September 26, 2008

Be positive... or else

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The problem with Barbara Ehrenreich's piece on Alternet, "How Positive Thinking Wrecked The Economy", is its concluding suggestion that, "[w]hen it comes to how we think, 'negative' is not the only alternative to 'positive.' As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism -- seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty." The problem is that this has no purchase on the inherently hyperstitional dynamics of capitalism. If the magical thinking that Enherenreich decries cannot be considered only delusional, it's because, in the markets, it's not possible to separate out beliefs from their objects. Beliefs don't register the true or falsity of propositions; rather, in the classic hyperstitional self-fulfilling loop, beliefs themselves determine value (and its destruction, as this meta-warning in The Economist points out). "Realism" isn't an available orientation. Moreover, the loop works both ways: as Robert Shiller pointed out in Irrational Exuberance, booms produce the euphoric psychological states necessary for their own maintenance.

There's an interesting parallel between this necessity of positive thinking on the markets and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (recently attacked by Darian Leader in The Guardian). Cognitive Behavioural therapists draw on data which suggests that most people survive everyday life by having an inflated idea of their own abilities. "Realism" would therefore be dysfunctional (and would be likely to lead to depression), just as "positive thinking" increases people's confidence and capacities. Leader attacks Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for being a market-driven, quick-fix solution to psychological problems which require longer term (psychoanalytic) treatment, but it is the idea that positive thinking is mandatory which most closely links neoliberalism and CBT.

Posted by mark at 01:49 PM | TrackBack

"The neoliberal dominance of the State" (cont'd)

One can only share the exasperation of Ads Without Products about the rash of articles describing the current bail outs of financial institutions as constituting a leftward turn. It's puzzling how "a massive transfer of public wealth to the private sector", how the State buying up bad debts without getting any equity in return, could be considered the return of leftism. It's capitalist realism by other means: the only kind of state intervention that is "possible". This kind of "nationalisation" could only happen to protect the interests of the speculator class. As Jodi Dean puts it:

    This is the subjection of the state to the demands of finance capital. It is not the state taking control of banks, markets, finance. That's why there were no provisions in the initial 2 page plan for oversight or accountability. That's also why it was written by a former head of Goldman Sachs. That's what Wall Street is demanding.

    This isn't socialism. It's the triumph of neoliberal dominance of the state.

What we're seeing is not the collapse of capitalism, but the disintegration of the illusion that capitalism is about the untrammeled free market. The developments over the last few weeks only underscore Alex Williams's point that the State, far from being exterior to capital, is a "vital element of stabilisation" which prevents capitalism from accelerating to the point of self-destruction.

Which isn't to say that nothing is happening. It could well turn out, as Larry Elliott argues, that this is a sea change moment. "For Middle Britain," Elliott claims, "the traders who bragged about their 1,000 bottles of Krug have now become as loathed as the bolshie shop stewards of the 1970s." New political movements require a shared object of loathing, the emergence of which indicates a symbolic shift at the level of the political unconscious. The uneasy dreamwork alliance of neoliberalism and neoconservatism has depended on a shared object of revulsion: the nonproductive outsider, the asylum seeker/ welfare recipient. Could a new settlement emerge organised around the symbolic abjection of the figure of the profligate trader?

Meanwhile, as excruciatingly compulsive as watching David Brent, Sarah Palin explains it all (via):

Posted by mark at 12:32 PM | TrackBack

September 04, 2008

The temptations of teleology

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Watching the third part of Richard Dawkins' recent series The Genius Of Darwin, I was struck not by the now familiar phenomenon of Dawkins's libidinal attachment to his adversaries, even though this was in evidence again (why devote a whole third of the series to knocking down Darwin's opponents, when he's already destroyed them numerous times?). No: what was most disconcerting was the final sequence in which Dawkins met with Daniel Dennett. Here, the claim was that, not only had evolution undermined the teleological argument for the existence of God, but that it had revealed a nature which was in many ways the equivalent of a divine designer. Evolution showed a natural world rich in complexity and diversity, and a contemplation of this should be enough to satisfy anyone's spiritual needs: what more could they (religious believers) want, Dawkins scoffed.

Part of the problem here is the one which Zizek touches upon in his occasional remarks on contemporary Darwininianism: why is that that the advocates of a punitively mechanistic theory like Darwininian evolution end up using teleological language? This is partly a consequence of the concept of "natural selection" being (rhetorically) converted from a negative into a positive thesis. The original negative idea was that brutal, blind randomness can account for the appearance of purpose in organisms; there is no need to hypothesise any guiding intelligence at work in nature, since only those organisms that happen to be adapted to their environment will survive and prosper. If this seems like a statement of the screamingly obvious, it is worth reiterating because it is too often obscured, not by religious thinkers distorting evolutionary theory, but by Darwininans themselves, who, it seems, have a tendency to be seduced by their own metaphors. 'Natural selection' was itself something of a reification, which was always in danger of implying that there was an intentional agent doing the selecting. Dawkins' own famous images - the blind watchmaker, the selfish gene - both imply some degree of purposive intent (the emphasis in the blind watchmaker ought to have been on the blindness rather than the watchmaking; the gene has neither a self nor interests which it pursues, only an idiotic program which it follows).

Unfortunately, the positivisation of the idea of natural selection isn't merely a rhetorical error, but something that has had theoretical consequences. Witness, for instance, the most ludicrous claims of evolutionary psychology, which maintain that practically every human behaviour can be accounted for in terms of a natural selection held to operate like some ultra-efficient teleological sorting system, ensuring that every single trait serves some evolutionary function. What is lost here in is the randomness of the process - needless to say, traits can persist even if they have no positive function, provided there is no selection pressure against them.

In his insistence that evolution had not destroyed Meaning but, on the contrary, guaranteed it, Dawkins struck me as precisely the sort of person that was the real target of Nietzsche's "Parable Of The Madman": not the religious believers, who are perfectly aware of the traumatic implications of the death of God, but "those who did not believe in God" who stand around and laugh when the madman brings his bad news. The Creatonists' horror and abomination in the face of evolution seems more in keeping with its mechaninistic nihilism than Dawkins's cheery insouciance, his suggestion that things can go on pretty much the same after Darwin as before.

Posted by mark at 03:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack