Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Gitte du Plessis — Cultivating Catastrophe: Why Does North Korea Still Pursue Biological Weapons?


Gitte du Plessis

Gitte du Plessis earned her PhD in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and is now a post-doctoral researcher at the RELATE Centre of Excellence in the department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland. She is currently completing a monograph titled Microbial Geopolitics: Living with Danger and the Limits of Security, and has begun a new project that focuses on non-human forces in Arctic geopolitics.

In the deadly game of sabre rattling, biological weapons are out of vogue. As I have explored elsewhere, the idea of pathogens as weapons of mass destruction had its heyday in the last century, when countries such as Britain, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, Israel, South Africa, and Iraq all had offensive bioweapons programs. Overwhelmingly, the pursuit of biological weapons has been futile and a waste of resources. The problem with weaponizing pathogens is that pathogens resist weaponization. Microbes are living beings, which sets them distinctively apart from chemical or nuclear weapons. Nobody, thus far, has been able to control microbes enough to actually train them. Microbes don’t respond to discipline, threat or punishment, they don’t understand human commands, and their modes of conduct are so radically different from human modes of conduct that mastering contagion in the interest of war has proved close to impossible. Hence, the history of the use of biological weapons is sketchy and everything but glorious – a series of failed attempts at microbial control. Infectious pathogens are lethal, and they pose a threat to human lives, but overwhelmingly, the lives that have been lost to biological weapons are of lab workers, test animals, test humans and civilians killed by pathogens from programmes that were supposed to protect them. The laboratory is deadly in itself, and the weapon rarely makes it to the battlefield in a decisive way.

For these reasons, most global powers have turned their attention to other kinds of weapons. The United States now only conducts research on biological weapons for defense purposes. Contemporary innovations in high-tech weaponry are focused on drones, robots, and artificial intelligence, while low-tech innovation is turning to everyday items such as cars or improvised explosive devices made out of surplus electronic and military components. In comparison to the effectiveness of these sorts of weapons, pursuing biological weapons is a strategic blunder.

So why is the North Korean regime still investing in the capabilities of biological weapons? A recent report from the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs titled North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program: The Known and Unknown, details how North Korea is in possession of 13 different biological agents that can be weaponized, and that they likely have the capability to weaponize at least anthrax and smallpox within a matter of days. The easy explanation is that North Korea is still living in the last century. I think something else is going on. 

Compared to other international powers, characteristics of North Korea make the regime more likely to attempt collaboration with pathogens. Only great powers are heavily invested in global order. The disordering properties of biological weapons are alluring to North Korea, because the regime thrives and depends on global disorder. The way in which pathogens are unknowable and uncontrollable suits the North Korean regime, whose tactic is to be exactly this kind of presence in international relations, in the hopes that others are discouraged from messing with them. Other nations gave up on biological weapons as they realized that the destruction caused by pathogens cannot be mastered to the point where a nation can direct pathogenic destruction only at the enemy, without significant risk to itself. Pathogens are finicky, and easily turn back on the disperser. According to an expert interview cited in the report from the Belfer Center, North Korea considers human vectors as one way of dispersing their biological weapons. This kind of sacrifice is currently unthinkable to other nations given the relative security of most great powers and their allies, but not to North Korea, who values the survival of the regime via deterrence over North Korean lives. This means that the self-destructive elements of pursuing biological weapons are tolerable to North Korea. 

North Korea’s pursuit of biological weapons receives little attention. The international community focuses primarily on the security threat of North Korea’s nuclear program. Unlike the threat of biological weapons, the nuclear threat can be managed and to some extent controlled with conventional and nuclear deterrence strategies. This is not to suggest that nuclear weapons are safe, however the international order has normalized the rules of nuclear competition, and despite concern of nuclear proliferation, nuclear technologies mostly comply with these rules. While the pursuit of biological weapons is a strategic blunder from the perspective of a user of those weapons, being the enemy of a power that nonetheless pursues them is a strategic headache. Biological weapons are a last resort, and it makes sense to use them for a crumbling power with nothing to loose, as a last dash against a global order that refuses to accept its existence. This means that biological weapons cannot be controlled with war, because destruction of North Korea is an incentive to turn to these kinds of weapons. We could for example imagine North Korea infecting its own fleeing refugees as a kind of second strike in an already lost war. 

Because North Korea is an outlier resonating with global disorder, their pursuit of biological weapons makes sense. While the United States and North Korea are equal enemies in the power play of nuclear deterrence, the uncertainty of the North Korean biological weapons program gives North Korea an edge. Biological weapons destabilize the world of international relations in different ways than the seemingly rational world of nuclear weapons. 

In the West, we are accustomed to the strategy of destroying everything that is dangerous. We spray to kill mosquitoes carrying Zika, we kill wolves if they dare to attack humans, ISIS must be eradicated, and so on. This logic does not work with North Korea. North Korea has managed to corral itself in a way that requires us to cohabitate with the uncertainty and danger that constitutes the regime. This position is the best North Korea can hope for, and the pursuit of biological weapons aids them in defending it vigorously. 

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Samuel A. Chambers — The Washington Post “fact checks” Sanders on Wealth Inequality: This is What Ideology Looks Like

Samuel A. Chambers

Samuel A. Chambers is a Professor at Johns Hopkins University. He co-edits the journal Contemporary Political Theory and is series co-editor of Routledge's Innovators in Political Theory. His current research project has the current working title "How to Be a Capitalist."

In a speech given at Westminster College on September 21, 2017, US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made the following claim: “There is no moral or economic justification for the six wealthiest people in the world having as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, 3.7 billion people.” 

On October 2nd, 2017, The Washington Post’s Nicole Lewis published a fact check of Sanders’ claim, coming to the following conclusion: “Sanders’s statistic, while provocative, is basically meaningless. He earns Three Pinocchios.” To clarify, for the Post “Three Pinochios” entails a “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions. This gets into the realm of ‘mostly false’” (emphasis added).[1]

What does it mean to conclude—in an “Analysis” piece, not opinion, as the Post emphasizes—in one of the foremost national American newspapers that Sanders’ claim is “basically meaningless” and “mostly false.” And what’s going on when the Post takes the time to make this assertion?

Unlike many tortured statistical claims, the basic facts underlying Sanders’ statement are relatively straightforward. First, according to the Forbes list of billionaires, the top six men in the world have a combined net worth of $462.6 billion. Second, according to the 2016 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, the bottom 50% of people in the world hold a combined net worth of $409 billion.[2]

So where does the meaninglessness and the falseness come from? Mainly from the Post’s apparent inability to accept the basic definition of wealth as net worth. Lewis writes: “The Credit Suisse report measures wealth as net worth, or assets minus debts. This means people with burdensome debt and a high income but few assets wind up ranking lower on the global wealth scale than someone with no debt, low income and no assets.” But this is not some idiosyncrasy of Credit Suisse: “net worth = assets – debts” is basically the way all accountants and economists would calculate wealth. Indeed, there is no other viable metric out there, so if you are going to talk about wealth, much less wealth inequality, the measure you have to work with is net worth. But Lewis is convinced that net worth is really skewing things, as she emphasizes in probably the most important line in this analysis: basing wealth on net worth “means a recent medical school graduate in the United States with high earning potential and loads of debt would wind up on the lower end of the scale than someone in India living on $2 a day.” The first thing to say is that of course that is true, for tautological reasons: a person with negative net worth has less net worth than a person with a small positive net worth. 

But Lewis is also, intentionally or not, conflating Sanders claim with a different assertion about the problems of global inequality. In 2015 Oxfam published a report (based on earlier Credit Suisse data) that made claims and even certain problematic projections (based on simplistic extrapolations) about increasing global wealth inequality. Some legitimate economic authorities responded to this report to point out that comparing aggregate wealth levels across countries proves to be tricky business, since it overlooks the fact that the middle class in some countries (e.g. China) are actually doing much better over time than the middle class in others (e.g. Europe and North American).

But anyone who has ever heard Bernie Sanders give a speech knows perfectly well that his major concern and his target audience is the USA. Improvements of the standard of living among wealthier Chinese citizens is not his focus: he is interested in those Americans who are less well off than they were 25 or 50 years ago – and that could be the bottom 25%, the bottom 50%, or arguably even the bottom 90%. To clarify matters, we can reconstruct Sanders’ statement strictly and narrowly within the terms of the USA. What do we find? That the top 10 American billionaires have a total net worth 58% greater than the bottom 40% of Americans combined.[3] Sure, this new American-only stat has extended the number of rich people from six to ten, and it has decreased the number of poor people from 50% (of the global population) to 40% (of the USA), but wouldn’t Sanders’ fundamental political claim still hold, perhaps even more so: there is no moral or economic justification for this distribution of wealth. 

Perhaps none of this would satisfy Lewis who comes at the claim about inequality from other directions as well—though, it must be said, not ones that have much to do with the basic factual claims. Lewis (here again, following other attempts to undermine the implications that some have drawn from the Credit Suisse data) still cannot seem to get over the fact that to measure wealth as net worth means to include a lot of people with negative net worth. As the quote above makes clear, Lewis means to suggest to her reader that Sanders’ claim relies on portraying young doctors as poor. But that raises a question that Lewis fails to even consider: what percentage of those Americans with negative equity actually become future rich professionals? I have yet to locate definitive data that answers this question, but the data we do have on debt in America seems to indicate that most Americans with negative net worth are poor Americans who are most likely to remain poor Americans. It is true, of course, that many wealthy Americans also hold debt (especially mortgage debt), but this is a red herring since those people are not a part of the group with negative net worth. Lewis repeatedly appeals to her reader (usually subtly and implicitly, but nonetheless) to believe that Sanders is factually wrong in his claims about wealth inequality for the reason that so many Americans have negative net worth. Hence she writes: “When the lowest 10 percent of the wealth spectrum, which holds -.43 percent of the global wealth, is removed, the remaining 40 percent of the bottom 50 percent own $1.51 trillion.” Two responses: first, eliminating all the people with negative net worth still means that the wealth held by those in the 10% to 50% range (more than 100 million people) is still only twice that held by the ten richest Americans; second, what, exactly, does it mean to “remove” the poorest 10%? I see why Lewis wants to set them aside to make the numbers look better—although from this perspective she should just have found a way to “remove” the top 1%, which would have solved almost all the inequality problems in one fell swoop—but what is to be done with the millions of Americans we have just “excluded.” I suppose Lewis wishes that they will all turn out to be doctors. 

And that may well be her only hope, because her remaining arguments are misguided and incoherent. Her last gasp is to tell her readers something that was already obvious: Bill “Gates’s wealth is prone to major fluctuations. Sudden changes in the stock market…will affect his bottom line.” Lewis points this out to her readers in order to draw a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, Gates’s financial assets and, on the other, the “nonfinancial assets” held by others, particularly in so-called developing countries. But from the fact that the Credit Suisse report categorizes some assets as “financial” and some others as “nonfinancial,” Lewis draws this conclusion: “the comparisons are mismatched. Gates’s wealth is held in a complex financial system, but his wealth is being compared with nonfinancial wealth, the value of which does not fluctuate (or soar) with the same ease.” 

This statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism. Real estate and land are no less a part of a “complex financial system” than any stock or bond, or even CDO or CDS. To think that somehow real estate is more “stable” in value than stocks is preposterous in general, but it is especially so for any person who lived through the great housing collapse of 2008. Tell the person who owned a home in Las Vegas in 2007 that nonfinancial assets are not subject to major fluctuations: house prices dropped 63% overall, and for certain condo owners the drop was even steeper. In comparison, the S&P 500 lost 50% of its total value in roughly the same crisis period.[4]

So what is at stake in all of this? By which I mean both, why does the Post “fact check” a relatively straightforward claim about global wealth distribution, and why have I spent the time and energy to fact check the fact checker? One relatively simple answer is that the Post is shilling for its owner, Jeff Bezos—net worth $72.8 billion, good for number 3 on the Forbes list. In an earlier fact check of a Sanders’ claim about inequality, the Post’s Glenn Kessler made the point almost transparently. Sanders had said that from 2013 to 2015 the 15 richest Americans had gained more in total wealth, $170 billion, than the bottom 100 million Americans. Kessler’s response: 1) sure, but sometimes the wealth of the rich goes down too; 2) “about a third of the billionaires became recently rich because of the computer and Internet boom”; 3) “Some of this wealth is quite recent”; 4) Sanders has a net worth of $330,000, so he’s richer than most everyone else too, 5) once again, everyone in the bottom 10% has negative net worth, so they “drag everyone else down.” I briefly rehearse Kessler’s arguments because this fact check concludes by stating as unassailable fact almost exactly what the later analysis will question. Kessler writes: “We agree the wealth of the 15 richest Americans is certainly staggering. Another way to look at it is they have as much net worth as the bottom half of the American population.” Indeed, that is another way of looking at it; it is just the way Sanders looked at it in his September 2017 speech, the one that earned him three pinochios from Lewis. All of which brings me to Kessler’s telling conclusion: “We will leave it to readers to decide if this means the economy is ‘rigged’—or if innovative entrepreneurs simply have the ability today to earn vast sums of money. While Sanders says he wants to make the wealthy pay their fair share, it is worth noting that five members of this group — Gates, Buffett, Ellison, Bloomberg and Zuckerberg — have signed a pledge saying they will give up most of their wealth for philanthropic causes.” It couldn’t be plainer: innovative entrepreneurs earn their money and they plan to give it a way anyway, so don’t worry about it.

But I’m actually less interested in the extent to which the Post is running interference for the third wealthiest man in the world. There is something greater at stake here, something clearly betrayed in the critics’ continued weak attacks on, and deep frustrations with, the idea of net worth. In these retorts here are two elements of net worth as the Freudian symptom in play. First, a large number of those who populate the bottom 10% that Lewis would have us find a way to “exclude” are a newly indebted class. In fact, to give the point some color we can say that today the worst off are not those who have nothing, but those who have less than nothing. Somewhere between 9% to 12% of Americans have negative net worth, and while this is may in fact be temporary for a small number of them, that is surely a tiny minority of the total. For many Americans, negative net worth and a life of debt is the new ordinary. Payday loans, Western Union, and 30% interest Credit Cards are not making record profits from medical students; they are making those profits on the backs of the poor – and today’s poor is the indebted poor.

Second, in calculating and comparing net worth we put ourselves on a slippery slope, because by looking hard at actual net worth numbers we may come to address the elephant in the room. This elephant has already been located, well lit, and dressed for the party, since Thomas Piketty’s publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What is going on in pieces like those by Kessler and Lewis is a concerted effort to refuse to talk about capital. Piketty’s vast collection of historical data shows bluntly what Marx’s analysis of the fundamental logic of capital had revealed almost 150 years before: that capital is a force, and as that force grows and grows it begins to attain an inertial momentum that is almost unstoppable. In this context, let me close with my own stat, one that I hope speaks even more directly to the narrative of self-authored earnings that the Post hopes to bolster. Many of the critiques of claims about wealth inequality are designed to turn our attention away from wealth (which is just so hard to measure and compare) and back to income, a metric that resonates with the narrative about innovative earners making individual decisions. And of course, because they are measuring an annual flow and not a total stock, income numbers are simply much smaller in scale both absolutely and in comparative terms. According to the latest data from the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, the median family/household income in the United States in 2016 was $52,700. And the median incomes for the bottom four quintiles of income distribution are as follows: $16,200, $33,100, $54,100, $86,100. After that, the top two deciles move up more steeply: 80–90% is $135,300, and 90–100% is $251,500. Yet, overall, the distances don’t seem that dramatic. 

The same cannot be said for wealth, where the median net worth is $97,300, but the top two decile means look like this: $800,500 and $4,526,600. In other words, while the top decile median income is only five times larger than the overall median income, the top decile mean net worth is 47 times greater than median wealth. Of course, critics of claims about wealth distribution and wealth inequality might just repeat their arguments: net worth and income are two totally different measures, and are simply not comparable. And this ostensible response brings us to the crux of my argument; it helps to underscore the importance of a particular understanding of capital as a dynamic force. The key is this: net worth is not just a spreadsheet accounting of total assets, it is also a potential generator of income. We can, in fact, compare income and capital and we can do so precisely because it is in the very nature of capital to generate an income. It should go without saying that from a specific moment in the present to any moment in the future we cannot predict with any certainty what that income will be; indeed, it is also precisely in the nature of capital that it can fail to earn any income at all, that it can decline in value, that it might even disappear entirely. Be that as it may, we can look to the past within advanced capitalist societies and see quite clearly what sort of income capital generates on average, over both the medium and long term. For example, from 1928 through 2014, the S&P 500 index returned an average of 10% net, or a “real return” of 7% if adjusted for average inflation over the same time period. If we take that 7% and apply it to the top decile median net worth, we see not only that people in that decile have massively more wealth than the median American, but also that their average net worth will generate an annual income of $316,862. 

This brings me to my preferred statistic: the average wealth of the top decile will produce in income annually a sum more than six times the median income. Here’s another: the wealth of the top 1% will generate an annual income 45,000 times greater than the median income of the bottom quintile. None of these numbers call on the powers of compounding interest (a power only available to net worth, not to income), as they are simply one-off calculations based upon the modest assumption of 7% average return. But most high net-worth individuals (i.e. wealthy people) reinvest a large portion of the income that their capital generates, which means that their capital grows and therefore generates an even greater income. Here, then, is just a slightly expanded example. The mean net worth of the top 1% is $10,350,300, which would produce (at 7% return) an annual income in year 1 of $724,521. In year 2, just the income from year 1 could itself be used as capital to produce a year 2 income of $50,716.[5] That is roughly equivalent to the median income of all Americans, and it is produced not from the income on wealth, but from just the income on the income from wealth. 

Net worth matters because wealth matters. And wealth matters because capital matters. It should go without saying that capital matters because the system is called capitalism. It’s not a “free market” system or an “exchange” system or a “competitive” system; it’s a capitalist system, in which the primary driving force, the force that structures, constrains and ultimately (re)organizes the system itself is the force by which capital grows, by which capital begets more capital. This is what the Post does not want anyone talking about. 


[1] For comparison sake, here are two statements from President Trump (then Candidate Trump) that earned the exact same three-Pinochios rating: 1) “The Department of Justice, the State Department and the FBI colluded, got together, to make Hillary Clinton look less guilty” and 2) “I’ve won most of the lawsuits against Trump University.” The former statement is blatantly false based simply on the definition of collusion; as to the latter, at the time of this statement, none of the three cases against Trump University had even been decided, so Trump had won exactly zero of them. 

[2] Indeed, if Sanders had wanted to round the numbers off and make the stat pop just a bit more, he could easily have claimed that the five wealthiest people held as much wealth as the bottom half, since #6 on the Forbes list is worth $68 billion, so the total for the top five would be just a titch under the total for the bottom 50%. 

[3] My “top 10” combines the Koch brothers (tied for #8 on Forbes list) into one entry, and aggregates the three Waltons (15–17) into one as well; this gives a total of $672 billion. The bottom 40% of Americans own 0.5% of America’s total net worth of $76 trillion, or a total of $425 billion. All data here are from the 2016 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report and from the 2017 Forbes billionaires list. 

[4] Lewis also suggests that the Credit Suisse data is invalid because “Credit Suisse converts all the currencies to U.S. dollars, based on the value of the dollar at the time in question.” But this claim is simply false, as even a cursory reading of the report makes it clear that Credit Suisse sometimes gives data at current exchange rates and sometimes in constant exchange rates, and frequently remarks in detail on when and why the two diverge (Credit Suisse 2016: 15). 

[5] None of this is not to mention that the income generated from wealth is taxed at significantly lower rates than the income from wages, so in net terms the second year income from the income of the mean 1%’s net worth would actually be greater than the net from the median income American. And none of this is to mention the fact the crucial importance of the “Wealth Defense Industry” by which those who hold capital can use the power of the state to protect that capital and its growth (Winters 2017).
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Monday, October 23, 2017

Bonnie Honig — (Un)Reality TV: Trump, Kelly, and the Revolving Door of Whiteness

Bonnie Honig
Brown University 

With a Reality TV president in office, it should be no surprise to watch, once again, as the revolving door between reality and TV swings round, and we are left unclear which side of it we are on. And yet I am stunned at the usefulness, not for the first time, of the show VEEP, in helping us understand Trump in Washington.
Selina, for those who do not know the show, is an empty, ambitious woman who will do or say anything to get what she wants and is indifferent to, and indeed totally unaware of the impact of her actions on those around her. In Season 6, episode 8 of VEEP, Selina’s devoted assistant, Gary, after 5 ½ seasons of degradation and dependence, gets Selina to go to his hometown, meet his parents, and attend a party he wants to throw. Jessica Goldstein summarizes what happens next. Before the party, "Gary confides in Selina that he has this childhood story, a loving one he has tenderly held all his life...The party has gone in decidedly not Gary’s planned direction ... [and then Selina, who is trying to impress one of the guests with her folksiness] gets up to give a toast … and she steals Gary’s story. It’s a wonder to behold. She does tell it better than he does, fake folksy lines and all,” and she ends with an authentic-sounding line: “’He just wanted to make his little girl as happy as a hound dog with a horse’s Johnson.’ Gary’s face as he sees that Selina is really going to take every last thing about this milestone away from him is wrenching. He is gutted. The betrayal leaves him speechless, and, as usual, Selina is cavalier about the pain her actions have caused." 

Sound familiar? It should. This, I imagine, is the scene in the Oval Office earlier this week, when General Kelly shared privately his story of his son's death with the President, using language that military men who have earned it use for such things. 'He knew what he signed up for.' 'He understood the mission.' Or, perhaps, as he put it, later after the scandal began to unravel: He “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed…He knew what he was getting into … He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war.”
I imagine this was all part of Kelly's effort to persuade Trump NOT to call the survivors of those who died in Niger and elsewhere. ‘Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,’” he says he told Trump. I imagine he was suggesting, on the surface, that there is no lightening the burden for the bereaved that anyone can offer, but he was also saying, beneath that, the real truth, which is that there is no comfort this president can offer, given who he is, how he talks, and so on. 
As part of this conversation about whether or not to call the bereaved, Kelly also mentioned that he, himself, never got a call from Obama. He said this in the context of a conversation in which his aim was, again, to prevent Trump from getting on the phone, likely knowing that it could not go well. But Kelly misstepped. Undoubtedly thinking that by taking Obama out of the calculus, he frees Trump to not call, Kelly failed to anticipate the infantile one-upmanship that inevitably kicked in. ‘Wait: Obama didn't call?’ I can just see the VEEP-like digestion of this information, the presidential brain processing it clunkily to conclude: 'Then I WILL! I will be better than him! How hard can it be? And think of the press coverage!'
Shortly after, asked in a press conference about why he has not spoken about the 4 dead in Niger, Trump, channeling VEEP’s Selina, tells part of the story that Kelly has told him: Obama didn’t call everyone, but he, Trump, does, or will.
  Then later, in a phone call with the family of La David Johnson, one of the four American men who died in Niger, Trump uses the words and phrases Kelly used with him. They are manly phrases: 'he knew what he signed up for!' When Kelly said those words, Trump admired them. He was admiring the man who said them. He thought that if he stole the words, he could steal also the character, history, and experience he admires in Kelly. He could do it cavalierly. Why not? 
But Trump is no Selina. He couldn't pull it off. And Kelly is left in the role of Gary, whose face, "as he sees that Selina is really going to take every last thing about this milestone away from him, is wrenching." Unlike Gary, however, Kelly is not left speechless. Kelly says things, and now he makes it worse. Because the things he is used to saying in his circles are not now the things to say in the circle into which he is made to step by all of this. The congresswoman is not a political congresswoman, she herself is kin; she is not listening in on a phone call, she is part of the family circle to whom the phone call is made. She is saying things that are true: Trump’s words did not convey to the bereaved the care and comfort he proclaimed as his but rather the callous disregard he has for everything. The words that Trump said were offensive because they are words for men and women in the armed forces to say to each other. They are not the words that a draft-evading, cavalier, military wannabe and serial user of people can say with credibility and they are not the words anyone says to grieving non-military family members, either. They were words said to Kelly by his military friends and colleagues. I doubt very much they were the words he said to his wife Karen when, as he says, he went upstairs to break her heart. And so when Trump stole them for himself, to say them to the wrong people, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, they felt foul. They rang false, and hollow. Of course they did. 
That is not the end of the story. So far it is all just tawdry, VEEP-level tawdry. The real irony is in what happens next, as Kelly begins to sound more and more like Trump. The revolving door turns once more and suddenly Kelly, who has never spoken publicly about these things, is speaking in public, about his loss and about who gets to speak about loss: only people with a direct experience of or relationship to life and death in the military.
But wait, that criterion leaves out the current President and includes the Congresswoman the administration is currently out to discredit. That is Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who shared with the press how Trump’s bereavement call aggravated rather than alleviated the Johnson family’s suffering. She is in the Gold Star circle by virtue of her years-long involvement with the Johnson family and others.
  What to do? Kelly unspeakably steps into the racist waters of the White House, referring to Wilson, who is black, as an “empty barrel” that sounds loudest as a drum, meaning she was, as he also said: “grandstanding.” It is false, as so many of Trump’s Fox-news type claims are. This time there really is a tape, and it vindicates the Congresswoman. Remember when Trump called Comey a “showboat?” Who’s speaking whose words now? But Kelly is not stealing from Trump as Trump stole from him. No, the General on stage is now, himself, an emptied barrel, speaking the empty words of an empty man whose Midas touch turns everything not to gold, as he clearly wishes to persuade us, but to Whiteness. And this is a step even Selina’s Veep has not taken. That is how we know VEEP is fiction. And how the calumnious verities of Fox News are made real.

*This Article First Appeared at Politics Letters Live http://politicsslashletters.live/features/unreality-tv-trump-kelly-and-the-revolving-door-of-whiteness/
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Thursday, July 20, 2017

William Connolly & Nidesh Lawtoo — Rhetoric, Fascism and the Planetary: A Conversation between William Connolly and Nidesh Lawtoo

Nidesh Lawtoo, Assistant Professor, ERC Principal Investigator, Department of English, University of Bern.

William Connolly, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor, Johns Hopkins University.
Nidesh Lawtoo: You are a political theorist but the kind of theory you are interested in is entangled with a number of different disciplines, from continental philosophy to anthropology, sociology to literary theory, stretching to include in-depth dialogues with hard sciences such as biology, geology, and the neurosciences. Across these disciplines you are known for your work on pluralism, for your critique of secularism, and for a conception of agonistic democracy that is inscribed in a Nietzschean as well as Deleuzian philosophical tradition. In your recent work, you have opened up this materialist tradition to the question of the Anthropocene. I am thinking of The Fragility of Things (2013) and, more recently, Facing the Planetary (2017), two books in which you frame your critique of neoliberal capitalism within larger self-organizing planetary forces such as glaciers and the ocean conveyor system that exceed market controls and force us to rethink conceptions of agency, intersubjectivity, the nonhuman, and politics in light of what you call “entangled humanism and the politics of swarming.”
At the same time, in the wake of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, or actually already prior to it, you have been folding these future-oriented concerns with the planetary back into the all-too-human fascist politics that was constitutive of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe, but that is currently returning to cast a shadow on the contemporary scene in Europe and, closer to home, in the United States.
Genealogy of Fascism
As a response to this emerging political threat, last semester (spring 2017) you taught a graduate seminar at Johns Hopkins titled, “What Was/Is Fascism?,” which I would like to take as a springboard to frame our discussion. This title suggests at least two related observations: first, that fascism is a political reality that is not only related to the past of other nations but remains a threat for the present of our own nations as well; and second, that in order to understand what is fascism today it is necessary to adopt genealogical lenses and inscribe neo-fascist movements in a tradition of thought aware of what fascism was in the 1920s and 1930s. So, my first questions are: What are some of the main lessons that emerged from this genealogy of fascism? And what is “new” about this reemergence of authoritarian, neo-fascist, or as you sometimes call them, “new fascist” leaders that are now haunting the contemporary political scene?
Bill Connolly: That’s a good summary of what I am trying to do and of how this problematic on “What Was/Is Fascism” has emerged. Maybe the best way for me to start is to say that if you try to do a genealogy of Fascism your focus is on the present; the first thing that you pay close attention to is not just how things were, say in German Nazism or in Italian Fascism, but also how comparisons to those very different situations may help us to focus on new strains and dangers today. Another aspect of a genealogy of Fascism is to sharpen our thinking about what positive possibilities to pursue in the present. Current temptations to a new kind of Fascism might encourage us to rethink some classic ideals anti-fascists pursued in the past, asking how they succumbed then and what their weaknesses might have been. Some opponents of Fascism were inspired by liberalism, others by neoliberalism, and others yet by smooth ideals of collectivism or communalism. Neoliberalism—or its cousin, classical liberalism—helped to create pressures to Fascism when it ushered in the Great Depression, but perhaps neither of the other two ideals provides a sufficient antidote either. It is wise, in particular, to recall how leading neoliberal theorists accepted Fascism when they had to choose between it and socialism. Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman all decided to embrace Fascism as protection against socialism at key moments when market processes were under extreme duress.  So, a genealogy of Fascism can help us to rethink ideals articulated in the past, testing their relative powers as antidotes to Fascism. And it can point to pressures that encourage advocates of other ideals to go over to Fascism. That’s part of what I hoped we could begin to do in this seminar.
Moving to the second part of the question: what are the dangers in the present that make some of us hear eerie echoes from the past? Well, a huge omission has been created in the Euro-American world, especially in the United States where my focus is concentrated. The neoliberal right has succeeded in pushing concentrations of wealth and income to an ever smaller group of tycoons at the top, while the pluralizing Left—which I have actively supported over the last forty years—has had precarious (and highly variable) success in its efforts to advance the standing of African Americans, Hispanics, women, diverse sexualities, and several religious faiths. There is much more to be done on these fronts, to be sure, particularly with respect to African Americans. But one minority placed in a bind between these two opposing drives—and the rhetorics that have sustained each—has been the white working and lower middle class.  Portions of it have taken revenge for this neglect, first, in joining the evangelical/capitalist resonance machine that really got rolling in the early nineteen eighties and now in being tempted by the aspirational Fascism of Donald Trump. That has created happy hunting grounds for a new kind of neo-fascist movement, one that would extend white triumphalism, intimidate the media, attack Muslims, Mexicans, and independent women, perfect the use of Big Lies, suppress minority voting, allow refugee pressures to grow as the effects of the Anthropocene accelerate, sacrifice diplomacy to dangerous military excursions, and displace science and the professoriate as independent centers of knowledge and pubic authority.
So, that is where I want to place my focus: working upon earlier ideals of democratic pluralism to respond to this emerging condition. When I say emerging condition, I don’t mean that success is inevitable—the multiple forces of resistance are holding so far. I mean a set of powerful pressures on the horizon that must be engaged before it could become too late to forestall them. 
Fascist Rhetoric
Nidesh Lawtoo: On this question of emerging conditions, you have been particularly attentive to the rhetoric neo-fascist leaders like Donald Trump have mobilized to win the election, an affective and infective rhetoric that many of us in the academia might have been tempted to downplay or dismiss for its apparent simplicity and crudeness—at least during the electoral campaign. But it has worked in the past and continues to be working in the present too.
In light of this genealogical reminder, you argue that critics and theorists on the left need to be much more attentive to the ways in which this fascist rhetoric—based on repetition, use of images rather than ideas, spectacular lies, but also gestures, facial expressions, incitation to violence, racist and sexist language, nationalism and so on—operates on what you call the “visceral register of cultural life.” I take this phrase to mean that the fascist “art of persuasion” is not based on rational arguments, political programs, or even basic facts. Rather, its aim is to trigger affective reactions that, as some precursors of fascist psychology (I’m thinking, of Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde, but also Georges Bataille, D. H. Lawrence and other modernist writers) also noticed, have the power to spread contagiously, especially in a crowd, but now also in publics watching such spectacles from a virtual distance. Could you say more about the affective power of this rhetoric, especially in light of a type of politics that increasingly operates in the mode of fictional entertainment?
Bill Connolly: That’s a really big question and it’s at the center of what I would like to try to do, however imperfectly. In preparation for this seminar, I read for the first time in my life, Hitler’s Mein Kampf. We explored huge sections of it in class, and I note that at first no students wanted to present on this book. I also note that almost no one I talked to, in the US and Germany (we’re having this interview in Weimar, Germany), had read that book either. The book was in large part dictated by Hitler to Rudolf Hess, while they were in prison together in the early 1920s. It reads as a text that could have been spoken: the rhythms, the punchiness, the tendency to lapse into diatribes in a way people sometimes do when they are talking.... What Hitler says in the book is that he spent much of his early life in politics rehearsing how to be an effective mass speaker; practicing larger-than-life gesticulations, pugnacious facial expressions, theatrical arm and body movements on stage to punctuate key phrases. The phrase/body combos in his speeches—we watched a few speeches—are thrown like punches: a left jab, a right jab, a couple more punches, and then boom—a knockout punch thrown to the audience! They are punches. Speech as a mode of attack; speech as communication set on the register of attack. Now acts of violence do not become big jumps for leaders or followers. In fact, as Hitler says, he welcomed violence at his rallies. His guards, who later became storm troopers, would rush in and beat up mercilessly protestors, doing so to incite the crowd to a higher pitch of passion.
If we think about Hitler’s speaking style in relation to Trump’s, it may turn out that Hitler was right about one thing: the professoriate pay attention mostly to writing; not nearly enough to the powers of diverse modes of speech. Of course, there are exceptions: Judith Butler is one and there are others. But writing and texts are what academics love to attend to, and styles of speech require a different kind of attention. If you read one of Trump’s speeches it may look incoherent, but it has its own coherence when delivered to a crowd. He also may rehearse those theatrical gestures and grimaces, walking back and forth on stage, circling around while pointing to the crowd to draw its acclaim, and so forth. When you attend to his speaking style you see that he has introduced a mode of communication that speaks to simmering grievances circulating in those crowds. Of course, he speaks to other constituencies too, some of them the super-rich. But the speeches are pitched to one prime constituency. His rhetoric and gestures tap, accelerate, and amplify those grievances as he seeks to channel them in a specific direction. Immigrants are responsible for deindustrialization, he says, never noting automation and free corporate tickets to desert the towns and cities that had housed and subsidized them so generously.  
When Trump engages in the Big Lie scenario, which forms a huge part of his speeches and tweets, followers do not always believe the Lies. Rather, they accept them as pegs upon which to hang their grievances. So, when journalists ask, “Do you believe that he is going to build the wall and Mexico will pay for it?” many say, “No, I don’t believe that”. But when he says it, they yell and scream anyway because the promise is connected to their grievances. Trump is the most recent practitioner of the Big Lie perfected by Hitler earlier. Of course, the latter’s Biggest Lie was the assertion that Jews were themselves master demagogues of the Big Lie. That is exactly how Donald Trump transfigures the production of Fake News on right wing blogs; he charges CNN and the media in general to be purveyors of Fake News.  The strategy of reversal is designed to make people doubt the veracity of all claims brought to them, preparing them to accept those that vent their grievances the most.
We have to understand how the Big Lie scenario works, what kinds of grievances it amplifies, how apparent incoherences in Trump’s speeches provide collection points to intensify grievances and identify vulnerable scapegoats—until people leave his speeches electrified and ready to go. They are excited when guards usher a protester roughly off the premises. As the crowd screams, Trump says: “Don’t you love my rallies?” Those on the pluralist and egalitarian Left have to learn how this dynamic works, rather than merely saying, “Those people are stupid if they believe those Big Lies.” That plays into Trump's hands.
As to how the intertext between entertainment and politics grows, well, Trump was in entertainment as well as being a mogul in real estate where appearances and staging make up a large part of the show. Moreover, his Atlantic City investments pulled him closer to criminal elements, and he deploys gangster like tactics to cajole and threaten people. He moves back and forth between these venues. He is not the first one to have done so. Reagan did too. But Trump has perfected a new version of these exchanges, re-enforced by blogs and tweets.
Satirical Counter-Rhetoric
Nidesh Lawtoo: I would like to follow-up on this last point. You argue that it’s important to understand how this rhetoric works, but not in order to try to erase it. It’s rather a question of channeling it in new directions. This is a difficult maneuver for it implies sailing past the Scylla of a rationalist conception of subjectivity and the Charybdis of an authoritarian conception of politics: on the one hand, you don’t believe that we can transcend this affective or visceral register, for we are embodied creatures that are highly susceptible to mimesis and to the unconscious reactions imitation often triggers, especially in a crowd but not only; on the other hand, you also don’t believe that such affects can only operate from a top-down vertical principle whereby the authoritarian leader has total hypnotic control over the masses. It’s rather a question of promoting horizontal rhetorical alternatives that open up space for resistance, dissent, and political action. Within this configuration, and to reframe my previous question on the relation between fascist politics and entertainment, what do you think of the role a genre such as political satire or comedy plays as a counter-rhetorical strategy? As a non-US citizen who has lived in the US during several presidential elections I noticed how this genre is center-stage in American political, in a way people from other countries have often trouble to even imagine: From The Daily Show to The Tonight Show, The Late Show to The Saturday Night Show to the Last Week Tonight Show and many others shows that inform a big segment of the US population—in ways that, I must say, are  more accurate and perceptive than so-called “real” news like Fox News. In a way, comedians seem ideally placed not only to understand, but also to unmask, and oppose Trump’s rhetoric on his own terrain. By training and profession actors rely on rhetorical skills that derive from the world of performance and operate on an affective, bodily register. And they do so in order to counter, horizontally, the vertical rhetoric of fascism—though I noticed their reluctance to use the word fascism in their shows—for that, genealogists are perhaps still needed… Anyway, I find it telling that specialists of dramatic impersonation (or actors) are now those who, paradoxically, unmask the fictions of political celebrities (or actors).
I value the work done on that front and I pay attention to it, but as I watch some of these shows I also have a lingering ambivalence and concern I’d like you to address. On the one hand, the rhetoric of satire effectively channels political grievances  to unmask via comedic strategies the absurdity of the Big Lie scenario you describe as well as other authoritarian symptoms (nepotism, dismantling of public services, racist and sexist actions, dismissal of science etc.); on the other hand, comedy also seems to contribute to blurring the line between politics and fiction, generating an affective confusion of genres that could well be part of the problem, not the solution. Of course, satire has been around for a long time, but the promotion of politics as a form of mass-mediatized entertainment that saturates—via new media—all corners of private life seems relatively recent; and this fictionalization of politics, in turn, should redefine the critical role satire plays as well. In this spiraling loop the laughter comedians generate wittily exposes political lies, counters docile subordinations to power, promotes freedom of speech, and perhaps, in small doses, even offers a cathartic outlet that can be necessary for political activism. And yet, at the same time, I also worry that comedy could generate an affective demand—I’m even tempted to say unhealthy addiction—precisely for those political scandals (the sexist language and actions, the lurid tapes, the spectacular firings, the secret investigations, and so on) it sets out to critique, leading an already media-dependent population to paradoxically focus political attention on the leader qua fictional celebrity to the detriment of real political action itself. What is your take on this double bind? And how do you evaluate these comedic efforts to re-channel a visceral rhetoric contra fascist leaders?   
Bill Connolly: I take an ambivalent approach to them, too. This is a very good question because my own perspective, which draws sustenance from your work on mimetic contagion in The Phantom of the Ego, is that certain kinds of stances that liberals often adopt, that deliberative theorists and others do too, in which you say that the visceral register of cultural life must be transcended; modes of politics that demean analysis, policy, rational argument and so forth are wrong-headed and have to be replaced. I too prize argument and truth. But I also believe that there is never a vacuum on the visceral register of cultural life, that this register—which can be affectively rich and conceptually coarse—is ineliminable. Infants respond to the gestures, facial expressions, laughter, movements and prompts of parents and siblings on the way to learning language, and this dimension of relational being never simply dies out. It constitutes the affective tone of life. But the visceral register can be engaged very differently than Trump does, as we move back and forth across the visceral and refined registers to pour an ethos of presumptive generosity into both. If we do not become skilled at this we open the door to authoritarians to fill the vacuum. Those of us on the Left need to find alternative ways to allow the two registers to work back and forth on each other, to be part of each other, so that our most refined beliefs are both filled with positive affective tonality and we are equipped to resist the Trumpian assaults. One thing neo-fascist rhetoric teaches us is the ineliminability of the visceral level of cultural life.
Some comedians—when they show you in amusing ways, as Saturday Night Life comics and others do, how Trumpian rhetoric, rhythms, gestures, facial expressions and demeanor work—imply that all this could be replaced with something entirely different. Well, it must be replaced, but not with something that denies the power of gesture and rhetoric, as those mirror neurons and olfactory sensors on our bodies absorb inflows below reflective attention. It is also necessary to examine how different sorts of bodily discipline encourage some modes of mimesis and discourage others.  And so, I have an ambivalent relationship to comedians who do the exposes, depending on how they do it and what alternative they pursue.  
The question is whether there are some who can carry us, as they show how the contagion works, to other rhetorical styles that don’t deny the complexity of life and that help to infuse refined intellectual judgments with an ethos of presumptive generosity and courage across differences in identity, faith, and social position. These counter-possibilities, then, need to be part of the comedy acts. Sometimes I think that people like Sarah Silverman and Steve Colbert get this while someone like the guy on Saturday Night Life may not. I’m glad that we’ve had these comedic interventions, so that people can look again at what is conveyed and how it is conveyed. But when responses take simply the form of name-calling, they incite more agitated segments of the white working and lower middle classes and teach us nothing about how to woo them in a different direction.  
It's a real quandary. I do not think that people like me, or others, now have the key to unlock this puzzle, but it needs to be thought about. Part of the reason it’s a quandary, again, is that there is never a vacuum on the visceral register of being, neither for the constituencies that Trump courts nor for the intellectuals and pundits who seek to pull these forces in different directions. Trump's advantage is that it may be easier under conditions of social stress to drag people down than it is to lift them to a higher nobility. Cornel West, however, is a rhetorician who combines nobility, presumptive generosity and courage against aspirational Fascism. Trump is one of crassness and cruelty.  
From the Crowd to the Swarm
Nidesh Lawtoo: You mentioned that this rhetorical register is particularly effective in a crowd, when people are assembled at rallies, part of a larger, more complex social unit. So, I would like to shift to a different but related topic. In your new book, Facing the Planetary, you have a chapter titled, “The Politics of Swarming and the General Strike,” which might make some readers wonder: What is the difference between a crowd and a swarm?
More specifically, in an individualistic culture centered on personal needs and desires, what are the strategies, or tactics, we could collectively mobilize to aspire to a political model of swarming that requires a degree of human collaboration that is sometimes instinctively present among certain animal species—the paradigmatic example of the swarm in your chapter comes from honeybees. I ask the question because Homo sapiens in the age of neoliberalism seems often, not only but often, restricted to playing the role of an individual, self-concerned, egotistic consumer, to put it a bit brutally. You, on the other hand, stress needs to learn to actively and consciously promote collaborative swarm behavior to collective counter the multiple human and nonhuman threats we’re up against as new fascist movements pull us deeper in the age of the Anthropocene. How to negotiate this contradictory push-pull?
Bill Connolly: In that book, which came out in February 2017, there are preliminary reflections about Fascist danger, but the focus is elsewhere. The focus is on how large planetary processes like species evolution, the ocean conveyor system, glacier flows, and climate change intersect with each other and generate self-amplifying powers of their own. Earth scientists have recently—between the 1980s and the 1990s—broken previous assumptions about planetary gradualism that earlier earth scientists such as the geologist Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin made with such authority. There have been several punctuations of rapid, deep change in the past well before the Anthropocene; now there is another rapid change created by capitalism, replete with a series of planetary amplifiers. Planetary gradualism has bitten the dust, but a lot of humanists and human scientists, even those who worry about the Anthropocene, have not yet heard the news. Haven't you heard? Gradualism is dead. That affects everything.
When you see how the uneven effects of emissions from capitalist states team up with other planetary amplifiers with degrees of autonomy of their own, the question becomes: How to generate a cross-regional pluralist assemblage of constituencies who come to terms with the Anthropocene and press regions, states, churches, universities, corporations, consumers, investment firms, and retirement funds to make radical changes over a short period of time. You must move on multiple fronts to both tame and redirect capitalist growth, as you look forward to a time when the perverse growth machine is brought under more severe control. So, what I mean by the “politics of swarming” does speak to the kinds of things we were just discussing.
The politics of swarming moves on multiple scales, going back and forth to amplify each in relation to the others. One register involves experimenting with role assignments that we pursue in daily life. It’s related to what Foucault meant by the “specific intellectual,” but is now extended to what might be called “specific citizens”. If, say, you are relatively well off in a high emitting regime you change the kind of car you drive, the occasions you ride a bike, the ways you press a neighborhood association to take action with respect to ecological issues, the way in which—if you are a teacher as we both are—you change your courses to highlight these issues,  and so forth. You alter a series of role definitions, connecting to people and institutions in new ways. Some collective effects are generated here. But, the key point is how creative role experiments work on the visceral registers of cultural pre-understandings, perception, judgment, and relationality. They move them. They thus prepare us to take new actions in other domains. We, in effect, work tactically upon our relational selves to open them to new contacts and to insulate them from Trumpian rhetoric.
Now other scales of politics can be engaged in a new key: protests, boycotts, electoral politics, creating eco-sanctuaries, copying tactics that have worked in other regions. As the activities escalate and as we encounter new events—a rapidly escalating glacier melt, a new upsurge of climate refugees, vigilante actions against climate activists, etc.—it may now be possible to forge a cross-regional assemblage, applying new pressure from the inside and outside upon states, corporations, churches, universities, temples, neighborhoods, and elected officials to take radical action. A politics of swarming acts at many sites at once.
These cross regional assemblages may not be that likely to emerge, of course. But in the contemporary condition it becomes a piece of crackpot realism to say, “OK, let’s forget it then”. For the urgency of time makes it essential to probe actions that may be possible in relation to needs of the day. The politics of swarming could perhaps crystallize into cross-regional general strikes, as constituencies inspire each other into peaceful and urgent modes of action. A cross regional strike is what I call an “improbable necessity” because the situation is more stark than those imagine who have ignored the history of planetary volatility before the advent of Anthropocene. They overlook how planetary gradualism was never true and is not true now; hence they miss the autonomous role volatile planetary forces play now as C0 2 emissions trigger amplifiers that generate results greatly exceeding the force of the triggers. By “swarming” I mean action on multiple fronts across several constituencies and regions that speak to the urgency and scope of the issues we face. Since we have seen several times in the past how capitalism can be stretched and turned in new directions as well as how imbricated it is with a series of forces that exceed it, the interim task is to stretch it now and then to see how to tame further the growth imperatives it secretes.
The Power of Myth
Nidesh Lawtoo: Facing the Planetary starts with a myth, and although the book itself is not about fascism but about self-regulating planetary processes, the question of myth is also relevant to our discussion for it is genealogically related to fascism. Myth was, in fact, appropriated by Fascists and Nazis alike to celebrate a racist, anti-Semitic ideology. I’m thinking in particular of Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the 20th Century, which was not as influential as Hitler’s Mein Kampf but was nonetheless one of the bestsellers of the Third Reich. Addressing a distressed, disappointed and suffering population in the aftermath of the Great War going through a severe economic crisis, Rosenberg articulated the ideology of Nazism by promoting the Aryan racial myth and the necessary to root the German Volk back in an essentialist and nationalist conception of “blood and soil.” Much of what we’ve just said about rhetoric equally applies to the power of myth to move the masses on a visceral/mimetic register, and precisely for this reason, political theorists, starting very early, all the way back to Plato, have tended to be critical of myth and set out to oppose, or even exclude, the mythic, along with the affective registers it mediates.
Interestingly however, even Plato in his articulation of the ideal republic, cannot avoid the mythic. In his critique of Homer or Hesiod, in the early books, and throughout Republic as well as other dialogues, he relies on mythic elements, such as characters, dialogues, allegories, gods, heroes, and so forth. Somewhere in Laws he even says that this ideal polity has been constructed as a “dramatization of a noble and perfect lie,” or myth.  There is thus a sense in which Plato opposes myth via myth, or relies on a philosophical register that includes the mythic to discredit mythic fictions as lies far removed from the truth. Of course, you work within a very different, actually opposed, political ontology, one based on becoming over Being, immanence rather than transcendence, horizontality much more than verticality. Still, one could detect a similar strategic move in your appropriation of the myth from the Book of Job that prefaces Facing the Planetary, in the sense that you rely on a tradition which has in Nietzsche (who was a critical but careful reader of Plato) a major modern representative and considers that in the mythic, past and present theorists, can find a source of inspiration that can be used to counter some of the forces we have been grouping under the rubric of fascism or new fascism.
To return to the opening pages of Facing the Planetary: you show how the Nameless One in the Book of Job attunes Job to nonhuman, planetary forces (oceans, clouds, tornados, etc.), and at one remove, your book relies on this myth to render us attentive to a volatile world of multiple forces as well, as we slide deeper into the Anthropocene. For the present discussion, I wonder if you could draw upon this view of myth open to a plurality of planetary forces to address or counter the myths at play in the politics of (new) fascism. Just as visceral affects can be put to fascist and anti-fascist uses, could myth become a source of inspiration for countering fascist myths?
Bill Connolly: I agree. What I can say is, yes, Plato said that he opposed the mythic, but then in the Symposium he offers a counter-myth of ascending to a transcendent level at which you gain an intuitive grasp of the Forms—it’s an intuitive grasp. He knows that he can’t simply prove such an ascension, then; rather, he produces a myth to support the possibility. But his myth is different from some he opposes because it arises out of a dialogue in which characters pose questions about it, continue to have doubts about it, and so on. Aristophanes is never convinced. So, it’s not just one myth vs another; this mythic mode is sprinkled with reflective dimensions; and that’s true of Nietzsche as well.
You take Alfred Rosenberg, whom you know better than I do. I will take Hitler. Hitler also focuses on the centrality of a racial myth. He saw one day, according to his testimony in Mein Kampf, how Jews provided the “red thread” tying everything he hated together: he could tie them to social democracy, to communism, to miscegenation, to shopkeepers and to other things he wanted to oppose. He presents the racial myth of the Aryan people as an authoritative myth that must be accepted; he terrorized everyone on the other side of it: Jews, homosexuals, Romani, social democrats, and others who resisted its “truth”. Today he would call its opponents purveyors of Fake News.  
When I present in the Preface of Facing the Planetary a discussion of the Book of Job as a myth, I draw upon the testimonial in the Theophany in which the Nameless One speaks to Job out of a whirlwind or tornado. Job thus allows us to see and feel how our dominant spiritual traditions include some characterizations of planetary processes and nonhuman beings that are neither oriented to human mastery nor expressive of a world organically predisposed to us. Neither-nor. The world is worthy of embrace despite that in part because it enables us to be. The new work in the earth sciences on planetary processes encourages us to think anew with and through such an orientation, to respect a planet with periodic volatilities, replete with multiple trajectories that intersect and exceed our capacities to master; a planet that will not even become that smooth and slow if we start now to tread lightly upon it. There are strong premonitions of such an image in the Book of Job. You can hear them also elsewhere, as Bruno Latour has shown with his reading of Gaia, the volatile image of the planet developed from Hesiod. And so, we can sometimes engage myths to jostle dangerous assumptions and demands settled into the background of our thinking, practices, theories, and activities, opening them up for new reflection. Because there is never a vacuum on the visceral register of cultural life there are always background premonitions that in-form life. They need to be jostled on occasion. The Anthropocene is a new era, but the rapid shifts it portends are not unique. It is only recently that capitalism has become the key catalyzing agent of planetary change—in dynamic relation to other volatile forces.
Nietzsche was right to say that myth, as a condensation of cultural preunderstandings and insistences, works on the visceral register of being in its modes of presentation, its rhythms of expression, and so forth. I agree with you that we are never in a world in which there is not some kind of mythic background sliding into preunderstandings, modes of perception, and prejudgments. The mythic is not to be eliminated; it is, rather, to be approached much differently than Hitler or Rosenberg approached it, along at least two dimensions: you resist and challenge the myth of the racial Volk, challenging both its falsity and the visceral hatreds that fuel support for it; you then jostle the reassuring myth of planetary gradualism with counter-understandings of planetary processes.
I do not want to eliminate the mythic, and I’m guessing that Plato, whom you have studied more deeply, did not want to either. You could also take an early-modern thinker such as Hobbes who tells you to get rid of rhetorical figures and mythic arguments. Then you read Hobbes carefully and realize he is a rhetorical genius and knows himself to be one. The mythic never disappears: you can draw upon it to disturb and shake cultural predispositions about the planet that continue to hover in the background of the thinking, spirituality and demands of so many people in old capitalist states. At least the Book of Job helps to loosen up undergrads in my classes as they encounter again a childhood story they thought they had already engaged. That’s the way I’m trying to think about it.
Mimesis, Tyranny, Strikes
Nidesh Lawtoo: Your interest in the mythic and the way it operates on what you call the visceral register resonates very much with what I call the mimetic dimension of human beings, or Homo mimeticus. I mean by that the fundamental biological, psychological, anthropological, and, since the discovery of mirror neurons, neurological fact that we are, nolens volens, imitative animals that respond, emotionally, affectively, and often unconsciously to the stories we are told, including, of course, political stories. And these stories, as Plato, Nietzsche and many others saw, are not simply imitations of reality, or representations—stable, realistic images we can see from a safe distance. Rather they have a destabilizing formative and transformative power—Nietzsche also calls it a pathos—that spills over the wall of representation to affect and infect, by visceral contagion, our psychic and political lives as well. Mimesis as an unconscious or semi-conscious imitative pathos triggered by what we see and, above all, feel.
To move toward a conclusion and establish a genealogical bridge with other thinkers who are currently countering the rise of neo-fascist movements, I would like you to briefly comment on a recent book that, in many ways, resonates with our discussion: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017). In this little but illuminating book, Snyder, who is an American historian specialized on the history of the Holocaust, seems to share the presupposition with which we started: namely, that it is necessary to learn from the strategies mobilized by fascist and Nazi leaders and ideologues in the 1930s, and 40s in order to steer contemporary constituencies away from the political reenactment of those horrifying possibilities.
To that end, Snyder offers a series of practical, action-oriented suggestions that structure the book and help us counter the rise of fascism, suggestions like “Do Not Obey in Advance,” or “Defend Institutions,” or “Believe in Truth.” He offers twenty of them, but I would like to zoom in on Lesson 8 titled, “Stand Out,” for it seems in line with a principle necessary to develop what you call “politics of swarming” and addresses forces that I call “mimetic.” Snyder writes: “Some has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. Remember Rosa Parks. The moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken and others will follow.” There is a double movement at play in this passage that retraces, from the angle of mimesis, your double-take on rhetoric and myth, in the sense that anti-mimetic movements (not following along) can generate alternative models (or examples) on which the politics of swarming hinges that, in turn, have the potential to trigger mimetic counter-movements (others will follow). Can you comment on this lesson? And what additional lessons emerged from your genealogy of fascism that we could add to the list?
Bill Connolly: I read Snyder’s book last winter, maybe in January, as I was thinking about using it in the seminar on Fascism. We didn’t end up using it—there is the problem that you have forty books on the list and you end up using only ten—but I was impressed with Snyder’s book for several reasons, the most important being its timeliness and its courageousness. He says: We are in trouble; things are going in the wrong direction; don’t think this is just a little blip on the horizon that will automatically disappear—and I agree with him on that. I also liked the way the book is organized around twenty recipes of response. The one that you call attention to, “do not obey in advance,” that is, resist tacitly going along to get along. I think of that as congruent with the themes of role experimentations mentioned earlier. Role experiments create room within the things that you regularly do, like work, raising kids, attending church, relating to neighbors, writing, retirement investments, teaching, etc. You then take a step here, a step there, outside settled expectations, because there is often room to do things that exceed merely going along to get along. They make a difference in a cumulative effect, yes. But the most important effect is the way they help to recode our tacit presumptions and orientations to collective action. Even small things. In this spirit, I recently used Facebook to write an open letter to Donald Trump after he withdrew from the Paris Accord. Making such a minor public statement can coalesce with innumerable others doing similar things. People shared it; it received a broader hearing; even some trolls ridiculed it. It would not be easy to take back. The accumulation of such minor actions counters the scary drive to allow Trumpism to become normalized. Charles Blow, the New York Times columnist, also keeps us focused on that issue.
I like several things about Snyder’s book, but I think—maybe I am wrong for I might not have read it carefully enough—that it is kind of limited to what you and I, as individuals and small groups, can do. Today we need to join these small acts to the larger politics of swarming, out of which new cross regional citizen assemblages grow. Such assemblages themselves, in the ways they coalesce and operate horizontally, expose fallacies in the fascist leadership principle. Protests at town meetings, for instance, fit Snyder’s theme, I am sure. But let’s suppose, as could well happen, that the Antarctic glacier starts melting at such a rapid rate we see how its consequences are going to be extremely severe over a short period of time. (The computer models are usually three to five years behind what actually happens on the ice, ground, and atmosphere). Constituencies in several regions could now mobilize around this event to organize general strikes, putting pressure on states and corporations from inside and outside at the same time. So, the main way I would supplement Snyder is to explore the horizontal mobilization of larger assemblages, to speak to the urgency of time during a period when dominant states so far resist doing enough.
Further, from my point of view, electoral politics poses severe problems; but there is also a dilemma of electoral politics that must be engaged honestly. Electoral victories can be stymied by many forces. But you must not use that fact as a reason to desist. For, as some of us have argued on the blog The Contemporary Condition for several years, if and when the right wing gains control of all branches of government you run the severe risk of a Fascist takeover. So, participate in elections and act on other fronts as well. Indeed, in the United States the evangelical/capitalist resonance machine has acted in its way on multiple fronts simultaneously for decades. The Right believes in its version of the politics of swarming.
            The way to respond to the dilemma of electoral politics is to expand beyond it but not to eliminate it as one site of activity. For, again, if the right-wing controls the courts, the presidency, both houses of Congress, the intelligence agencies, and a lot of state legislators, they can generate cumulative effects that will be very difficult to reverse. Aspirational Fascists, for instance, use such victories to suppress minority voting. So, multiple modes and registers of politics.. I wouldn’t be surprised if Snyder and I agree on that.
Aspirational Fascism
Nidesh Lawtoo: I think you’re right that you two would agree. In Snyder’s longer genealogy of fascism and Nazism, Black Earth, of which the little book is in many ways a distillation, he ends with a chapter titled “Our World,” which situates fascist politics in the broader context of climate change and collective catastrophes along the lines you also suggested in Facing the Planetary. The more voices promoting pluralist assemblages contra the nihilism of fascist crowds, the better!
Speaking of little books, then, I hear you are yourself working a on a new short book dealing with some of the issues we have been discussing, which is provisionally titled, Aspirational Fascism. To conclude, could you briefly delineate its general content, scope, and some of the main lessons you hope will be retained.
Bill Connolly: This will be a short, quickly executed book, a pamphlet, that could come out within a year. It’s divided into three chapters, and it will probably be around 100 pages. The first chapter reviews similarities and differences between Hitler’s rhetoric and crowd management and those of Donald Trump. It also attends to how the pluralizing Left has too often ignored the real grievances of the white working class, helping inadvertently to set it up for a Trump takeover. The second chapter explores how a set of severe bodily drills and disciplines in pre-Nazi Germany helped to create men particularly attuned to Hitler’s rhetoric in the wake of the loss of WWI and the Great Depression. You and I are having this conversation today in Weimar, a sweet, lovely, artistic town. Hitler, I am told, gave over 20 speeches here, in the Central platz, to assembled throngs.
So, in the second chapter I attend to how coarse rhetorical strategies, severe bodily practices, and extreme events work back and forth on each other. That chapter is indebted to a book by Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (1987, 2 vols.); it helps me to attend to how specific bodily disciplines and drills attune people to particular rhetorical practices and insulate them from others. The themes Theweleit pursues are then carried into the United States of today as we explore how the neglect of real white working class grievances, the military training and job disciplines many in that class face, and the interminable Trump campaign work back and forth upon one another. That is why I never understate the need to attend to our own bodily disciplines, habits, and role practices.
The third chapter is designed to show how what I call multifaceted pluralism is both good in itself and generates the best mode of resistance to Fascist movements. Multifaceted means that it supports generous, responsive modes of affective communications and bodily interrelations; it also means that the new pluralism treats the white working class to be one of the minorities to nourish, even as we also oppose the ugly things a portion of it does. That support must first include folding egalitarian projects into those noble drives to pluralization that have been in play; it must also include taking radical action to respond to the Anthropocene before it generates so much ocean acidification, expansive drought, ocean rising, and increasing temperatures that the resulting wars and refugee pressures will provide even more happy hunting grounds for aspirational Fascism.
The pluralizing left must come to terms immediately with the need to ameliorate class inequality in job conditions, retirement security, and workplace authority. That deserves as much attention as the politics of pluralization itself. I pursue a model of egalitarian pluralism, then, that challenges both liberal individualism and the image of a smooth communist future, seeing both to be insufficient to the twin dangers of Fascism and the Anthropocene today. There are no smooth ideals to pursue on this rocky planet. But there may be ways to enhance our attachment to a planet that exceeds the contending adventures of mastery that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries.
Those are the three parts of the book. I realize, for sure, that the project makes for heavy lifting, that it will be difficult to convince some pluralists to push an egalitarian agenda and some segments of the working class to take the Anthropocene seriously. But the two projects are interrelated and imperative, and it is possible that advances on the first front could loosen more people up to accept action on the second.
Nidesh Lawtoo: I look forward to this new book. I think that your work, which speaks not only to academics and students across disciplines but also to the general public, including the working-class constituencies we have been addressing, demonstrates, among many things, the importance of the general strike that you call and “improbable necessity.” In the wake of the cumulative scandalous political actions—the last to date being the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement—that do not simply repeat European fascism but entangle new fascist power with nonhuman planetary forces in such catastrophic ways, I’m even tempted to think, or hope, that a vital improbability will, in the near future, turn into an emerging, perhaps even probable possibility. Be that as it may, I thank you for the richness of your work and for the inspiring vitalism you affirm.
Bill Connolly: It has been an illuminating conversation for me. Thank you.
Weimar, 9 June 2017
This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No 716181: HOM).

Works Cited
Connolly, William. Aspirational Fascism. U of Minnesota P. Forthcoming.
---. Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming. Duke UP, 2017
---. The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism. Duke UP,
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Trans. Ralph Manheim, Houghton Miflin, 1971.
Lawtoo, Nidesh. The Phantom of the Ego: Modernism and the Mimetic Unconscious. Michigan State UP, 2013.
Mitchell, Stephen, trans. And ed. The Book of Job. North Point P, 1987.
Plato. Laws. Trans. A. E. Taylor. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Eds Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns.
Pantheon Books, 1961, pp. 1225-513.
Rosenberg, Alfred. The Myth of the Twentieth Century: an Evaluation of the Spiritual-Intellectual Confrontations of
our Age. Trans. Vivian Bird, Noontide P, 1987.
Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. The Bodley Head, 2015.
---. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Theleweit, Klaus. Male Fantasies. U of Minnesota P, 1987.
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