Disaster Legislation & Crisis “Managance”

A few days ago Jon Walker over at FireDogLake coined the term “disaster legislating” to describe the processes through which the Republican party, while controlling only one third of the offices necessary to successfully enact legislation, is managing to force through its political agenda by mobilizing the threat of economic catastrophe as leverage (in the form of a potentially disastrous default on the debt):

By choosing to govern through threat of disaster the House Republicans have turned against the entire intent of our founding document. No longer does change need the broad agreement of the separate branches. No longer is winning all the political offices necessary. All that is needed now is one chamber to threaten economic destruction and the others to fear it enough to give into the hostage taking.

Whether the situation is as clear-cut as Walker suggests remains something of an open question. While it is clear that the Republicans are indeed playing at hostage taking, the alacrity with which Senate Democrats, and in particular the White House, have entered into the logic of abductive extortion leaves many of us wondering whether the response of the Democratic leadership is not in itself a form of kabuki theater. In other words, one would have to wonder whether Obama, in so easily acceeding to the demands of Boehner et al., is not making a show of “compromise” only in order to offer what he was all along prepared to enact. (A sort of reverse, corporatist form of Roosevelt’s “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”)

Certainly it is shocking to see a Democratic president proposing potentially drastic cuts to Medicare and Social Security, far beyond anything for which the Republicans had dared to ask. (Even more shocking, of course, is that the Republicans turned him down; the whole political process has turned into some kind of dystopian science-fiction scenario.) From a progressive perspective, the demand that any increase in the debt ceiling be matched by a corresponding cut in government spending seems patently absurd; and it is dismaying –to say the least– to see the Democrats enter into this blatantly false logic without so much as a peep of protest.

The question then would seem to become whether this is simply a case of cowardice (or confusion), or whether the Democratic establishment is in reality as eager to cut social spending as their counterparts across the aisle.¹ Yet such speculation about motive, while irresistible, is ultimately fruitless. It’s a variation on Jon Stewart’s famous “evil or stupid?” question, whose logic must now be extended, unfortunately, onto the White House itself. Whether Obama is placing the entire welfare system on the table as a misguided if well-intentioned gesture of compromise, or whether he himself is truly eager to undermine the last remnants of a social welfare system, is ultimately beside the point.

The point is that we must judge the political classes on the basis not of presumed motivation but of substantial action. And in terms of action, the two parties are now competing to see who can come up with the more extensive and extreme cuts to the government budget, in the midst of a prolonged employment slump with (already) little hope of recovery. A rudimentary knowledge of Keynesian economics shows this policy to be disastrous; slashing government spending in the amount of trillions will simply send the economy into a further tailspin. (What we need is a jobs program, aid to troubled homeowners, etc. etc… i.e., more spending, not less.) The reality is that Reid’s proposal is no more “progressive” than that of Boehner, and by any measure both will prove to be catastrophic – with the only question being how great and how deep the catastrophe. (Indeed, at this point, I’m genuinely unsure whether a budget default would be more or less catastrophic than four trillion in cuts.) It’s a hard time for the left.

In any case, while questioning aspects of Walker’s “hostage” analysis, I think his concept of “disaster legislation” merits holding onto, or holding up. This is because one of the prime places that the current crisis is playing out –the real crisis, as opposed to the utterly fabricated debt “crisis”– is on the level of ideology, and in particular on the level of language. This political process of ours is utterly spectacular, in the Debordian sense, and as Debord has shown the spectacle is won or lost, for better or worse, on the level of sign. The extreme right, while possessing no truly coherent policy platform, has been extremely successful over the last 20+ years on the rhetorical level (c.f. talk radio, et al.) and this is precisely the area where the Left has failed abysmally. Actually, progressive policy proscriptions (vis Social Security, etc.) have been proved over and over to be in keeping with what a substantial majority of Americans wants. But we’ve failed to convince them of that, because we’ve failed to develop a coherent, engaging, and consciousness-rousing rhetoric. As a result, I think one of the primary tasks of progressive activists today is to come up with a compelling language in which for us to speak, and to act.

In this regard, I think Walker’s “disaster legislation” coinage is extremely apt, and in ways beyond what he might himself have imagined. In fact, I think the contemporary political and legislative process can in large part be defined as the attempt to manage continually-succeeding disasters, or “crises,” as opposed to any kind of coherent, long-term policy prescription.²

What do I mean by suggesting governance is now a process of “legislating” disaster? I mean that it is retroactive rather than prospective, and reactive rather than prescriptive. The substantive policy of the American government over the past decade –aside, arguably, from a few dozen or so wars– has been largely a process of reacting to “unforeseen” disasters, whether we think of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, the mortgage and credit crisis of 2008, or even the fictitious debt crisis we are experiencing now. In each case, the government has come rushing in after the event; rather than enacting policies to prevent undesirable outcomes, we are always already “too late,” in a permanent state of continual crisis management.

One important aspect of this is has to do with how these events are inevitable passed off as “natural.” This was particularly egregious in the case of the 2008 economic crisis, with all the faux-naïf calls of wonderment from the policy makers. (“No one could have predicted!” “How could it have happened?!”) The logical result of a series of concrete policy decisions and business practices is passed off, by sleight of hand, as some sort of “natural event,” as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the movement of clouds.

But this is equally true of the actual natural disasters. True, no one could have predicted Hurricane Katrina or the Gulf oil spill in terms of the actual date and scene of the catastrophe. But the weaknesses of New Orleans’ levee system and the erosion of the gulf’s natural barriers were already apparent to anyone paying attention, and the decision not to reinforce these through increased spending and improved infrastructure was a clear (and damnable) political choice. Likewise, the oil spill was itself the logical outcome of the decision to open the gulf to extreme forms of oil exploration and exploitation, and of the U.S. government’s decision not to mandate (for example) an alarm mechanism legally required in every other country in the world with oceanic oil reserves.  Thus these disasters were not “unforeseeable” natural events but in reality the direct outcome of all kinds of political and economic choices.³

The disingenuous transformation of government policy into continual, retroactive “crisis management” accomplishes two things – both of them extremely cynical. First, it obscures and distorts responsibility; if an event is passed off as “natural,” this allows the parties actually responsible to get away scotch-free. Secondly, and even more dangerously, it transforms every governmental policy decision into a hostage situation. That is, if legislation is always passed in response to an immanent or actually existing crisis, we’re in the rhetorical position of being backed up against the wall, with nowhere to go. That is, the constant threat of disaster forces the public to swallow policy choices they would otherwise find totally unpalatable. Thus, the bank bailout took place against the looming backdrop of the collapse of the economic system; likewise, the potential devastating cuts to Medicare and Social Security are now being framed beneath the looming threat of a debt default, so that the choice would seem 4 trillion in cuts or a disastrous default. The American political system has always been defined by the false “choice” of two undesirable options. But this, now, is not even the illusion of choice; it is no choice at all.

And this lack of choice, I want to argue, is the truly pernicious effect of “disaster legislating.” Unlike Walker, however, I don’t really see this development as something new; the Republican party’s current rhetorical tactics are merely the extension of a logic developed on both sides of the aisle across the past decade, in which policy changes are enacted only in the face of some looming menace – whether this be defined in terms of economics, environment, Islamic terrorism, or what have you.  (This phenomenon is operative even within the electoral process, where the “threat” is always the reflexive fear of the other party.) It is as if the government had lost the ability to actually govern, in the sense of formulating a coherent list of policy goals to be achieved; in place of which it can only ever reflexively react.

I would like to term this phenomenon “crisis managance,” in opposition to crisis management. In doing so I am following a distinction propounded by certain Italian autonomist thinkers between government and governance. Franco Berardi (“Bifo”) describes it thus:

Governance is the management of a system that is too complex to be governed. The word “government” means the understanding (as a reduction to a rational model) of the social world, and the ability of the human will (despotic, democratic, and so forth) to control a flow of information sufficient for the control of a relevant part of the social whole. The possibility of government requires a low degree of complexity with regard to social information. Information complexity grew throughout the late modern age, and exploded in the age of the digital network. Therefore, the reduction of social information to comprehensive knowledge and political control becomes an impossible task: control becomes aleatory, uncertain, almost impossible, and an increasing number of events escape the organized will.

At this point, capitalism shifts to the mode of governance. It employs abstract concatenation of technological functions in place of the conscious processing of a flow of information. It connects asignifying segments in place of dialogic elaboration. It automatically adapts in place of forming consensus, using technical language in place of shared meaning resulting from dialogue and conflict. In place of planning, it manages disruption. It assesses the compatibility of agents entering the social game in place of mediating conflicting political interests and projects. And it employs the rhetoric of systemic complexity in place of a rhetoric of historical dialectics.

On one level, I am very ambivalent about this semantic distinction. Rhetorically, I think “the management of a system too complex to be governed” quite accurately describes the current political process as it presents itself. At the same time, and as with the logic of disaster, it would seem to obscure the real culpability of the parties in play: to say that a system escapes understanding is to allow political and economic figures to wash their hands of responsibility, whereas in reality it is the choices they’re making which lead us (directly or indirectly) to the state of crisis. And yet –again, I’m prevaricating– I’ve no doubt that most of the players involved indeed confront the results of their cumulative actions with total bewilderment; the system, a compounded product of our individual actions, is too complex to be grasped by any one figure. To use old-school Marxist terminology, we’re dealing, on some level, with the age-old problem of reification.

But in any case to call this situation “crisis managance” is to suggest something in line with Bifo’s description of neo-liberal governance in the place of government. It is not crisis management, because no one is really managing anything, where “to manage” is defined as “To conduct, carry on, supervise, or control.” (OED) Not even managing in the slightly more pessimistic sense of “To be successful or skillful enough to do something, usually with difficulty or in the face of adversity.” Actually no one really feels able to do anything, in the sense of a coherent platform, and it certainly doesn’t seem a matter of success or skill. Instead we have only the flailing attempts to mitigate a continual series of “disasters” which should have been visible from a long way off by anyone with the slightest degree of acumen (at least where the disasters are not either self-willed or self-fabricated) and yet which have become impossible to accurately sight.

Whether this powerlessness is a rhetorical tool deployed to enact a covertly Machivallean political project, or whether it is an accurate assessment of the real anxiety of the political classes, returns us to the “evil or stupid?” dilemma with which I began. Again, the point would seem to be that it doesn’t really matter. Whether the élite are as helpless and hapless as they present themselves to be, or whether it is some elaborate ruse disguising their intent to (as Bush, Jr said) “bleed the whale dry,” doesn’t really change our outlook or our options. In either case, and in the face of this perpetual “logic of disaster,” it seems to me that the only way out of the trap is to escape this logic entirely. That is, to escape the non-choice of “cake or death” –4 trillion in cuts or a massive debt default– which also means to escape the non-choice between corporatist democrats and corporatist republicans. If the governing officials continue to force their dystopian politics down our throat through perverse manipulation of the language of disaster, it seems to me that we have to be prepared –perversely– to accept the disaster, or else to ignore it. This is to say, echoing a comment of Samir Amin, that we can no longer attempt to find a way out of the crisis, but rather must develop policies to “exit from a capitalism in crisis” itself.



¹ There’s certainly a strong case to be made that the political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that Obama would now seem a perfectly centrist Reaganite Republican of days of yore, while the Republicans themselves have moved to the fantastic fringe of Randian economics and xenophic nationalism.

² This is itself a reworking of a long line of Marxist thinking about capitalism and crisis, which merits lengthier examination. As a preliminary aside, I would state only that the “crisis” of 2008 was a response to the double movement of capital concentration and globalization which had begun already in the early ‘70s. As such –and despite all the raving about a post-soviet unipolar world order and Fukiyama’s famous “end of history”– the crisis should by no means have come as a surprise.

³ There would be a connection here to the concept of Natural-history [Naturgeschichte] in Adorno’s and Benjamin’s sense: that is, the way in which seemingly “natural” states and events –including capitalism– are in reality entirely historically developed, while the “historical” –the myth of progress, linearity and development– in reality repeats the cyclic inviolability of natural law.

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