Archive

Monthly Archives: November 2012

“The Pinch of Poverty” by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Altruism — the most charitable, the most genial, the most endearing ethic — is promoted in Western society as the pinnacle of what is ‘good.’ Helping others before helping oneself is the crux of the democratic ideology, one that guides us and facilitates a feeling of social and cultural unity that strengthens human relations. It has become so inherent that it lay outside our mere conscious ideology. It has developed to be central to our being, and has thus become an obligatory act in order for one to be seen as a ‘good person.’

I take the golden rule in stride and I cherish it as a moral maxim for proper human relations. However, the Western conception of altruism has reached a disingenuous aura about it that cheapens the whole character of giving. In the First World, and other nations of Christendom, conceptions of ‘proper’ morality are derived from the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The mantra is one of universal pity and, most importantly, universal love. Friedrich Nietzsche, quite famously, criticized such conceptions of morality in many of his texts for watering down their true meaning. A vindication of the ‘slave morality,’ Nietzsche vehemently opposed the undermining of the strong by the Judeo-Christian tradition of universality, which made man into a flock rather than an independent being. His gripe was, in essence, that if love is universal, one truly loves no one; if pity is universal, it is cheapened and means little. It becomes an obligation, done without question, rather than an honest moral calling.

When child labor was on our own American soil, the suffering was closer to home and easier to empathize with.

Such is the caricature of modern Western ethics, which is well-grounded in this Judeo-Christian moral responsibility. It corresponds love with selflessness, when in retrospect, love is perhaps the most selfish virtue of them all — the longing to deviate attention towards one individual despite all others. Most crucial, however, is the Christian caricature of pity which has ramifications in contemporary ideology most concretely. Take it, for example, the bleeding-heart liberal that so desperately desires to help others — he wishes to help everyone. Moved by the conditions around him, he feels compelled to do something. A noble endeavor, but to what end? Current conceptions of pity, especially towards poverty, tend to take the form of dissociating abstractions rather than a real phenomenon we can touch and feel. The West has done, for the most part, a proper job of exporting poverty to mainly areas outside of their bounds (i.e. the Third World) where production is brutal and dangerous, but is well beyond the public’s immediate consciousness. Perhaps most of us know of the tragedy that is Third World production, but we do truly Know? Can we truly empathize with the unnecessary pain and toil that goes into commodity creation, or do we just accept it while superficially denouncing it? When properly examined, Western pity may, ironically, be a subtle concession to the status quo. In this twisted moral code, poverty can be mitigated by buying a new pair of Toms, ghastly pollution can be solved with a few less plastic bags, and water deprivation can be cured by a conspicuous purchasing of Ethos water. Such is the eternal bliss of the modern consumer — capitalism with a human face, as its called. Sprinkle a little welfare, a friendly face, and a commodity with an ethical cause and you’ve solved the moral crises of production.

This is what leads me to believe that modern pity is, for the most part, one mostly of dissociation and perhaps even utter disillusionment. You donate a few dollars to a charity, to a decent cause, but have you truly alleviated the positions which created the suffering to begin with? Surely, it makes one feel warm, but does it not exasperate the issue rather than cure it? Modern morality should be about bringing to fruit a real call to action rather than a few token good works. I would categorize charitable giving as, fundamentally, such a token good work, one that gives the illusion of actual action. Surely, it is better than no action at all, but it, in essence, creates a temporary solution rather than a concrete one. And so the cyclical nature continues, with the Third World still dependent and the West still ubiquitously benevolent and longing to help. And no progress is made, except for a few dollars being thrown at poverty-stricken families in hopes helping them.

The abstraction of poverty, grief, and suffering is mostly a recent phenomenon and it corresponds with the rise of mass marketing and, more generally, the Internet. The human condition is expected to be moved by a starving African child, but when it presents itself as a commercial while sitting on a couch patiently waiting for the next programming, it comes off as less-then-urgent. It becomes a nonchalant mentioning of a real struggle, to which the American consumer responds likewise — I’ll donate a few dollars here, I’ll do what I can, but I have a family to take care of myself. The issue is that individuals cannot place themselves in that suffering, in that pain, since they are so distanced from it. And here lies the moral dilemma and the reason for the lethargy in modern activism. We see the suffering, but we don’t truly feel it; We see it as an image rather than as a condition. 

More generally, such dissociation is present in other aspects of social justice beside the fight to end world poverty. With the creation of the Internet, although possessing the ability to stimulate politically-charged movements, it has sadly lead to the creation of supposed ‘slactivists’ that lack the vigor to pursue any true cause outside of their immediate bedrooms. These self-congratulatory armchair activists pride themselves on fighting a grave injustice. Signing internet pleas, changing their Facebook profiles to lighten an alleged injustice (as in the Kony 2012 sham), or wearing certain clothing to support something or another — the illusion of actual action is watered down to petty online signatures and nicely-packed slogans that make nifty bumper stickers. If only we had sent Adolf Hitler a few more petitions during the height of Nazi rule he would have relinquished power– what were we thinking?

Rather than abstractions, let us feel real sympathy. Rather than token givings, let us fix the conditions which created the need.  In order to pinpoint true suffering, to actually Know the true hollowness of poverty, we must be fully attuned to all its horror. Oscar Wilde captures this sentiment most eloquently in his beautiful essay, The Soul of a Man under Socialism:

[The majority of people] try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

And thus is the crux of the issue — let us question the basis of poverty we see, the ugliness we encounter, and the horror we experience.  Pity is not a cheap spontaneous ordeal; Pity is genuine expression of empathy, one which must precede the drive to solve the impoverished environment that evoked it.

“Immersed in Thought (Lonely)” by Jakub Schikaneder

Advertisements

The merging of state and corporate power, commonly called “state monopoly capitalism” by those of us on the Left, has molded itself into creating a complex system of corporate structures. Interconnected in a globalized marketplace, they have set forth a new economic paradigm that infringes on the very liberty of peoples. Domineering and implicitly bureaucratic in its handlings, these international giants, in all their lucrative prowess, very much resemble what I would call ‘miniature states.’ Contextually, I use miniature very sparingly; only in their appearance they are not truly states, but in their real socio-political power they are on par with actual state apparatuses.

The network of corporate structures have become infused into the superstructure of the social strata. Culture, relations, political power, and institutional power have all been influenced by its overreaching grasps.  And at its very heart lies the base, the means of production, which bring mechanization, blandness, and uniformity in its wake which is the staple of corporate development. Now, given all these attributes, can we compare the corporate model to an authentic state one? Statistics reveal a stark parallel.

In 2011, according to Fortune 500, Walmart reported its earnings:

  • Revenue: $421,849,000,000 – 3.3% change from 2009
  • Profits: $16,389,000,000 – 14.3% change from 2009

Exxon Mobil, ranked number two:

  • Revenue: $354,674,000,000 – 24.6% change from 2009
  • Profits: $30,460,000,000 – 58.0% change from 2009

Now, as large as these numbers are, let’s look at nominal GDP numbers gathered from the United Nations (2010) in comparison to these revenue numbers [2]. Bear in mind, GDP is the market value of all the final goods and services from a nation for a given year.

  • If we place Walmart’s revenue in comparison to GDP, it would rank above Norway’s GDP which is $413,056,000,000 and ranked 24th in the world.
  • If we place Exxon Mobil’s revenue in comparison to GDP, it would rank above Thailand’s GDP which is $318,850,000,000 and ranked 30th in the world.

In essence, Walmart would be the 23rd largest economy in the world, and Exxon Mobil would be 29th, if they were countries.

The fact that corporations possess more moneyed power than most nations is daunting, however we can break it down even further in resemblance to modern countries. Let’s take it, for the time being, that number of individuals employed by a corporation is its supposed “population.”

In 2011, according to Fortune 500, Walmart employed 2,100,000 individuals [3]. Thereby, if we were to make Walmart a sovereign entity, it would have a population of over 2 million people and a GDP ranked 23rd in the world. The income inequality in this ‘state?’ — in comparison to its CEO, Mike Duke, to his workers, it’s 1,167 times greater [4]. 

So granted that corporations maintain political power, market power, cultural holds, and employ a sizable amount of individuals to constitute, essentially, a ‘nation’ — would be be appropriate to call these institution under the category of states? States generally function under the guise of expansion, it caters to its interests, and it wishes to expand its influence over its contemporaries. Modern corporate institutions, generally speaking, do the same thing although in the marketplace. They expand their market share, they compete with other firms, and they engage in associations (i.e. “diplomacy”) with other institutions.

Why do we reject government tyranny, but we condone corporate tyranny? Arguably, both are shades of the same tint and both contain hierarchical and bureaucratic structures of organization. The cognitive dissonance of supporting one, while turning a blind eye to the other, is a form of confirmation bias at its very worse — and it only serves to facilitate the bullying institutions that control the all of our relations.

Sigmund Freud, upon publishing his seminal work The Interpretations of Dreams, postulated that dreams aim to fulfill two main functions. For one, they work to at preserve the individual in slumber. And secondly, dreams function as a means of ‘wish fulfillment’ in which we involuntarily attempt to solve conflicts of the Self.

Now, with the help of technology that peer deep into the mechanisms of our consciousness, Freud’s initial theories — that dreams function as a mental relaxer that allows us to sleep — has been largely put aside. It is now known that during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, dreams can happen five to six times a night [1]. Despite these findings however, dreams can still function as intermediaries between our subconscious and reality. This is perhaps best captured by the chilling story of the ‘Burning Child’ which can found in the aforementioned work by Freud, chapter 7.

“A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child’s body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: “Father, don’t you see that I am burning?” The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle” [2].

What do we make of this? The orthodox interpretation would theorize that the real, the external forces (i.e the bright light from the fire), became too great to ignore and awoke the father from his slumber. Remarkably, however, in this scenario the dream initially functioned as a way to preserve sleep; the father incorporated the burning light  into his subconscious psyche. He prolonged his sleep, by absorbing his external environment, and thus crafted it delicately into the timetable of his dream — represented by the visual of the burning child and his subsequent dark question, “father, don’t you see that I am burning?” Such ways to prolong sleep are relatively ordinary to the average individual; when awoken by a ringing phone or an abrupt sound outside our window, we quickly wish to fall back into slumber, and our quick perception in our momentary awakening is likely to follow us. Likewise, we bring this external disturbance with us and make it one with our dreams. In lay terms, we incorporate the ringing phone or abrupt noise into our dream, and continue to sleep.

However, the story of the burning child is much more radical than Freud’s initial interpretation. Adherent of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, in his essay Freud Lives! gives us quite a different analysis.

Had the father woken up because the external stimulus became too strong to be contained within the dream-scenario? Or was it the obverse, that the father constructed the dream in order to prolong his sleep, but what he encountered in the dream was much more unbearable even than external reality, so that he woke up to escape into that reality [3].

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

This, I feel, is precisely the essence of Freud’s dream scenario. The Real, the psychic dream reality (with a capital ‘r’), usually functions as an escape for the father and as a method to prolong sleep — but, in it, he finds something much more frightening than anything in the material. In it, he finds his son, burning, and the father begins to relive the dark tragedy he had experienced before with his son’s death. Thereby, he awakens to escape into the material reality, in a twist of irony, to run from the nightmare he was experiencing. I would go as far as making the claim that all nightmares, in general, function in such a fashion. Although dreams should function as a means of resolving mental disturbance, nightmares are a common deviation, when the Real becomes unbearably worse than reality. It is in this instance we awake, to escape such terror, to find condolence in reality. The climax of such terror, such as death or immense pain in the Real, results in our awakening, because, comparatively speaking, the dream realm has lost all its luster of escape and has become too frightening.

It in this stripe, we can interpret modern trauma. Trauma has two components: a horrifying external experience and its permanent effect on the Real. This dualism is required in order for real trauma, manifested in post-traumatic stress disorder, to become a psychic issue. An external horror, without effects on the psyche, alters little to noting (aside from perhaps bodily wounds) since it leaves no problematic vestiges on the human psychic condition. Likewise, the hallucinations and squeamish experiences in the Real are a result of the external trauma being relived in the individual’s psyche. This is the case with many suffers of wartime conflict; they experience nightmares since, once they enter the Real, they immediately want to exit it since they begin to relive the horror they witnessed in war. The root of this trauma is parallel to the father’s dream of the burning child — in both, the worst elements of their experiences are being relived, which then results in an inherent desire to escape into the material. Such is the denigrating aspect of trauma which can ultimately result in psychosis, where the individual becomes completely ingrained in the horrific Real and loses touch with the material (i.e he fully succumbs to his hallucinations). We must realize, then, that the issue is not that the horrifying experience occurred  — the issue is that experience follows the individual into the psyche, into his involuntary thoughts, which haunts him beyond his volition. This is what separates real trauma from mere external experience.

The frightening aspect of all of this is that there are key events which precede any trauma, or any form of neurosis and psychosis. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, many events happen well in our crucial youth, and become grained in our consciousness, without our knowing. Manifested in fears and interpretation, they find their beginnings in key times of our development: specifically, early childhood. This is why Freud, and later Lacan, find sexuality to be the root of human development since it is the uniform building block from which human relations stem even in our early beginnings as children. Thereby, trauma requires an extra component before it can truly latch onto the victim and haunt him — it must relate to a fear placed in him prior. Perhaps this is what differentiates between suffers of trauma and those that lie unaffected by horrors; the solution can be found in their upbringing, in their relation to key developmental periods of their lives, and ultimately, to Freud, this finds its natural roots in sexuality.

*** 

Trauma in Freud and Lacan

Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as the New Opium of the Masses where Zizek discusses psychoanalysis. 

The Burning Child

Neotenianos

A Blog about Propaganda

Journey to Russia

Embracing the cold, the beautiful, and the mysterious, Mother Russia

YesterYear Once More

Life as it was reported back then

Victor Serge's Ghost

"One must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him"

Collecting Russian Art

20th century Russian art and its uniqueness

Adidas Marxism

Writings from the European periphery.

Communist League Tampa

proletarians of the world, unite!

Mosul Eye

To Put Mosul on the Global Map

catastrophic edge

"without the thought of suicide i would have killed myself long ago"- em cioran

Uglytruth-Thailand

Thai politics

Yanis Varoufakis

THOUGHTS FOR THE POST-2008 WORLD

Fractal Ontology

refracting theory: politics, cybernetics, philosophy

Russia Without BS

Steamed hams, but it's a blog about Russia

The Disorder Of Things

For the Relentless Criticism of All Existing Conditions Since 2010

United States Hypocrisy

A critical analysis of the American empire's high-minded rhetoric, and the ways in which it continually fails to square with reality.

Valentino's blog

A blog about visual arts (well, mostly...)

eleutheromania

e*leu`ther*o*ma"ni*a | noun | a mania or frantic zeal for freedom. | [R.] Carlyle.