The Bomb and Antism

In his "History of Sexuality, Volume 1" Foucault famously wrote that "Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power."  According Foucault's reckoning, if there were a form of power without any possible resistance, this would not be power as such, but "mere subjection".  Elsewhere he speaks of the "zero degree" of power.

But this only goes to show how shallow and inadequate Foucault's theorization of power was.  He treats the possibility of resistance as an eternal verity, an a priori, axiomatic truth, for which he feels no need to provide anything like evidence.  Most importantly, he treats it as trans-historical, as a reality without a history - he feels no compulsion to explain how it is that this resistance became possible.  It is a being, not a becoming: there "is" resistance.  The idea that it will always be possible, at least in principle, to resist power is what we can call Foucault's optimism.  Because of this optimism, he failed to realize that his model of power was already long-outdated, even as he was writing it. 

For most of modern history, yes, there was power, but for every form of power there was some form of resistance.  To be a bit poetic, one might even say that, back then, power created its own resistance.  But that all changed on July 16th, 1945.  You can fight back against almost anything.  But if you get nuked, there is no fighting back.  And if there is no fighting back, there is no struggle.  And if there is no struggle, there is no politics.  And politics has constituted one of the fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, to be the "political animal."  Once nuclear weapons had been invented, politics was dead.  Once politics ceases to exist, can we still be considered human?  



Karl Popper once observed: 

There can be no human society without conflict: such a society would be a society not of friends but of ants. Even if it were attainable, there are human values of the greatest importance which would be destroyed by its attainment, and which therefore should prevent us from attempting to bring it about.

(from Unended Quest: an Intellectual Autobiography)

Since 1945, we have no longer lived in human society, but rather something more akin to Popper's "society of ants".  After 1945, a new ideology took over the world, which I call "Antism".  We are now solidly in the Antist era, which you might also call the post-human era, the post-political era, the era of "mere subjection," the era of "zero degree power."  We could also call this the "post-political" world, or the beginning of "postmodernism," or the "end of history" as Fukuyama would later say.  But the decisive change happened not in 1991, with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., as Fukuyama thought, but in in 1945 with the development of nuclear weaponry.  Fukuyama took the idea of the "end of history" from Alexandre Kojeve, who understood that by the 1950s, history was already over, and with it, humanity ceased to be fully human, and human language ceased to be fully meaningful; he compared it to the croaking of frogs (perhaps an Aristophanes reference).  Ants, frogs, it makes little difference what animal we pick, the metaphor is still essentially the same.  In the shadow of nuclear weapons, humans can no longer think like a human being, with real aspirations, and the real ability to question the structures of their lives.  For the common people, this transformation was instant; after a few generations, even the leaders (those with their fingers on the proverbial button) have forgotten how to think.  Resistance isn't futile; it's impossible.

This is also one reason, among several, that Lenin's theory of imperialism is inadequate for understanding 21st century imperialism.  I have already written about how Lenin's theory of imperialism was woefully incomplete even for understanding his own time.  But several profound shifts have occurred between then and now, and one of the most obvious differences that makes Lenin's theories obsolete is that they were pre-nuclear theories.  The existence of nuclear weapons utterly changes the geopolitical rules of the game.  Marx once remarked that "The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist."  To which we can add that nuclear weaponry made possible the postmodern, post-political era.

1945 was the decisive year, in which everything changed.  This was the beginning of the end for unions, for instance.  It was around this time that union membership switched from an upward trajectory to a downward trajectory (this is also called a high-point).  Without at least the threat of real insurrection, institutions ossified into meaningless bureaucracies.  After 1945, instead of politics, we now have pseudo-politics.  (The "New Left" was largely pseudo-politics, the appearance of politics without substance, mere cultural battles.  Now there is not even the appearance of politics - it's all just rituals.)  In place of theory, we have pseudo-theory.  The less convincing a so-called political theory is, the more it is revered.  Absolute incomprehensible jibberish is held in the highest esteem of all.  Foucault's own work is symptomatic of Antism - his "micropolitics" is the only sort of politics suitable to ants.  Its purpose is to distract the ants from the impossibility of real politics.  And of course, let's not forget that with the growth of AI, we will only become all the more ant-like.  The algorithms are already in control; we are merely their couriers.  They plan the economy; we merely carry the packages from one structure to another - whether these packages are meals, devices, theories, laws, or what have you.

I can imagine someone saying that antism is not an ideology, but an anti-ideology, the lack of an ideology, a new passionlessness, a new fear, a new narrowness, the end of commitment, organization, struggle.  But I think we can stick with this term "ideology," so long as we understand "ideology" not as a set of political beliefs that an individual might hold in her brain, but as a set of structures that are materially instituted in the world.  Just as we speak of "structural" or "systemic" racism (as opposed to a person's individual prejudices), I think we can speak of structural Antism.  But the social relations of production are indeed accompanied by an entire series of unspoken prohibitions on what it is possible to say or think.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants."  Nuclear weaponry has made such refreshments impossible.  Those who are concerned about staying true to the intent and the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, and the fundamental values upon which it is based, such as Montesquieu's precepts about checks and balances and the separation of powers should be laser-focused on ending the President's unilateral ability to shoot nuclear weapons at whomsoever he pleases, without the least bit of due process or accountability, literally at the push of a button.  This renders any notion of checks and balances utterly meaningless.  

There is a person who, if he feels like it, at any moment, can kill you.  Indeed, he can kill absolutely anyone in the world, in any country, can kill millions of people in one shot, can reduce an entire nation to rubble that will be uninhabitable for, at minimum, tens of thousands of years - can do so on a whim, or because of mental illness, or indeed by accident.  Doesn't this one, stark, unarguable fact make all of our other concerns about "rights" - our Miranda rights to have certain stock phrases recited to us, our right to put one hand on top of Bible and raise our other hand in the air, our right to shop at Hobby Lobby, our right to use the bathroom of our choosing, our right to walk around without wearing a mask, etc., etc., etc., all completely, ridiculously, cartoonishly beside the point?  It should be obvious that our most fundamental right must be that a person cannot kill us whenever the mood strikes him.

Anyone who actually cared about the system of checks and balances laid out in the Constitution would make it their number one priority to, at the very least, make it so that more than one person would be involved in this decision, and that there would be some kind of process laid out in law for how this decision should be made.  And while they're at it, they should also take away the President's ability to unilaterally order a drone strike.

Washington wished the United States to be a "nation of laws not of men." For individual human beings are corruptible, and, as Kanye West puts it, following a character from Spike Lee's movie, "Malcolm X," "no one man should have all that power."  Is it conceivable that the amount of power in a a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out every living thing many times over could avoid corrupting even a contemporary Buddha or Cincinnatus?  When Lord Acton said that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," he was referring to the Pope.  But how little power a Pope has in comparison with a person who can destroy a nation with the push of a button!  At once, we thrust upon a person the gravest responsibility and a mind-poison that would make even a saint turn irresponsible.  Should we really be surprised when we see the symptoms of this kind of mind-destroying stress in our elected officials? (Watch them go gray with incredible speed, gibber incoherently in sentence fragments, and, well, let's say, have frantic sexual relations while smoking a cigar and eating pizza.  These people are not well.)  Why did we do this to them?  Could anything be more foolish?  So far, we have been fortunate - the unthinkable worst case scenario has not yet played out.  Can this string of luck last forever?

What is truly insane is that none of this is ever debated.  It is all accepted as the normal course of things, and almost never even discussed in the media.  The closest we ever come to broaching the topic - in a mangled, deformed way - is in the contemporary American debate over "gun control."  Any time people begin debating that topic (are there even any debates, these days?  Good faith debates - not just snarky tweets and memes...?), inevitably the point will come in the conversation, when someone will say that the founders intended that the people should have the right to bear arms because they would act as a kind of check on the otherwise unlimited power of the federal government (whether or not this is what the founders intended is besides the point for now) and another person will reply: "Oh really?  Are you with your little handguns and muskets going to go up against a government with Blackhawk helicopters and tomahawk missiles and nuclear bombs?  Good luck with that!"
Do these people hear themselves speaking?  Do they know what they're saying?

What they are saying, to borrow Karl Popper's metaphor, is that they have decided, resolutely, to be a society of ants.  They no longer wish to be human beings.  They want to be powerless.  Responsibility became too much for them.  They no longer want to be responsible, active beings.  They no longer want to think.  It's too scary.
If these people are correct, then we have to conclude that there was a Revolutionary Era, during which it was possible to challenge the centers of hegemonic power, like the U.S.A., France, and the U.K.. It's not clear when this period began, but it obviously included 1776 and 1789, and if these people are correct, it ended forever in 1945 and ever since we have lived in a Postrevolutionary Era, when challenging hegemonic power became impossible, and we must forever retreat.  The kings of the Earth and everyone else shall hide in caves and under the rocks of the mountains.

Before 1945, it made sense to say, "Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it."  Now that we can no longer change it, you might as well blog about it.

EDIT (8/6/21): On a recent episode of "Chapo Trap House," Matt Christman, while interviewing Mike Duncan of the "Revolutions" podcast, made this point explicit: due to the increase in military technology, we are living in a post-revolutionary era.  Here Christman showed himself not to be a Marxist, but an Antist.


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