The Function of Violence

Hannah Arendt has a short book called On Violence that appears to be the closest thing she ever wrote to a pamphlet or zine for mass distribution. In the middle of the book is a glossary of sorts for some key concepts that get thrown around in political discourse haphazardly: power, strength, force, authority, and violence. I understand her desire to set the matters straight on these words’ meaning as an attempt to prevent political actors, people willing to take meaningful and directed political action, from falling into ideologically sterile beliefs or patterns of behavior that would disable that political action from taking effect.

She begins, and this is significant, with an assessment of the political landscape during the cold war era and the mentality confronting a generation of people having grown up in a time when the world itself could vanish at any moment. This situation brought the high politics of international relations into the consciousness of common people in a way that only climate change could now, with the affect largely drawing on fear. The Berlin Wall was still up and the narrative of two competing superpowers with opposing and irreconcilable modes of governing still prevailed and the capitalist west was set apart from the communist east. Mutually assured destruction of every human world (in her own sense of the word ‘world’) had become the culmination of a century of technological innovation in war-making and previously unthinkable slaughter. A single decision by a group of men in identical suits sitting in a dark room that the public has never seen could end everything. It was in this setting that Arendt sets about to enable her readers to think, to traverse the conceptual landscape of political and economic philosophy that constitutes the heritage bequeathed to us and find a way forward.

After setting the historical stage, we get some treatments of some political trends including the fantasy of unending progress and economic growth, the function of war in politics, and the effect of Marxism on revolutionary thought. But I would prefer to dive right into her glossary of terms to come to grips with their specific deployment. Each of these five terms has a unique meaning and they never seem to form some kind of order or hierarchy, so it is important that we grasp each on its own.

First, in her own words:

Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say that someone is “in power” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name…

Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular, an individual entity; it is the property inherent in an object or person and belongs to its character, which may prove itself in relation to other things or persons, but is essentially independent of them….

Force… should be reserved, in terminological language, for the “forces of nature” or the “force of circumstances”… that is, to indicate the energy released by physical of social movements.

Authority[‘s]… hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed… To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.

Violence, finally as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designated and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it.” (p44-46)

So, power only exists in human plurality, such that some have the ability to reorganize the community taken as a whole and have more freedom to act on it than others. The existence of power necessitates inequality in a group of people, or the reverse. Strength is an attribute of an individual, with some people being physically stronger than others by fact of nature or training. Strength is a physical property of a body. Force is relational and between bodies, a rather mechanistic term that’s close to ‘energy.’ Force can be imposed on others by acting together and doesn’t necessarily mean the enactment of blunt trauma. Authority seems the most cultural and least natural of the five, with it largely being the result of rituals and positions held by a person but within institutions. Neither force nor violence nor even strength should be required to maintain authority, and when those means are called upon to keep authority it is a sign that that authority is diminishing. Violence is a tool. Like technology, violence is implemented by someone and against another for a purpose. In other words, violence is only ever a means to an end and never an end in itself.

And there we have it. These terms are the common expression of thought in times of political uncertainty, that is, when authority is crumbling or power is breaking down. In the situation of a rebellion, war, or revolution (or the mass protest that always raise their prospect), we are suddenly thrown into an assortment of forces that require navigation through. Her point is that we have no easy path which shows itself immediately upon attaching oneself to any of these terms, whatever destination one may believe themselves to be traveling toward. The only consistent privilege Arendt ever seems to give is for a situation in which political action remains possible, the term ‘action’ being something with a specific meaning which I will explain later.

I take it that Arendt’s book is primarily aimed at Maoists of her era and other revolutionary Marxists searching for the right strategy to realize their political dreams, some of which having momentarily settled on violence as the cure-all. If only enough people are convinced that the true form of power is the violence inherent in the system (so the rationale goes), then a counter-violent force will coalesce and a revolution can take place, with power transferring from the capitalist to the socialists. The violence of capitalism is all around us and if we don’t push back with the most radical political action they can conceive, then capitalist violence will continue, say the fired-up communists. But as we receive from Arendt, the lesson here is that power and violence are not the same thing, nor does violence compose the power bloc entirely (like a collection of atoms compose an object). This is the ideological error of materialism that has survived in many forms since the dawn of philosophy, but gained a popular traction on the left since the Marxists took over the theoretical high ground on the left sometime in the late nineteenth century.

The materialist temptation is to reduce these list of terms to one term and place that one term at the ground, holding up all of the others. The mechanical nature of force, its near-equation with energy, allows it a place in the realm beyond or underneath the human and its community. With force as our basic concept hiding behind all of the others we can dawn the lab-coat and appear as a scientist that devises strictly neutral laws of nature. Armed with a materialistic ideology (a word, ‘ideology’ that can be used anytime you here someone repeat the same concepts over and over again, seeking to explain all of your ideas within the terminology of their own), we gain in prestige or mass appeal what we loose in strategic assessment of a political arrangement. Violence or the threat of potential violence is not the only force running through the field of power and keeping people in power.

Authority does not require fear but can be won in persuasion and/or skillful maneuvering, although no more convincing at all is needed when achieved. Authority is even here defined as a lack of coercion, such that one can gain authority only by seeming to be worthy of trust, believability, etc. and not merely relying on force. When such violent measures are resorted to, one in power suddenly looks naked in that power: one loses authority and draws the contempt of the people that such power is being exerted on. Authority is lost and power looks isolated, cut off from the support and respect which it required in order to achieve that power. No doubt, power can still be maintained without authority and the standards that authority “rests on” may shift to the point where authority is lost to part of a constituency but not all, but power ruling over people (or simply manipulating them to act someway instead of another) can’t survive long without authority and its accompanied respectability and admiration.

The point Arendt is making goes to her political predicament and (if the situation of the cold war is not so far away from the situation now in America) ours: we cannot just rely on an escalation of confrontation to win political power. Those who insist on this kind of brute materialist analysis wouldn’t know what to do with the power they had won if they had been gift-wrapped it and not had to fight for it at all. And there are such groups, typically anarchists, who have brought the radical left discourse to this point (Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, and the rest of the smorgasbord that make up ultra-radicals). It is only logical that anarchists would be willing to go this far because, aside from their not total but very common ideological materialism, they claim to be a force entirely concerned with counter or anti-power. Communists, on the other hand, are all-too-willing to use whatever tools available to gain power in the fight against capitalism and anarchists, despite their fierce historical opposition to them, open the way for the seizure of power by the next-most organized authority ready to jump at the opportunity. The historical and linguistic similarities between these two traditions are the undeniable heritage of anti-capitalism and left-Hegelianism in Europe, disputes aside.

Power and authority does not disappear when you evacuate the current factions, parties, or institutions holding power of their force or their means of implementing violence. This is the materialist fallacy of treating force and violence as coextensive with trauma and the infliction of pain; forces are not atoms nor are they the relations between the atoms holding them together, such that reorganizing them into a different shape will also eliminate power. People organized effectively will “give off” a force that can alter, suspend, or overthrow power, but the potential for this force to exude itself only exists when people are compelled to resist or disobey. Power falls apart and leaves in its death a vacuum when a critical threshold of people lose confidence, respect, or consent towards those in power, or, in other words, when power loses its authority and must resort to violence. What makes presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald trump so popular now in the internet age of finance capitalism is the large number of people who disapprove of their leaders but are suddenly feeling the effects of their horrendous leadership leading up to and after the financial collapse and subsequent bailout of corrupted money institutions. The revelations that the massive outgrowth of technologies surrounding the internet has been accompanied by a massive surveillance and loss of media-ted freedom has also contributed to a spiteful, though atomized response. With these actions the American government has lost authority, so that the most popular presidential candidates across the political spectrum can call for drastic action and use revolutionary rhetoric. The amount of authority still remaining can be quantified by polls and surveys only imperfectly.

The moment that many people are waiting for now, the great event that hope turns toward to reverse its fortunes, is here defined as the moment when power has completely lost its authority and when the violence becomes overt and visible. The time of the event, the time of kairos, the outpouring of activity that subverts all power and ushers in ‘the new’ could very easily get caught in this stage of violence in the waning hours of power’s grip. If all the preparation that is made is military in style, then it will be too easy for those insisting on violence as a means for revolution to lose the authority they falsely believed they never needed anyways and be crushed. Violent action taken against a power actually has the ability to become ensnared into a game that feeds such a power, diminishing and devoid of authority though it may be, with ample justification for its own police or domestic violence. Or otherwise, as Arendt puts it,

“Disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation: and even then, when power is already in the street, some group of men prepared for such an eventuality is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility.” (p49)

Staying at this level of street fighting and becoming fixated on the enemy in proximity opens up the way for a change in power, but who or what group plucks that power out of the streets and convinces the people that they are worthy of positions of authority is uncertain. This opening up of possible regime change intensifies the situation and raises the excitement level, but only those prepared to grab and hold onto power will come out with it. A second look into the revolutions of Egypt from 2011 and the current civil war in Syria exemplify the dangers of prolonged street fighting can take on a state, from within and without.

In times like these, power is effectively lost when its command structure disintegrates. The giving and accepting of commands is a major component for the instrumental use of violence, and must be presupposed by those with power in order that they maintain their power. But a power that has lost authority increases the likelihood that those receiving the commands will falter. Commands are like contracts that people believe will be honored but can only make referrals to laws, force, and character when they come to collect; when the structures that ensure such contracts or commands have lost the respect of the people, everything can change in a “flash.”

“In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always held absolute; but this superiority lasts only as long as the power structure of the government is intact – that is, as long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to use their weapons. When this is no longer the case, the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, but the arms themselves change hands – sometimes, as in the Hungarian revolution, within a few hours.” (p48)

These moments of power-loss bring about the prospect for a new form of government, where new ideas are given a space and new constitutions can be drawn up. None of these things can happen if the arms once used to repress peoples continue to remain with the government and their users obey commands. When the thrust of one’s political activity is reduced to violence mixed with some vague notions about ideal human life (or some exact notions about how to run an economy from 150 years ago), the authority of the existing power is reinforced not challenged and the potential for a new power will remain untapped. The public opinion of a people becomes the ultimate arbiter in these instances.

“The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience – to laws, to rulers, to institutions – is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.” (p49)

This “support and consent” is not so easily detectable but it is easily observable in daily life. When or where the threshold is crossed from acquiescence to rebellion is not definable in an analytic way but becomes apparent in a mass event, a non-localized disobedience. In other words, a small group of people is not going to incite an insurrection but can seize power once that general disobedience and loss of authority has taken place. A situation of major power-loss and potential transition is a mass phenomenon that the great majority takes part in. Without this vast critical majority, any revolutionary practice is powerless, and this lack of power (just like with regimes losing their power by losing their authority) is what leads them to turn towards violence.

And power itself is not even won through war-like victories, where one force overcomes another and so seizes power. Gaining and keeping power is a group phenomenon that should not be confused with one army conquering another army. “Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together rather than from any action that then may follow.” The violence that power deploys where it sees fit is but its instrument for maintaining that power it won not from battles but from acting and organizing itself prior to its seizure of power. When power is attempted to be gained by violent means, what we get is not a power but a terrifying obedience of people like they were soldiers or enemies. Violence: its commands, its obedience, and its fear are not suited for rule of a government in the same way as power is, which is where we get the totalitarian rule of terror.

“Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it is power…

Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost… To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” (p53)

The confusion of violence’s alliance with power for another principle, namely, that power is nothing but a control of violence, leads us down a troubling path – one that extents the operations of violence even further than the street battles within which violence takes place. The organization of violence and the organization of government are two separate creatures that ally with each other for their own mutual survival; a violence having completely severed itself from power and overtaken it can rule only according to its own organizational axioms. When everything looks like either an enemy or a subordinate to direct with the force of fear, government is transformed into rule by terror. Ignoring power’s cooperative operation and its legitimacy in the eyes of those it rules could be disastrous. To ignore the need for a plan within the designs of the powerful and a method for running the government once power is attained is to create a power vacuum that is too easily filled by violence.

“Terror is not the same as violence; it is, rather, the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control. It has often been noticed that the effectiveness of terror depends almost entirely on the degree of social atomization… The decisive different between totalitarian domination, based on terror, and tyrannies and dictatorships, established by violence, is that the former turns not only against its enemies but against its friends and supporters as well, being afraid of all power, even the power of its friends. The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to devour its own children, when yesterday’s executioner becomes today’s victim. And this is also the moment when power disappears entirely.” (p55)

This situation of totalitarian terror is one that few will remember at the time of writing, 2016, or could. It comes to us like a relic in a time where capitalist power has outlasted its internal and geopolitical opponents but also as perennial justification for the capitalist powers. But it could also come to us as a reminder how quickly things can disintegrate into cycles of violence and terror if we hold onto materialistic notions of the identity of power and force – or at least their difference being only one of degree.

So, violence and force are not the same as power and power is not composed of accumulation of forces or a mere monopoly on violence.

“To sum it up: it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.” (p56)

Power only relies on violence as a means to keep that power, but is not its essence. When power is kept in possession solely through the use of violence, people tend not tolerate such a power and it loses authority. In those situations when the authority of power is lost, commands are disobeyed and changes in power become possible, or at least more likely. As violence rages on and conquers all of its enemies, it turns the power of government into terror. A power won not through violence but through acting together in concert, forming a strategic plan and proclaiming themselves in public, is a power capable of legitimate rule by general consent of the governed. Such consent, Arendt will argue, is not the mere result of coercion or an acquiescence; the minds of the people are given more agency than they would have as mere subjects of a sovereign.

“This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as non-violence; to speak of non-violent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” (p56)

Somewhere early on in a political action, which Arendt defines as necessarily being an initiative that starts something new, the old debate rears its ugly head and a decision will have to be made on the ready-made and easy-to-use media template: “Are you violent or non-violent?”. The decision is a forced decision in Arendt’s terminology because the use of violence in an instrumental means to an ends does not exist in the civilian resisting violence and fighting back. Such resistance or reactive counter-attack against the organized and instrumental violence of the police or military has no clear instrumental use but the mere expression of outrage. The hastily labeled “violent protester” or the emblazoned headlines of “protest turns violent” are abuses of the word; violence is only a tool, a means to an ends, and to charge protesters of being an organized force explicitly deploying violence to seek some end is to vastly overestimate their force.

The word is being used here as a media device to discredit an action and bolster the authority for a power. The selective deployment of the word instills confusion in the reader and makes the whole affair look like a skirmish where neither force is to blame and it was another instance of natural forces colliding against each other. Two violent forces that await a victor and the defeated. In actuality, someone or some powerful group decided that a political action challenged their authority and put their power at risk, so they made use of the violence at their disposal. Without a power backing it, such counter violence is ensnared into the trap that the dominant power has set for it, unable to overcome it by force. “Politically speaking, the point is that loss of power becomes a temptation to substitute violence for power…” (p54)

No doubt, some will be inclined to provoke this violence: a kind of drawing out of the violence into public for the purpose of depleting a power’s authority in the eyes of the population. This often goes by the name “non-violent direct action” and has shown its effectiveness in various political campaigns, especially since the advent of mass media to make visible to the rest of the public the use of violence by a power. While effective, the label is misleading and a semantic impasse has developed where the strategy’s authority has grown so large that the media has borrowed its own terminology and selectively deploys its opposite. Like falling into the trap of street battling with a more powerful force, taking sides on this issue has become a means for reducing a popular force through division. But, again, this is a forced choice largely imposed by the forces of the media and internalized by its readers/viewers. Taking the extreme side too quickly produces the ideological weapon of “propaganda by the deed” which hopes to incite further act of violence in a less organized fashion (it hasn’t ever worked) and those led into the ideological error of valorizing violence as I have been addressing throughout this essay. Unleashing this violence, one that obeys commands (else it remains impotent) can be very effective at achieving its goals. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

What Arendt can teach us with this small book is that power is never achieved this way, at least not for long and not without much regret when all is said and done.  What holds up power is more than violence and defeating power with little more than a superior force using violence is no means for creating a new power.  There is more involved in the complicity of a people for a particular power than fear of violence.  This makes the struggle for authority and the general consent of the people a more important battleground than the streets, especially for the intellectually minded.


Arendt, Hannah. On Violence.  Harcourt Books, 1970.

Foucault Talks Anarchism

A brief remark from Foucault on Anarchism.  On January 30th 1980, in the College de France lecture publication titled On the Government of the Living, Foucault again sought to distance himself from an ideological form of analysis and insists that he is doing an analytics of power.  It’s a kind of love/hate relationship though.  He will reference his own work as an “anarcheology”, adding the ‘an’ prefix in a kind of playful way to denote an edgy critical stance, as well as referencing Paul Feyerabend’s book Against Method, in which Feyerabend describes a history of science in which there is no common structure to the development of scientific knowledge and “anything goes.”  His resistance to the label ‘anarchy’ comes from a resistance to ideology as a way for explaining phenomena and interpreting history. Anarchy is about resistance to power if it is anything, but Foucault resists the term itself for not going far enough in its understanding of power, namely, that there is different kind of power working upon or within us that ideological attachment cannot resolve.

What Foucault is doing is something different: he is seeking to maintain an understanding of power that does not construct an edifice from which then others can then repeat and then become “followers”.  In both style and substance, Foucault resists the kind of theorizing that would place him as an advisor to a sovereign or an official participating in the administered ruling of a land.  Having acquired an immense amount of fame himself, he has learned to be wary of the kind of thinking that would allow others to ascribe him to a leadership role in some ‘movement.’  His aim is not to acquire subjects but to unravel the techniques of power that form subjects, creating subjects to be ruled out of routine practices imposed on bodies.  It fits into his project for that year’s lecture series: analyzing how subjects are formed, how they will be made to affirm a truth about themselves (sin, confession, etc.), and how subjectivization allows power to reach farther down into bodies than it ever had before.  This lecture series will focus on Christianity and the techniques it has invented, which are still very much with us.

First comes his opposition to ideology:

“I have insisted on this rejection of ideological analysis many times…  And this leads me to something like a sort of secret, which is that for me theoretical work… does not consist in establishing and fixing the set of positions on which I would stand and supposedly coherently link between which would form a system.  My problem, or the only theoretical work that I feel is possible for me, is leaving the trace, in the most intelligible outline possible, of the movements by which I am no longer at the place where I was earlier.  Hence, if you like, this constant need, or necessity, or desire to plot, so to speak, the points of passage at which each displacement risks resulting in the modification, of not of the whole curve, then at least of the way in which it can be read and grasped in terms of its possible intelligibility.  This plotting, consequently, should never be read as the plan of a permanent structure.” (p76)

Foucault is describing his method here and the caution that he takes in avoiding the reception of his work as a stable system.  The trajectory he is on passing through various points, the points he plots on a graph for posterity, these do not form a whole picture.  His research program is one in which he jumps from topic to topic, reinventing himself each time and breaking the limitations that the topic imposes.  He leaves a trace each time and you could tell a story about his movement from one to another, but what he resists is the entrapment of having a doctrine imposed on his work.

Foucault scholars have long noted three phases in Foucault’s career, with this particular lecture series marking the passage from the second to the third.  He will move from the analysis of disciplinary power, confinement and separation in the second phase (with a kind of interlude in governmentality and economic rationality we could put into this phase) to an analysis of subjectivization, that is, the way in which subjects are made to exercise power themselves with institutional support.  This third phase always interested me the most as a student because it seemed like a new way of interpreting subjectivity and thinking through the breakdown of individual in modern society.  This problem was wrestled with in existentialism and other post-Nietzschean philosophical moments, but Foucault better than any of them was able to grasp a serious problem at the heart (or near the heart) of the present: the dissolution of the self in the wake of the ubiquitous use of techniques of power on/within the self.  He’s able to do this by not remaining fixated on the subject as it is related to the object, pondering the deep structure of language, or how experience factors into knowledge; instead he will do a modified version of historical analysis (genealogy) and assume that power works in devious and subtle methods that can be revealed underneath history in its minute details, with ideas like ‘subjectivity’ included.

And so we have this intellectual who has forged a new way to think about ourselves and look at how power is exercised, one who became immensely famous and attracted all kinds of popular attention.  Why does he resist ideology so adamantly?

“You can see that this form of analysis… rests more on a standpoint than a thesis.  But this is not exactly the standpoint of, say, the epoche, of skepticism , of the suspension of all certainties or of all thetic positions of the truth.  It is an attitude that consists, first in thinking that no power goes without saying, that no power whatever kind, is obvious or inevitable, and that consequently no power warrants being taken for granted.  Power has no intrinsic legitimacy.” (p77)

His “standpoint” is such that it has led him to question and diagnose every kind of power, not to religiously seek out and undermine every kind of power in all of their manifestations but definitely to be free of the kind of power that he himself exerts on himself and others.  So Foucault has this attitude towards power that makes him so thoroughly suspicious of the workings of power that it becomes self-critical: he will question his own power and take care not to become an enduring, powerful figure.  His own reluctance to become a figurehead of powerful repute, such that disciples will form around him and repeat his words and terms verbatim, is almost a necessary component for the topic he will be studying and lecturing on: the history of subjectivization.  Checking his own power as a public intellectual will ‘rub off on’ those who are listening and studying his own works, they will then be more inclined to unearth the deeper forces acting on and within their own bodies and become attuned to ways in which power is inscribed in their very selves.  Their is a way in which power works upon us in ways that we think are our own but have been tempered and refined by a very long history of rituals, public theological debates, and published works.

Appeals will be made to truth, objectively true things, and the neutrality of things that simply and plainly ‘are’ or ‘exist’ (being).  Foucault will go deeper and it is this feature that has kept him studied by philosophy students.  This background of resisting power within Foucault preempts this though, that he would not be satisfied until he could see the power at work within this knowledge and the forces at play that bring this truth about.

“But given my desire, decision, and effort to break the bond that binds me to power, what then is the situation with regard to the subject of knowledge and the truth?  It is not the critique of representations in terms of truth or error, truth or falsity, ideology or science, rationality or irrationality that should serve as indicator for defining the legitimacy or denouncing the illegitimacy of power.  It is the movement of freeing oneself from power that should serve as revealer in the transformations of the subject and the relation the subject maintains with the truth.” (p77)

We can glimpse this public intellectual’s grasping for the general thrust of what he is doing with his intellect: Foucault the thinker is himself trying to break free from powers working on him.  We could almost say, “okay, it is now up to you viewer whether to continue resisting this deep subjectivizing power.”  If you don’t have the desire to break free, as he does, then you can go on your merry way.  Such would be to continue on as if power was not there all along, its history not conditioning the decisions we felt we owned, and voluntarily ignoring his history of subjectivity.  But if we do accept that historical forces have crept into our basic understanding of ourselves and condition our decisions, then choosing not to absorb some measure of Foucault’s idea, upon entering his thought process somehow or another, can no longer be interpreted as voluntary.  This puts the reader in a bind.  We don’t have to follow him (he doesn’t want us to anyways) but we no longer seem to own that decision.

This might be a source of anxiety or confusion if we take this line of thought to its extreme.  Instead of my own will, I now only have little power techniques pulling me this way or that, determining my destiny.  This is of course a reaction we need not settle on, for the representationalist “it’s either there or it’s not, it either exists or it doesn’t” conceptualization of subjectivity still lingers.  This is precisely what Foucault is trying to move away from.  He feels the need to break away from deep structures on power, others will too.  This is only the beginning, but it allows for a flexibility which will attune readers and listeners to coming struggles.  There may be a time (now?) when subjective identification will be a hindrance, a blockage preventing us from maneuvering through complex spaces of power.

On to anarchism.  Foucault posits the one who objects all by himself, possibly a reflection of people who have responded to his work without approval, by saying:

“You will tell me: there you are, this is anarchy; it’s anarchism.  To which I shall reply: I don’t quite see why the words “anarchy” or “anarchism” are so pejorative that the mere fact of employing them counts as a triumphant critical discourse.  And second, I think there is even a certain difference.” (p78)

So Foucault is defending anarchism as a term first of all, at least not to let it be used as an easy negative that critics can level at intellectuals or whoever.  But he is also claiming to do something different.  This will relate back to his aversion to ideology:

“…if we define anarchy by two things – first, the thesis that power is essentially bad, and second, the project of a society in which every relation of power is to be abolished, nullified – you can see that what I am proposing  and talking about is clearly different.  First, it is not a question of having in view, at the end of a project, a society without power relations.  It is a matter of putting non-power or the non-acceptability of power, not at the end of the enterprise, but at the beginning of the work,  in the form of a question of all the ways  in which power is in actual fact accepted.  Second, it is not a question of saying all power is bad, but of starting from the point that no power whatsoever is acceptable by right and absolutely and definitively inevitable… In other words, the position I adopt does not absolutely  exclude anarchy… but you can see that in no way does it entail it, that it does not cover the same field, and is not identified with it.” (p78)

Anarchists have made use of Foucault’s work in the past, while some have reacted negatively towards it.  This isn’t such a great concern for him as his work was not meant for the enactment of a political program but research program.  He wants to be free from power and finds it at work inside the very subject who would say: “I am an anarchist.”  One could make this identification, utter the words as a vow or a mark of affiliation, and still accept Foucault’s lessons on subjectivization – it isn’t even clear to me that anarchism has been delineated beyond opposing the state.  In fact, the similarities are such that Foucault will have some fun at this lecture on January 30th, 1980 and call his project an “anarcheology”:

“The anarcheological type of study, on the other hand, consisted in taking the practice of confinement in its historical singularity, that is to say in its contingency, in the sense of its fragility, its essential non-necessity, which obviously does not mean (quite the opposite!) that there was no reason for it and is to be accepted as a brute fact.” (p79)

So his historical study of the radical contingency of past events, the wrenching free from a determinism that often accompanies history is something that current, former, or potentially anarchic people can make use of.  This anarcheology (a cute-for-being-clumsy word to write) will likely have resonance for people troubled by the residue of historical materialism and technological determinisms seeking to lead the people to the promised land.

Foucault’s resistance to power runs very deep and it leads him in the last part of his career to look into Christianity’s legacy on individuals.  From this novel type of power that reshaped western or European culture so long ago, we can learn what some of the roadblocks are that are keeping people constrained in their routines, ‘locked up inside themselves’ as it were.  But instead of moving from one ideology to the next, or using this technique to start up a new one, Foucault’s “standpoint” keeps the reader critical and self-critical of the things that hold us back from moving on.

Forgive me, that was not very brief.

‘What Is Grounding?’ Deleuze’s Journey through the History of Philosophy

In this early 1956-1957 lecture previously unavailable to the public, Gilles Deleuze takes his students through a tour of the history of philosophy by using the red thread of the notion ‘grounding.’ What Is Grounding’ is unsurprisingly insightful and sweeping in scope, explaining the general thrust of many canonical philosophers and how the concepts of each prepares the way for the philosophers that follow them, forming a single story. The big attention-grabber for these lectures for those well-read in Deleuze’s oeuvre is that finally a published work in which he “positions” himself with respect to other famous philosophers of his day or era, especially Martin Heidegger. We also get a discussion of Hegel and his placement within the history of philosophy. But emphasis on this common thread of ‘Grounding’ has much more to reveal about the obsessive work of European philosophers than taking names and claiming lines of affiliation.

One can imagine Deleuze speaking in a conference room to a room packed full of youthful french intellectuals (the translator tells us that by the time they were given, “Deleuze’s lectures were already ‘must-see events’”) and moving from one philosopher to the next, jumping from the enclosed territory of one great thinker to the next in summary fashion with the audience desperately trying to keep up with his torrential pace. These kind of exercises in the imagination are fit for invoking too, for right at the beginning we get a foreshadowing of Deleuze’s trajectory in the project of ‘What Is Grounding?’: weaving through the “infinite task” that philosophy has set out for itself and not so much untangling it as passing through it with constant motion and remaining untangled in any one of its locations.

You can get a copy [here]

We have barely begun and already we learn that the beginning of the lecture was lost. I’m inclined to think that this is a deliberate joke that has been put over on the reader, but it is entirely plausible that in the 1950’s the tape recorder was not set up in time. It’s unfortunate, because he began with mythology and its “foundational heroes” according to the footnotes. So immediately we have the missing beginning of a lecture on philosophy that is not philosophical, instead it is a mythological prompt for the incoming great names of the history of philosophy who attempt to distinguishes themselves from the great names of mythology. Philosophers will perform a different task, attempt the construction of a work that is not involving fictional beings and unreal creatures, theirs (and Deleuze’s also, he unabashedly claims to be within the philosophical tradition) will be real. The thoughts composing the work(s) of philosophy will be real – resting on sure ground. But we don’t get to this distinction so easily: thought must first of all seek to be free of something and start something new, something otherwise.

Thought must be wrenched apart from the functions and reasons of the ceremony and the ritual. Those binding agents that keep a people together, that mark the body and place it into a symbolic regime that forms the body of the tribe or culture. Set at a distance from the ritual, thought will eventually come to realize natural ends. It is tempting to regard the tribal/ritual as the natural, whereas the progression into civilization would detach us from the natural, from the integrated earth cycles, but realizing nature was never a task that would have made any sense to a ‘primitive person’ (so conceived by the educated). With the coming of philosophy we get a proliferation of distinctions; nature or natural ends somewhere along the line of time became distinct from the ceremonies and rituals of culture.

“On the one hand, the human being can realize natural ends, but at the same time, does it not produce something in itself by virtue of being human? It transforms the natural ends. What is the function of a ceremony and of a ritual? It is distinct from a natural end.” (p13)

So we have natural ends which we as humans can realize if we make an attempt, but the culture by which humans must operate within is something distinct from it. Every ritual has a natural consequence and cannot be extricated from nature, yet here we are with this distinction between the natural ends and cultural ends. This distinction is persistent and the reunification of the two “back into nature” is not some place we can suddenly leap back into: a synthesis is always something new and the stakes of our cultural games are never very far from the positing of a holistic entity or an original point of unity. This will turn out to be a major lesson from these lectures: the project of grounding is an “infinite task” (p14), the realization of natural ends within the realm of human culture is an infinite task. It is a task with many rewards (just think about the many successes of modern science) but one which Deleuze’s thinks is never-ending; we only get a plurality of natural ends for all of our efforts.

Natural ends will be sought after by the philosopher in their reality; a philosopher “realizes”, remaining unsatisfied with fine speeches, mythical tales, and other products of culture. The philosopher seeks no less than the reality of nature and this sets them off on an infinite task, which I take to mean it is a task that will never be completed: “the transformation of natural ends into cultural ends renders them infinite.” (p14) So we readers get something new with the philosopher, but this something new comes with a price, or with strings attached (to attempt an avoidance of commercial language). Deleuze allows for a distinction between philosophy and mythology, between those who attempt to realize nature and those who wish to recite stories that reinforce the lessons of culture, but one that is a marked by a difference in task. We don’t get to say, in that triumphant way that both science and philosophy often does, that everything before it was superstition and ‘mere myth’, as if the new method was superior in its progression. The difference is one of endeavors, the purpose or motive of the person taking up a project.

“If, then, mythology is the imaginary, it is because infinite tasks are not to be realized. Mythology presents us this state of infinite tasks which ask us for something else than their realization.”

In that pre-socratic way of philosophizing, we have the striving for natural ends in the attempt at finding something in nature which everything else can be reduced to. The elements of fire, water, air, earth, and even (or perhaps not) mind (nous) each take their turns in claiming the status of elemental substance of nature. Here we are searching for natural ends and using rational arguments to achieve these ends, but something qualitatively different happens when reason enters the picture, or should I say, the ends of reason:

“But natural ends are not yet ends of reason. They are values, sentiments which are felt and lived. Then what will we have to call reason? If, for their part, natural ends present themselves for realization, this time it will be infinite tasks which demand to be realized. They will become the proper end of reason. This is what happens when thought commits itself to realizing itself.” (p15)

Deleuze just breezes by this and moves on to the notion of grounding, but I cannot help to pause and appreciate the brevity of this opening remarks to a long lecture. The natural ends exist before and without any help from humans accumulating knowledge about them. However, when these natural ends are presented by humans and concepts are formed, culture is faced with infinite tasks. They will become the concepts of thought which seek realization, but realizing objects of thought within nature is an infinite task. This isn’t to say it is impossible to realize natural ends, or that we have come to reason by some primal error; Deleuze is only saying that the task of realization is infinite.

But then suddenly, right in the middle of the paragraph, reason, the means by which these ends are meant to be reached, is folds back on itself and, instead of reaching a single end, reaches for the infinite tasks themselves instead of natural ends. For we are in the realm of thought with the realization of natural ends, and somewhere or somehow, infinite tasks will replace natural ends for realization. Realizing natural ends is already an infinite task, but infinite tasks will become that which “demand to be realized” when “thought commits itself to realizing itself.” The ends of reason take on a new life apart from the natural ends.

Kant and Hegel will be the first names to appear and they are brought in to demonstrate the act of thought trying to realize itself, or the entrance of infinite tasks into realization.

“Kant and Hegel say that the will contemplates itself of rises to the absolute when it is the will to freedom. In this will to freedom there is the activity of being reasonable, which consists in realizing the infinite task… The grounder is then the one who poses and proposes an infinite task… To ground is to raise nature to the level of history and of spirit. All who propose values to us appeal to a ground… From the moment when the grounder proposes infinite tasks to us as something to be realized in this world itself.” (P16)

‘To ground’ is the act of realizing infinite tasks instead of realizing natural ends (or any other ends, but is as a result of the project to realize natural ends that the infinite task appears). The infinite task itself comes to be the object of realization. An object of thought that set itself apart from mythology, story, gods, etc. ‘doubled back’ on itself, as it were, and became something new: an infinite task that seeks reason itself as end (vs. as means to natural ends) and places reason where natural ends once were. Whereas natural ends once were brought into culture with the use of reason, reason itself took their place when a natural ground is sought for culture ends. “Reason as supreme end could only present itself to the extent that the infinite tasks themselves become things to be realized.” (p18)

We then move on to values and will for the last short segment of part one.

“The notion of value” says Deleuze, switching gears most unexpectedly, “has been created by Nietzsche in The Will to Power. For him there is no truth, there rare only evaluations. To affirm that everything is value is to present a mystification which must be destroyed. Whence Nietzsche’s polemic.” (p.18)

We come back to Kant by way of the will:

“The infinite task as value was a content of the will. It concerned something else than a simple desire. To love is first of all to want. On the level of values, the will had a content exterior [and] heteronomous to it (Kant).”

But then, the will is extracted from what it wants, its content, and is allowed to double back on itself. The will will desire itself. To praise or blame, to hold in esteem or abhor, in other words to value we first desire. But Kantian values and other values that hold to the notion of grounding will be different, they will turn inward:

“These values to be realized take on their particular figures because the will becomes autonomous. It is a will which wants nothing else than itself. A will which wants nothing but its own content. Autonomy is presented as universality. It is exactly Kant’s autonomous will.” (p19)

For a number of reasons which Deleuze will get into later on in the lecture, Kant is this moment of the will becoming autonomous in thought. Kant will set about the task of grounding, the infinite task that will be the source of value (in the singular). The last paragraph is worth quoting full:

“The diversity of values came from their being transformed natural ends. They were still attached to natural ends. But when the will determines its own content, there is no longer a diversity of values. Grounds are no longer infinite tasks presented as values. The foundation became conceptual. We pass from mythology to philosophy.” (p19)

The will is detached from natural ends when there are no longer multiple values, or, rather, the correct order is that the will folded in on itself and then excluded the diversity of values in posing a ground – a single ground. From many to one value: a foundation, a ground for us all to stand on. A single earth that we all share, but only as decontextualized and self-driven individuals. The single ground that props up the abstract individual or the subject.

Nietzsche will object: there is desire without the one who desires, the individual being an image among images. Nietzsche’s philosophy will not be of the ground, it will not be grounded – he will add a mystification.  He will invoke Dionysus.

From here we will trace the story of philosophy using ‘ground’ as our guide. This is the ground that claims the source of value and resides beyond any particular natural ends and therefore must be conceptual.

From ritual and ceremony, with accompanied indirect imagination,

to the direct realization of natural ends, with accompanied infinite task,

to the infinite task as thing to be realized, with accompanied autonomy or freedom of the will,

to the consolidation of a plurality of values to a single source of value: the ground.

Grounding will be the infinite task that seeks the source of value (in the singular), be it The Will, Spirit, History, or (I would add) Matter.

A Manifesto for Planet Politics

Planet Politics
One of the most promising of manifestos I’ve seen in the past few years. From this brief summary I can see that a new approach to the emergency of climate change is sought that includes the planet and the biosphere together with international relations and high-powered state politics. Refreshing to see a manifesto calling for more international cooperation and an embrace of the interconnectedness of economics, ecology, and state-politics that seems necessary to me as well, instead of the more insurrectionist-minded manifestos I’ve come across. It’s behind pay-for-view subscription though.

Installing (Social) Order

I am proud to be able to share an excerpt from a collective contribution to Millennium’s journal born from the annual conference “Failure and Denial in Global Politics” in London last October. In this article, Anthony Burke, Audra Mitchell, Simon Dalby, Daniel Levine and I argue that IR has reached the limits of its intelligibility with coming climate changes. We call for an expanded dialogue both within and beyond our disciplinary boundaries using the polemic and rhetoric of the manifesto to stimulate debate and response.


Photo credit: Stefanie Fishel, 2016


A Manifesto from the End of IR

Anthony Burke, Stefanie Fishel, Audra Mitchell, Simon Dalby, Daniel J. Levine

This manifesto is not about politics as usual. We seek political imagination that can rise from the ashes of our canonical texts. It is about meditating on our failures and finding the will needed for our continued survival. Global ecological collapse brings…

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Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, “Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

Peter Gratton shares his lecture on the last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, in which she explains how the modern era has altered the thinking of humanity as earth-bound. The resulting world-alienation and earth-alienation is exemplified in the subjectivist philosophy of Descartes and the mathematical concept of the universe, with its place-less thought of the point from which all can be observed. These ideas have far-reaching implications for how we think in the modern era and for perceiving the barriers to significant political change.


[I have been posting my recent lectures on Arendt’s political philosophy. A previous lecture on Part I and II of The Human Condition can be found here and here is another on the crucial chapter “Action.”]

“Vita Activa and the Modern Age”

16 March 2016

This last section of The Human Condition is the most wide ranging and often quixotic of the book. By this point, we have seen the triumph of animal laborans and the corollary rise of the social, which has upset the previous boundaries between labor, work, and action, which made politics in the West possible in the first place. The chapter is best framed between the twin phenomena of “world alienation” and “earth alienation.” Inasmuch as the world is the spacing of plurality among and between humans in the plural, world alienation is another word for the “homelessness” marked out in Origins of Totalitarianism, a homelessness…

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On Cowboy Bebop, part three

The final bounty that the Bebop crew sets after together tests the crew’s mettle like none other as they go after the leader of a cult. A man named Londis has been appearing on TV and convincing people to join his cyborg cult or “migration.” He has purportedly found a way to store someone’s brain activity – all of the electrical patterns in the brain and so the entire cognitive activity of a person – into data. Once your “soul” is digitalized and mapped into electron-silicon content instead of electron-neural content, you can then release that soul from the body and join the ethereal space of the internet. What if our minds or souls could escape the confines of our bodies and exist somewhere else? It’s an old thought experiment with a Cowboy Bebop twist: a figurehead has created a scandal by forming a cult around his new “technology” and is killing people with it. People get the word that they can leave their impure bodies behind and find ascetic bliss in the “other world” of the internet and they start committing suicide or otherwise going missing. The awakening that the SCRATCH movement preaches is that of the spirit transforming from the imperfect material world to the perfect world of spirit, via a new piece of technology whose powers people are unsure of. The old mind-body problem has taken on a new dimension with the new ability to store a massive amount of material data, and now people are becoming convinced that living in the internet can make their spirits immortal.

Every member of the Bebop crew plays a role in this session. Even Ein the dog finally reveals his power as a “data-dog”, with hacking abilities that surpass even Ed’s programs. Together the crew probes the case and work their leads to locate this guy but run into the same trouble that everybody else has – nobody can find this guy. Everyone with a lust for the reward has been searching for this man whose face is splattered all over the news, but everyone has come up empty. They can’t find him because he doesn’t exist in the flesh, only in image. The name of the man ‘Londis’ is taken from a dead man who disappeared many years ago before he could age to the way he looks now, and his image was computer generated by the mastermind of the SCRATCH movement. Londis only exists in cyberspace and on TV screens convincing people that they can escape their flesh-and-bone bodies and live in “the infinite sea of electrons” that is the internet. So, a fake man is telling people through the bevy of electronic screens in this society they can transcend their bodies by swimming through the cybernetic currents and finally achieve enlightenment. The internet and its electron current, dashing from one circuit board to another, is the new dream-place.

Jet takes a trip through the device that the SCRATCH movement has been using to upload people’s souls: a new immersive video-game system similar to the oculus rift that takes up your entire field of vision when you put on its goggles. They discover that when you run the SCRATCH program, a series of images fire-off rapidly and bombard your eyes and ears with their religious symbols. But that’s not all, it is also designed to paralyze certain inhibitors and force the viewer into a a sort of passive dream-state while all of this is going on. It might have taken Jet had it not been for a shock of pain that disrupted the process coming from Ein’s bite. Every cult or religion has utilized trance states or otherwise induced moments of utter tranquility mixed at some times in with ecstatic revelry with others but this is a true twenty-first update. The magic or mystery of how an array of symbols or a pantheon of gods can imbue so much meaning and emotion into a body has been nullified and replaced with direct reorganizing of the neuron-firings in the body’s brain. The possibility of transcending the body and entering the untarnished spirit-world is surely believed by some of the members of SCRATCH, even before they are put under the goggles and selectively paralyzed by their program, but the methods of this cult have evolved away from collective chanting, alternative ritual, and dance to seizing an individual’s immediate perception. It is a cult tailor-made for the personal computer station.

As the bebop crew works their way through electronic trial that was left by the video-game goggles back to the man they believe to be Londis, they come to a startling destination. The man behind the cult is indeed a man in the flesh-and-blood, but he is a kid who has been resting in a hospice for years. “Ronny Spangen” is a young adult in a vegetable state, sleeping without conscious control over any of his bodily functions except for his thoughts. He used the machines that are monitoring his sleep and found his way into the internet, where he could start building a website by pulling religious imagery, music, historical figures, etc. together into a cohesive cult movement. This man is deeply asleep, yet, through his hacker training, he is able to access the attention of just about everyone in the solar system thanks to the internet and the interconnectedness of 2071 society. From their he is constantly and methodically convincing people that “you must awaken, awaken your soul” and live pretty much in the same way as he is, although without the life support machines and doctors of the hospice.

The session dwells on this only briefly at the end when Jet says: “I guess all he could do was dream, so the dreams turned bad.” Ronny Spangen is indeed only able to dream, but that dream-state is far from the transcendent world of the spirit he is telling everyone to follow him into. His terminology and symbolic design of the movement as the man Londis are tricks put over on people to get them to experience the world as he does. He may or may not believe that he has found salvation as a vegetable hooked up to a life-support machine, but he lets out his true intention when the bebop crew puts a stop to his meddling in cyberspace at the real location of Ronny Spangen’s body: “No, it isn’t fair. Why does it have to be like this? Everyone should have the same body as I do”, he says as his digital image vanishes. In his unceasing dream-state, Ronny Spangen is aware of what he is missing out on and it makes him angry. He is lonely and wants other people to feel the same way that he does, but he does so out of spite. Left with no access to the world but through various screens that are hooked-up to (the internet) Ronny cultivates a desire to control people.

Spike: “Why do you kill off the members of your own group? What’s the point of that?”

Londes: “I am not forcing anything on anyone. They are merely practicing a faith that they’ve decided to believe in of their own free will. Tell me, why do you think people believe in God? Because they want to. It’s not easy living in such an ugly corrupt world, there is no certainty and nothing to hope for. People are lost so they reach out. Don’t you get it? God didn’t create humans, no, it’s humans who created God.”

Londes: “Do you want to know what the greatest and also the worst device that humans ever invented? It’s television! Television controls people by bombarding them with information until they lose their sense of reality. Now television itself has become the new religion. Television has created a people who believe instantly in dramatic fantasies who can be controlled by tiny dots of light.”

Spike: “You’re like a kid with a toy… You’re the one that can’t tell fantasy from reality. You’re the one who lives in the little dots of light. If you want to dream, just do it by yourself”

This is the death blow for Londis, (as the leader of SCRATCH) dealt at the same moment that Jet and Ed are disconnecting Ronny from the internet. It doesn’t defeat him in the way that Jet and Ed did but does so ideologically. Unfortunately for Ronny’s dreams of controlling people through cyberspace, Spike can see through him and into the body of origin, with its desires in tow. Ronny does indeed live in fantasy world of little dots of light, where dreams manifest and travel form one screen to the next. In fact, he is actually living their and unable to wake, even though he is telling everyone else to wake up and, ironically, join his existence in a ’dream to the death’. He doesn’t want to simply dream all by himself the way Spike recommends, not with all of his prowess as a hacker and mind-manipulator; the real question is: why does he chose to fabricate a cult and instill (or, more aptly, upload) false hopes in people while killing many of them? It’s tempting to say that having nothing to do but surf cyberspace in world of Cowboy Bebop has bred someone with the desire to prey on the distraught and the curious, as if the solar system was so thickened with corruption and sadness that a man forced into a perpetual dream in this place could only dream-up sinister plans. The fascination with television and the desire for control may be the result of getting locked up in dreams, or getting locked up in the dreams of everyone else in cyber-solar-system-capitalism, or it might be the intense loneliness of a man unable to feel the presence of another body and converse the way people typically do.

What gave Spike the prescience to fire back a quick response to the domineering grandiosity of Londis’s comments can be traced back to an experience he had in a previous session. In session 21, ’Pierrot le Fou’, Spike is attacked by a fat, flamboyant assassin in a top-hat who appears to truly relish murder. Spike narrowly escapes the first encounter and goes back to meet him for another showdown, all before the bebop crew get the chance to dig around and find out who this guy is. He was a human experiment conducted by the military to create an unstoppable killing machine. Bullets stop before his invisible force field and fall to the ground, he has every heavy fire-arm at his disposal, and he can fly (just run with it). The catch is he has the mind of a child and instead of becoming smarter with age, the extreme manipulation of his body chemistry has sent his intelligence the opposite direction. He is like a little kid with toys, but his toys are the deadliest weapons and he faces no repercussions for using them. The government even covers up for this gruesome lunatic out of fear for the public backlash.

Keep in mind, Spike knows none of this. All he knows about “Mad Pierrot” comes from his encounters with him in gun fights. Spike is able to see quite clearly for himself that this is a murderous child when he is finally able to inflict a bit of pain on him and watches as he screams for his mama. And that’s all he really had to do: touch him. By the time Spike meets Londis on a big television screen he can spot the wayward dreamers inflicting misery and death upon others. Individuals deprived of human contact and possessing oversized weapons only result in destructive dreams, meanwhile, those with modest dreams for them and their loved ones are routinely shot down. Spike learns the ways of this world over the course of the show from one oddball character to the next and from there he makes his decision on how to face up to his past.

Spike is forced to confront his past when the tensions at his former syndicate boil over and Vicious attempts a coup of the old leaders of the Red Dragons. The coup fails, Vicious is put in chains, and the syndicate is now hunting down Spike and Julia for their past relationship with Vicious. The stars having aligned just so, Spike is now called upon to confront all of the elements in his old life.

After dodging the syndicate gunmen in a few firefights, he gets a message from Julia and goes to meet her in the rendezvous spot where they would have met long ago had she followed through with their plan to escape. When she eventually goes to embrace him, she repeats Spike’s old dream for the two of them: “Let’s just go away somewhere, escape, vanish, go where there’s no one else, just the two of us.” Spike’s face is expressionless – this is an old plan and Spike has had too much time to witness what happens to people who flee from the challenges put before them by their social web and the responsibilities generated thereof. Nonetheless, they reunite after ~5 years to join forces against the onslaught that the syndicate is bringing down upon them.

They travel to a familiar old spot where their friend Annie is staying (the hard-drinking lady that Spike visited a while back). Her place has been wrecked by the syndicate and she is bleeding out on the couch. She has just enough strength left to spill out a few words in front of Spike and Julia, “everyone has lost their sense of place in the world, like kites without strings or tails.” Not long after, she dies. As Spike covers her body and goes to collect a shotgun and extra shells, Julia says, “you won’t need all those weapons if we run away together, you know that. You’re staying. Then I’ll stay too. I’ll stay with you until the end.” Spike stops to look at her and says nothing in response. Her resolve is never tested, for when the Red Dragons come back to the spot she dies in the firefight. With Julia’s death, any last shred of hope that Spike had for a different life together has vanished but, based on his reaction to the arrival of Julia and the lessons he has learned throughout the show, Spike is prepared for end of this dream.

Faye had a run-in with Julia prior to her reunion with Spike and the two were able to exchange some friendly words. The two are rather similar: good with firearms and driving/piloting, they are both able to evade or kill some more syndicate henchmen pursuing Julia. When Faye comes back to the Bebop, she speaks with Jet about Julia. Both of them have picked up on the hold Julia has on Spike throughout the show and out of curiosity Jet asks what she is like. Faye describes Julia:

“Ordinary, the dangerous beautiful kind of ordinary that you can’t leave alone. Like an angel from the underworld, or maybe a devil from paradise.”

There doesn’t turn out to be anything special about Julia according to Faye, just a beautiful woman that causes all kinds of trouble. A devil in paradise or the reverse would seem extraordinary enough, but the point is that she was a distraction in Spike’s life in the syndicate. She is an ideal representing Spike’s wish to be free of the bitter realities of life in the syndicate (the underworld) – a common desire to run away, the lure of somewhere better manifested in a pretty face.

In the show’s finale, Spike doesn’t ever express much relief or lust or rage at getting his lover back and then losing her. He stoically and gradually moves toward his end as if he knew where he was supposed to go the whole time and was only waiting for the proper moment to go for it. The time spent with the Bebop crew was full of adventure for a beast of prey (hunting* bounties) but none of it he took very seriously. Being a man of such skill and talent, he seemed to be mostly motivated by tempting fate with the most dangerous jobs he could find because he felt himself to be dead already and drifting through that hazy limbo of purgatory-sleep. After Julia stood him up, he was dejected enough to consider himself dead, while at the same time he was unable to be killed by anyone but Vicious. There was too much at stake in Spike’s life/death: a man of his skill and position cannot go on dreaming in purgatory, not with the weight of so many lives resting on his shoulders. Only by choosing, paradoxically, to do battle at perhaps the highest seat of power will Spike fulfill his fate. And it is here, in his relationship with Vicious, that Spike will finally confront his mortality and simultaneously do something that will have major ripples for the world of Cowboy Bebop.

All that is left before the big showdown is to see off his bebop friends one last time. He gets Jet to make him a last meal and tells him a story about a cat with infinite lives who finally dies without resurrecting after its first true loved one dies. When Jet asks him if he’s doing it all for the girl he responds, “She’s dead. There is nothing I can do for her now.” The dream is over and it is time to go. But before he can leave, he is confronted by Faye with a gun drawn on him asking the big question:

Faye: “… Why are you leaving? You told me once to forget the past because it doesn’t matter. But you’re the one still tied to the past Spike!”

Spike: “Look at my eyes Faye”, he says as he moves them right in front of to her’s, “One of them is a fake. I lost it in an accident. Since then I’ve been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other, so that I could only see patches of reality, never the whole picture.”

Faye: “Don’t tell me that. You never told anything about your past before, so don’t start now.”

Spike: “I felt like I was watching a dream I’d never wake up from. Before I knew it, the dream was all over.”

Faye: “My memory finally came back. But nothing good came of it. There was no place for me to return to. This was the only place I could go. And now you’re leaving just like that. Why do you have to go? Where are you going? What are going to do, just throw your life away like it was nothing?”

Spike: “I’m not going there to die. I’m going to find out if I’m truly alive. I have to do it Faye.”

Faye’s admission that she feels at home on the Bebop and that she wants Spike to stay is a first for any of them. Formerly they insulted and argued their way into comradeship, so this gesture signals an end to their wild ride through the solar system. Faye’s regained memory hasn’t led her anywhere, whereas Spike will now do what she can’t: return to his past. The two had grown closer in the last part of the show, with Faye even trying to save Spike in his encounter with Mad Pierrot. This situation was foretold by Old Man Bull all the way back in session one when he gave Spike his prophesy:

“You swimming bird. The bird will meet a woman, the bird will be hunted by this woman, and then death.”

“One more time.” replies Spike, “I was killed once before, by a woman.”

Alas, all Faye could do was allow Spike to die when she dulled the luster of Julia’s memory. She does have something that Spike doesn’t, however: a future. With all of his loose ends tied up, Spike is set to go live for a small time, finally awake from his long slumber. Faye had already awoke from her long slumber and while her lack of a past had haunted her, like Spike’s more embedded memory of his past haunted him, Spike has unfinished business from an old life. Faye’s duty is to create a future to fill the void of her past instead of assuming a fate foretold by it.

Vicious has broken his chains with the help of men loyal to his faction and stands alone atop one of the most powerful syndicates in the world. He stands above the bloodshed after slicing up the old leaders and says, “From now on my power is the only power.” It isn’t even clear that Spike knows that he has completed the coup, he seems to know that the will of Vicious will not be denied and the two of them are unmatched in fighting strength, destined to lock horns as “ravenous beast[s].” More fragments of memories pour in as he makes his way to the main building of the Red Dragons.

Spike and Vicious are two opposite reactions to a world that has scattered peoples apart and feels suddenly like a bad dream. Once a promising team in a major syndicate, they were split-up by a beautiful woman and left a void in an extremely powerful organization. Their fallout had very big consequences and instead of forming a team that could guide the Red Dragons (possibly the most powerful organization in the solar system) into treaty-making and general de-escalation like their mentor Mao Yenrai was attempting, Spike’s absence allowed Vicious to assert his violent predilections. We don’t know how Vicious behaved before Spike left, but the two of them were friends as we know from the dark blue memory fragments that have been coming in periodically. Their failure to maintain a tight crew and Spike’s flight from his responsibilities has resulted in the rise of a bloody dictator to head the great syndicate. Two beasts that, once separated, let their extremities take over their futures.

Spike spends a great deal of the show in a mopey daze. Having attempted to reach his fantasy life and failed, he remains in a dream-state and lays about when not on the hunt. His disposition is like that of a cat spending a great deal of time asleep when not attacking his bounties (as the show alludes to occasionally) in contrast to Vicious’s snake. His attitude is an intense nonchalance epitomized by a beautifully simple line at the end of session 19, when he and his spaceship are heading for a crash-landing on earth and his life is decidedly out of his hands: “Oh well, whatever happens, happens.” Once the action is over and he has caught his meal in the hunt, concern for anything else (besides finding his old dream-girl of course) simply doesn’t exist. His seeming lack of care for anything is a counterpoint to Vicious’s intense care for accumulating power and waiting for that moment to strike. The fissure between them created two polar opposites where there should have been a balanced team, an opposition that some have called the difference between active and passive nihilism. The active nihilist Vicious is concerned with a pure destruction and power in the wake of any other meaningful human dimension (such as friendship) and the passive nihilist Spike is concerned with nothing in particular, having withdrawn from his meaningful life inside the syndicate. Their are complications though: Spike has plenty of hedonistic tendencies in the earlier parts of the show and hasn’t exactly withdrawn from worldly pleasures altogether and Vicious may be exacting revenge on Spike for taking Julia away from him. This might all be over a woman, like a modern Trojan war, but the two characters are such stark opposites and yet so similar in fighting ability it cannot be that easy. Even if Spike’s lack of care is due to love lost, staying away from the world in which he has a voice and his actions may influence has proved costly for not only the ones he once cared for but many others – considering the size and power of the Red Dragons. Spike’s strong desire for Julia has led him to abandon his former life and leave open the path for a ruthless killer to take the position he could had and within which he would have performed with far more grace than his counterpart.

The qualities that make Spike the better part for a powerful position is learned throughout the show. After all, the question still remains: “why must Vicious be stopped? What puts his fantasy of ultimate power on a collision course with our protagonist?” Spike meets strangers and befriends some sincere people simply trying to help their own friends and family with great difficulty. He also meets some ambitious characters whose fantasies have taken over their lives and led them down the path of domination and death. A fantasy that pulls people towards each other, their nearest friends, comrades, family, one that carves out a space where they all belong (no matter how much quarreling or heartache it takes to make it), this is what we get from the “space cowboys” on board the Bebop. A fantasy that extracts one away from all of that or a fantasy that is born of alienation from such a homely place, will produce (or abet) a world devouring itself.  By the end of his dreamy journey through purgatory, Spike can tell the difference.

Jet’s fantasy of stopping corruption, catching the bad guys and spreading justice, may have netted some vicious characters of its own (demonstrated in session 16, Black Dog Serenade), but the intensity of his disappointment with the system was matched by the intensity of his hopes to cure it. This led him to quit his quest altogether, teaming up the Spike and joining him in is flight from the past. In contrast with Spike though, Jet has put his skills to better use as a bounty hunter than he formerly did in his past life. In each of the sessions that probe into a grand cover-up or conspiracy in the seats of power, Jet is the one to put the narrative together and discover its history. As a kind of freelance detective, Jet mounts more assaults on the power elites than he could have serving as a cop and remaining within its bureaucracy; his quest for justice was enhanced by removing himself from the police force and getting a taste of desperation. Jet also seems to have found his home on the Bebop, which is symbolized by his role as its de facto cook and house-keeper – he wears the apron. Whether Faye has found her home or not is as open as her future: a free choice.

Spike faces off with Vicious for the last time at the very top of the Red Dragon’s headquarters in what looks like a throne room. After tearing through the building and its guards wielding grenades, sticky-bombs, and his handguns, Spike is told by Vicious “finally you’re awake.” The long dream is over.  It’s fitting Cowboy Bebop would end with a duel, Wild West style. Nobody wins though, they both kill each other. Spike kills Vicious but pays the ultimate price for leaving his world behind with Vicious in his place.  At this point he can only sacrifice himself to cancel out his mistake instead of rule.  After the end credits and another beautiful song, Spike’s star fades out in place instead of burning up as a shooting star like Gren’s did. It is as if they are saying that Spike found his way home and made things right in his old life. In a way, he was already dead, but the world is a far better place for his homecoming.

Before we see Spike collapse on the walking down the stairs, we cut to Julia’s final words, muted at her actual time of death: “It’s all a dream?” “Yeah,” replies Spike, “just a dream.” These words are a consolation for the two characters drawing their final breaths, especially for ones led astray by their dreams in life. Of course, from a cosmic perspective, our lives are just short events with a start and a finish that was once destined for a reintegration into the earth. The entirety of one’s life is a dream, seen from this cosmic place, which we earthlings have ventured out into. Cowboy Bebop considers a world in which we are shooting stars burning up from our rapid activity, unable to reconcile ourselves to our new reality and the magnitude of the increased freedom of movement for some.  Here, in imagining our current security-capitalist state written into the solar system, our mortality remains, as well as the desire for an escape.  For those with the will and the skill like Spike, the weight of a dream is immense: he actually has the power to change this world for the better but chose to flee instead. He carried that weight around until his death when he could be truly free from the burden, as the ending song indicates.  The final words from the show are written at the bottom of the screen where it usual leaves you with “See you space cowboy” and reads: “You’re going to carry that weight.”  The only thing that releases us from our dreams is death and it is the manner in which we reconcile those dreams with reality that determines our fate, perhaps more that anything else.

Between the cosmic highway and our terrestrial ground, we have the blue sky: End Credits with the song ‘Blue’.


Socialism and/or Populism in America

Both Socialism and Populism have been invoked during Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign run and this has led to no small amount of conceptual confusion among the American people – myself included.  His rhetoric and record as a senator has been overwhelmingly anti-Wall Street, pro-worker, and, well, popular, so when I heard the label “Socialist” coming from the more conservative side from the mainstream media I thought it was another scare-tactic and then embraced it as a possible cure for our neoliberal malaise of debt-fueled Superimperialism [Michael Hudson’s latest on US Neoliberal Empire].  His brand of Socialism isn’t the type that conservatives would have you believe though, many avowed Socialists have even distanced themselves from Sanders.  It came as somewhat of a surprise, but more of a moment of clarity, when Douglas Edwards (@SebastosPublius) tweeted to me that he is not in fact a Socialist but still demands support from the left in the way he steers the conversation in the media away from compromise with wealthy financiers and corporate giants embedded within the political process [How Wall Street Is Burning Democracy].

Bernie Sanders is not a Socialist because Socialism means state ownership of the means of production, the effective nationalization of industry and seizure of the capital, materials, and distribution for a government operating in the name of “the people”, and that is not his platform.

On Bernie as a Socialistic Democrat, or Democratic Socialist (or whatever):

“the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this:

I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.” [Source]

This makes Bernie Sanders definitively not a Socialist – and he shouldn’t be.  While the battle against the interest of the super-wealthy is just and necessary on our imperiled planet, Socialism never figured out a way of preventing the shoring up of power within a single party after the revolutions they helped accelerate. This consolidation of massive power within a single party is in no way democratic, which is why ‘democratic socialism’ is the term that the Sanders campaign has settled on.  These ghosts are too easily conjured up by reactionary apologists for Capitalism and American Imperial supremacy; the problem is that the wrong tradition of thought is being drawn on.   It would be a sad state of affairs if Bernie Sanders were defeated over a single label that he doesn’t even own.  Perhaps the only recourse for anti-capitalist, humanists, and those fighting for the interests of the great many, when it comes to imagining a just society in economic and political terms, in the recent past has been Socialism.


To be clear here, Socialism is and has been a theoretical framework that challenges Capitalism and seeks to solve its horrendous consequences by reappropriating the wealth, factories, products, etc. and redistributing it.  It is not the content of Socialism that people are demanding however, its main strength is in giving people a discourse with which to locate the main actors that are creating so much misery.  It is this appeal that has gotten people excited about electing a Socialist president (albeit in a lighter form [Bernie Sanders’ New Deal Socialism]).  However, there is another tradition of economic thought that fits in better with Sanders’ aspirations and the 99%’s as well, the only downside is that it has been suppressed from our cultural memory.

The other big word that is seeing a revived by Sanders’ campaign is “Populism”.  This word invokes a tradition that precedes Socialism as a body of thought and rallying cry by a few decades in the late nineteenth century – to those who know about it.  For a brief time, southern, mid-west, and many northern farmers in the wake of the Civil War were embroiled in a political insurrection against the dominant interests of the financial class in the east and the politicians they controlled.  Overburdened by a system called “crop-lien” and without recourse to anything but the two parties who wouldn’t listen to them, they got creative and formed their own party based on their own ideas for how the money system should work.  In fact, throughout the entire nineteenth century, and even late eighteenth century, the newly formed United States of America wrestled with itself over how the money system should work, who would benefit the most from it, and what, in general, it’s money would be.  In contrast to the Socialists, whose body of thought came from figures like Saint-Simon and was taken up and refined by the Proudhon’s and Marx’s in Europe, the Populists grew organically by burgeoning farmer-activists and American monetary theorists whose ideas didn’t stick in quite the same way.  Rather than talking about “the means of production” or “the proletarian working class” (these terms gained in significance and explanatory power during the era of mass industrialization, which had only just gotten underway in the era of Populism), they talked about money more openly as farmers with an urgent need for credit.  The image of the “independent farmer” of Thomas Jefferson’s vision was closer to people’s self-identification and they called economic crises “money shortages,” due in large part to the failure of the much reviled banks.

The Greenback Party argued a strong case for a more flexible currency that was not controlled by debt-wielding banks and their “gold-backed” banknotes and they preceded the Populists, who accepted their critique and broadened it to a larger swath of Americans. This by-and-large forgotten body of thought and history is far better suited for Bernie’s campaign to invoke.  Not only is populism “made-in-America” but it has a penetrating critique and solution for how to deal with the vice-grip that bankers and investors hold on the greater population in terms of both politics and, via their debt-money, economics.  There is no better place to look for a solution to what to do after Sander’s “political revolution” than America’s own history, coming straight from the masses of early American farmers themselves and the proposal for a money system that galvanized them.

The Sanders campaign has rightfully taken up the anti-Wall Street sentiment that has swept through the nation because they are the ones standing most directly in the way of meaningful change.  Lack of access to cheap credit and the reliance on bankers as the producers of money-for-debt are (I would argue) the single biggest barrier to altering business as usual and healing the planet of its growing fever [James Hansen’s latest report on Climate Change].  The greater left neglects the most crucial aspect of economics (money) by remaining within the entrenched mindset of materialist political economy (rooted in the works of David Ricardo, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Marx) and the Socialists who derived much of the fundamental tenets of their thought from.  Heck, if a modern day politician starting talking about Greenbackism and reforming the money system in the way that Americans used to, it could completely change the political landscape in a time when both political parties and their congress people are reviled by a great majority of the population but [Poll Ratings], for lack of a popular base and a robust third party organization, are unable to see beyond.  This is the political climate in which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have risen through parties that do not want them to win but enjoy far more support among their base than any other candidate they could groom.

Having heard a bit about the Populists and their monetary reform crusade, I picked up one of its brief histories by Lawrence Goodwyn on a tip from and activist friend.  I would highly recommend giving it a read, for Goodwyn gives a detailed account of a grassroots movement and explains what we would call the monetary theory that they relied on to save them from their destitution.  In what follows I would like to give an even more brief summary of the Populists, focusing on the systematic machinations of early American money and how they would have changed it had they been successful.

[Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment. Oxford University Press, 1978 (link)]

The Populist Party rode to major success in the elections of early 1890’s that shook up the GOP, at the time as the Democrats controlling the South, forcing the Democratic Party to absorb them through political trickery or become fractured.  They got William Jennings Bryant to run for president for the Dems on a platform of monetary reform, but their message had been water-down to merely expanding the money supply with silver bullion instead of releasing the nation’s money from the grip of bankers entirely.  Silver would become the wedge that split the Populist Party and their radical (by our standards) monetary theory that would have released money from the illusion of a metallic backing.  Originally, the Populists wanted to bring back the Greenbacks that President Lincoln had issued to finance the Civil War without the help of banker’s high interest loans (25-35% – a nearly impossible sum to repay on such a large principle) and to allow credit to flow into the cooperative exchanges that the farmers had established to get better prices for their crops.  Nothing else they wanted or could create could work when the eastern financier elites and the merchant bulk supply purchasers they were in league with could simply choose not to do business with them until their cooperatives were broken apart and the purchasing prices lowered.  The farmers, journalists and movement organizers of the populists knew this through experience and strategy meetings: the only way to put a stop to their desperate poverty was to reform the money system and wrest the production of money from the hands of wealthy financiers.  It was a battle so vitally important to the soul of America that the victor was not satisfied with controlling the levers of money with their banks but insisted on destroying the very memory of the battle and the ideas they employed for fear of their resurrection.  Think that’s too strong?  Read the Hazard Circular written by the London financial capitalists for their American counterparts meant specifically to obscure the money question in politics and divide the population against itself before they figure it out. [The History of the Hazard Circular]


The “Greenback” United States Note

The major constraining force acting immediately on the farmers of America after the Civil War was the above mentioned “crop-lien” system.  It was by-and-large this system that kept farmers poor, disempowered, and sent many fleeing out west or into the cities to escape their debts.  Merchant supply houses controlled credit in the rural towns by lending out tools and materials needed to start a small farm.  The amount due to the creditors very often exceeded what farmers were able to gain from the crops they produced on their land at the harvest.  The problem was interest, and its accrual crushed indebted farmers:

“Acted out at as thousand merchant counters in the South after the Civil War, these scenes were so ubiquitous that to describe one is to convey a sense of them all.  The farmer, his eyes downcast, and his hat sometimes literally in his hand, approached the merchant with a list of his needs..  The man behind the counter consulted a ledger, and after a mumbled exchange, moved to his shelves to select the goods that would satisfy at least a  part of his customer’s wants.  Rarely did the farmer receive the range of items or even the quantity of one item he had requested.  No money changed hands; the merchant merely made brief notations in his ledger. Two weeks or a  month later, the farmer would return, the consultation would recur, the mumbled exchange and the careful selection of goods would ensue, and new additions would be noted in the ledger.  From early spring to late fall the ritual would be enacted until, at “settlin’-up” time, the farmer and the merchant would meet at the local cotton gin, where the fruits of a year’s toil would be ginned, bagged, tied, weighed, and sold.  At that moment, the farmer would learn what his cotton had brought.  The merchant, who had possessed title to the crop even before the farmer had planted it, then consulted his ledger for a final time.  The accumulated debt for the year, he informed the farmer, exceeded the income received from the cotton crop. The farmer had failed in his efforts to “pay out” – he still owed the merchant a remaining balance for the supplies “furnished” on credit during the year.  The “furnishing merchant” would then announce his intention to carry the farmer through the winter on a new account, the later merely having to sign a note mortgaging to the merchant the next year’s crop.  The lien signed, the farmer, empty-handed, climbed into his wagon and drove home, knowing that for the second or fifth or fifteenth year he had not paid out.

Such was the crop-lien system.  It constituted a new and debasing method of economic organization that took its specific form from the devastation of the Civil War and from the collapse of the economic structure of Southern society which had resulted from the war… The South had become, in the words of one historian, a “giant pawn shop.”

The furnishing merchants, able to get most of their goods on consignment from competing Northern mercantile houses, bought supplies and “furnished them on credit to farmers, taking a lien on the farmer’s crop for security.  Farmers learned that the interest they were paying on everything they consumed limited their lives in a new and terrible way; the rates imposed were frequently well in excess of 100 percent annually, sometimes over 200 percent.  The system had subtle ramifications which made this mountain of interest possible.  At the heart of the process was a simple two-price system for all items – one price for cash customers and a second and higher price for credit customers.” (p.21-22)

This crop-lien system was the mechanism that suppressed farmers and kept them “dirt poor.”  It was the ability to charge a higher rate for customers buying on credit and their control over access to the tools and materials that the farmers needed that allowed the merchants to gouge their debtors with a near endless cycle of repayment.  Under these desperate circumstances, farmers began to organize.

Populist Part ticket

The farmers of the South formed an alliance in 1878 and slowly encouraged other counties and states to form their own “suballiances” locally.  Two innovations helped pick up momentum for the Farmer’s Alliance: the consolidation of the farmer’s crop into a single storehouse that would then sell to the merchants collectively at a higher price instead of individually, and a traveling lecture circuit that would arrive at community centers (churches) and educate the farmers on how the new method of ‘bulking’ would help them.  The lecture circuit would double as a uniting force between the suballiances and it gave them a venue to promote the idea of Greenback money and a new idea coming from the Populist Farmers Alliance movement called the “sub-treasury plan.”

Before jumping into the substance of these ideas and how they would reverse the farmers fortunes, as well as the nature and production of money in America, a brief history of the Greenback dollar will help set the scene and give some context for why so many Americans demanded monetary reform.  For besides the lack of access to cheap credit, farmers were fetching a smaller price for their goods on the market simply from the change in value of the currency.  The Eastern financial class – those wealthy bondholders – wanted to ensure their government bonds had the highest value, regardless of how much of a burden this put on the rest of the country via a shrinking supply of money.  Goodwyn summarizes complicated money policy and competing interests very well and is worth quoting again at length:

“In technical language that millions of Americans would try to comprehend over the next two generations, “specie payments” had been “suspended.”  Two months after the Treasury ceased paying coin for its obligations, Congress, under relentless wartime spending pressure, authorized the issuance of “legal tender treasury notes” to cover obligations.  Because of the color of their ink, the notes soon became known as “greenbacks.”  By the end of the war some $450 million of these treasury notes were in circulation, having contributed to wartime inflation, greater commercial liquidity, and prosperity.

In orthodox financial circles favoring “gold monometallism” the postwar problem was one of ending “suspension’ and achieving “resumption” by retiring the greenbacks and returning to a redeemable currency of hard money.  The currency “contraction” that necessarily would follow might be painful for various members of the society, especially debtors, but only as the painful cleaning of a wound was essential to ultimate health.  At the heart of the banker’s approach was an understanding of gold and silver money not as a medium of exchange, but as a commodity that had “intrinsic value.”…

However, bankers and other creditor-bondholders had a more specific motive for specie resumption.  The currency had depreciated steadily during the war, and, having purchased government bonds then, they, understandably, looked forward to the windfall profits to be made from redeeming their holdings in gold valued at the prewar level.  A governmental decision to begin paying coin for its obligations would mean that, though the Civil War had been fought with fifty-cent dollars, the cost would be paid in one-hundred-cent dollars.  The nation’s taxpayer would pay the difference to the banking community holding the bonds.  Bankers marshaled a number of moral imperatives to support their case.  They argued that they had supported the war effort – albeit with depreciated money – by buying government securities on the assumption that the postwar dollar would be returned to “par.”… Bondholders and the Eastern financial community – the two terms were more or less interchangeable – further argued that resumption would encourage saving, investment, and economic growth by assuring holders of capital that the dollar would have “long-term stability.”  The country would be placed on a “sound” footing  Finally, the banker’s case was patriotic: the nation’s honor was at stake.

Some practical difficulties intruded, however.  A return to hard money could only be accomplished in one of two ways – both quite harmful to a great number of Americans.  The first was to raise taxes and then employ the proceeds to redeem wartime bonds and to retire greenbacks from circulation.  This, of course, would contract the economy abruptly, driving prices down, but also depressing business severely and increasing unemployment, perhaps to socially dangerous levels… Any immediate attempt to “resume specie payments” would have quickly exhausted the nation’s gold supply through an unfavorable balance of trade.

The second method of contracting the currency spread the resulting economic pain over a longer period of time.  The government could merely hold the supply of money at existing levels while the population and the economy of the nation expanded, thus forcing general price levels down to a point where it was no longer profitable to redeem paper dollars in gold to finance imports.  In due course, this is what happened.

To the nation’s farmers, contraction was a mass tragedy which eventually led to the Populist revolt.” (p.10-13)

The main cause for the lack of money available to the people and their resulting plight was the interests of the wealthy bondholders.  These people bought these bonds from the government with the hopes of receiving a good return on their investment after the war.  After all, the North could have lost the war and those bonds, as a result, would be useless without a government to pay them.  But they could have received a return on their money at a depreciated value, while the rest of the economy would have performed far better in an environment where money was more abundant and expanded along with the expansion of commerce in general.  Instead they used their resources to obtain the maximum value of their bonds and then buy up greenbacks and destroy them, phasing them out of existence and retaining control of the issuance of money within the banks.  The common interest of this stratum of society, together with their high education, vast wealth, and leisure time, allowed them to out-maneuver a vast majority only a few of which could understand what was happening to them.

USA Civil War Bond

While the bondholders got the most out of their bonds, the resulting contraction of the economy would drive down the price of the goods that the many farmers were selling, like cotton.  Simply selling one’s goods in American dollars brought a smaller return thanks to the contraction of money.  The farmers didn’t have much money in savings accounts, their money came to them at the harvest time when the purchasers came to town.  A contracted money supply means less money spread out to cover over greater commercial activity.  So, if you had money, it appreciated; if you had to sell goods to earn money to then buy other goods (or settle debts), the price at which you had to sell was lower.

The Populists would change this situation by mobilizing their lecturers to explain just how these financiers were diminishing the value of their crops by contracting the money supply.  They would also promote a solution that would give them hope for democratic control over the money system in their sub-treasury idea, which seized on the existing memory of the greenback and the latent power of the government to issue its own currency and spend it into existence instead of borrow it from banks.  The crux of the matter went to the very heart of what money is.  One could even say it went to the heart of how America would be run as a country, with economic democracy (via control of money supply and its issue) or economic oligarchy.  The bankers wanted their “sound money” (gold-backed banknotes issued by their fractional reserve method) and the Populists wanted “flexible money” that would come into existence by the government’s own initiative and be more plentiful.

“The debtor philosophy offered another way of stabilizing prices.  By reducing the content of the dollar to one-half its prewar figure, the nation could have simply accepted the fact that the currency had lost one-half of its purchasing power, frankly and rather painlessly acknowledging that currency devaluation had taken place during the war.  Granted that such a solution would remove the windfall profits that bondholders anticipated from the return of the old standard, it also avoided the multiple hazards to the rest of society implicit in the objectives of “sound money” bankers.

To greenbackers, the case for a fiat currency was completely persuasive because the nation needed an expanding monetary system to keep up with population growth and commercial expansion.  Greenbacks were “the people’s currency, elastic, cheap and inexportable, based on the entire wealth of the country.”  As this study of American populism reveals, the greenback cause was a many-faceted phenomenon, sometimes put forward in arguments which were opportunist and ephemeral, but more frequently presented in a coherent analysis that attained a level of advanced social criticism.

Whatever the short-run economic equities, the greenback critique of American finance capitalism – should it ever gain a mass popular following – constituted a political issue of the first magnitude.” (p.12-13)

So it didn’t take long for the disgruntled farmers to realize that their difficulties in production under the crop-lien system were connected to the system of money production itself.  Their crops were fetching a lower price than they should have if the money supply had grown with the growth of the economy.  On top of that, the furnishing merchants controlled the books by which farmers’ debts were calculated, charging usurious interest rates on their loaned out materials.  This kept farmers in a gigantic territory oppressed by monetary policy and the creditors who provided them with what they needed, only at high interest.  Solutions existed, but without a method to organize and act in concert the farmers were at the mercy of their creditors.

The Farmers Alliance changed this with their army of lecturers and suballiance system that gave the lecturers a place to travel to speak with and listen to the farmers.  Together they created a movement culture that successfully brought people a sense of their own worth in common and instilled hope for a new system that would benefit them.  They began the process of bulking their cotton together in large storehouses to get their higher prices and even allowed farmers to take out credit from these exchanges secured on future crops.  Bringing their crops together in these storehouses gave suballiances a direct benefit to their cooperative efforts, but the constant antagonism from the wealthy merchants seeking a lower price kept their existence tenuous.  They remained too small to help enough of the population and in order to expand they needed credit.  It was in this situation that Charles Macune introduced his idea of the “sub-treasury” monetary system, an idea that could link the cooperative storehouse bulking practice with the flexible, non-metallic currency idea of Greenbackism.

“In arguing for changed relations between “different classes,” Macune suggested a conscious raising of the stakes above those being gambled in the cooperative movement.  Macune’s plan called for federal warehouses to be erected in every county in the nation that annually yielded over $500,000 worth of agricultural produce. In these “sub-treasuries,” farmers could store their crops to await higher prices before selling.  They were to be permitted to borrow up to 80 per cent of the local market price upon storage, and could sell their sub-treasury “certificates of deposit” at the prevailing market price at at time of year.  Farmers were to pay interest at the rate of 2 per cent per annum, plus small changes for grading, storage, and insurance.  Wheat, corn, oats, barley, rye, rice, tobacco, cotton, wool, and sugar were included under the marketing program.

The plan carried far-reaching ramifications for the farmer, the nation’s monetary system, and the citizenry as a whole….  In effect, Macune had replaced the high-interest crop-mortgage of the furnishing merchant with a plan that mortgaged the crop of to the federal government at low interest.  It thus provided the farmer with the means to escape, at long last, the clutches of the advancing man and recover a measure of control over his own life.  For the farmers of the South, both black and white, the sub-treasury plan was revolutionary.” (p.109-110)

It was an ambitious plan, to say the least.  It was an appeal for the country’s money to be injected into the farmer’s local exchange directly, instead of through a bank intermediary that got to lend out its gold-backed banknotes.  The treasury would issue greenback dollar bills and lend them to the cooperative exchanges on the future market value of the crops that were stored in their warehouses.  No longer would there be a lack of credit flowing to farmers who produced real goods but couldn’t fetch a decent price for them.  The money system would be brought under democratic control in the sub-treasury plan, with a large portion of the supply of money determined by farmer’s needs instead of entirely controlled by who banks believed was a worthy investment.  Small farmers were left out of bank lending and without an injection of money directly from the source of money minting and printing, the government, they were left to the pawn-shops of furnishing merchants – unbanked and without access to cheap, non-usurious credit.

The Farmers' alliance history and agricultural digest

Charles Macune

“The status that the sub-treasury plan came to have in reform ranks is revealing.  For, to put the matter as quietly as possible, Macune’s plan was democratic.  Or, to put it in archaic political terminology, it was breathtakingly radical.  Under the sub-treasury, the power of private moneylenders to decide who “qualified” for crop loans and who did not would have been ended.  The contracted currency, the twenty-five year decline in volume and prices, would have ended in one abrupt – and democratic – restructuring.  The prosperity levels of 1865 would have been reclaimed in one inflationary – and democratic – swoop.  Most important of all, the sub-treasury addressed a  problem that has largely defeated twentieth-century reformers, namely the mal-distribution of income within American society.  By removing some of the more exploitative features embedded in the inherited monetary system, the sub-treasury would have achieved substantive redistribution of income from creditors to debtors.  Put simply, a more democratic monetary system would have produced a more democratic sharing of the nation’s total economic production.” (p.301-302)

Based on these ideas, the insurgent farmers from the American South and Mid-West formed the Populist Party and wrote The Omaha Platform that would outline the central tenets of their political aspirations.  [Source]  With the success of many of their campaigns to get congressmen, governors elected to office under their party, the Democrats took notice and set to co-opt their message and support base.  They pushed the idea of re-monetizing silver (which had already been the currency standard in America from 1792 until the Civil War [Coinage Act of 1792]), an idea that would not have structurally changed the flow of money in the country but only expanded it.  Even with the added support coming from the recently absorbed Populist Party, the Democrats lost the big election of 1896 to the Republican McKinley.

After the Party fell apart, more banking crises would erupt as they had been in the previous decade.  An especially bad banking crisis occurred in 1907 and set the stage for the secretly concocted Federal Reserve Act.  The Fed would not solve the problem of periodic bank failures and depressions, but would strengthen the biggest bank’s interests structurally.  Nobody has been able to move congress to enact reform of the money system democratically, though the Populists and the ingenious sub-treasury plan came the closest to anything outside of the existential threat of war to making it happen.  They had a vision, a base of voters and organizers, and a culture that could be legitimately laid claim to.  Their ideas strongly resonated with a huge number of Americans but through cooptation, smears in the newspapers, and an expensive and unprecedented election campaign, so grand and effective that it would set the standard for all subsequent presidential campaigns, the Populists were defeated.  The patriotic flag-waving supporters of McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryant with a gushing of campaign money to squash even the Democrats’ weak idea of monetary reform: a bimetallic standard that would have still kept the bankers at the levers of money production.

It is far too late to get someone like Bernie Sanders to switch gears and start talking about what would seem like an obscure history lesson in democratic movements.  Any lessons taken from the Populist Party and their struggle would have to be superimposed on the body of thought that is more familiar to everyone than to try and start from scratch.  The ideas of the Greenback and Populist Parties are close to another more modern body of thought called Sovereign Money spearheaded by Joseph Huber [website] and Positive Money [website] in the UK.  The point within the context of a President Bernie Sanders prospect is that we should be talking about (he should get us to talk about) socializing money, not all the industry in the country, but the money system.  Socialize money!  Don’t socialize the means of production, socialize the means of producing money!  This would not require nationalizing the big banks but removing their ability to control the money supply and how they are allowed to allocate it through issuing Federal Reserve Notes instead of United States Notes and collecting interest on nearly all the money in circulation.  We could give everyone the option of having a bank account at the Federal Reserve: our very own “sub-treasury system” for a modern economy.

The challenges that face organizing for a major Socialist reform/revolution have been well documented in our precarious gig-economy. [Gig Workers Need the Power to Organize] One simple fix to the money system would relieve great pain around the world by removing the ‘too-big-to-fail’ status of mega-banks within the economy and allowing the ultra-rich to loose money on their bad bets instead of ruining enter countries. [Greece: Austerity for the Bankers]  This question of who would control the money was once the single biggest issue on the minds of the American people, spurring the largest of social movements and riots. [Read: William Hogeland’s Founding Finance] The only problem is that we have forgotten this heritage and the textbooks won’t point students in the right direction.  An unfortunate historical fact is that we have few images of the Populists and their deeds to draw on, making it difficult to imagine their movement.

As an alternative to the mainstream histories of great statesmen and classical economists, Socialism is only a good start.  Throw in some financial literacy, a good theory of money [Read: Geoffrey Ingham’s The Nature of Money], and a President unrestrained by financier-capitalists and politics might start to get exciting again.

Until then, one-quarter the country will getting gouged by payday lenders, check-cashers, and their creditors in general, [Financial Services for the Unbanked] [25% of Americans have negative net worth]and over half of the country will not be able to raise $400 dollars at any given time without going into debt or selling their possessions. [Fed Report]

Coming_Money_Trust 1912