Master of Perversity

Slavoj Žižek has an article on ISIS in the New York Times, arguing — naturally — that the most prominent problem with the Jihadi movement that has thrown Mesopotamia into bloody chaos and the world into conniptions is its lack of real fundamentalism. For the irredeemably irresponsible (this blog included), it’s a lot of fun. The most convincing passages:

But are the terrorist fundamentalists really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe? What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the United States — the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by nonbelievers. Why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued and fascinated by the sinful life of the nonbelievers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation. This is why the so-called fundamentalists of ISIS are a disgrace to true fundamentalism.


The problem with terrorist fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending, politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority toward them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that they already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists of ISIS and those like them really lack is precisely a dose of that true conviction of one’s own superiority.

(I’m leaving off the ‘Humor’ tag, to avoid triggering anybody unnecessarily.)


It is tempting to either embrace or reject the description of the United States as an ‘empire‘ due to the clear rhetorical weight of this term. Partisan wrangling on these grounds is sure to continue, and even to intensify. It is not, however, the only basis upon which discussion can be pursued.

A global power, it might be plausibly suggested, tends inevitably to the erosion of its domestic political space. As globalization is advanced under its auspices, distinctions between domestic and international concerns — ultimately uncertain in any case — become increasingly unpersuasive. Globalized capital and talent markets operate with least friction where they intersect the world’s economic core, while international division of labor, trade, migration, and cultural exchange wash over traditional localities. In the final analysis, the very notion of political domesticity survives only as a residual rebuke to the project of global ‘flattening‘.

While it can be convenient for moralists to interpret hegemonic power as a bad decision, it’s far closer to a fate (and in very definite respects a tragic one). Any suggestion that America might have chosen not to lead the world is more of an appeal to sentiment and tactical partisan positioning than to realism. History has its tides, and eventually they change.

America’s presently-ongoing Ferguson turmoil underscores the trend to political de-domestication of the metropolis, through an explicit collapse of social order into a problematic of ‘4GW‘ (or ‘Fourth Generation Warfare’). Twitter is congested with observations of police militarization, friction-free transmission of equipment from US expeditionary forces into the hands of its domestic law enforcement agencies, and advisories from international irregular armies on best-practice for dealing with counter-insurgency operations. Beyond the partisan excitement, and euphoric tribalism, there is a recognition of broken boundaries, and the consolidation of an integrated US security machinery that no longer finds the discrimination between foreign and domestic enemies of practical use.

This phenomenon, as such, has no unambiguous partisan implications. Even were critique of the Empire unique to the left (which it is not), the application of an essentially domestic political optic (partisan choice) to a matter of world-historic deep structure would remain a laughable error. The fate of America is not an American problem, at least, not exclusively. It concerns the order of the world.

Willard’s words from Apocalypse Now are prophetic:

“Someday this war’s gonna end”. That’d be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren’t looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I’d been back there, and I knew that it just didn’t exist anymore.

ADDED: Re-importation of the ‘new military urbanism’. It quotes Foucault:

… while colonization, with its techniques and its political and juridical weapons, obviously transported European models to other continents, it also had a considerable boomerang effect on the mechanisms of power in the West, and on the apparatuses, institutions, and techniques of power. A whole series of colonial models was brought back to the West, and the result was that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself …

Quotable (#29)

Richard Fernandez on the end of illusions:

War, Famine and Pestilence all obey the laws of physics. The media, government and the academy have heretofore cared about the laws of political correctness and the tyranny of appearances. Now we get to see who wins. In recent years it has become fashionable to claim the Narrative trumps reality. Yet you can’t bribe viruses, can’t “hide” infectious victims, can’t appease dictators and you can’t print money. As I’ve written many times before, nobody beats arithmetic.

(Always a candidate for the world’s greatest blogger, every word he’s written recently has been purest gold.)

Complex Systems

The New York Times, takes an unusually sophisticated look at the current state of world disorder. In doing so, it explains why the process of drawing down American global hegemony — while probably unavoidable — is more perilous than it might seem:

Rarely has a president been confronted with so many seemingly disparate foreign policy crises all at once — in Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — but making the current upheaval more complicated for Mr. Obama is the seemingly interlocking nature of them all. […] “It’s a very tangled mess,” said Gary Samore, a former national security aide to Mr. Obama and now president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group. “You name it, the world is aflame. …

Complex systems are real individuals, not generic types, and when they get poked, they react like an ultimately incomparable cyber-meshed singularity, which is to say — excitedly. To assume general rules in such cases is to set oneself up for serial, escalating shocks. The realistic question that will eventually demand to be asked: What is the thing we are dealing with?


If Zero Hedge is right, a Chinese liquidity crunch would ripple across key Western asset markets without significant obstruction:

… far from indicating a recovery, as the recent surge in the high end of the US housing segment had long been touted, all the relentless move higher in ultraluxury properties prices was simply a recycling of China’s hot money, which unlike in the US, never made its way into the Chinese stock market (explaining why the Shanghai Composite has barely budged in years) and merely ended up in US real estate. If anything, this is simply another confirmation of the epic capital misallocation, and the complete lack of “trickle down” resulting from failed global central banking policies.

(Much additional factual and analytical support at the link.)

Petrodollar Provocations

The mere fact this conversation is even happening has to be disturbing to some extremely powerful global interests. BTC volatility appears to be the only major obstacle to the cryptocurrency’s widespread international adoption at this point. If it trends downwards, a switch point will be suggested on the horizon. In the interim, the BTC option sets implicit limits to USD devaluation — the cost of volatility isn’t infinite.

The article expects China to oppose any move to price oil in BTC in global markets, based on ambitions for an expanded international use of the RMB. Given what Chinese monetary authorities know about the Triffin dilemma, this is an argument that can very easily be over-stretched.


Many of the recent short posts here have been inter-connected by the topic of international ‘soft power‘ tensions. Somewhat ironically, this is a subject that is peculiarly prone to failures of insight. No cultural formation is disposed to a self-understanding that would expose itself as something inherently threatening.

The reactions of Western academic, media, entertainment, and ancillary cultural powers to Chinese resistances and counter-actions are characterized by a remarkable uniformity, and systematic refusal of reflection. Doesn’t any obstruction of — or non-compliance with — these highly-internationalized forces of communication indicate simple fear of the truth? That is overwhelmingly the core assumption, when such matters are discussed by those very organs of trans-cultural agency which should be in question, but which manage very successfully not to be. The ‘conversation’ is almost wholly controlled by those who would be the topic of the conversation, if the conversation were permitted to happen.

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Confucius Institutes

The debate.

An anecdotal moment from Jeffrey Wasserstrom:

Some time ago, I found out, but not until just before giving a talk, that the local CI was my visit’s sponsor. I was annoyed and tweaked my planned lecture to show it. In my new opening, I said that since a CI was sponsoring the event, a few words on Confucius were in order. I found it odd, I said, that China’s ruling party had excoriated Confucius when Mao Zedong headed the country, yet now named institutes in his honor. The official line on history was still that Mao was better than his anti-Communist rival Chiang Kai-shek, I continued, but the present veneration of Confucius as a national saint fit better with Chiang’s worldview than with Mao’s.

Was the Beijing-appointed head of the CI outraged? No, she wasn’t even miffed. She said she loved the talk and I’d be welcome to come back and speak again any time.

(An anecdote is only an anecdote, and might not be worth that much, but a casual presumption is worth less.)