WOID #XV-13. The Scarlet "L"

Von den neuen Antennen kamen die alten Dummheiten
Die Weisheit wurde von Mund zu Mund weitergegeben.
"From the new antennas came the old nonsense
Wisdom was passed from mouth to mouth." - Bertolt Brecht

Pope Benedict must have gotten a hard-on from this - I mean the future Pope Benedict XII who as Bishop of Pamiers set out to extirpate the heretics from his area of Southern France in the early fourteenth century: "One day...I found a certain book written on paper in the vulgar tongue," confessed a prisoner. Or again: "I saw some men in a meadow behind the house...reading something written by the light of the moon: I am sure they are heretics." Today's Benedicts are supposed to get the flashes when they catch a heretic a-blogging. A least that's what the bloggers like to think.

Nothing - and I mean nothing - draws in the blogologists faster than the fantasy that the new revolutionary technologies are revolutionary, also, in the political sense - than the belief that all you do is click and poof! Instant Revolution! The same fantasy has been raised before, and dismissed, notably in Weimar Germany. As the Bauhaus constructivist Moholy-Nagy wrote, "There is no tradition in technology, no consciousness of class or standing. Everyone can be the machine's master or its slave...."

Lázsló was an optimist. Many choose to enslave themselves to technology because it dispenses them from confronting their enslavement to the particular forms of behavior they've inscribed in the technology's application. Take DailyKos, one of the most visited political sites in America, set up as a rallying point for Take-Back-the-Government right-of-center-Democrats.

And by the way, what's a "rallying point?" The best excuse for Kos is the occasional thought-out strategy paper: on gas rationing, or legal maneuverings, or local political activities. The worst is the "rallying" part: massive unleashments of musings, attacks, personal or not. That part is common enough to most blogs, but it's the forced cohabitation of the two that's intriguing, because it's a specific, class-based, political effect of class-based political decisions. The social system of DailyKos follows the same pattern as a meeting of an American mainstream union during an organizing drive: in practical terms the drive is being run from Union Central, but in terms of visibility it's the workers themselves who are said to be organizing, so it's important to let them believe the decisions are their own.

How is this managed? How do the "good" strategies get sorted out from the "bad" ones? Visit an anarchist blog and you're dealing with a simple set of criteria: speech is supposed to be "free; the system for marginalizing or, in extreme cases, suppressing unwanted speech is fairly transparent, and easy to understand. Go next to an old-time, Leninist-style blog or a right-wing blog, and the criteria are just as obvious: anything that doesn't match the thoughts of the Politburo goes down the Memory Hole, the main distinction being that the thoughts of a left-wing Politburo are a lot more difficult to anticipate.

Go next to DailyKos, and it's not about exchanging ideas, it's about two simultaneous and contradictory movements of control: one, bringing in sheer numbers the way the organizers of a demonstration or the salesmen for a brand of soap demonstrate the support they have; two, ensuring that the group, once in place, produces the "right" ideas. After all, what's the point of telling the world that 500,000 people a day visit your site or buy your toothpaste if it's obvious that these people hate the sight of you? DailyKos reproduces the world of finite intellectual resources, the marketplace of ideas in the literal acception. Like the marketplace it depends on fostering individualism and competitiveness, and like the marketplace it's rigged. I won't give you the puerile details: like a teenager playing Monopoly you're supposed to accumulate "points" on DailyKos; say the wrong thing and you lose the points, and some people can take points from others and others can't - I believe it's called the Invisible Hand. It's hard to believe grown human beings engage in this behavior unless you remember that the rituals of fourteenth-century heretics seem pretty strange at first, then you recall that the issue is one of symbolic exchanges. Then again, most people forget that economics, too, are about symbolic exchanges. For example, what's important about the heretics gathered in the moonlight isn't what they were reading, it's the fact that they were reading in a group when for centuries the figure of authority was the lonely priest reading his Breviary by himself. In this instance the old capitalist adage operates well: it's not how you win, it's how you play the game. Your success in the token game is supposed to be the validation of your competence in the real world. Or, to put it in other words: the fact that you were able to beat out half a million talking head wannabes gives you the authority to speak for them - even if the game is rigged. So the first requirement for a "team" player is to agree to believe the game isn't rigged, and that belief somehow becomes an endorsement of the chosen "leader." Interesting that DailyKos has chosen to hold its first annual convention in Las Vegas...

It's a bit surprising how many recent presidents and vice-presidents come out of Yale. Interesting, because Yale, more than Harvard or Princeton or even Columbia, teaches a simple posture: I WILL FUCK YOU FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. Very different from the Republican posture, which is LET'S ALL GET TOGETHER AND FUCK THOSE OTHER PEOPLE. Like the old lady in the Japanese movie the Democrats have been stuck inside their mask since Joe McCarthy, and if it sticks it's because it's accurate. The most successful Democrats are those who've best embraced it. Hillary Clinton is brilliant at it; so was Bill, until he took the fucking part literally. So the question is, can the participants in DailyKos collectively take on this image, embrace and enrich it? In other terms can they, collectively, persuade themselves that this is how the game is played? In the Bishop's report my favorite heretic isn't the chosen "leader," at all, who's a bit of a slime; it's Pierre the shepherd, who practices all the virtues the Church had sworn to uproot: equality, independence, trust. Likewise, the members of DailyKos ought to be able to define a positive Democrat posture: hierarchical, of course, deferring to whatever "betters" are brought up through the system, but confident that a system of rational persuasion, the very foundation of our democratic system, works.

In practice, though, the "system" is remarkably close to the system of moral cleansing practiced during and after Robespierre's reign. On DailyKos the word "troll" has the same meaning that "enemy of the People" had during the French Revolution: first, it's a formal definition within an accepted pattern of accusation and denunciation, known as "troll-rating"; second, it's a definition of innate being. Trolls aren't trolls because they hold certain opinions, they could only hold such opinions because they're trolls. There are no masks, here: as in the totalitarian state described by Barthes, you are what you say. This whole situation reached its apotheosis recently when a major, active blogger was found to have a fruitful business representing a major, very reactionary corporation under his real name. This was a Scarlet Letter moment: the sinner's suffering was not in the act, it was in his inability to acknowledge it. It was in the admission he'd been wearing a mask, not in the role he'd played.

There has been a long-standing myth that Robespierre and his followers (I mean followers in time, as well) were political extremists, preferably of the Left. So it's satisfying to watch a group whose political positions are, in all appearance, fairly close to the center of an imaginary political spectrum behaving like social fruitcakes. Paranoia, expiatory catharsis, hysterical competitiveness: this sounds more like the left-radical groups of the 'sixties than a bunch of accountants and administrators.

Is this just the implosion of a small, ingrown group? Or, like the "flight forward" of Robespierre's Club des Jacobins, does it signal deeper movements in politics? I don't know, but I intend from now on to sit back and watch. As they used to say back in 1325, "Suave mari magno."