Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
21Sep/140

Is America Coming Apart?

torn_american_flag

President Obama’s recent speech laying out his plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Syria (or in the Levant as he prefers to call it) hasn’t drawn that much rhetorical analysis. But some have noted its strong appeal to American exceptionalism.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
9Jun/1421

Amor Mundi 6/8/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Nihilism and Futurism

1Jonathan Galassi offers an excellent account of the Futurist Movement, the best exemplars of which are currently on view at Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, a show at the Guggenheim Museum. Futurism celebrated speed, vigor, and creative destruction, as expressed in the 1909 Manifesto of Futurism written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Here is how Galassi describes Marinetti's founding moment? "'My friends and I had stayed up all night, sitting beneath the lamps of a mosque, whose star-studded, filigreed brass domes resembled our souls,...listening to the tedious mumbled prayers of an ancient canal and the creaking bones of dilapidated palaces.' Their Orientalist idyll is disturbed by 'the sudden roar of ravening motorcars,' and Marinetti and friends leave the mosque in hot pursuit ('all the myths and mystical ideals are behind us. We're about to witness the birth of a Centaur'). 'Like young lions,' they go chasing 'after Death' and end up in a ditch. Marinetti apostrophized: 'O mother of a ditch, brimful with muddy water!... How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse.... When I got myself up-soaked, filthy, foul-smelling rag that I was-from beneath my overturned car, I had a wonderful sense of my heart being pierced by the red-hot sword of joy!' Marinetti had found his way out of the cul-de-sac of too much civilization. The Futurist manifesto that follows on his dream, the first of many, glorifies 'aggressive action' and asserts that 'a roaring motorcar...is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace' (never mind that Boccioni's sculpture will uncannily resemble it). 'There is no longer any beauty except the struggle,' Marinetti declared. War is 'the sole cleanser of the world.'"

A Double-Edged Presidential Power

1Underlying President Obama's decision this week to secure the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by releasing five detainees allegedly affiliated with the Taliban from Guantanamo is the question of why Guantanamo remains open in the first place. Several commentators, including Glenn Greenwald on The Intercept, have declared that Obama's releasing of the detainees was in fact illegal, as he failed to provide Congress with the 30-day notice that is required by the 2014 defense authorization statute. As Greenwald argues, the only possible legal argument to justify the release is if the Obama White House maintains, as it has in the past, that such congressional restrictions do not bind them, and that the release of detainees is a decision solely allocated to the commander-in-chief. But if the President does in fact have the power to override these restrictions, what accounts for his ongoing failure to close Guantanamo as he pledged to do, or at least release those detainees who are already cleared? After the events of this week, writes Greenwald, the Obama administration now finds itself in a legal quandary: "The sole excuse now offered by Democratic loyalists for this failure (to close GITMO) has been that Congress prevented him from closing the camp. But here, the Obama White House appears to be arguing that Congress lacks the authority to constrain the President's power to release detainees when he wants...Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief's power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?"

Big Data in the Office

1In reviewing Social Physics, a new book by Alex Pentland on what big data can teach us about human behavior, Joshua Rothman tells of a Bank of America call center: "Life at the call center was almost fanatically regimented: Pentland writes that call center managers 'often try to minimize the amount of talking among employees because operations are so routine and standardized.' At this call center, even the coffee breaks were scheduled individually, so as to maximize the number of workers on the phone at any given time. The mystery to be solved, in this environment of extreme solitude, was why different teams of operators handled their calls at different speeds. Pentland found that, of the four twenty-person teams he tracked, the ones with the fastest 'average call handling time,' or A.H.T., were also the most social. In fact, the most successful teams spent more time doing exactly what their managers didn't want them to be doing: talking. Pentland suggested the introduction of team-wide coffee breaks, designed to encourage mingling. The increase in speed was so dramatic that Bank of America did the same at all of its call centers, generating a fifteen-million-dollar increase in annual productivity (and, presumably, some newly quantifiable amount of good cheer)." Rothman sees the double edged quality of big data. In revealing the truth that human sociability can be productive, big data explodes myths that make our workplaces ever less human. At the same time, the statistical study of the most intimate details of our lives is both invasive and reductive, lending credibility to the managerial dream to optimize human resources.

Heidegger Caught in the Trap of His Own Ideas

Martin HeideggerJudith Wolfe, writing in Standpoint, has a strong account of the Black Notebooks and Heidegger's philosophical engagement with Nazism and the Jews. Here is her explanation of Heidegger's poetic use of Jewishness: "The conclusions that Heidegger drew from this last point were not as radical as we might hope: he questioned not the stereotype of the calculating Jews but only their uniqueness. He himself speculated that the Jews might have a role to play in the technological crisis of the modern world, though he never specified what. What Heidegger thoroughly rejected, however, was any description of the Jews as a 'race': 'The question of the role of World Jewry', he insisted, 'is not a racial one, but the metaphysical question of a form of humanity' characterized by deracination and instrumental reasoning. It would be absurd to assume that this 'form of humanity' could be eradicated by eliminating a particular group of people. On the contrary: such calculated extermination would only perpetuate the technological logic that Heidegger was calling his compatriots to abandon. That logic could only be overcome, as Heidegger wrote, by 'suffering and danger and knowledge.'" As Wolfe rightly sees, "The real danger of his comments about the Jews is not merely that they are racist but that they seem to hold out an abstract, poetic typology as a replacement for political awareness: by reducing the Jews to a poetic type, he becomes deaf to their practical plight. This sometimes takes grotesque forms: though he would never advocate or condone Hitler's and Himmler's 'final solution', for example, Heidegger seems to find a measure of poetic justice in the Nazis' calculating reduction of the Jews to a 'race' as matching the Jews' own reductive tendency towards racial thinking. He is, as Hannah Arendt later put it to Günter Gaus, 'caught in the trap of his own ideas.'"

Do It Again

1Discussing the meaning of internet "nerd" celebrities John and Hank Green, Clare Malone suggests that habits are one of the things that allows humans to reach beyond themselves: "We haven't spent a whole lot of time talking about the audience that the Brothers Green are sending their video missives out to. But they're the people whose clicks make this world go 'round. This Vlogbrothers movement is a sort of 'revenge of the nerds' type of thing-except the movie based on it would probably be called 'the civil disobedience of the nerds,' because John and Hank are about encouraging people to channel outsiderness into something productive, like living well through small acts of kindness. I can imagine a person getting into the habit of watching these daily and thinking about their meaning (maybe not actively, more by osmosis), almost in the way a monk goes to vespers or a devout Muslim prays five times a day. I'm not even being theological; I'm just thinking about the importance of habit. Prayers involve repetition to get a person into a meditative state. To a certain extent it's Pavlovian, but we need that push into a different headspace to think about things outside necessities of the flesh."

Not Dead Yet

1Neil Richards suggests that privacy isn't dead, just changing, although not for the better: "Fifteen years ago, the Internet was heralded as a great forum for intellectual liberation-a place to think for ourselves and meet like- (and different) minded people unmediated by censors or surveillance. Yet, incrementally, the Internet has been transformed from a place of anarchic freedom to something much closer to an environment of total tracking and total control. All too often, it may seem like the digital future is unfolding before our eyes in some kind of natural and unstoppable evolution. But the final state of Internet architecture is not inevitable, nor is it unchangeable. It is up for grabs. In the end, the choices we make now about surveillance and privacy, about freedom and control in the digital environment will define the society of the very near future. I fear that the 'privacy is dead' rhetoric is masking a sinister shift, from a world in which individuals have privacy but exercise transparency over the powerful institutions in their lives, to a world in which our lives are transparent but the powerful institutions are opaque.  That's a pretty scary future, and one which we've told ourselves for decades that we don't want.  The availability of cheap smartphones and free apps shouldn't change that.  We should choose both control of our digital information and the benefits of our digital tools.  We can make that choice, but the 'privacy is dead' rhetoric is obscuring the existence of the choice."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Manu Samnotra discusses how the language of fate and destiny shaped Arendt's philosophy and political theory in the Quote of the Week. British philosopher Jeremy Bentham provides this week's Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz discusses nihilism and futurism in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Sep/121

Destructive Criticism

Nikita Nelin continues his report of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, 8/15/12-9/5/12. You can read his first post here.

“Art washed away the dust of everyday living.”

-Pablo Picasso

Here, on the Playa, you are covered in dust. “Playa,” is what this stretch of desert is referred to as. It is Spanish for “beach.” Someone thought it was funny. Maybe this is irony? Maybe a gesture to what is obviously missing? Maybe a metaphor to what has been created in its place. Either way, I like the sound of “Playa.” Here, you get a Playa name. There are few rules about the name except you cannot name yourself. “The Playa names you.” Here are no trash receptacles and yet there is no trash left behind. Here, you participate, you take stock, ownership, time. Here, you juxtapose the here to the there, and back again, just to see what can happen -- to see what remains when the dust is washed away.

I have been off of the Playa for less then 24 hours. I am in Circus Circus hotel in Reno. What more appropriate place to orient one's self. Hunter S. Thompson did it. I may as well steal that little bit. The Playa still feels like the here. The there is quite unclear to me right now. Here, in the circus, I can practice making time work again as an abstraction rather than a point of location. In the mean time here is a little something of what remains and what does not.

The ornate temple, filled with messages from loved ones to the departed. The forty foot man with his 60 foot base, stapled with an alpha symbol on one side and an omega symbol on the other, a nod to the theme of this years Burning Man (Fertility 2.0), and honoring the equilibrium of the genders. The smaller projects round the playa: a ten foot wooden head, with a cave and deck, decorated with Osho Zen pictures, and phrases of compassion; the glittering three letters of EGO, which from a far looks simple and gregarious but upon close encounter is revealed to be made from intricate carvings reaching towards the religious and sociocultural milieu; a brass, broken heart (I sat in it); a laser harp (I played it), a wooden hive which held space for sunrise tea ceremonies (I drank it). All of them, and more, I saw, and lived inside, and then I watched them burn. All those I experienced, I celebrated, and I acknowledged their passing -- all those except for one. The one I had worked on; Burn Wall Street.

My initial invitation here was as a reporter -- to work on, and write about the Burn Wall Street project. The project was the largest non-temple, non-Man, Playa built to-date. Two city blocks. Five buildings. Two weeks on site to put the walls together, and up. It was first meant to make a statement and to encourage unity. The mock approach, to build buildings with names like “Bank of unAmerica,” “Goldman Sucks,” “Merrill Lynched,” “Chaos Manhattan,” you get the picture. The idea was to unite through outrage. Otto Von Danger stated clearly, “the Tea Party and Occupy are getting [worked over] by the same enemy.”

Yet, once they finally burned I did not celebrate. I felt no sense of relief or unity. I just saw buildings burning. Fire in windows. And as much as I wanted to feel a sense of completion or inspiration, I just kept coming back to those windows, and the idea of people. This is not an easy entry for me. I want to tell you about everything beautiful I saw, all the unity, all the dimensions of gratitude -- a chaos so gifted and dense that it approaches the image of the divine, a vision of what Burning Man approaches for me. But first I have to tell you about irony, anarchy and terrorism.

I arrived to Reno on a Wednesday. A guest of Joe Olivier, a brilliant engineer who became involved with Burning Man in 2001 and has since been a central player in the development of the event. This year Joe (a.k.a. Exact Lee) committed to the Burn Wall Street project. Like me, he was impressed with the scale of the installation and the potential of its resonance. If we consider Burning Man to be space created for the creative engineering of the human experience, who better then an engineer to be central in its evolution.

This concept of engineering (of experience, of environment, of society) is key here, and something I want to return to in a future post. Burning Man is both a test lab, and a sample of society. When we begin to extrapolate we begin to see this act of “engineering” in every facet of our regular world. Similarly, the identification of everything built on the Playa as an “installation,” has reach into the regular world. All is an installation, in one part because it is intent with creating an experience, and in another, because it is acknowledged as impermanent (remember, everything burns). No wonder I felt so disoriented once I left the playa and drove into Reno yesterday. I was reentering the familiar, and yet I continued relating to everything I saw as an installation (a patch of grass, which I had not seen in almost three weeks, a stream with trees and a canopy, the bright outlines of Reno’s casino center, the Wal-Mart installation, the curved golden arches, of a fast food joint, etc...). Could we, in fact, be engineering our society, removed from the words of Ozymandias? What is our creative intention? What experience are we burning to facilitate?

Back to the story.

After a day spent in Reno, Joe drove me into the desert. It was a surreal site. At the time there was only the base of The Man, the outline of the Temple, and the BWS territory. Otherwise just the cracked white desert floor and dust storms. I made introductions, helped fetch some water, and fell asleep.

I was awoken at 6 a.m. to the sound of someone yelling through a bullhorn. “Get up, mother fuckers, up, up, up.” I put on my goggles and bandana (both necessary for protection from the dust storms) and went out to find my place. It would not have been enough to just watch. If I was to understand anything, if I was to have something to write about, I had be involved, to participate (for a definition of “participate” please reference my earlier post).

Here is the thing, it is quite awe inspiring how quickly we can assimilate to the demands of our conditions. Scorching sun, one plate, one spoon, one cup, dust storms and 16 hour workdays, become normalcy rather quickly. We can even become accustomed to a type of chaos, a disorder of environment and circumstance, a certain disorganization. Such chaos breeds surprise and even serendipity. You are in a desert. You are thirsty, exhausted. Someone wanders by with gatorade and sits down to tell you their story. How they got there. It is something akin to the sense of deja vu.

My first day, I painted some, I butchered chicken carcasses without gloves, and then I landed on a build crew. Mind you, despite the wishes of my Russian father I have never had to build anything. I barely knew how to use a screw gun. Aren’t there special angles for optimal hold?

I spend the next nine days helping to build. No one was prepared. The build was run by two former military men whose idea of leadership was the application of pressure. The problem was that we were behind schedule and the original designs were not holding up well in the environment, and we had five buildings to put together. Oh, yeah, and there were only two real carpenters on crew.

The crew consisted of three classes. There were the war veterans who had joined the project either out of anger at our political system or out of their loyalty to Otto Von Danger (the artist behind the project, a staple name at Burning Man and a veteran suffering from Gulf War syndrome). There were the wanderers who wanted a ticket into Burning Man, and thus joined the project. And there were the professionals who through some strange chain of events ended up at 10 o’clock on the playa (the Playa is designed as a clock with the Man as the central point, and all distance is measured by time): a teacher, painter, and women's rights activist from Reno who ultimately began to function as a leader of a wall-build crew; a former brew master from the midwest who had been laid off without cause some months before and stumbled upon an ad for Burn Wall Street on the internet; a former ad man for a legal firm who had also been laid off some months before the build; a mother of two from Michigan who had lost her home some months before; among others... This last group fascinated me most. For them the projects' ideals communicated directly the experiences of their everyday lives. They were there with a purpose. BWS could be a voice to their outrage. They were the last to leave the build. When others began to abandon the site, me included, these were the people that held it together, these were the people we who fled felt guilty towards.

As the project deteriorated the morning bullhorn became meaner and more demanding. A meeting would be held in the morning. There would be threats: those who tried to leave the site would be “thrown off the playa.” Then the bullhorns would disappear. They would reemerge through out the day to monitor the progress, or the lack-thereof, and then again would be gone.

Decisions were made. Some walls had to be deconstructed as we had been putting them together in a way that could not hold up. Put together, take apart, rinse, repeat. “We had built and taken this thing apart twice already,” someone remarked.

Two of buildings were to be cut a floor short. Graffiti art was to be sacrificed (the graffiti artist having been, um, “thrown off the playa.” He was now sitting in a jail outside of Reno having been busted for hitchhiking). Construction would grind to a halt as either the winds were too harsh for the cranes, or another meeting of the red and blue hats was called (1 green, 4 red, 8 blue, and 50 white, is how you knew your place). The crews would huddle down for cover in front of the wall corners that had been built but were yet to be hoisted up to be made into buildings, drink water, smoke, eat granola bars. The playa was littered with them, the corners. In their own right the corners had become an installation. An interactive maze in which everyone got lost. Kind of pretty, almost. Chaos. Send someone out for more nails, lost. Send someone out for a drill, which were always lacking, lost. Send someone out for extra muscle, lost.

I am told that each Burning Man build takes on the aura of the idea that bore it. Each person who has worked on the temple reports it to be a transcendent experience. An overwhelming challenge of deliberation and connectivity. The Man Crew reports cohesion and pride. They build the symbol of the city, the structure that due to its size and positioning will help orient the 60,000 participants round the Playa . Burn Wall Street became a collision of disorganization, ego, and faithlessness. Even those who despite the stumbling blocks continued to trudge forward could not inspire the rest of us to follow. The rest of us chose self preservation instead. The concept did not hold together. The ones in charge became the embodiment of what the project was meant to mock.

Ultimately, what was needed was built. The rest, the corners never to be hoisted up, were salvaged as wind blocks for various camps. Carpenters from the Department of Public Works (DPW) showed up as a favor to Exact Lee, and did what we were failing to do -- work together. They are specialists in this, sort of like the special ops of Black Rock City.

It was a Saturday. I had been there for eleven days and the event itself was to begin on Sunday. My girlfriend was due to arrive that day and the last thing I intended to do was enter the event, the celebration phase in that special state of disaster that BWS had brought out in me. People all over were setting up camps. The night before I had moved away from the project and entered my camp. I was determined to get ready for the next phase of this experience, having in part been counseled by some Burning Man veterans from my camp to step away from BWS before it ruins my first BM experience. After all, I was here to report on all of it, not just the anarchy at ten o’clock.

Yet, that day I continued to make runs from the camp area to BWS. In an art car, a converted F-350 that looked like a wooden tank with the turret missing, I ran breakfast and lunch out to the build (the bus with the stove having already been driven into the camp area previous night). I had also been charged by Joe to offer up rides to anyone needing to leave the site and build their camp. I like to think I was evacuating people, providing a route of transition.

The final vision of the construction was a monstrosity. Burn Wall Street was the ugliest installation on the project; in this it was a success. It was not meant to be beautiful. So askew was it from the other carefully crafted designs of the Playa -- the magic, white polished wood, curved, ornate, awe and wonder inspiring, carefully thought out and nurtured pieces all over the clock of the city -- that Burn Wall Street called attention to itself by its “outofplaceness.” It was a game of “what does not belong?” Yet, an odd trick of perspective made it so that many people did not immediately notice the two-block structure disturbing the sky. As they arrived, their eyes, yet to adjust to this carefully intentioned landscape, overlooked the ugly and unintentioned. And this calls into question the perspective of everyday. How is it that we have allowed ourselves to become so accustomed to the monstrosities in our vision? Why, have we so easily accepted the most dysfunctional structures of our everyday life? Could it be that we participate not only by building, but also by accepting what we see?

Burn Wall Street was due to burn on Friday. The smaller projects would burn on Thursday. The Man would Burn on Saturday and the Temple on Sunday. All of Friday a skeleton crew of volunteers held the demolition perimeter around the site. A number of the original volunteers were still there, to the end. The highlight of the project was to be the controlled burn and the fireworks/demolition/TNT of Burn Wall Street. Yet, the winds, and concern from the safety authorities of Black Rock City dictated a postponement of the Burn. Burn Wall Street would Burn on Saturday, after the Man.

Irony, it ended up upstaging The Man. Irony, it became what it rebelled against, it swallowed all kind intentions. It became a war zone; maybe we create what we know. Is that a lesson? Too cliche; too tired.

Friday a new perimeter was created. To the disappointment of the artist the explosives would have to be canceled. He would have to be satisfied with simply burning something.

I am told that on Saturday, as volunteers took their places again around the perimeter, Otto Von Danger, and his chief lieutenant, showed up on site with a meal they had prepared with their own hands. Do we identify “this” as irony, submission, redemption, at last an invitation of all parties to the table?

At 1 a.m., on Saturday morning, I watched Wall Street burn. Following the euphoria of the Man burn -- a celebration of something, a cumulative acknowledgement to the culture created and its transiency -- Burn Wall Street felt like the death of something. There was no gratitude, no closure, no more dialogue.

Someone asked me, “why not have built the buildings upside down?” Why not? That would have made it art. That would have made the burn more about statement then destruction. That would have been a conversation. No. I saw buildings burn. I saw horror. Before the fire started, the buildings, with their windows lacking glass or any other sign of life and care, still seemed a bit abstract to me, like toys. But filled with fire, like rows and rows of odd teeth missing, their crevices aflame, I thought of life. I thought of New York. I saw people in those windows. To me, this became a vision of anarchy and a metaphor for terrorism. And for that I am grateful because it crystalized something that my humanist roots have been suggesting all along.

Ultimately, if we are to have a conversation about change, there must be room at the table for everyone -- a chance for every story.

Our society is failing. The theory of our being has broken down. We are approaching the state of chaos, an opportunity for building something. Not entirely doing away with, but regrouping on what we have, and setting about with a new intention. Mocking, belittling, only affirms fear -- it creates the enemy, and it silences.

What Burning Man, what the Playa, the beach, this small social experiment, this slice of life teaches me is that the dust of everyday living, a harsh rock, a desert, an opportunity -- not to be escaped from, but built upon.

-Nikita Nelin

P.S. I now know how to build a square house. Father would be happy.

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
15May/121

The Best and the Brightest

Ina Drew has resigned. Why wasn't she fired?

Drew is the executive at JPMorgan being asked to fall on her sword for the $2 Billion+ loss in hedging trades. Jamie Dimon, who for four years has taken credit for running a tight ship in which he was responsible for steering JPMorgan through the financial crisis, will of course soldier on, beaten but not broken.

Aside from allowing her the dignity of not being fired, the resignation also, I have to imagine, preserves what must be a very generous severance package.  All present reports refuse to disclose Drew's severance package. She was paid $15.5 million last year and almost $16 million in 2010. What justification is there for now allowing her to resign and potentially keep a severance?

The answer seems to be that Drew, like all the executives on Wall Street, deserves their stratospheric compensation. This of course was Dimon's point in his announcement of her resignation. He writes:

Ina Drew has been a great partner over her many years with our firm. Despite our recent losses in the CIO, Ina’s vast contributions to our company should not be overshadowed by these events.

In other words, Drew is brilliant and has been valuable. She should not be blamed for losing $2 Billion. She still deserves what is reported to be a severance package of over $14 Million in equity rewards, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The canard of the best and the brightest is one we hear over and over. The basic fallacy here is the belief that these executives are so smart and so valuable that they can't be angered or let go.

The fact that these blow-ups keep happening has done little to quell the applause for the bankers. All the incentives are for the executives to take on risk. What happens when they lose? They resign. I am sure Ina Drew is smart and capable and no doubt she will be back at a hedge fund or a new firm as soon as she wants.

The bigger issue, however, is that there is still the feeling around that these executives deserve to be making tens of millions of dollars every year. Recall that back in 2009 after the best and brightest brought the country's best (i.e. biggest) banks to their knees at the federal taxpayers' dole, Ken Feinberg was appointed to oversee bonuses and compensation at those banks. He has told how the big banks decided that every single one of their executives had performed above average and deserved extravagant bonuses. In an article about Feinberg from 2009, Steven Brill writes:

To take a near-comic example, the firms did not present a single executive as meriting a pay grade below the 50th percentile of their supposed peer group.... In fact, all 136 of the executives (the 25 top earners for each of the seven companies, less 39 who left during the year) were depicted as well above average, typically in the 75th percentile or higher. And the peer groups they were supposed to be in were often inflated; for example, someone running a unit might be portrayed as a chief executive because, the argument went, he ran a really big unit.

Citigroup and Bank of America, Brill writes, "concluded that everyone in their executive suites was above average when compared with peers at other giant banks that didn’t need a bailout." The banks then proposed that their average executives deserved bonuses of between $10-$21 million. After months of negotiating and cajoling, Feinberg talked them down, so that in the end, the average banker received a year-end bonus of $6.5 million at Bank of America and $6.2 million at Citigroup.

Those paltry $6 million bonuses were in a year that the banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out. No wonder the best and the brightest like Drew deserve $14 and $16 million when times are good. Of course, the incentives to take risks are still there. If your risks work out, you make a fortune. When your risky trades go bad, you resign and take your winnings and your severance.

These bankers have nothing at risk and everything to gain by taking risks. Four years after the financial crisis, it seems that little if anything has changed.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
5Oct/112

Don’t Be Afraid to Say “Revolution”?

Cornell West was one of the first celebrity academics to arrive at Occupy Wall Street last week. Because amplified sound is prohibited in Zuccotti Park—the protesters have never applied for a protest permit—the speaker's words are repeated by the audience to make them audible for larger groups. Thus West's refrain issued repeatedly in the dark and across Wall Street. The protests, still small on the ground, are growing wings in cyberspace. New protests are springing up in cities across North America, from Los Angeles to Boston and from Seattle to Toronto. Seven hundred people were arrested Sunday during a peaceful crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge (including at least 20 Bard College Students). Seven hundred United/Continental airline pilots joined the demonstration over the weekend, as did 15 U.S. Marines. Unions are pledging their support, suggesting that the protests may get a real boost from traditional organizing. Clearly, "Something is happening here, Mr. Jones."  "Don't be Afraid to Say Revolution.

Suddenly--very suddenly--too suddenly?---we are living through a time of revolutionary possibility. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the possibility of revolution was joined with action. Dictators were overthrown, and a sense of possibility ignited. In Syria and Bahrain, the revolutionary movements are being suppressed, violently, quashing the hopes of local revolutionaries. Still elsewhere—in Israel, Spain, Greece, and most recently in the United States—the spirit of revolutionary hope is alive as well.

Skeptics abound, for good reason.  Whether these springtime Arab blossoms will grow into hearty summer stalks is still not known. Indeed, it is unlikely. The real powers in Egypt, the military, remain in control, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more liberal democracy protesters have seen their dreams thwarted. Revolutions must not only tear down, but also build up; and building revolutionary institutions takes time. And yet, something is in the air. Everyone wants to judge the protesters. Are they good or bad? Before we judge, let's ask: What does this revolutionary moment mean? There is something going on here, but it is less radical and more dismal, than many of its supporters realize. That is not an indictment of Occupy Wall Street. But some reflection is called for. And a few points are in order.

1. The Question of Hope:  There is something very noble, yes even hopeful, in the fact that many hundreds and even a few thousands of people are trying to have their say and make a difference. The numbers on the interweb are much larger, but the feet on the ground are significant, especially at a time of acknowledged bourgeois narcissism. What is it that motivates pilots, marines, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—not to mention the unemployed and underemployed—to occupy city squares in the Middle East, major boulevards in Israel, and parks in New York City, all to call for political change?

In an age when most people are content to be left alone by government to pursue their own private desires and dreams, how is that people around the world are suddenly acting and participating in politics?

2. One answer is public happiness. Arendt named the joy one experiences when acting in public "public happiness." Public happiness is the great treasure of all of those who live through revolutionary times and feel the exhilaration of acting in such a way as to make a difference in the world. One sees the joy in the faces and voices of the protesters. It is similar to the joy evidenced by Tea Partiers at the beginning of that revolutionary moment, before the Tea Party was taken over by ideologues. These protesters are learning, as do all revolutionaries, that freedom is found neither in the freedom from government nor in the welfare state bureaucracy, but in the "public happiness" found in acting together with others in public.

3. Another answer is anger. Where has the anger been? Banks have been bailed out; worse, so have the bankers.  It is infuriating to hear bankers who have destroyed their companies and cost investors trillions defend their right to million-dollar bonuses. These are salaried employees who invest billions of dollars with great upside potential and no downside risk. These folks are not evil. The vast majority are not criminals. But they certainly are not the geniuses they think themselves to be, and most do not merit the exorbitant paydays that they have come to view as an entitlement.

Why is it that when AIG bankers insisted their contractually mandated bonuses be upheld after AIG received $182 billion from taxpayers, everyone gave in, but when pensioners demand their contractually guaranteed pensions, talking head after talking head says we have to get real and cut the pensions. The talking heads are right: the public union contracts that mayors and governors negotiated are as un-affordable as they are overly generous. But I am aghast that the senseless and unsustainable contracts of the bankers are seen as inviolable while those of public employees are rendered mere pieces of paper. 

And then there is Ken Lewis, the CEO who drove Bank of America to insolvency. Lewis was not fired, nor has he been compelled to recoup the billions in bonuses he authorized for Merrill Lynch executives in 2008, the year Bank of America acquired the all but bankrupt Merrill Lynch. Indeed, all that “Pay Czar” Ken Feinberg demanded was that Bank of America limit the average size of bonuses in 2009 to $6.5 million.  

And when Lewis himself finally resigned, he left with his own $125 million golden parachute, on top of the many millions he took home while bankrupting his company during the boom years. Three years later, excessive compensation of failed executives continues, as the NY Times reported just this week.

It is not radical or revolutionary to be incensed at the unqualified entitlement that pervades certain members of the financial community. There is a great deal in the Manifesto of Grievances put out by Occupy Wall Street that, as Henry Blodget admits, is downright reasonable (although much also that is nutty).  This anger has been missing from our public discourse. Because of Occupy Wall Street, it may be finally coming to the fore. This is a good thing.

Anger need not be indiscriminate. There are plenty of good people on Wall Street and excellent businessmen and women. There is no need to demonize a whole profession, nor is there a value in simply insulting the wealthy. One of the ugly aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the indiscriminate anger at all wealthy people, as if being wealthy were wrong. Let's hope that the protests can focus their irate passions at the fraud and hubris of those who have continued to pay themselves multi-million dollar bonuses when their firms would have failed and gone belly up but for the generosity of their countrymen.

4. A third reason for these protests is The Loss of Governmental Legitimacy. Without a doubt, there is a growing sense that the powers that be have lost their right to rule. This was true in Egypt and Tunisia and is also the case in Israel and the U.S.  Respect for government is a record lows, and for good reason. Illegitimate is a mild word for what many Americans are feeling. As my colleague Walter Russell Mead writes:

"Watching so many second class talents struggle against first class problems is a dispiriting exercise, especially when one reflects on the costs of failure. It is no secret anywhere that our leaders are failing.  The Europeans know their political class is floundering; the Japanese have despaired of their politicians for almost a generation; in the US the only people less popular than President Obama are his Democratic allies and Republican adversaries in the US Congress."

There may be no better example of utter government incompetence and malfeasance than the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fiascos. If the Occupy Wall Street Protesters want a real, live culprit, here they have one. That the Democrats are protecting Fannie and Freddie is, quite simply, just as wrong as their refusal to bring criminal or civil suits against executives who engaged in fraud.

The vacuum in leadership fanned by a global wave of anti-elite anger risks radicalizing politics in dangerous ways. Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions. These protests began with a call to action from a Canadian group called Adbusters and its embrace by an organization of hackers called Anonymous, a group closely associated with Wiki-leaks. These are groups that also were intimately engaged in protests in the Middle East and around the world and they represent, above all, a particular view of democracy. The hope, it seems, is that if you just tear down all barriers to information, allow for absolute transparency, and present citizens with the facts, a citizen democracy will emerge that ushers in a more rational and fair system of government. This is actually a technological version of the communicative rationality theories made popular by Jürgen Habermas in the 20th century—the idea that in a system of transparent and perfect communication, democratic reason will lead to rational decisions. As a result, we don't need leaders, or elite institutions. A radical horizontal democracy is enough.

The call is for a "people-powered" movement. Of course not all the protesters embrace this, but Occupy Wall Street is propelled by the belief in the power of networked individuals, as well as a profound suspicion of all traditional and institutional power centers. The dream is to replace a government by governors and politicians with a government by the collective wisdom of the masses.

It is thus no accident that the masks worn by many protesters pay tribute to Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic who was tortured and sentenced to be quartered (he killed himself  instead) for his participation in the Gunpowder plot whose tagline read: “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”

The Tea party, as I noted earlier, provides us with an interesting comparison. It also began, initially, with individuals venting their anger. There was, and remains, a joy amongst the Tea Party faithful, one that comes from finding a public voice and engaging in public action. And it is a very similar joy that one can embrace amongst the protesters in Zuccatti Park.  Very quickly, however, the Tea Party got directed by ideological leaders who have hijacked the Republican Party, an event that is both the source of its political strength and its intellectual incoherence.

What needs to be seen, though, is that there is a profound convergence between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. On both sides, there is deep dissatisfaction with Democratic representative government. The current zeitgeist seeks to replace democratic government with people power, to replace authority with transparency, to reject professionalism and expertise for cloud governance. Thus, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street need to be seen in connection to the extraordinary and surprising (again, to the mainstream media) success of the Pirates in Berlin. What all these movements share is a suspicion of representative democracy and traditional institutions.

5. It might be helpful to recall, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, that the fundamental elements of totalitarian governance are: 1) its disdain for government institutions and political limits; 2) its embrace of mass movements that overwhelm national boundaries as well as traditional moral and political limits; 3) its disdain for politics as usual; and 4) its susceptibility to coherent narratives rather than a confrontation with factual reality.

Let me be clear: I don't see fascist or totalitarian dangers at this point in the Occupy Wall Street or in the Tea Party movements . But that is largely because neither group has a message that is compelling to a large enough section of the population. Their marginality is at this point diminishing their threat. And yet, there are common elements to at least be aware of:

1) Opposition to the state: both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have a deep hostility to the state, as did totalitarian movements (but not fascist movements). That said, the TP is focused on state borders in a way that is closer to fascism than totalitarianism.

2) Both are MOVEMENTS, and thus to persist cannot have realizable goals, but must have goals that continue to shift and grow so that adherents always have issues to be motivated by.

3) Both display an aversion to facts and a tendency toward coherent myths at the expense of truth. The Tea Party imagines that all government spending is bad, even when confronted with the fact that it wants funding for certain entitlements, emergencies, and the military.

Occupy Wall Street wants to bring down Wall Street, empower the 99%, and eliminate student debt. They don't seem to realize that the standard of living they aspire to was possible because of the speculative boom that Wall Street's excesses made possible, and that the loss of debt-financing for students will decimate universities that depend on such funding and make a college education inaccessible to most Americans.  BOTH organizations seem to believe that the solutions are clear, but neither side is actually willing to confront the depth of our economic and political problems and think about the collective sacrifice that would be required to address them. Furthermore, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have innovative and absolute readings of the U.S. Constitution. The Tea Party has somehow decided that the government regulation and taxation are unconstitutional. Occupy Wall Street has convinced itself that it has a constitutional right to protest without seeking permits. On both sides, the din of an echo-chamber of like-minded views compresses interesting opinions into unquestioned facts.

4) Both groups have bogeymen that stand in for all evils. The Tea Party excoriates immigrants and public unionists.  Occupy Wall Street rails against bankers and anyone on Wall Street. Such blanket hatred can, of course, become dangerous.

6. What distinguishes Occupy Wall Street is its youthful and optimistic faith in technocratic solutions.  I hope I have made my sympathies with the protesters clear; and yet, there are good reasons to ask serious questions of Occupy Wall Street.

In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:

"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries." --Ms. Arendt, 1970. 

The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives. Is there a serious and thoughtful confrontation with reality that underlies Occupy Wall Street?

The answer to this has to be no, at least, not yet. It is simply a mistake to think that our current problems flow from a lack of transparency and elitism. On both scores, it is more likely the opposite that is the case.

We are not suffering from a secret cabal of evil masterminds who plotted to bring down the world economy. The problem was not secrecy. On the contrary, the ballooning debt of the last 20 years, the massive student levels of student debt, the internet bubble, the real-estate bubble, the rise of speculation, the replacement of pensions with market-oriented retirement investing—none of these were secrets. Plenty of smart people warned us that we were walking on thin air, but we chose, collectively, not to listen.

Nor is elitism our present problem. In fact, we might have been served better if the so-called elites had actually acted a bit more like elites, and stood apart from the madness of the crowd feeding at the trough of easy money. If we had more true elites—people who felt themselves justified to judge the thoughtless, greedy, and common behavior of our bankers, politicians, and consumers—they might have been able to better deter us from our merry way. It may very well be that we are suffering today not from the cabal of elites, but from the absence of an elite culture that might be able to meaningfully resist and question the folly of crowd behavior.

If we really want be revolutionaries, as Arendt counsels, we must first of all face our present reality. Rather than secret evil machinations, our current world crisis is the result of millions of every day people acting thoughtlessly—knowing that they could not afford that new house, but buying it anyway; knowing they were selling and buying worthless bonds, but giddy at the possibility of flipping them to someone else at a handsome profit. Of course there was greed. But that is not going away. The information was there as well, we just did not want to see it. Transparency will not solve that. 

7. The media coverage of the protesters has been excoriated. Some of it has been awful, focusing on the dirty laundry, or ignoring the protests altogether. There have also been demands for demands, which are answered either by vague manifestos or claims that this is a movement without leaders, one that like a startup will find its market as it grows. As Heather Gold notes it is telling that the metaphor for the protests comes from the lingo of internet startups. The revolution is offering a new product—the disaffected anger of the left and the center, combined with the need to believe that our lives matter and that we can make a difference. It is putting that anger out into the world, mixing it with the joy of public acting, and seeking a market for that potent brew.

The protests are growing and multiplying and undoubtedly they will lead to more clashes with the police. The question of violence will emerge, whether from the protesters’ camp or from the police. We should expect mistakes to be made on both sides. That should not diminish the demonstrators or what they are fighting for. We must break a few eggs to make an omelet, as Arendt writes in her essay, The Eggs Speak Up.  Politics is, as Max Weber reminded us, not like a nursery. It is a mistake to be hyper-critical of Occupy Wall Street at this point. They will make strategic errors, (like bringing down the website of the new agency designed to regulate the banks!--why that target?). Despite inevitable missteps, the protesters are succeeding, it seems, in breaking enough eggs to finally wake some people up to the terrible tragedy that is unfolding around us. In this, they are similar to the Tea Party and yet also an antidote to the ideological rigidity that the Tea Party has adopted. For this reason alone, we should welcome Occupy Wall Street.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
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