This is a collaborative dialogue with poet, lyricist and philosopher Phil Rockstroh.
Kenn, I’ve noticed in your pieces you explore the topic of the myriad and perpetual degradations that capitalism inflicts on the powerless. Thus given the unfolding of recent events e.g., the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein, I’m curious as to your response to my (initial) take on the matter. Withal, the hyper-commodification of the bodies of young women is part and parcel of the economic dynamic of late stage capitalism whereby the earth is degraded to the point of global-wide ecocide and cities are rendered into vanilla cupcake zones of nada by hyper-gentrification.
To wit, Jeffrey Epstein is a predator and the same proclivities are evinced by his klavern of creepopathic friends e.g., Clinton, Trump, Dershowitz et. al. Predation is the modus operandi of the ruling class. As noted, feelings of entitlement towards the bodies of young women — their beings reduced to objects of commodification — are part and parcel of a worldview which rationalises an entitlement to the (finite) resources of planet earth and the capital generated by the labor of lower economic orders. The domination-driven mindset of Jeffery Epstein was formed in and enabled by a elitist order that imprisons the economically powerless within the inescapable confines of late stage capitalism. In short, almost every human being in the world other than a (minuscule-in-number) minority of High End predators.
Why do we, the powerless, tolerate the abuse? Economic coercion. Display defiance towards the abuse and one risks being dispatched to the capitalist order’s gulag archipelago — the capitalist version i.e., homelessness, into which precincts are cast those who cannot psychically abide, for various reasons, the predation inherent to the system. Also, the police serve as strong arm muscle for the ruling elite. The cops serve as a Praetorian guard of the predatory class.
Jeffrey Epstein’s modus operandi is emblematic of the system as a whole. The planet itself is perpetually violated and is suffering, in a manner most hideous, from the current arrangements of power. The arrest, conviction, and imprisoning of Epstein, and, if you allow me to indulge in a wish fulfilment jag of imaginative flight — similar fates are foisted on Clinton, Trump, Dershowitz et. al., — would prove gratifying schadenfreude but unless the system that enables and greatly rewards Epstein’s predator breed is dismantled then merely one head of the hydra has been decapitated. The rapacious beast will live on until it is stabbed in its dark heart and its bones bleach in the sun of a new era.
KO: Epstein provides us a glimpse into the depravity of the ruling class, one which is obviously above the law even though he himself might now face some consequences. But the ruling class itself is full of Epstein models and prototypes. The sexual aspect of this whole thing cannot be understated either. America is a place of stark contradictions when it comes to sex and sexuality. On the one hand, there is the commodification of sex as you mention. It is everywhere. But on the other, a persistent strain of puritanism still shadows everything. And it is a place where even radical movements for human liberation are co-opted by bourgeois and reactionary institutions. Pride parades are an example of this. Along with banks and corporations, there are police contingents marching and USAF flyovers. The spirit of Stonewall be damned.
But I think the Epstein affair is emblematic of the death knell of late capitalism in many ways. Being a system designed wholly on the ruthless predation of the weak, vulnerable, or disadvantaged, capitalism cannot operate any other way. But its predation includes the living biosphere that we all depend on, so its fait accompli is written all over this as well. We can only hope that our species will not meet its end as a result. And with Trump’s unhinged saber rattling added, that hope quickly fades.
PR: A great amount of news and pixel is expended on questions such as: Does Trump desire war or does Trump desire peace? Is Trump a racist or does he simply play one on TV with the agenda of agitating the limbic systems of his racist base? Is Trump a blithering imbecile, completely over his tangerine-tinged, combover-thatched head, or is he engaging in a cunning ploy intended to cause his opponents to underestimate him?
Fact is: Trump is about one thing and one thing only: His malignant ego being provided with perpetual narcissistic supply. Trump is a malignant narcissist, with psychopathic leanings e.g. his ungovernable impulse to grope (which he boasted about and was caught on audio tape) and his imprisoning children in concentration camps. His rival, in the last US presidential election cycle, HRC was also a narcissist with psychopathic proclivities but her persona is artic cold while Trump’s pulses with fuckwitted intemperance and cringe-inducing crassness. Hillary’s arctic aura causes people’s blood to run cold. But this is crucial: Both are human vessels that catalyse the Second Law Of Thermodynamics — a force of hypertrophy that arrives at the end of empires in the form of craven, clueless leaders.
As above, so below, in regard to the empire’s citizenry. Withal, a recent poll reveals the psychopathic tendencies of the general US public — to wit, more than a third of whom desire to have North Korea reduced to radioactive cinders by a nuclear weapons strike. (Do these vicious sub-cretins not realise such an attack would also decimate South Korea and nearby Japan and parts of China, and the radioactive emissions would travel across the planet, including reaching the US, by the conveyance of atmospheric currents?)
Flat out, creepy, huh…when, in public, a significant number of the people surrounding you, on a daily basis, are bughouse crazy. They possess the self-awareness of a bag of hair. Their regard for consequences, even catastrophic ones, is on par with that of a spree killer. These everyday psychopaths would kill millions with the casual intent of applying a LOL emoticon on social media. It causes my flesh to crawl to even write about it. Yet Beauty exists in the vastness and intricacies of creation. The dream-plangent human heart, a microcosm of the macrocosm, is redolent of both Loves fragrances and the sublimity of Horror. Poets term the phenomenon: a terrible beauty.
How does one trudge through the day and sink into restorative rest at night? There does not exist an answer on a provisional basis. Instead, become the question itself, Rainer Maria Rilke advised, and futurity will brood within you like a dreaming seed. The green fuse of the dream itself will crack open the kernel of your old understandings. Providentially, there was never an answer. The question itself only circumscribes the possibilities of life lived amid shifting, earthly criteria under a novelty-engendering sky.
KO: One thing you wrote really stands out in my mind as terrifyingly timely. “These everyday psychopaths would kill millions with the casual intent of applying a LOL emoticon on social media.” This is the landscape we are navigating these days. Where decisions that determine life and death are dominated by mercurial dopamine rewards offered by social media posts. It makes sense then that Trump, an addict if there ever was one, is so tethered to Twitter as a means of carrying out his daily duties. But the public and mass media are an equal part of this arrangement.
And so it leaves the rest of us to grapple with our existential moment. The angst and restlessness that accompanies the minutiae of our daily life and its transactions. How our dreams are interrupted by cannot be understated. It makes me think of other moments in history. Moments where the knowledge of atrocity or outright fascist brutality was widespread, but the sense of apathy or powerlessness was in equal measure.
Climate change, a biosphere in peril and under constant assault, militarism, rising fascism, and, as you make clear, the specter of nuclear annihilation. All of this convergence of very bad and very final things comes at a time when so many in the West are perpetually trapped within a prism of binary thinking. Trump is so emblematic of ‘in your face’ sadism that so many forget the cold banality of Clinton and the rest of that elite coterie of cruelty.
And yet here we are, with the newest brand of Democratic Party corporate, war-lusting clones trotted out on stage as if they were a viable alternative to the walking dumpster fire that is Trump. And that there few mass movements against the overarching system is important to note. There is only atomized outraged instead of a groundswell of rage against the entire monstrosity that is the American Empire.
PR: Late capitalists are dopamine merchants. Whether the addictive criteria involves consumerism and its even more meretricious scion, social media, the reward systems are hijacked. The dopehouse lie of the mind prevails: “Just one more hit and I’m out of here. I have this under control”…yet dawn arrives…then morning yields to afternoon…
The economic elite possess a classic form of the affliction, albeit in the cosmology of the capitalist epoch, their cupidity and avarice are deemed not only virtues but the best and only possible monads to create social constructs and to seed culture. In regard to addiction, I prefer the term from depth psychology “Complex” as opposed to “Disease.” With this caveat: Unless the latter term is appropriated, for example, in the Jungian sense i.e., the gods [i.e., higher (and lower) psychical powers] have become diseases. Among the distortions of the mind concomitant to addiction: an addict mistakes the Complex — a response that was once helpful in bestowing feelings of “ease and comfort” thereby mitigating feelings of trauma and attendant angst and despair, but has grown into a dynamic of destruction.
As the self-justifying illusions that enable the Complex intensify, the tangible world — of sensation and consequence — seem as veritable as vapour. As a rule, addiction is an attempt to apply palliative measures to psychical based wounds. Thus if day to day experiences of late capitalist modernity unfold as a landscape of angst and despair borne of the humiliations inherent to being viewed as a soulless, anonymous flesh machine who has been relegated to existing as merely an economic entity, an atomised being…alone, powerless, devoid of voice…therefore, even a contemporary, “normal,” seemingly adjusted social media habituate becomes, as is the case with all addicts, lost in a wilderness of inhuman, archetypical impulses…that possess a single-minded objective: escape overwhelming feelings of anxiety and despair by getting high, even it the sky must burn, the oceans roil with methane gases, and the biodiversity of the earth suffers the fate of a drunk’s liver and brain cells. Withal, we, in our sober moments, stand mortified as the same process is destroying the ability of the planet to sustain human life by means of capitalism inflicted, worldwide ecocide.
KO: It’s true, there is an addiction to the screen in this age. The absence of it produces a sort of anxiety akin to withdrawal. It is of no wonder really that the orange buffoon in the Oval Office is addicted to Twitter (and most likely Aderall). But it goes to all levels. War is conducted by the Empire mostly via screens. People and entire villages are reduced to ash from the click of some armchair warrior miles away. But capitalism is essentially slavery. And it coerces its slaves with violence, fear and addiction. The portable screen is the newest manifestation of this kind of psychic tyranny.
What I’ve found fascinating is that I’ve read a few articles on how the uber wealthy are now shunning their screens. It is considered lowbrow. Elite schools are jettisoning laptops for face to face encounters. Even executives brag of how they are “inaccessible” via email or texting for much of their day. But they can afford to do this, of course. It is the working class and, to a large extent, bourgeoisie who are tethered to their screens. And I cannot help but wonder how this all plays into conformity, constant fear and the surveillance state. In one sense, we are kept up to date on our dire state, but in another we are driven to a state of constant fear by the enormity of it all and how supposedly powerless we are to fight back.
PR: We are drawn to screen life — or a facsimile of life offered thereof — because social media evokes a simulacrum of participation mystique. We long for the musk and fury of worldly engagement — i.e., eros — with life itself. But in this atomised epoch — an existence devoid of the public square and ridden with angst involving face to face encounters (created simply by a lack of practice) — the socially isolated citizenry of the late capitalist epoch are suffering from, on both a personal and collective basis, acute eros-deficiency. “You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.” Eric Hoffer’s insight reveals why screen (faux) life is addictive. One feels as if human-to-human communion — a connection with the everyday sublime is imminent but the connection never arrives…yet one is compelled to double down.
Thus we have careened into a dangerous psychical terrain: the means capitalist modernity gives rise to a fascist proclivity for mind-usurping, sensation-base spectacle and concomitant immersion in the eros (including the blood-lust variety) of the mob (a palliative for the citizenry’s collective, acute eros-deficiency). Withal, the phenomenon in play at Trump rallies that are teeming with Brownshirt prototypes in crocs. This threat, seethed by Trump, is axiomatic of the form:
“I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad…” Among the manifestations of fascist signifying and modus operandi: 1) Use of police/military power to intimidate and if need be to crush opposition (as Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, in coordination with local police departments, inflicted on the Occupy Wall Street movement — to wit, US fascism is not restricted to Trump). 2) “Bikers for Trump”: Deployment of violent Brownshirt-type thuggery. 3) Worship of strength and a revulsion to perceived weakness (Trump’s display of military hardware on the Forth Of July and his time-warping, jingoist farrago of a speech. 4) Beliefs of victimisation at the hands of internal groups and violent and/or contagion-bearing outsider mandating a need for a cordon sanitaire to protect the homeland, even to the point of justifying calls and acts of violence and the existence of containment facilities caging foreign interlopers.
Fascist citadels of the mind serve as protection against internalised shame and fears of vulnerability. Fascism, always, lies coiled beneath the surface of capitalist modernity and its sham democracies. Trump is an accelerant of fascism; he is not the cause. Trump may have been born rich but he knows, deep down, the illusion of success and confidence he displays is a hollow gambit deployed to protect himself from the truth that without his father’s wealth Trump, in the best case scenario, would have risen to the level of assistant manager of an exurb Applebees, and been fired for acts of sexual harassment.
The Tangerine-tinged Tub Of Toxic Goo’s fascist tendencies are a compensation for internalised shame borne of a sense of inadequacy…that threaten to overwhelm his fragile ego structure. In short, he is the man of the capitalist zeitgeist.
KO: Yes, on the psychical level we all long for that connection. For participation in the theater of life. And so then Trump fits perfectly into this milieu. He is emblematic of the spectacle, albeit in a dull and brutish way. But the Trump phenomenon represents where capitalism inevitably ends up. Wealth doesn’t beget grace, or wit, or intelligence, or compassion. And we have seen similar scenarios play out over the 20th century around the world in different societies.
Capitalism’s deal with the bourgeoisie leads inevitably to some kind of fascist authoritarianism in a bid to maintain a privilege that was never fair or sustainable to begin with. It’s a sort of Faustian bargain, although in this case it is not for some increase in knowledge or even power necessarily, but for maintaining ones class status despite the inequities or outright barbarity that arrangement engenders for countless other people or for the living planet itself. And the faux opposition always serves to act as a bulwark against any meaningful political agency. It maintains the sham.
But now we are in a rather unique circumstance, and increasingly so. The planet’s systems are being rapidly degraded by the forces of capital and their military powers. And there is always the threat of nuclear annihilation via mishap or even tweet. So this is an existential moment, so to speak. And I’m not even sure how Marx or Engels would grapple with where we are at today.
PR: Marx and Engels insight involved Industrial Age capitalism but what insights would the Marxist philosophers have posited in regard to the endless, social media-borne piffle mongering and the Medium’s panopticon-level corporate surveillance — and the attendant shallowness and fragility of the infrastructure of neoliberalism’s constructed-of eggshells economic/cultural/societal architecture? The phenomenon is mirrored in the psychical architecture of the epoxied-to-screens citizenry and their concomitant attention spans that are as tenuous as the power grid and food supply infrastructure of late capitalist modernity.
All too many have fallen prey to a con artists’ scam — a cultural lie of the mind — as durable as gossamer, as sincere as the promises of a pimp, as reliable as a blackmarket timepiece. The ground is not solid; the foundation of the system is ridden with rot; the greenhouse gas inundated waters of the earth’s oceans and seas are rising; the political class are grotesques resembling the visions — not as limned by Marx or Engels — but of Jonathan Swift, Gogol, and Otto Dix.
The question is…not how long can this go on…but how have we allowed it to go on as long as we have?
~ Kenn Orphan and Phil Rockstroh July, 2019