Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dissociation in a Bad Decade

A few posts this week get close to the heart of the problem.  Fr. Frank's Sunday sermon provides the frame - "As we say farewell to a dreadful year and decade," we have to recognize the following:
The men who played us for suckers, whether at Citigroup or Fannie Mae, at the White House or Ted Haggard’s megachurch, are the real movers and shakers of this century’s history so far.
Fr. Frank replaces Time Man of the Year Ben Bernanke - "as big a schnook as every other magical thinker in Washington" with Tiger Woods, the age's typical con man who piles up tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in personal wealth with a skill base prosthetically extended via an image fabricated by extremely expensive media machinery that is at complete odds with reality.

This blog's technical term for the state of mass suckerdom has been dumbness.  This is a word I also use for dissociation, the systematic though often unconscious concealment of intersubjective reality behind a screen image of the real.

The most effective means is obviously the mass media in general and its hyperdeveloped skill at producing idealized simulacra of reality - simulacra so perfectly cleansed of anomalies that they fit the definition of hysteria.  The source is often a trauma. Thinking of US history in general and of 9/11 in particular, I would say that dissociation is a response to a trauma that suppresses the subject's own role in having produced the trauma.

Everyday examples of dissociation can be found in Fr. Frank's descriptions of hero-worshipping of male sports stars and of faith in Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.  The other huge example that we're very much living with is the securities industry, in which values for securities that brokers made up were assigned through exchanges via mimetic thinking and mutually reinforcing professional networks.

Fr. F rightly starts the dismal decade with the Enron scandal rather than 9/11: 2001 was the year in which its "assets" came gradually to be seen as accounting fabrications.  He gets good play out of the accounting firm Accenture's use of Tiger Woods as its sole emblem of all things virile and triumphant, and then its attempt to scrub Tiger Woods from every piece of company material as though the relationship never existed.  Fr. Frank doesn't mention that "Accenture" was the name that emerged when accounting giant Arthur Andersen had to scrub itself out of existence as the disgraced accounting firm for Enron Inc.

There is an Orwellian aspect to these total reversals: we worship Tiger Woods; we look down on Tiger Woods.  Enron is America's most innovative company; Enron is America's most fraudulent company.  As an educator, I notice first and foremost the absence of learning.  We just go onto the next thing: from Enron's "special purpose entities" to Lehman's "structured investment vehicles," from day-trading in equities to zero-down real estate investing.  The pattern is reinforced by our leaders, who depend on it to maintain their own position.  A recent example was Obama's justification of the escalation in Afghanistan by trying to suffocate reflection with a thick blanket of primal innocence: "unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination."

In his amazing novel 2666, one of Roberto Bolano's main characters, a Spanish specialist in German literature and in particular the works of the elusive Archimboldi, returns to his hotel room in a Mexican border town, puts down
rugs on the bed he didn't sleep in, then . . . sat on his bed and for a fraction of a second the shadows retreated and he had a fleeting glimpse of reality.  He felt dizzy and he closed his eyes. Without knowing it he fell asleep.
Why are we still sleeping?

The effect of the Big Sleep appears in another great framing moment, Glenn Greenwald's continuation of his critique of the Obama administration on health care. He argues that Obama is systematically continuing Clinton's Third Way, which Greenwald defines as corporatism.
It's about more than just letting corporations do what they want.  It's about affirmatively harnessing government power in order to benefit and strengthen those corporate interests and even merging government and the private sector.  In the intelligence and surveillance realms, for instance, the line between government agencies and private corporations barely exists.  Military policy is carried out almost as much by private contractors as by our state's armed forces.  Corporate executives and lobbyists can shuffle between the public and private sectors so seamlessly because the divisions have been so eroded.  Our laws are written not by elected representatives but, literally, by the largest and richest corporations.  At the level of the most concentrated power, large corporate interests and government actions are basically inseparable.

The health care bill is one of the most flagrant advancements of this corporatism yet, as it bizarrely forces millions of people to buy extremely inadequate products from the private health insurance industry -- regardless of whether they want it or, worse, whether they can afford it (even with some subsidies).
Greenwald is right about this "centrist" Democrat philosophy, and about its authoritarian overtones. It's also important to figure out where this corporatism comes from.  Part of it is the media simulacra, of course, providing all the comforts of Babyland for an infantile population.  The deeper harder part comes from systematic and self-protective dissociation from anything that conflicts with an airbrushed image of America that helps us all confront absolutely nothing the country or its leaders actually do - like "seeking world domination" around financial markets, military power, UN climate policy, and so on.

The area where the country's middle classes are being continuously damaged is finance itself.  The financial system created untold trillions of dollars of assets that its own participants determined in the summer and fall of 2008 to be worth little or nothing.  Collapse was averted because governments led by the US Treasury and the Fed stepped in to provide unconditional guarantees that these assets would be worth close to face value.  This was the importance of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's "giveaway" (also here, here and here) of 100 cents on the dollar to AIG's counterparties. Even if it wasn't a giveaway, it signaled Total Commitment to whatever fictions finance had been using to pile it high and deeper.  In other words, to avoid collapse, the feds supported dissociation.  This meant the rapid forgetting of what we had momentarily learned about the non-value of financial values through their real support with taxypayer-supplied direct payments, loans, and guarantees. The forgetting continues to this day, when it is hard to find any commentary on the problem assets that remain on everybody's books, because we are now dissociatively engaged in an economic recovery.

How do we make it stop? The old Left mechanism was the exposure of false consciousness through immiseration.  The lie of prosperity (for the large majority) would be exposed through the truth of suffering.

We have plenty of suffering in the dying states.  In the Left Business Observer, Doug Henwood writes,
According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, one in three U.S. households reports that a member lost a job over the past year. The effects: 90% report higher personal stress; 62%, anger; 58%, depression.  That translates into 83 million Americans experiencing stress; 58 million, anger; and 52 million, depression, as the result of recen job loss. Not quite four in ten of the job losers report having foudn a new job - and of those who do, half say it's for less pay.  For those unable to find a new job, the emotional effects are severe: 70% are depressed.
The obvious problem is that suffering that leads to depression doesn't lead to change.  Anger is more useful, but can easily be reversed into depression, particularly in a culture like that of the U.S. in which everyone is held personally responsible for failure and there are no structural problems really or exploitative ruling classes etc etc - except the ones you see when you are really angry, and then even your friends avoid you for being the loser you are.

The Left is not doing well right now in defining a new architecture for a egalitarian economy that develops the whole society. It also needs to do better at confronting the psychological blockage to imagining what that would be, starting with acknowledging our own role in getting us here.  I think the key to ending dissociation is ending the threat of being a loser by confronting the fact that in the current situation that is exactly what nearly all of us are.

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