A social networking site could be the internet’s democratic compass.

Imagine a website that could reconfigure the internet –something that could redefine social networking, journalism, democracy, and the internet itself, amongst other things.

Imagine a website designed around allowing anyone to create a portal or page for whatever issue they are concerned about. Attached to each issue portal there could be polls, forums, journalism, and archives of all the statistics and writings which get gathered through this process.

Imagine a website that collected statistics on how many people support or oppose any and all issues. Polling statistics would be gathered from all open sources as well as through the site’s social networking face –which itself serves as a place for people to have their opinions officially registered and archived.

Imagine a website with check-and-balance powers in relation to governments and corporations. The facts of who is fore or opposed to every issue could be contrasted with what governments do in those cases. This site would serve the purpose of giving people a place to go to have their voices heard, archived, and retrievable on any issue.

I am picturing something which can be continuously developed and changed by participants, so it could serve different functions as time progresses and it could be different things to different people. It could be primarily an activism-oriented social network; it could be primarily a new framework for journalism –with stories linked to specific issues which would have discussions and polls ongoing, archived, and accessible for analysis by anyone; it could be primarily about discussions concerning specific issues; it could be primarily about polling; it could be primarily about freedom of information –having the facts of what specific numbers of people think about a vast array of specific issues.  These facts could then be used to petition governments or corporations to change their ways, but just as important would be the use of transparent and freely accessible information as a cornerstone for building new societies. It could also be key to keeping the internet open to such uses as this.

Transcending gender.

In this short video Judith Butler explains what it means for gender to be performative and how that relates to how gender identities are forced onto people through hetronormative reactions by people who observe others interacting with the world around them.

In the following video the good folks at the PBS idea channel further extrapolate on the performative phenomena of gender.

Next, a blogger going by the name queersocialistdave expresses the need to rebel against hetronormativity.

Androgyny or genderqueerness is about the liberation of the body and mind from the constraints of heteronormative patriarchal capitalist society. It is a way of rebelling against the norms laid down by this oppressive social order and refusing to live one’s life in conformity with them. It is about being a more balanced, whole person, able to draw upon all aspects of one’s character, whether these be labeled masculine, feminine or otherwise. It is about not limiting oneself to an artificially fixed role. It is about not living in a role that is a socially constructed straight-jacket. It is about fulfilling one’s potential as a sexual being. Patriarchy oppresses both women and men in different ways, heternormativity oppresses both “straights” and queers in different ways, and capitalism oppresses the vast majority of us on every level. We all should feel free to dare to break out of this bourgeois-hegemonistic view of gender and sexuality that controls us, just as we should all dare to break free of every aspect of the hegemony imposed upon us by the ruling class. As well as class warriors, we should dare to be gender rebels, transgressors, subversives – in short, revolutionaries. When we dare to do this we will see there isn’t one among of us who isn’t a little bit queer.  queersocialistdave, from the post, Androgyny and Gender Performativity in Queer Identity Politics

I will add to all this that the responsibility to rebel against patriarchal order lies not just with those who identify as queer, bisexual, transgender or any other norm-diverging gender, but with everyone who cares about being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, with everyone who wants to be free of the illusion-creating matrix of systematic oppression. Being free of patriarchal conceptions of gender is key to spiritual liberty as well. What gender is detachment? What gender is Buddha-nature? In Transmission of Light, Keizan (1268-1325) wrote, “If you are not detached from appearances of maleness and femaleness, whatever you do is mundane activity, not buddha work.”

In an interview with Liz Kotz, Judith Butler states, “I don’t believe that gender, race, or sexuality have to be identities, I think that they’re vectors of power.” This image of gender and race as vectors of power visualizes the mechanics for a matrix visualization of systematic oppression. These vectors of power function through groups and individuals projecting identity stereo-types onto other groups and individuals and in the process pushing people into positions of having to counter stereo-types with their own version of their sense of identity. This process divides people, fracturing all sense of unity, and puts people unwittingly in collaboration with systems of oppression. Perhaps  steps towards de-powering the vectors of power which reinforce systematic oppression are to not identify with patriarchal conceptions of gender or race and to view gender as variable, multiple, and as unique as each human.

Beuys and Böll’s free school manifesto.

For this entry I am quoting in full the “Manifesto on the foundation of a “Free International School for Creativity and Inter disciplinary Research” written by Joseph Beuys and Heinrich Böll in 1973.  This is a particular sort of initiative which I am interested in reviving.

Creativity is not limited to people practicing one of the traditional forms of art, and even in the case of artists creativity is not confined to the exercise of their art.  Each one of us has a creative potential which is hidden by competitiveness and success-aggression.  To recognize, explore and develop this potential is the task of the school.

 Creation—whether it be a painting, sculpture, symphony or novel, involves not merely talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres.

 Conversely, when we consider the ability to organize material that is expected of a worker, a housewife, a farmer, doctor, philosopher, judge or works manager, we find that their work by no means exhausts the full range of their creative abilities.

 Whereas the specialist’s insulated point of view places the arts and other kinds of work in sharp opposition, it is in fact crucial that the structural, formal and thematic problems of the various work processes should be constantly compared with one another.

 The school does not discount the specialist, nor does it adopt an anti-technological stance.  It does, however reject the idea of experts and technicians being the sole arbiters in their respective fields.  In a spirit of democratic creativity, without regressing to merely mechanical defensive or aggressive clichés, we shall discover the inherent reason in things.

 In a new definition of creativity the terms professional and dilettante are surpassed, and the fallacy of the unworldly artist and the alienated non-artist is abandoned.

 The founders of the school look for creative stimulation from foreigners working here.  This is not to say that it is a prerequisite that we learn from them or that they learn from us.  Their cultural traditions and way of life call forth an exchange of creativity that must go beyond preoccupation with varying art forms to a comparison of the structures, formulations and verbal expressions of the material pillars of social life:  law, economics, science, religion, and then move on to the investigation or exploration of the “creativity of the democratic.”

 The creativity of the democratic is increasingly discouraged by the progress of bureaucracy, coupled with the aggressive proliferation of an international mass culture.  Political creativity is being reduced to the mere delegation of decision and power.  The imposition of an international cultural and economic dictatorship by the constantly expanding combines leads to a loss of articulation, learning and the quality of verbal expression.

 In the consumer society, creativity, imagination and intelligence, not articulated, their expression prevented, become defective, harmful and damaging—in contrast to a democratic society—and find outlets in corrupted criminal creativity.  Criminality can arise from boredom, from inarticulated creativity.   To be reduced to consumer values, to see democratic potential reduced to the occasional election, this can also be regarded as a rejection or a dismissal of democratic creativity.

 Environmental pollution advances parallel with a pollution of the world within us.  Hope is denounced as utopian or as illusionary, and discarded hope breeds violence.  In the school we shall research into the numerous forms of violence, which are by no means confined to those of weapons or physical force.

 As a forum for the confrontation of political or social opponents, the school can set up a permanent seminar on social behavior and its articulate expression.

 The founders of the school proceed from the knowledge that since 1945, along with the brutality of the reconstruction period, the gross privileges afforded by monetary reforms, the crude accumulation of possessions and an upbringing resulting in an expense account mentality, many insights and initiatives have been prematurely shattered.  The realistic attitude of those who do survive, the idea that living might be the purpose of existence, has been denounced as a romantic fallacy.  The Nazis’ blood and soil doctrine, which ravaged the land and spilled the blood, has disturbed our relation to tradition and environment.  Now, however, it is no longer regarded as romantic but exceedingly realistic to fight for every tree, every plot of undeveloped land, every stream as yet unpoisoned, every old town center, and against every thoughtless reconstruction scheme.  And it is no longer considered romantic to speak of nature.  In the permanent trade competition and performance of the two German political systems which have successfully exerted themselves for world recognition, the values of life have been lost.  Since the school’s concern is with the values of life we shall stress the consciousness of solidarity.  The school is based on the principle of interaction, whereby no institutional distinction is drawn between the teachers and the taught.  The school’s activity will be accessible to the public, and it will conduct its work in the public eye.  Its open and international character will be constantly reinforced by exhibitions and events in keeping with the concept of creativity.

 “Non-artists” could initially be encouraged to discover or explore their creativity by artists attempting to communicate and to explain—in an undidactic manner—the elements and the coordination of their creativity.  At the same time we would seek to find out why laws and disciplines in the arts invariably stant in creative opposition to established law and order.

 It is not the aim of the school to develop political and cultural directions, or to form styles, or to provide industrial and commercial prototypes.  Its chief goal is the encouragement, discovery and furtherance of democratic potential, and the expression of this.  In a world increasingly manipulated by publicity, political propaganda, the culture business and the press, it is not to the named—but the nameless—that it will offer a forum.

Reprinted in Energy Plan for the Western Man:  Joseph Beuys in America, Writings by and Interviews with the Artist, compiled by Carin Kuoni.  New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990.

 

How systematic oppression hurts everyone involved.

James Baldwin aptly sums up the point I want to bring out in this post, which supports what was said in another post.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim one sees oneself. (Nobody knows my name, 78)

In this post I have a few more quotes to share which shed further light on how systematic oppression hurts everyone involved. Even if, in a clear example, slave owners believe they are profiting from owning slaves, they are doing harm to their own humanity. Frederick Douglass gives a stirring account of this happening through his own experience of being sent as a slave child to live with a young couple who had never owned slaves before.

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind tenderhearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of those heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me [to read]. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension.  (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 81-82)

While traveling in Africa in 1965 Malcolm X arrived at a new insight about the way in which a racist atmosphere sinks into the psychology of individuals.

I told him, “What you are telling me is that it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” He agreed.

We both agreed that American society makes it impossible for humans to meet in America and not be conscious of their color differences. And we both agreed that if racism could be removed, America could offer a society where rich and poor could truly live like human beings.

That discussion with the ambassador gave me a new insight –one which I like: that the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 371)

The last quote I want to relate to these others is from Michel Foucault.

Do not regard power as a phenomenon of homogenous domination –the domination of one individual over others, of one group over others, or of one class over others: keep it clearly in mind that unless we are looking at it from a great height and from a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it. Power must, I think, be analyzed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localized here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them. (Society must be defended, lectures, 14 January 1976)

In all of this I see the importance of forming new networks so that power can circulate in liberating ways rather than oppressive ways. The problem with systematic oppression is that the oppressive system is within –and functions through –each individual. It is not just the 1% who are to blame for perpetuating this system. Each person relays power through everyday interactions. How can this situation be changed? In my opinion an important change happens when individuals choose to give power to each other –share power through solidarity –rather than exercise power over each other.

A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government

Nakae Chomin wrote a wonderfully entertaining and insightful book in 1887  entitled, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government.  Here is the opening.

Master Nankai loves drinking and discussing politics. When he drinks only one or two small bottles of sake, he is pleasantly intoxicated –his spirits are high and he feels as if he were flying through the universe. Everything he sees and hears delights him; it seems unthinkable that there should be suffering in the world.

When he has two or three more bottles, his spirits soar even higher, and ideas spring up, unrestrained. Although his body remains in his small room, his eyes scan the whole world. They instantly go back a thousand years, or else span the next thousand, charting the direction for the world’s course or giving instructions for public policy. At such times, he thinks to himself, “I am the compass for human society. It’s a great pity that the world’s nearsighted politicians haphazardly take control of the rudder and cause the ship to strike a rock or to be grounded in shallow water, thus bringing calamity upon themselves and others. (47)

. . .

After this opening, Master Nankai is greeted by two visitors. One is known as the Gentleman of Western Learning. He is a young Japanese man who has recently returned from studying in Western Europe, as many Japanese men did in the late 19th Century, including the author of this book who was a journalist and a member of Japan’s first parliament till resigning over reasons of conscience. The other visitor is an older conservative Japanese man. He provides balance to the idealistic notions of the Gentleman of Western Learning. Most of the quotes included here, which seem to me to be of relevance to our contemporary world –over a century after they were written,  are from the Gentleman of Western Learning.

If a small nation which is behind the others in its progress toward civilization were to stand up proudly on the edge of Asia, plunge into the realm of liberty and brotherhood, demolish fortresses, melt down canon, convert warships into merchant ships, turn soldiers into civilians, devote itself to mastering moral principles, study industrial techniques, and become a true student of philosophy; wouldn’t the European nations who take vain pride in their civilization feel ashamed? Suppose, however, these great nations are not only unashamed but also stubborn and villainous, and suppose they impudently invade our country, taking advantage of our disarmament. What could they do if we have not an inch of steel nor a single bullet about us, but greet them with civility? If you swing a sword to attack the air, nothing happens to the thin, free air no matter how sharp the sword may be. Why don’t we become like the air?

It’s like throwing an egg at a rock for a small and powerless nation dealing with a big and powerful one to exert a physical force that is less than one thousandth of its opponent’s. Since the opponent takes great pride in its civilization, it cannot be that he lacks the moral principles that are the essence of civilization. Why shouldn’t we, a small nation, use as our weapon the intangible moral principles our opponent aspires to but is unable to practice? If we adopt liberty as our army and navy, equality as our fortress, and fraternity as our sword and cannon, who in the world would dare attack us?

All who possess mind and body are equally human. What is the difference between the Europeans and the Asians, much less between the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians, or between the Indians, Chinese, and Ryukuans? Today we invariably refer to Great Britain, Russia, or Germany, but these are merely the names of the sovereigns’ properties. If, however, sovereignty rests with the people and there is no other ruler, a country’s name simply designates a certain part of the surface of the earth. Therefore, to say that one is a citizen of a certain country ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no border’s between oneself and others and there arises no hostility. Nations with a single master, however, are named after the master’s house. In such a nation, to say that one is of a certain nationality ultimately means that one lives in that part of the earth. There are no borders between oneself and others. This slicing up of the various parts of the earth, causing divisions among its inhabitants, is the course of monarchy. Democracy! Democracy! Country A or B is merely a division made for the sake of convenience in naming various parts of the earth. These names were not meant to build walls among its inhabitant. Democracy creates a single, large, complete, circle embracing the entire earth by bringing together the wisdom and love of the people of the world.  (75)

. . .

The Gentleman continued. “Democracy is necessary for abolishing war, promoting peace, and making all the nations on earth one family. The theory that all nations should give up war and promote peace was first advanced by the Frenchman Abbe de Saint-Pierre in the eighteenth century. At that time, very few people agreed with his idea, and many said that it could not be put into practice. Some went so far as to ridicule him as a high-minded ideologue. Even Voltaire, a man of uncommon intelligence who was deeply interested in the progress of society, tried to appear clever by making some derisive remarks concerning Saint-Pierre’s theory. Only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wielding his mighty pen, completely agreed with the theory, and praised Saint-Pierre’s book as ‘indispensable’. Later, Kant built upon Saint-Pierre’s theory and wrote a book entitled Zun ewigen Frieden, which advocated the necessity of abolishing war and promoting friendly relations. According to Kant, ‘Even if we grant the contention that the desire for fame and love of victory cannot be removed from human beings and that the realization of peace is impossible in our actual world, as long as we value moral principles, we must make every effort to move forward toward that realm. This, and nothing else, is the responsibility of human beings.’ (82-83)

. . .

Today, in the nineteenth century, it is indeed an insane nation which takes pride in military power, makes aggression its national policy, and tries to own the earth, regardless of means, by usurping someone else’s land or by killing someone else’s people. (87)

. . .

Many of the strong nations on earth are cowherds. Fearing each other, they maintain troops and line up battleships and thus fall into danger. Why don’t the weak nations voluntarily and firmly dismiss their soldiers, dissolve their fleets, and choose peace?

Later in the discourse Master Nankai mildly rebukes Mr. Gentleman by saying that the time was not ripe for global democracy –at the end of the Nineteenth Century –but suggests that after another century the seeds that were sown then would be ready to bear fruit.

I tell you, Mr. Gentleman, ideas are seeds planted in the field of the mind. If you truly love democracy, talk about it, write about it, and sow its seeds in the minds of people. Then, in several hundred years, democracy might flourish all over the country. Today, the plants of the sovereign and the aristocrats are still rooted  in the public mind. Isn’t it wrong to try to gather a rich harvest of democracy immediately, simply because the seed of democracy has sprouted in your own brain?

“The public mind is a storehouse for the ideas of the past. All social undertakings are expressions of past ideas. Therefore, if we wish to build a new enterprise, we must first plant the necessary idea in the people’s minds, so it, too, can someday become an established idea –an idea of the past. Why? An action always bears fruit in the present, but an idea always has its roots in the past. Mr. Gentleman, please read your history. What has occurred in all nations is a result of the ideas of those nations. But ideas and actions do not align themselves in neat rows; they form a crooked line –and this the history of all nations.

. . .

An age is silk or paper, ideas are colors, and great projects are paintings. A society of a given period is a painting that has already been completed. Mr. Gentleman, is it not madness to paint a picture of the future on a piece of paper called the present with pigments which are not yet completely ground? If you make diligent efforts now to refine your ideas or grind your pigments, a hundred years later the colors will pour richly onto the palette of society. At that point, if someone paints a picture on the piece of silk or paper of his present, the radiant colors you have mixed in his past will dazzle the eyes of all spectators, who will admire and praise the painting as a masterpiece surpassing those of Rubens or Poussin.

Democratic traits?

Last week I bought a book which was first published in 2009 as Democratie, dans quel etat? The English translation has just been published this year.  It is a collection of essays examining what is meant by the word ‘democracy’. The first essay, “The Democratic Emblem” by Alain Badiou, is what I am focusing on in this post.

Alain Badiou offers a rather cynical view of democracy. He first criticizes the Western tendency to suppose that the “democratic world” is superior to the rest of the world. Fair enough. Then he harks back to Plato, specifically book 8 of The Republic, in which “Plato applies the term demokratia to a way of organizing the business of the polis, a certain type of constitution.” (8) After a few words about how both Lenin and Plato saw democracy as no more than a particular form of state, he says, “The capacity of the democratic emblem to do harm lies in the subjective type it molds; and, not to mince words, the crucial traits of the democratic type are egoism and desire for petty enjoyments.” (8)

Here I have to take issue with what Badiou takes for granted. In the shadows of the words, “the subjective type it molds” many debates of twentieth century French philosophy lurk. Specifically, Louis Althusser seems to have influenced professor Badiou’s perspectives. Badiou was a student of Althusser and has built his intellectual career on Althusser’s peculiar slant on Marxism. Althusser’s cryptic remarks on ideology and how it molds the subjectivities of individuals haunted my university studies as well. It was pivotal to the raising of my political consciousness to puzzle through what it means for mental and physical habits, hopes, preferences, styles of reactions, all that constitutes subjectivity, to be shaped by the various ideologies that exist in the societies we are immersed in. Althusser at times in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses seems to think of “ideology” as a mysteriously united force in the universe –sort of like the Nothing in The Never ending Story –which threatens to swallow everything that is not it. Badiou appears to be thinking along similar lines when he accuses democracy of molding a subjective type with the traits of egoism and desire for petty enjoyments. He makes no attempt to distinguish the subjective type that the democratic emblem molds from what any other ideology molds, such as capitalism, protestantism, science, or the communism which he endorses. He seems to just see contemporary society as egoistic and desirous of petty enjoyments and blames that on democracy. What is it about democracy that could create such traits? It is much more complicated than Badiou’s sweeping statement implies.

Continuing on with Alain Badiou’s article, he goes on to accuse democracy of being stuck in a perpetual youthfulness void of the wisdom of age.  This, again, he claims is based on Plato. Badiou says, “Plato’s thesis is that sooner or later this manner of existence, grounded in the indiscipline of time, and its correlative form of State, representative democracy, will bring about a visible manifestation of their despotic essence. Because that is what it comes down to: the real content of all that youth and beauty is the despotism of the death wish.” (13). Badiou implies that “death wish” is a Platonic term –though it is a Freudian generalization –when, immediately after the last quoted sentence he says, “That is why, for Plato, the trajectory that begins with the delights of democracy ends with the nightmare of tyranny. ” (13)

If democracy is to end in tyranny, it seems to me that it is because it has never really been separated from the economic tyranny of the aristocracy, not because of the youthful lustiness which those old Greeks saw everywhere they looked. If democracy is to become the organizational principle of empowering communities to thrive and encourage positive traits it will be through becoming conscious of what non-democratic traits are woven into our institutions and minds, rooting those out and envisaging new ways to organize our communities and free our minds.