Atopia: On Frédéric Neyrat’s Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism

“Where am I?” asks the sleeper who wakes with difficulty. He doesn’t recognize the room, the furniture. It is too dark; lingering parts of the dream slip into the surroundings, giving them a strangely worrying air. But are we not living the inverse situation today? Prolonged awakening, work without the limit of time, excessive light, surplus of information, electronic links, mechanized solicitations, attentional capture: This is the reality that, penetrating the virtual dimensions, transfuses them with a suddenly flattened aspect—so poor, so slow, quasi-immobile.

Frédéric Neyrat,  Atopias

Isn’t it true? The moment we reenter the stream of light, the byways and highways of the virtual ocean, the web of links that seem to reach out from our node, our computer or mobile phone toward some distant spot on the globe we begin to feel this uncanniness, a Deja vu as if we’d been here before, done this all before, watched the same pages drift by, the same thoughts and words and images echoing the same drift of senseless information as if we’d never left, as if this waking dream were repeating itself over and over ad nauseum. It’s this sense of nothing really changing, a sense that today, yesterday, and tomorrow will be the same, as if the supposed reports of events and happenings across the globe were happening elsewhere, but that the information impinging on our eyes was neither there nor here but in some strange and disquieting present where nothing really changes at all. An eternity of images plastered against the blank screen of our mind in which the accelerating speed of capital seems to be circling in a void, an immobile circuit or black box simulacrum in which timelessness and the unbounded nihl of some electronic puppet master were seducing us to sleep amid the profuse glamour of a hyperworld utopia of light without shadows. Trapped in the present, unable to move, we seem to wander in this cave of light like sequestered demons of some false order of being, our minds attuned and entrained to the political corruption of our era, the neoliberal consensus reality that there are no futures, no alternatives, only this ever-present system of collusion and crime, a catastrophic universe of doom.

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“Every Man a King!” – The Populist Challenge

“Every Man a King!” —Huey P. Long

Populism whether of the Left or Right is a fool’s game, a game played out against the backdrop of defeat and resentment. It’s been played out before and the game’s afoot again. Robert Penn Warren, that old Southern Agrarian, poet of a mixed bag of fatalism once sounded the depths of that mire with his character Willie Stark in All the King’s Men:

“Friends, red-necks, suckers, and fellow hicks,” he would say, leaning forward, leaning at them, looking at them. And he would pause, letting the words sink in. And in the quiet the crowd would be restless and resentful under these words, the words they knew people called them but the words nobody ever got up and called them to their face. “Yeah,” he would say, “yeah,” and twist his mouth on the word, “that’s what you are, and you needn’t get mad at me for telling you. Well, get mad, but I’m telling you. That’s what you are. And me— I’m one, too. Oh, I’m a red-neck, for the sun has beat down on me. Oh, I’m a sucker, for I fell for that sweet-talking fellow in the fine automobile. Oh, I took the sugar tit and hushed my crying. Oh, I’m a hick and I am the hick they were going to try to use and split the hick vote. But I’m standing here on my own hind legs, for even a dog can learn to do that, give him time. I learned. It took me a time but I learned, and here I am on my own hind legs.” And he would lean at them. And demand, “Are you, are you on your hind legs? Have you learned that much yet? You think you can learn that much?”1

Willie was an echo of a real life populist, Huey P. Long. A lot of people forget that populism wasn’t always a thing of the Right-wing Republicans. No, the Democrats had their own variety in the life and times of Long. Nicknamed “The Kingfish”, Long was an American politician who served as the 40th governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and was a member of the United States Senate from 1932 until his assassination in 1935. As the political leader of Louisiana, he commanded wide networks of supporters and was willing to take forceful action. He established the long-term political prominence of the Long family.

A Democrat and an outspoken left-wing populist, Long denounced the wealthy elites and the banks. Initially a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first 100 days in office, Long eventually came to believe that Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies did not do enough to alleviate the issues of the poor. In time, he developed his own solution: the “Share Our Wealth” program, which would establish a net asset tax, the earnings of which would be redistributed so as to curb the poverty and homelessness epidemic nationwide during the Great Depression.

He sought to improve the lot of poor blacks as well as poor whites during his career as a politician. Under Long’s leadership, hospitals and educational institutions were expanded, a system of charity hospitals was set up that provided health care for the poor, and massive highway construction and free bridges brought an end to rural isolation.

His enemy was the corporate monopolists like Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Kept faith with his people and they with him. He gave them something and the corporations paid for it … He is not to be dismissed as a mere rabble-rouser or as the leader of a gang of boodlers … He brought to his career a streak of genius, yet in his programs and tactics he was as indigenous to Louisiana as pine trees and petroleum. Key adds that the Long organization used:  Patronage, in all its forms, deprivation of perquisites, economic pressure, political coercion in one form or another, and now and then outright thuggery … Long commanded the intense loyalties of a substantial proportion of the population … [Supporters] came to believe that here was a man with a genuine concern for their welfare, not one of the gentlemanly do-nothing governors who had ruled the state for many decades.

Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here was written with the goal of hurting Long’s chances in the 1936 election for Governor, Lewis’s novel outfits President Berzelius Windrip with a private militia, concentration camps, and a chief of staff who sounds like Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Lewis also outfits Windrip with a racist ideology completely alien to Long and a Main Street conservatism he also never embraced. Ultimately, Windrip is a venal and cynical showman who plays to the conformist resentments Lewis diagnosed in Main Street and Babbitt. Some critics argued that the key weakness of the novel is not that he decks out American politicians with sinister European touches, but that he finally conceives of fascism and totalitarianism in terms of traditional American political models rather than seeing them as introducing a new kind of society and a new kind of regime. Windrip is less a Nazi than a con-man and manipulator who knows how to appeal to people’s desperation, but neither he nor his followers are in the grip of the kind of world-transforming ideology like Hitler’s National Socialism.

As we begin to move into the next election cycle we might benefit with studying such creatures as Long and other populist movements. The two front men on the Republican (Trump) and Democrat (Joe Biden) are both hype artists, con-men and populists for their respective working-classes, both offer the moon and cater to the fringe masses in their appeals; both have the rhetorical style of the high-low culture which sounds the darker powers of both parties.

Populism has been used by both parties in the past and seems to be on its come-back now. A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force against “the elite”, who are perceived as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, depicted as a homogeneous entity and accused of placing their own interests, and often the interests of other groups—such as foreign countries or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. Populist parties and social movements are often led by charismatic or dominant figures who present themselves as the “voice of the people”. When in office in liberal democracies, populists are often responsible for democratic backsliding as they undermine independent institutions like the media or judiciary which they consider hostile to the “will of the people”. According to the ideational approach, populism is often combined with other ideologies, such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Left-wing populism is a political ideology that combines left-wing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric of left-wing populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the Establishment and speaking for the “common people”. The important themes for left-wing populists usually include anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism and anti-globalization, whereas class society ideology or socialist theory is not as important as it is to traditional left-wing parties. The criticism of capitalism and globalization is linked to anti-militarism, which has increased in the left populist movements as a result of unpopular United States military operations, especially those in the Middle East. It is considered that the populist left does not exclude others horizontally and relies on egalitarian ideals

Right-wing populism in the Western world is generally—though not exclusively—associated with ideologies such as neo-nationalism, anti-globalization, nativism, protectionism and opposition to immigration. Anti-Muslim ideas and sentiments serve as the “great unifiers” among right-wing political formations throughout the United States and Europe. Traditional right-wing views such as opposition to an increasing support for the welfare state and a “more lavish, but also more restrictive, domestic social spending” scheme is also described under right-wing populism and is sometimes called “welfare chauvinism”.

Conspiracist scapegoating employed by various populist movements can create “a seedbed for fascism”.  In Germany Nazi populism interacted with and facilitated fascism in interwar Germany. In this case, distressed middle-class populists mobilized their anger against the government and big business during the pre-Nazi Weimar period. The Nazis “parasitized the forms and themes of the populists and moved their constituencies far to the right through ideological appeals involving demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism”.

According to Fritzsche:

The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle–class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization…Against “unnaturally” divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonwealth, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public…Breaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people’s community…3

In the first decade of the 21st century, two populist movements appeared in the US, both in response to the Great Recession: the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement. The populist approach of the Occupy movement was broader, with its “people” being what it called “the 99%”, while the “elite” it challenged was presented as both the economic and political elites. The Tea Party’s populism was Producerism, while “the elite” it presented was more party partisan than that of Occupy, being defined largely—although not exclusively—as the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama. The 2016 presidential election saw a wave of populist sentiment in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with both candidates running on anti-establishment platforms in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Both campaigns criticized free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But we shouldn’t forget Biden, the Green Party, and many other independent platform politicians that will seek a share of that populist pie.

The more I study Social Control: Ideology, Propaganda, and Conspiracist populism the more I realize just how fucked we are… Mark Twain was right, people are absolutely delirious and deluded, liars and scam artists prone to the absolute control, manipulation, and chicanery of fools and mountebanks, politicians and preachers.

  1. Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men (pp. 94-95). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  2. Key, V.O.; Heard, Alexander (1949). Southern Politics in State and Nation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  3. Fritzsche, Peter (1990). Rehearsals for fascism: populism and political mobilization in Weimar Germany. Oxford University Press.

Alain Badiou on Our Recent Elections


We can do some­thing. And we must do, because if we do noth­ing at all, we are only in the fas­cin­a­tion, the stu­pid­ity of fas­cin­a­tion…

—Alain Badiou

Badiou’s view of the Left’s Bankruptcy and where we might go from here. After reading his speech I ask myself if we are enacting pre-Weimer Germany but on a vast untold scale across the planet’s surface, if the vacuum in world leadership, the global captilist prison system, the dark insidiousness of the economic devastation, climatic change, and rampant devastation of crops, disease, famine, war, etc. are a prelude to an even darker and more troubling world arising from the ashes of history in some parody of retroactive emergence and parody? Are we preparing the way for a future tyranny from the hinterlands of our unknowing world?

I think both Badiou and Zizek seek to spur change on the global Left to action and thought, to renewed diliberation rather than this continued mourning of its failures… so do I. This sense of a subjective crisis, rather than political and economic is in a sense at the forefront of this global crisis. As he says:

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Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience and Our Time


Thoreau, Civil Disobedience:

“I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.”

“Civil Disobedience” is an analysis of the individual’s relationship to the state that focuses on why men obey governmental law even when they believe it to be unjust. But “Civil Disobedience” is not an essay of abstract theory. It is Thoreau’s extremely personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law. Because he detested slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel. There were no income taxes and Thoreau did not own enough land to worry about property taxes; but there was the hated poll tax – a capital tax levied equally on all adults within a community.

Thoreau declined to pay the tax and so, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid which he also declined to pay. Without his knowledge or consent, however, relatives settled the “debt” and a disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night. The incarceration may have been brief but it has had enduring effects through “Civil Disobedience.”

In Walden’s Pond Thoreau once said:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.

Whereas Ralph Waldo Emerson would take his secular gospel of Transcendentalism on lecture tours, Thoreau took his to the wilds. Transcendentalism became Thoreau’s intellectual training ground. His first appearance in print was a poem entitled “Sympathy” published in the first issue of The Dial, a Transcendentalist paper. As Transcendentalists migrated to Concord, one by one, Thoreau was exposed to all facets of the movement and took his place in its inner circle. At Emerson’s suggestion, he kept a daily journal, from which most of Walden was eventually culled.

And, yet, those who try to align Thoreau with the anarchist crowd of what he’d term the “no-government” men would be wrong, as he says: “But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” Thoreau denies the right of any government to automatic and unthinking obedience. Obedience should be earned and it should be withheld from an unjust government. To drive this point home, “Civil Disobedience” dwells on how the Founding Fathers rebelled against an unjust government, which raises the question of when rebellion is justified.

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to  James Madison (Paris, January 30, 1787) said this on rebellion:

“Societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable.

1. Without government, as among our Indians.
2. Under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one.
3. Under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies and in most of the other republics.

To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the 1st. condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has it’s evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Thoreau in his own New England vernacular would put it more pragmatically, stating that the machinic world of government acts like an agent of friction. Friction is normal to a machine so that its mere presence cannot justify revolution. But open rebellion does become justified in two cases: first, when the friction comes to have its own machine, that is, when the injustice is no longer occasional but a major characteristic; and, second, when the machine demands that people cooperate with injustice. Thoreau declared that, if the government “requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine”.

So the precedent for both revolt, rebellion, and civil disobedience are already a mainstay within our historical continuum, one that we should tap into and reenvision in our time. I’m not advocating revolt, or rebellion against our government, what I’m saying is that we need to revisit the world that brought us to the brink of such conflicts as the Civil War and other rebellious moments in our history. In some ways our moment is repeating aspects of the days that led up to the Civil War but on a different scale and under a set of different circumstances. This isn’t the place to go into detail on that issue. It could take a book to uncover such processes and the sociocultural forces, and individual, dividual, and other forces at play in our world today. What I will say is that we are at a crossroads in our nation, one that we should all be aware of and think and feel our way carefully and at length on. If we needed a great deal of revisioning, and recursion of our past into our present, it is now.  Thoreau is but one of those luminaries we should take into that reconsideration.

Semiocapitalism and the Neoliberal Self


“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” – Timothy Leary

Leary would use that phrase he received from Marshall McLuhan the media guru of the era during the 60’s to describe mental activation, harmonious interaction with others and the world, and a sense of “wu wei” or not-doing, a detachment from the work-a-day world while at the same time a commitment to the singularity of one’s own creative potential. In Flash Backs he’d describe it this way:

“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.

Today to turn on means to enter the program, get with the data-flows of capital. To tune-in is to mesh with the levels of abstraction in the infosphere, keep pace with the digital matrix. Drop out is more of a political act of disconnection, unplugging from the machine, discovering a way to survive the onslaught of info-glut one is immersed in daily. The psychedelic age is gone and with it the whole notion of “mobility, choice, and change”. Today we live in a futureless present, a realm of apathy, depression, and decay. People distrust politics and media to the point that it has become more of a joke than not. Bifo Berardi pulling no punches tells us the truth: “Democracy seems unable to stop the criminal class that has seized control of the economy, because the decisions are no longer made in the sphere of political opinion, but in the inaccessible sphere of economic automatism. … No room for political choice is left, as corporate principles have become embedded in the technical fabric of language and imagination.”1

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Interview with Wendy Brown author of Undoing the Demos


Interesting interview with Wendy Brown author of Undoing the Demos: “I treat neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm.” she says.

Read it on Dissent: Interview by Tom Shenk with Wendy Brown What Exactly is Neoliberalism?