The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past

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Things are moving quickly in Bishkek. In a single day, I already have several potential living spaces, including one for a measly approximately $37 per month (a fantastic place; the only problem is it’s practically in the foothills of the Ala-Too, far from the downtown where most of my daily work will be). The long-term visa is a situation that still needs some ironing out. Yet, although some anxiety simmers down in the depths, for the most part the foundations are calm. Something inside of me is saying, This should work, and even if it doesn’t, results per se were never the real point.

The city is even more energetic than what I remember from when I was last here, two years ago. A vortex of car traffic punctuated by pedestrian kamikazes; cracked pavement, or just no pavement at all, surging with plant life and petulant stone; orange and brown dust kicked up in the air; violet and turquoise neon lights bedecking chaikhana after chaikhana; sleek grey social-realist buildings, slowly crumbling or freshly renovated; the ubiquitous scent of burning metal, mountain, and chai — I feel as though I’ve found myself a character in what should prove to be a very interesting, and hopefully meaningful, science fiction film.

And speaking of science fiction, a strange time traveler-like feeling began to creep up on me in recent months about my and my friends’ various vocations as Bahá’ís, journalists, human rights activists, teachers, hacktivists, rogues, and the like. Somehow, being in this young, boisterous Asian republic, surrounded by all the hyper-ideological Soviet-era architecture — the living ruins of one of the great, failed grand discourses — have given me the words to describe it.

How often have we felt that we are fighting, even resisting, as though we were some lunatic minority bestriding the fringe of history, struggling to make a better world? How often have we felt that the horizon is dim, and our lot is merely to be stoic the face of human self-defeat? In fact, it’s totally the wrong way of viewing things.

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The coming Global War on Hacking?

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I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.

Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.

The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…

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Capitalist realism: homo capitalus / homo financus

Update 31 May, 2012: Some readers, even after braving through the many photos and philosophese, have asked me: “Just what exactly is the ideology or goal of ‘capitalist realism’?” I think what I’m trying to say is simply this: if socialist realism celebrated and promoted the mechanization of humanity, then capitalist realism celebrates and promotes the marketization of humanity. Moreover, both art forms have strong semiotics of the future and of power. However, where socialist realism was explicit in its totalitarian drive (at least, it’s obvious in retrospection), capitalist realism still purports to be liberalist (in the sense that people are allowed to be whoever they want to be “in private”, although what exactly that means, much less the boundaries of the private, is uncertain).

Although this is clearly a critical photo-essay, it’s also, perhaps paradoxically, supposed to be appreciative: contrary to opinions currently in vogue about the aesthetic “superficiality” and psychological “blandness” of either communist or capitalist architecture, the art form is actually quite intelligent, provocative, and in its own way, rather sublime. That’s not to say that it’s morally good; rather, that’s to say it shouldn’t be blithely dismissed or knee-jerkingly condemned.

This post could be alternatively entitled, “How I learned to stop grumbling and love corporate-capitalistic architecture.” As a young boy, I would sometimes visit my father’s stock brokerage firm in 650 Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t decide whether its granite modernist facade was drab, imposing, and soulless, or somehow futuristic, even graceful and attractive. I think in general that has characterized my feelings about most post-Sixties corporate/financial office architecture — until yesterday as I wandered Hammersmith and the City of London for a few hours. I found myself taken in by some kind of obscure metaphysical charm, even sublimity. And then I realized: this stuff’s not at all dissimilar Soviet socialist realism. In fact, I’d dare even call it capitalist realism.

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Can Nature be exploited? Does the Universe have rights?

This has been a very odd semester, to say the least. Having turned 30, I’ve somehow become antsy; I find myself, for instance, more and more subject to the urge to write fiction, i.e., to “finally get going again” with my childhood passion (and my organization, NewEurasia, may also be taking an arts-cultural turn in its coverage during 2012-13). In terms of the intellectual themes predominating my academic life, I’m starting to move away from strictly Islamological issues and into other terrains that have long interested me, particularly the democratic/liberal theory and environmentalism.

Studying liberalism, of course, intersects with my journalistic work, so it shall come as no surprise to my readers that I’m looking into the phenomenon of “managed democracy” in contemporary Russia and Kazakhstan, and that I shall probably be approaching the topic from the perspective of Claude Lefort. It also feeds into my interests as a member of the Baha’i Faith, namely, whether global democracy is possible, indeed, whether there can be a global understanding of what it means to be “human”.

As for environmentalism, believe it or not, this actually emerges from my background in Averroism, and no, I don’t mean by way of Spinoza; again, it is by way of my childhood resources.

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What if the USA collapsed instead of the USSR? (что было бы, если бы вместо Советского Союза распались Соединенные Штаты Америки?)

[Нажмите “Read More” для русского языка.] While I was on my tour through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I thought of what could be a really fun premise for a story: what if the United States broke up instead of the Soviet Union? The story would follow an alternative reality version of myself, namely, a young Soviet Kazakh journalist in charge of newamerica.net (instead of neweurasia.net), who has just written a book about post-US North America using the blog posts from the region and goes on a tour of independent New York and Pennsylvania to promote his work. I might want to add some political intrigue or a murder mystery to the plot, but essentially it would be a road trip tale.

Obviously, the story would be very much a satire. Instead of ex-KGB oligarchs, Chechen and Uighur rebels, Uzbek-Kyrgyz strife, and authoritarian presidents, there would be ex-CIA robber-barons, Native American rebels, Mexican-American strife, and New Media-based autocrats (Obama as the Turkmenbashi of Hawaii, his home state? Bush as the president of an Uzbekistan-like Texas?) I imagine that what is today the Midwest would break down into a kind of Afghanistan: without the strong federated American state to maintain irrigation and borders, it would devolve into a war-torn wasteland as the Soviet Union, Canada and Mexico vied for dominance in a new Great Game. The coasts would probably be the most stable areas.

Beyond North America, I imagine that the European Union would be a stronger and more socialist confederacy (but it would probably be struggling to absorb Italian and Irish returnees from America, the inverse of what happened to the Volga Germans and other Western ethnic groups from Central Asia). Africa would still be a mess, while Australia and New Zealand would be some of the world’s last capitalist countries, and Afghanistan and Pakistan would be a hybrid Marxist-Islamist republic; I have no idea about India, China, South America or the Middle East. Radical Christianity, instead of radical Islam, would be the new ideological scourge confronting the world. Technologically, global warming would probably be incredibly worse, but we would probably also be mining the moon.

But these are only tentative ideas. I’d love to hear from you, my readers: what would this alternative world be like? Also, try to imagine little details. For example, what would movies be like (would we be watching Standartenfuhrer von Stirlitz movies instead of James Bond?) and instead of China, where would cheap, shitty plastics and textiles come from? Leave a comment on this blog post in whichever language you feel most comfortable.

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Wiki-Orwellianism

Could transparency be used as a tool of oppression? The idea occurred to me soon after filing my most recent blog post with RFE/RL on the latest — and scariest — WikiLeaks spawn, Porn WikiLeaks.

What strikes me about Porn WikiLeaks is that it appears to essentially be the community of the pornography industry turned upon itself, as one vigilante ex-member seeks to expose the private identities of the industry’s pseudonymous actors and actresses. Many men and women have taken recourse to stints in front of the camera to pay for university or just put food on the table.

So, what’s at stake here are normal people — lawyers, doctors, teachers and home makers — with real reputations to lose, which is why the institution of the pseudonym is so important (society’s own double-standard of using the product but condemning the producer is the crucial factor to this sad reality, but that’s a topic for another blog post). This is counter to the logic of the original WikiLeaks, which Guy Rundle eloquently explains thus:

WikiLeaks has never been about an unedited, unconsidered process. Assange has argued that the degree of power exercised and the right to leak should also be considered in implicitly mathematical terms: total power licenses total exposure; zero power implies a total right to personal privacy. Such an ethic presumably lies across the boundary of a single life – the personal circumstances of someone in power should not be fair game for leaking, unless the circumstances of that private life are generating corrupt activities.

But here’s the really disturbing catch: besides the fact that Porn WikiLeaks’ webmaster may have had some help from inside the industry in terms of gathering the basic profile data of over 23,756 individuals that serves as the foundation of the site’s database, the deeply private data that he’s also accruing — from photographs of residences and family members to phone numbers — is most likely coming from colleagues and otherwise normal people like you and me, i.e., neighbors, supposed friends and other acquaintances. In other words, emphasis here is on the Wiki part of the site’s name.

On one level, the whole enterprise is sickeningly masturbatory: Porn WikiLeaks is itself pornographic, for the site essentially applies crowdsourcing to voyeurism. On another even more disturbing level, for me the site constitutes nothing less than Wiki-Orwellianism, that is to say, crowdsourcing used as a means to invade privacy. That’s profoundly worrying because this is a methodology that could be put to authoritarian ends. Imagine: what if the East German secret police had access to today’s Internet technology, and one day simply decided to publish their vast database of the citizenry’s private lives as a mass-readable/mass-editable Wikipedia-like website?

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The first truly European country

What does it really mean to be in a nation-state? I’m talking about, as it were, a political phenomenology, and I think it’s an intriguing question. Indeed, it’s the traveller’s question — where does the essence of a society lie? Is it unchanging or morphous? There’s a well-known elusive quality to the living human society of the nation-state, something very Heraclitan, as though the Egyptians who built the Pyramids and the Belgae who fought the Romans were somehow the ancestors of today’s Egyptians and Belgians, and yet somehow not: with each generation, they’ve stepped into the same river of time, event, and identity again and again, but because of that, it’s never the same river twice.

I think it’s very interesting to juxtapose the Egyptians to the Belgians because both societies are constituted of, on the one hand, very ancient geographical and demographic elements, and on the other hand, repeated and violent influxes of exotic blood — they are rich with relics of both stone and gene. And yet, the Egyptians have a much stronger sense of continuity, one that’s co-extensive with the borders of the current geopolitical place that history and the world have affixed as “Egypt”, whereas the Belgians have a profoundly weaker sense of of it for “Belgium”. Rather, Belgians’ continuities lie in their towns, in their families, and to some extent in the regional polities affixed as “Flanders”, “Brussels”, and “Wallonia” — that is, if they have any sense of continuity at all, which many of them self-avowedly don’t.

And then there’s the ongoing political crisis, which has left the federal central government hollowed out and in gradual decline, yet which hasn’t appeared to have harmed the three regional sub-governments all that much. Again and again I wonder: how is such a phenomenon enabled? It’s a subtle and tricky question, as most of my Belgian friends think I’m talking about what they always talk about, namely, how Belgium’s federal government “doesn’t matter” (wealth distribution and healthcare notwithstanding) and, moreover, how this might actually serve as a model or even paradigm for a future European federation or European nation-state. I’m actually not thinking about that; rather, I’m curious about the experiential and conceptual significance of the fact that there are three semi-sovereign governments here that are able to get by seemingly without the sovereign central government.

In other words, when I ask, How is Belgium possible? I’m actually really asking about the remarkable depth of Continental integration — and what this may really say about the future of the European Union.

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The Eurabian intellectual tradition?

Here’s a radical hypothesis: if we apply core-periphery theory to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, could Scholasticism be reconstrued not, as its generally held to be today, as a distinctly European or Latin Western phenomenon, but as nothing more than Europeans practicing Arabic/Islamic philosophy and science in their own distinctive way?

In other words, is it more historically accurate to characterize the High Middle Ages in Europe as an era defined by the very same process happening now to the non-Western world, namely, the absorption, assimilation, and adaptation by a marginal culture of the intellectual tradition  of a dominant one?

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Divine Communism

An Italian comrade at the Institute asked me the other day how I would describe myself ideologically and politically. To the first, I answered in terms of the Baha’i faith, allowing the obvious fact that besides our unitarianism (which goes beyond theology to encompass all aspects of human society), there is no consensus on a “Baha’i ideology”, nor should there be. I added some slight Kropotkinism, specifically that if there is to be any true change, it must be individual in tactic and generational in scope.

To the second, I replied, “If Marx believed in God and liberal democracy, then Marxism.” Of course, such “divine communism” is a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, I think the idea captures the transformative, hopeful, and “do-what-it-takes” revolutionary essence of what had been the Marxist tradition, which were its chief positives. There was an intrepidness among the Soviets in particular, a reaching for something great, that is sorely missing in today’s overwhelming commercialism.

I concede that perhaps (indeed, probably) I would have thought differently had I lived during the Cold War or if I were a citizen of an ex-Marxist country. Certainly, the peoples of the Communist world paid a high price for the ideology’s aspirations. But be that as it may, and my occasional flirtations with libertarianism and neo-liberalism notwithstanding, I find myself getting more radical in some vague sense as I get older, hence the semi-nostalgia.

I also note that in the eyes of some (especially American right-wingers) a believing, liberalist communism is precisely what exists in Europe and China. However, I disagree with that interpretation. Even a passive glance at these societies reveals that atheistic and atomistic capitalism is as much on the march there as in America, just in different ways.

Leave a comment below about what you think of “divine communism”. Do you think it would have been possible? How might have history been different? Is there anything out there like it today? And so on. I’m hoping to submit a paper to a conference in Rotterdam on the topic, “Is Change Possible in a Hegelian System?” and I want to use Marxism as my case study, so insightful comments shall be included.

(By the way, the image attached to this post is actually a Christmas Eve stamp. It’s part of a Soviet/Russian-themed series by Flickr artist Vincent Caplier. It’s all very well done and I feel appropriate for my question.)

Something he would say

She offers me the deck of Tarot cards. “Think of a question,” she instructs, “and shuffle them until you feel that you’re ready. Then pick whatever card feels right.” I need no time to consider which question to ask: a seeking mind’s fantasy, an ancient archetype, or the immortal of legends — which is he?

One moment, so obviously a grown man’s equivalent of an imaginary friend; the next, a riddler revealing things I couldn’t possibly know. And to my incessant need for a yes or a no, he replies with a grin: I am and I am not. My mission with you, Chris, is to make you embrace uncertainty.

My fingers skim the cards. Suddenly a nerve seems to whisper in my flesh, Here. I flip it over: the four of coins, pentacles, worlds. Normally a card signifying the hording of great wealth; this particular deck’s interpretation, however, is of the opposite — the lush verdancy of Spring. His symbols and a fitting description on both counts.

Two men laugh within me: the skeptic, ridiculing the entire enterprise, and the fool, saying, Yes, of course. It’s precisely the kind of answer he would give.

The Resurrection of Michael Jackson: what if his death is history’s greatest publicity stunt?

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This may be my most cynical blog post ever, not to mention the one most likely to inspire a tidal wave of hate mail roaring my way.  Here goes…

What if Michael Jackson isn’t really dead? What if, in fact, his purported demise is an enormous publicity stunt, and he’ll moonwalk out of his open casket on live television in front of billions of viewers?

There, I said it.  I said it!!! *hides behind a rock.

In truth, I believe the closing years of Michael Jackson’s life was a tragedy as immense as his sheer talent.  Each and everyone one of us who devoured all the news stories about “Wacko Jacko” are responsible, in some small way, for the Hell that so clearly became his existence at the end.

Nevertheless, if he’s faking his death, it would be a feat worthy of the gods!

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