Day 17 /// RESPONDING TO JAN VERWOERT – TORN TOGETHER, by TOM TREVATT
On Being Incorruptible
Photograph: Milton Friedman meets the Reagans (source).
It would be easy to give into temptation and follow Jan Verwoert’s poetic text deeper under the surface of the corruption, providing further excursus on the etymological roots of corruption, co-rruption, to be ruptured together. Perhaps we could extend this discussion to include similar terms - corroboration, collaboration - as though this would reveal some hitherto unknown truth about the words, about the world. But this text, this response, attempts to avoid this; it shall not be a further corruption (as corruption keeps the secrets hidden below the surface), but be a distinct betrayal of the initial text. It shall deceive and double-cross. It shall rupture from without, an act of hermeneutics perhaps. Certainly an act of reading, cross-reading. Here we shall focus on three specific phrases to write from them, to use them as starting points, and from there open the discussion up (rupture). Here are the phrases we care about:
One - “Corruption invokes the fateful nature of the social bond. By means of corruption, a community reminds its members that no one can extricate oneself from what is common”
Two - “If saying “I want” (to get that, go there, be this) briefly lifts the “I” above water, corruption pulls it back under, into the depth of “we want” […] Whenever desires are consolidated as common, corruption will occur”
Three- “Institutions are manifestations of consolidated common desire. They have the logic of corruption built into their workings from the very start. Insofar as institutions reflect common desire, their function is to make all who enter function on one level”
What fateful pact have we signed that removes us from the collective task of creating or protecting that which we hold in common?
A task of safeguarding and stewardship that has been privatised – you, you personally, must take responsibility for your own downstream externalities – and cleaved from the collective agenda. “We are all in this together” is a corruption of every word in that sentence. When Milton Friedman wrote in 1962 that the aim of the liberal was to “leave the ethical problem to the individual to wrestle with” he clearly outlined the limits of his new political economy (Friedman, Milton. 12: Capitalism and Freedom. 1962). What later became known as neoliberalism was forged in this simple formula: no longer would economic policy regard the ethical question, as to do so would be merely non-rational, emotional. Instead, we encounter the deontological not through the institutional frame of citizenship, but through the privatised compact with the market. We are interpellated as members of society through our economic relation – it is your responsibility to buy organic, to buy energy saving lightbulbs, to scrap your car in favour of a hybrid.
Precisely this injunction to privatise the ethical extracts us from the commons. It becomes increasingly difficult to identify what is “in common”. The economic logic of late capitalism de-humanises, reducing all to growth matrices, margins and calculable profit. In the face of such an evisceration the response has too often been a humanisation of capitalism, to reduce or mitigate its most unethical effects or to create interstitial enclaves of commonality, autonomy, equality. These may be models, but what exactly can they obtain? Neither a sugar coating nor local instances of escape from its logics can overhaul the necropolitical project of neoliberalism. We must act as though all is up for grabs, all is in common, or perhaps, to use Verwoert’s phrase, all can be corrupted. The political frame that attempts to remove every institution, every square inch of space, every assemblage from common hands would want to limit our capacities to change our contexts, to produce ruptures. But, understanding the co-rupturing of the commons can provide the impetus for context changing activity.
The question of whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals is a question of whether there is anything of any more dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, and individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself, and if so, what the relative value of the two factors is, is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have in our power to influence. ( 2 Peirce, C.S. cf. Forster, Paul, 3: Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism)
That ineradicable contemporary desire to be an individual, to obtain full happiness, to succeed, to live as though one were a project to be endlessly worked on, as though this were the telos of existence, that desire is the motor of capitalism. As a corrective to this, commonality demands we construct and reform institutions, consolidate common desires, and sediment the political. As Peirce affirms, commonality asserts collective capacity for reform and the continual renewal of the political within the institution. To be a citizen is to be understood through the frame of the co-construction of the common.
In this context I must ask three questions,
Is the rupturing of Verwoert’s corruption efficacious?
Does it not demand the obverse of this tendency to construct?
Should the logic of crisis that rupture suggests be the privileged logic of change?
Reading and responding to this text also reminds me of Friedman’s statement - “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Under the prevailing logic, those ideas belong to a particular ideology. The overwhelmingly neoliberal response to the 2007-8 banking crisis purports to that. Surely then, we need to think outside the logics of the rupture, the crisis, and towards a pragmatic logic of continual revolutionary reform, or as Roberto Unger puts it, “a deeper freedom to renew and recombine the institutional setting” (Unger, Roberto, 21: The Left Alternative, 2005) that “practices structural change […] piece by piece and step by step.”