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March Madness Outside the Basketball Court

Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.

— Herbert Marcuse

As this Midwestern university town gets set for NCAA March Madness, I find myself surrounded by canny analysts of the teams and the contests. They look at past performance, present conditions involving bench power, match up certainties and uncertainties of players and coaches. You could call this their analysis of the conditions of play, or what others outside the sports world might call “conditions on the ground.”

I also note as enthusiasts square off against each other that there is some interpretation of why each knows and believes as they do. “You think Duke will win because you went to Duke and you’re a brainwashed fan.” Or, “You don’t think South Dakota State can take it all because you’ve never seen them play.” An effort to know why your belligerent interlocutor thinks differently than you do is not aimed at bringing him or her to some understanding and awareness but rather only to dismiss judgments by questioning the legitimacy of their sources.

There is much of this off court contesting that goes on and, however heated it becomes, is unquestionably part of the exhilaration of the games themselves.

Conditions of the Game

While it may be true that Americans have not been as interested in politics as those countries who have historically suffered for not paying attention, it is true now that President Donald Trump has drawn Americans to the drama of the political scene, almost as completely and as cleverly as an addictive Reality-TV show.

Some are drawn because of a total visceral connection with Donald Trump as their anti-political avenger against an “administrative State” which they perceive has given their deserved status to the undeserving. Some are drawn because Donald Trump’s presidency is perceived to be a threat to an Enlightenment reasoning that has led to liberal and neo-liberal values of individual freedom and choice that complement the principles of capitalism.

The bench set against Trump/Bannon is deep, uniting both Liberals and Neo-liberals in their allegiance to a Reason- Freedom -Capitalism calculus that leads to personal satisfaction.

A Republican Congress holds on to the hope of unleashing market forces to pre-Great Recession levels without much damage done by President Trump to reason’s role in controlling a relationship between personal freedom and maximizing profits.

Liberals have since FDR mostly avoided facing the Reason-Freedom-Capitalism calculus, preferring to focus on social issues, which they now fear a Trump regime will harm.

This is not a fear that Neo-liberals share, and certainly not a matter that will separate them from Trump. Neo-liberal resistance will come when Trump threatens the cozy affiliation of personal freedom and market freedom as well as the reasoning, a focused instrument, directed to support both.

Trump and his minions have already fostered an attack upon a neutral reasoning, thus exposing its “instrumental” features. The road down the “alternative facts” and “your” reasoning and “my reasoning” has already brought to a grassroots’ level a suspicious awareness of reason itself as a political instrument. Here, we are dangerously close to questioning capitalism’s control of reasoning itself to construct ideas of consumer freedom and profit sovereignty,

If we transfer the experienced ways in which we analyze and interpret NCAA March Madness to the present political scene, we might illuminate this court from a familiar perspective.

The Referees

First, there are no longer any referees whose judgments are recognized by all players.

The game, as the philosopher would say in reference to chess, is now being played on a “bottomless chessboard.” No moves clearly are foul. No win cannot be represented as a loss, and vice versa. What immiserates The People can be represented as done in the interests of The People. No reference to The People can be traced to anything but The People, which can be traced back to innumerable references to The People.

Team play grounded on a mutual recognition of the authority of the rules of the game and a belief that team solidarity overrides individual preference would be, on the political court, recognition of authority that overrides personal opinion and creates solidarity beyond the determining power of personal “Likes.”

Right now, our conditions on this political court indicate that the opinionated are rule-resistant, unstoppable and are more liable to be seeking and finding online support for even the craziest beliefs than any challenge or refutation.

Thus, multiple, fractured societies now rival and undermine a real world societal solidarity that has historically been sought and preserved.  This is, you might say, a new set play on the political court that unravels an existing order of things, what Steve Bannon calls a “deconstruction of the administrative State.”

That deconstruction, however, will not stop at whatever regime of order he envisions. We are at the beginning of a Great Unraveling.

Present conditions on the ground also show us a prospering since President Reagan of a small percentage of the population benefiting from the globalization of a gone-wild economic system rewarding investment and not wages.

The resulting top 1% having as much combined income as the bottom 95% has led to a painful awareness of decline but only by those in that painful decline. And that awareness is both recent and at once distracted and misled. A discourse disclosing and interpreting this decline has a difficult time breaking through the relentless barrage of opinions from our online and offline worlds. We also see now that a top 20% professional class, serving the top 1%, has been in charge of the discourse, of the representation of the “conditions on the ground.” A long time separation of the professional class from the embittered class has led to the absence of a much needed disclosure of the sources of estrangement and bitterness.

There is an estrangement then also of the Liberal media from The Forgotten rallying to Trump which has much to do with Liberals setting their tent on the margins. This has left the multitude slated for extinction by a rabid form of globalized capitalism with no electoral choices they see as relevant to them.

They were asked in the 2016 Presidential election to put aside their plight and vote a Democratic ticket focusing on social issues, from abortion and gun control to racial equity and LGBTQ rights. Beyond being highly problematic and contentious issues among The Forgotten, they are first and foremost way outside the court of their interests. Liberals can argue that this should not be so but the fact, not an alternative one, remains. Facts now in our post-truth age weigh only as much as they are perceived to weigh.

Right-wing media places itself solidly in the court of The Forgotten’s phenomenal world, repeatedly pounding messages to the darkest and most twisted branches of our human nature, and doing so in order to preserve a plutocratic order that is yet dependent upon winning elections. This is a focused attack on any politics critical of market rule or seeking to constrain in any way its unregulated free play for profit. However, that same appeal to the worst angels of our nature is being made by the autocratic regime of Donald Trump who is personally and not ideologically invested. His protection of Neoliberal ideology will go no further than the borders of his own personal enrichment and his own hold on power.

How to defend against Trump’s autocratic game style is markedly different from defending against Neoliberal market rule.

A brief scan of history reveals that in the U.S., critique of Market Rule is loudly and repeatedly condemned as “socialist,” which, for some 43% of the population, always means an attempt to take away their personal freedom, starting with taking away their guns. No one in Scandinavia, in the view of this segment of the population, has any personal freedom and so live the listless, mind controlled lives engineered by a Socialist State.

What Adorno called “The Culture Industry,” now formidable online and offline, has so owned the hearts and minds of those ill served by Market Rule that its own Reality-TV creation, Donald Trump, is now the 45th president of the United States. The autocrat is now anxious to confine capitalism’s global ambitions to national borders and engage in the kind of social expenditure that will keep The Forgotten on his side. And “The Culture Industry” is as available to serve autocracy as plutocracy, although its expanse, notably in cyberspace, was once applauded as”democratization.”

Regardless of sufficient reason and cause for The Forgotten to seek an upturning of what is clearly a plutocratic order, they misread both reasons and causes and therefore reach for the wrong solution, in this case, the autocrat, Donald Trump. This mis-reading of The Forgotten as to the circumstances of their own plight is not a misreading that can be obliged by either the Fourth Estate or by the institutions, practices and laws of a government built on Enlightenment principles. Whereas Market Rule and the plutocracy it leads to can be tamed, autocratic rule presents vastly different problems.

In order for a republic grounded in a Western tradition of reason and its methods in establishing truth to survive it cannot make any concessions to a populist slide into the irrational, a societal retrogression into “alternative fact” based opinions, gut responses, cult and celebrity worship, and the darkness of all manner of discriminations and hatreds. From this perspective, of long, enduring tradition in the West, there is no order of things but only a vicious chaos, a descent into the maelstrom of the worst in human nature, if we give up our Enlightenment direction.

Free market principles, even those extended beyond domains where profit does not apply, can summon a rational defense. The kind of autocratic rule of a president clearly burdened with deep, unresolved psychological issues, cannot so summon reason. And that is the ground upon which he must be challenged.

However, an increasingly strong exception to this tradition of rationality and realism is observable in both the 20th century Modernism’s “tragic vision” and in the deconstructing postmodernists who launched us into the “post-truth” mindset.

The Modernists had pointed out that an instrumental reasoning had led to the successive warfare and atrocities of the 20th century, continuing now in the 21st century as perpetual warfare. Our avowed “reasoning and realism” have led to the underwriting of an economic system that axiomatically has scheduled many to extinction. These appear now as Trump’s Forgotten, aware of being written off but not aware as to how or why or by who or what. Trump gives all the answers that satisfy only because he has, among all his presidential primary challengers, recognized all the questions.

The vote for a man who demonstrates he recognizes The Forgotten, who gives them visibility and importance is not a mindless matter but one establishing a deep existential bond. Trump’s election is a sign and a result of the importance of those discarded on the “creatively destroyed” pile.

The “administrative State” which Steve Bannon wishes to deconstruct is a deconstruction of capitalism’s globalist adventures that have created The Forgotten. These adventures were themselves the offspring of a Western Tradition of Rationality and Realism. We have then an allegiance to an instrumental Reason-Freedom-Capitalism’s satisfaction of personal choice calculus, which is itself a calculus that has created the plight of The Forgotten. A failure to address that plight and communicate its causes led to the inevitable coalescing of the angry and embittered and a turn to Trump. In a culture that attends personalities and not ideas, a turn to a larger than life personality as a redeemer is no surprise. That celebrities are packaged with manias and quirks broadcast loudly is to be expected. No one becomes a fan of someone who looks, acts and talks like themselves.

We are in no way ready to sever our connection either with plutocracy or deranged autocracy, or, more significantly with our instrumentalized reasoning. We are not prepared to dismantle this dark allegiance, this rational calculus on behalf of The Forgotten or any semblance of an egalitarian democracy.

A globalist techno-capitalism with a financialized vanguard can brook no nationalist boundaries and therefore cannot allow our autocrat’s mission to succeed. Thus far, it is clear that both Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell believe they can hold back autocratic derangement long enough to further implant Market Rule.

Society also cannot put aside a rule of reason and realism and accept a misrule of “alternative facts,” even though we have “reasoned” our society into a plutocratic order in which more than the followers of Trump are The Forgotten. The present reasoning has created a 20% democracy order, or, more precisely, a plutocracy, which in turn has brought us into the arms of a deranged autocrat as our relief. Whatever Occupy Wall Street envisioned as relief it could not have been the autocratic rule of Donald Trump.

There is thus every reason to deconstruct a reasoning that has led us on a path to plutocracy and now autocracy. But there is also every reason to preserve it because a descent into the irrational, into “alternative facts” and so on has brought Trump into being and sustains his authority among The Forgotten. We are therefore within a culture that desperately needs a post-truth way of reasoning that is not an instrument of Market Rule or a descent into the chaos of “alternative facts.”

The Coaches

The Democrats have been poor coaches ever since Newt Gingrich in the 1994 Congressional elections mobilized conservatives behind the Contract with America and frightened President Clinton into a conservative presidency. Reagan’s red carpet, rolled out for those already flush from the Viet-nam war, benefited both Liberals and Neoliberals alike, both parties being heavily invested in the success of an economic system that increasingly benefited dividend recipients and not wage earners.

This complicity effectively removed the Democratic Party from all but disingenuous representation of those who would flock to Donald Trump. That party’s removal from the center to the margins, seeking whoever and whatever was a social equity issue, made it an unfit party for Bernie Sanders’ direct and persistent focusing on the economic system as the promulgator of gross inequities. Because only two coaches are allowed in our political game, Sanders had no real viable alternative to the Democratic Party. He was a danger to both parties and so both parties, along with the media, did all they could to deny his interpretation of conditions on the ground from being seriously considered.

The Republican Party has since Reagan bet on its financial winners, who they coddle and pamper as if they were thoroughbreds with the potential of winning in high stake races, while providing alibis such as “tough love,” “moral hazard,” “creative destruction,” “personal responsibility,” “Welfare Queens,” “Moochers,” and so on to detour attention from the looters to the looted, from the exploiters to the exploited. The problem as represented was not that the wealthy scrunch workers and planet for the sake of profit but that the laziness and cunning of the scrunched sapped the wealth of the nation.

With a manic drive to global profit and a mandate to seek new marketing frontiers,  the Ayn Rand school of Republicans double downed on a 20% Democracy game. Neither 9/11 and the Neo-conservative lunatic aggression into the wrong places in the Middle East nor the 2007 Great Recession which led to inescapable crises for the Forgotten and opportunity for investors blew the whistle on growing plutocratic rule.

Nevertheless, those at the bottom since Reagan have remained there, joined by those who had been at the middle, although meritocracy continues to bring to those with inherited intelligence, socially and educationally nurtured ambition, and opportunity to envision a future for themselves. Meritocracy presents testing hurdles for some 20% who can thus form the only social and economic mobility available.

The coach who put together the winning team was Donald Trump. He scoffed and mocked Republicans, not in any detail but such was not necessary. A Bernie Sanders’ indicting, point by point exposition was not what Trump’s followers were looking for nor did they have the interest, background or patience to deal with it. They wanted scoffing, mocking, belittling, exterminations, the kind of direct actions those who have been punched, abused and messed with want, those who have been denied the chance to retaliate. By the time Trump had knocked out his Republican rivals and was facing Hillary Clinton, he found himself with a readymade arsenal he could launch against Liberals, Obama, and Hillary.

Scapegoating Obama had been a major event for the past eight years, every allegation from not being an American by birth, an allegation that many held on to like a religious belief, to Obamacare, taking away guns and the Death Panels, were already in place in the American mass psyche. Tax and spend liberals, those who take a wage earners’ wages and give them to those who do not want to work, remained and continue to remain the Darth Vaders in that same psyche.

The Liberal affiliation with gentrification, or, the uprooting of the working class to make way for the Elite, with political correctness, a gag on an American’s right to speak out, with a soft prison life for criminals, with apologies for welfare fraud, with environmental regulations that close down jobs, with a growing Federal bureaucracy that takes away individual freedom and choice . . . Almost an endless litany of aggression, disloyalty, and injustice to personal and individual freedom and choice. Trump kept a fire under all these aggressions, not in the elegant way Stephen Curry plays B-ball but in a stunted, fractured, repetitive drumbeat style that got the win nevertheless, not to mention the tweets, the chosen discourse medium of the new Millennium.

How the game will end

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” A frequently quoted statement from Jefferson’s retirement papers. Survival meant the ability of those whose freedom is being threatened to interpret rationally how it is being threatened. Corollary to this is the ability to recognize bullshit and lies that deter an autocrat on the horizon from doing so.

What I call “rational” now has an “alternative” rational, which means, in short, we have lost our affiliation with “rational.” It is floating free of fact and evidence. Reason floats free the way capital does. We can expect, however, that like the blind man holding the tail of the elephant and insisting the elephant is shaped exactly like a snake, that at some point the elephant will disprove that, to the blind man’s regret.

This reliance on reality at some point upsetting our irrationality is not, however, totally soothing. Mother Nature cannot bring us to universally accepting the connection between human activity and global warming and if science has not already done that, it is not liable to.

And if President Trump’s unfitness, by all criteria, leads to or is revealed by some sort of crisis, such an event will not universally expose that unfitness. Crisis will most likely cement the autocratic rule as The Forgotten and everyone else rallies around the flag, held by Trump. The reality of crisis could be shipped from his unfitness to the judiciary, or the media, or the Liberals, or Obama or the gods or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If survival is an extended event not fixed at any one moment, then we have time to educate a citizenry toward developing the tools of a common, communicative understanding, to a consensual validation of what is true and what is not as survival priorities present themselves.

If, however, the moment of survival is now, and the very pressing issue of global warming says it is, then we have already had our chance to educate and we have failed.

Not the first society to have failed in this manner but certainly the first in which the survival of the human species is at stake. Happily, the planet itself has the capacity to re-organize after catastrophic events, the human race, like a sudden asteroid, being one.

While President Trump remains the mountebank Donald Trump, now playing the part of president and not much invested in it beyond monetizing the office, he is an aberration that would dissolve if so many lackeys, bootlickers, Eichmann-like flunkies and enablers, so may ready to service apparatchiks and useful idiots had not so quickly gathered around him. These are not The Forgotten, the tragically duped but rather the opportunists who rally around a strong man anxious to do his will.

It is refreshing to return to the jubilant NCAA March Madness because whoever gets to the final two, the champion game and wins will be recognized by all as the winner. There will be no alternative winner, no alternative game, and no alternative baskets. There can be no deflecting of loss to winning or winning to loss. It is a refreshing madness, this NCAA March Madness.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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