workers in the US and Canadian (while raising wages for workers in Mexico), but it would almost surely have reduced the comparative advantages capital would have enjoyed relocating to Mexico and reduced the rent US employers enjoyed hiring undocumented workers. By restricting the free movement of labour, the architects of NAFTA ensured that public attention would fix on those superficial differences — the particularities — singled out in the enabling act itself. An undocumented laborer from whom an employer receives the same amount of labor for one third the cost, in effect earns rent on the undocumented laborers’ ethnicity while expanding the untapped supply of documented workers whose resentment against undocumented workers can be leveraged into expanded rent-seeking. Here, by design, ethnicity is made the target of income and employment disparities.

But that is not all. By casting a blind eye international differentials in environmental, occupational safety and labor organizing protections, regulatory regimes (such as NAFTA) that promote capital expansion also sweeten the pot for investors interested in relocating to regions whose weak labor, environmental, workplace safety laws tip the balance in their favor. Here again, capital flies under the radar while purely surface characteristics are placed front and center stage. Capital expansion and rising focus on particularity are not two separate isolated processes, but are both part of a single, highly differentiated, yet integrated process.

The process unfolding in Turkey is not altogether different. On the surface President Erdogan is seeking to eliminate the Islamist particularities promoted by his arch-nemesis, the the exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. And, yet, this fails to explain why so many leftist secularists were swept up in the state crackdown following last July’s failed coup.

Ideally, market efficiencies would have made their own case in the Mediterranean basin, gradually winning converts among members of communities impressed by the freedoms enjoyed by their neighbors until, at long last, all communities would willingly, on their own, have shed their purely local, regional, and national differences and embraced the universal form. This is the ideal. In fact, however, every purely local, regional, or national difference erects a wall and so imposes a distortion upon formally free, unrestricted market relations. The Ottomans and then Turks stood in the way of capital expansion and so found themselves the objects of British, Austro-Hungarian, and Russo-slavic interests. Turkish nationalism was the peculiar outgrowth of this international competition; a hybrid of Islam, nationalism, and modernism on an Afroeurasian peninsula that was increasingly integrated into the global system.

Our model suggests that Turkish modernizers would meet resistance from purely local and regional communities whose forms of social mediation were not yet dominated by capital. It also suggests that investors might find rent-seeking opportunities in the differences between those communities fully committed to globalization and those communities whose particularities mark them as objects of such rent-seeking. In Turkey, President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is only partly misnamed. While not bending fully in the direction of Islamic nationalism, Erdogan sought to bridge the growing rift between the modernizing “development” forces in Turkey and the culturally dominant, but economically dependent Islamists. Again, the increasing economic dependence of culturally conservative Muslims was not unrelated to the drive for economic development and integration promoted by President Erdogan’s party. Fethullah Gulen and the Hizmet successfully occupied the chasm separating the modernist and internationalist Justice and Development Party from the vast majority of Turkish Muslims. When the July coup failed, however, President Erdogan used the coup as an opportunity to eliminate not only Turkey’s more conservative Islamists, but also leftist and secularist elements of Justice and Development who were critical of President Erdogan’s purely cultural move to the right. These secularist parties opposed increasingly strict laws against the consumption of liquor and participation of women in business, politics, and law. In other words, President Erdogan’s crackdown positions him as a culturally conservative advocate of the capital expansion and global integration responsible for the economic dependence of large segments of Turkey’s Muslim majority.

In both the United States and Turkey therefore globalization and capital expansion has given local politics a distinctively sadomasochistic form. Citizens enthusiastically promote the very policies by which they have been victimized in exchange for the pleasure of inflicting pain on others. President Erdogan and President-elect Trump have proven themselves masters of this sadomasochistic political form. Yet, their mastery does not remove Fethullah Gulen or Hillary Clinton from suspicion. When globalization and capital expansion are promoted in their own right without regard for the welfare of communities harmed by this process, our model gives us every reason to anticipate conflict and political suppression. It cannot be otherwise.

When Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barrack Obama joined Presidents Reagan and Bush2 to weaken or eliminate protections enjoyed by working families they strengthened both of these tendencies within globalization and capital expansion — both the elimination of difference and rent-seeking based on difference. In a truncated, distorted version of the standard model, only the elimination of difference is highlighted. In the more robust model we are adopting here, both the shedding of particularity and its simultaneous cultivation are brought to the fore, calling attention to the necessarily conflictual character of capital expansion itself. In this sense, capital expansion is by its very nature sadomasochistic, both in the US and in Turkey. In both cases it derives pleasure from pain.

How the Democrats Lost Michigan

I just finished listening to Robert Siegel’s interview with Senator Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) on “All Things Considered” and everything fell into place.

Really? Ever courteous Mr Siegel gave the Senator every opportunity to say that the Democratic Party and the DNC had let young voters and working families down and to reaffirm her party’s commitment to both. Instead, the Senator repeatedly side-stepped the opportunity, at one point even appearing to fault young people for voting in larger than usual numbers for third party candidates. Yes, the Senator blamed the voters for not committing more firmly to the Party that since 1976 has pretty much abandoned the working family.

Yes, the Republicans are far, far worse. No doubt. But Ms Stabenow was given an open mic and a national audience to say, “We made a mistake. Since 1976 we have failed to stand with working families the way we need to. We are not going to make that mistake again. Whether its trade, taxation, benefits, workers rights, health care, college tuition, workplace safety — from this point forward, we have the backs of our young, our workers, and our elderly. Period.” Instead, she threw it back in their faces. Shame.

I now understand far better why the Dems lost Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio. And I understand far better why the DNC and Debbie Wasserman ran the other way when Bernie Sanders showed up. The whole Bernie message — working families, college students, elderly — made them nauseous, turned their stomachs; yuck! But instead of owning the electoral results, they talk about working with America’s first openly fascist President. Come to think of it, maybe this is the President they can work with.


History as Future Past

As we careen toward the end of the semester, students have grown anxious, not only because of outstanding papers and final examinations, but also because the future seems so unpromising. As a white European American male, I have tried to recognize the security built-in to my identity. This security has brought me to reflect critically on other moments of precarity, the Weimar in Germany, Periclean Athens. Is it unhealthy to notice and even to be drawn to these epochs? Of all the periods of classical writing and art, none parallels the fifth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece. Was there any period in German art and writing more prolific than the 1920s and 1930s?


Is it pornographic to contemplate these stories and forms, born out of extreme anguish, turbulence, war, and pain; to find them attractive?

Only two generations ago, it was settled that democracy and free markets would stretch far into our future, disappearing well beyond the visible horizon. Works such as Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, written in 1928, republished in 1932, seemed novelties, theoretically interesting but practically useless. My students read Concept of the Political this semester as though it were a contemporary work, written this morning about our world. When they then read John Maynard Keynes’ “The World’s Economic Outlook,” written in 1938 for Atlantic, they could not help but gasp:

In the past, therefore, we have not infrequently had to wait for a war to terminate a major depression. I hope that in the future we shall not adhere to this purist financial attitude, and that we shall be ready to spend on the enterprises of peace what the financial maxims of the past would only allow us to spend on the devastations of war.

For then we remember that, yes, our post-war prosperity and the unflinching commitment of Europeans to social democracy were both predicated upon a world war that left millions dead and that destroyed the fixed capital of a whole continent. Was this the price we paid for Buddenbrooks or Das Boot? Prior to war social inequality and social immobility were both far greater in Europe than in the US. War is a great leveler, performing far more efficiently that which we only reluctantly, if at all, perform during times of peace. Aristophanes wrote during a war-induced plague.

In ten, twenty, or thirty years, stories will be written about us, about our resistance. Our paintings will be displayed, or books republished. Documentaries will be broadcast about our shielding of Muslims, Mexicans, and foreigners from the free-for-all pogroms authorized by our highest political leaders. Our literature will be celebrated.

Am I arguing against resistance? No. I am simply registering what resistance looks like. I am registering a painting, a poem, a photograph. I am registering universities closed down and shuttered, dormitories entered seizing the undocumenteds known to reside there. I am registering professors relieved of their posts. I am registering paintings removed from galleries, replaced with “more suitable” works.

“We have all been here before.” So intoned poets when the US was attempting to eliminate democracy in southeast Asia. Walter Benjamin invoked a similar mood, when, contemplating the fascist uprising in his own Germany, he paused to honor the hopes of the dead:

The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

I include “historical materialists are aware of that” because to eliminate it would cheapen the prophecy. The current “spiritual” generation, not unlike the “spiritual” generation in Germany, has no need or desire to “connect the dots” since they enjoy direct, immediate access to the divine.  The “weak Messianic power,” by contrast, is dependent upon the connects, not vertical, but horizontal — horizontal and, so, dubious, questionable, flawed, and so “weak.”

Can we prevent the fire-storm building on the horizon, on the frontier between Russia and Europe, extending deep into the subcontinent, and encircling the Mediterranean? Can we prevent Marine Le Pen from prevailing in France or the succession of Angela Merkel in Germany? No. We cannot.

Am I wrong to imagine the symphonies that will be composed, the poems that will be written? They are already ringing in my ears. The photographs, not yet processed, are already on the wall of my skull.

But none of this can deter us from shielding those who are most vulnerable. Our cities, our universities, our homes must become refuge — welcoming places, full of fruit, honey, fat, wine — for those who would be victims. And when we open our cities, universities, and homes in this way, we make ourselves not only safe harbors, but targets. We cannot do otherwise. The laws passed in Washington, DC; the warrants issued; the officials dispatched. They simply cannot concern us. We must stand firm.

And, then, as enemies of the state, we will be punished and some, perhaps many, will pay the ultimate price. “We have all been here before.”

But, I was actually thinking about the art, the music, the literature, the dance — the amazing work that emerge during such times as we now are passing through. Is it pornographic to anticipate, to desire, such works, such times?

The Trump Christian

The New York Times published its exit poll data today and, no surprise, President-elect Donald Trump was the head-and-shoulders favorite of white Evangelicals and Born-Again:


Trump also was the favorite of voters who described themselves as “Protestant or other Christian” and “Catholic.” Which raises an interesting question: is there such a thing as a “Trump Christian”? The answer is: yes, there is.

Trump Christianity is the clearest evidence to date of a deep-rooted, wide-spread heresy within the Christian faith. Voting for Donald Trump is not that heresy. Instead, it is evidence of that heresy. The heresy entails rejection of the Incarnation, God’s embodiment in Jesus of Nazareth, summarized in the Creed’s “true God and true man.” “True man” requires that I attend to all that makes human beings human — not only sin, but birth, development, language, culture, dependence, despair, hope, care, and a range of other conditions amply displayed in the gospels of the New Testament. Trump Christians reject Jesus’ humanity. Trump Christians reject the Incarnation. They are evidence of the eternal attraction of Doceticism — an experience of the divine absent a body; the conviction that bodies detract from divinity.

Biblical and historical Christianity embraces and in fact trumpets and celebrates the Incarnation (see 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16). It is among the leading factors distinguishing Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism from Islam and Buddhism. The physical and fleshly is not a detraction from, but is essential to the divine. In Christianity, as distinguished from Judaism and Hinduism, the Incarnation is the divine. No Docetism here. None.

Because the body reveals — it does not conceal — God, I attend to it. I expect to find God in the flesh — in history, in time, in space, where it is mixed up together with things that are clearly not God and things that might be God but are not.

If, by contrast, I deny the Incarnation then I am free to mistake any experience or encounter I have — with Scripture, with fellow Christians, with my pastor — with an immediate experience of God, as true, as real, as valid, as though I were immediately in Christ’s presence at God’s right hand. God self-mediates. My immediate experience is divinely inspired. No body is necessary. Indeed, every body is an impediment.

Obviously this form of Christianity is deeply and fundamentally appealing to individuals who feel that the institutions, laws, and arrangements of history have delivered them a bad deal. I get that. Obviously this form of Christianity appeals to individuals who feel that history is rigged against them. God must enter history at a right-angle; must burst into history; must break it open. The embodied world is fundamentally unreliable, false, deceptive, deceitful, and unjust. I get that.

Which is why it simply cannot be that the Palestinian Jew Jesus — precisely as the Palestinian Jew — is God.

Docetism lies at the heart of Trump Christianity because for the Trump Christian it seems so implausible that the embodied world, which is so clearly aligned against them, could embody God. And, yet, there it is. At the heart of pagan Empire, at the heart of Imperial domination, where “insiders” so clearly dominate over the common working family; precisely there God is born a Palestinian Jew; the weakest and most despised outsider of them all.

Christians have a choice. They can either embrace this Incarnate God — the weakest and most despised — and attend to His Body. Or they can reject Him. This rejection has no other name than “heresy,” from αἴρεσις, meaning “choice,” “course taken,” “course of action or thought.” It suggests that I have ignored all of the words, principles, thought, advice, or sign-posts prompting me to adopt one course and that I have instead chosen another. It entails a fundamental, deeply-rooted rejection of the embodied gospel for the sake of a disembodied choice. In its most basic form it is a pagan-nationalist mystery cult. “I know because I know.” For the Trump Christian, the body is immaterial.

This suggests that Trump Christianity is at root a pathology; it is a response to pain. But, by contrast to Jesus, who names Rome and Roman collaborators as the cause for pain, Trump Christians join with Rome and become Roman collaborators against Rome’s victims. In modern terms, they join with Rome against Muslims, women, GLBTs, and Mexicans. They assuage their pain, their pathos, by identifying with the perpetrator. Instead of attending to the body, they seek to destroy it because they feel that destroying the body will relieve them of their suffering, their pain, their pathos. Trump Christianity is pathological; it is rooted in pain.

The Trump Christian is a heretic. The Trump Christian suffers from a deep-rooted pathology. The question that believing Christians must ask is how they might minister to these victims. And the answer we receive is simple: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, comfort the widow, embrace the orphan.


Reality Test

For years I have been teaching my students that intelligence is social. People think more clearly when they are fed, educated, healthy, and secure. Never has this been the case in the United States. And while there are pockets on the face of the planet where these conditions held good, they are the exception, not the rule. By and large, people are hungry, in poor health, poorly educated, and scared. I am a member of a very thin layer of humanity that enjoys all of these goods: food, education, health, and security. But I was hoping that in spite of the hunger, ignorance, sickness, and fear under which most people live; I was hoping that what I have taught for years did not hold.

So what did hold? It is one thing to teach that people judge poorly when their basic needs are not met. It is quite another to reflect critically on the judgments they do make when their needs are not met. It is humbling to know that people like me — well-educated, healthy, filled, and secure — believed that Hillary Clinton was the right candidate. It is humbling because it was so showed poor judgment. We nominated a candidate who, as Thomas Frank stated it so well, was “well-graduated.” We nominated the insider, the team player, the experienced, the thoughtful. And we nominated that candidate with full knowledge that the poorly-educated, sick, hungry, and scared considered her the enemy — and not only because she happened to be a woman (yes, this is a frightfully misogynist crowd), but because she was like us. We are the enemy: the educated, fed, healthy, and secure.

As our Muslim and Hispanic friends are beaten, jailed, humiliated and deported; as our GLBT friends and family members are mocked, harassed, beaten, and subjected to ridicule and exclusion, we need to be absolutely clear: we nominated a candidate who looked and thought like us. As Obamacare is dismantled and climate change legislation is put on ice and as a wall is erected separating us from our friends and neighbors (and as bridges are built welcoming dictators and demagogues), we need to be clear: we nominated a candidate who looked and thought like us. Because we believe — and I have taught — that people who look and think like us show good judgment. In 2016 we showed extraordinarily poor judgment. We nominated a candidate who voters hated as much as they hated us. That was not wise.

That’s the reality test. So how do we move forward? One possible answer is that we reevaluate our judgment on our GLBT friends, climate change, Muslims, Latino/as, police violence, healthcare, and education. We move to where voters evidently are. But another answer could be that next time we nominate a candidate who has displayed marginally greater interest in those who do not look and think like us; and who displays marginally less interest in the well-graduated managerial class.

There is no perfect candidate. But during an election cycle that we had every reason to believe would favor the outsider, the non-player, the rogue, we nominated a candidate who was the consummate insider. That showed extraordinarily poor judgment. We need candidates and we need a movement that are not so transparently friends of Wall Street and the Defense industry. If the Democratic Party cannot field those candidates and cannot be that movement, then we need to create an alternative movement, a clearly Democratic Socialist movement.

Bernie? Are you there?