By Jason Adams
Solids cancel time; for liquids, on the contrary, it is mostly time that matters… for power to be free to flow, the world must be free of fences, barriers, fortified borders and checkpoints. Any dense and tight network of social bonds . . . is an obstacle to be cleared out of the way. Global powers are bent on dismantling such networks for the sake of their continuous and growing fluidity, that principal source of their strength and the warrant of their invincibility.
—Zygmunt Bauman (Liquid Modernity)
A number of recent articles have focused upon the central culpability of Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder in deposing Flint’s democratically-elected city council and appointing Darnell Early, the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) who presided over the unilateral decision-making structures that gave rise to the sourcing of lead-tainted water supplies in the now-famous Flint Water Crisis. A similar number of response pieces have drawn upon Matthew MacWilliams’ University of Massachusetts-Amherst poll of 1,800 respondents, finding that authoritarianism was the single most important factor in the public’s support for Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.
If a shift away from public support for representative democracy and towards more authoritarian modes of government is the driving factor in both cases though, what is at work on a more general level, that undergirds this shift in our time? What my book Occupy Time: Technoculture, Immediacy and Resistance argues is that such questions cannot be answered without an attentiveness to both political economy and the cultural and technological relations that provide conditions of possibility for such outcomes. In short, if we live in a culture describable by Douglas Rushkoff as one of “present shock,” in which a disposition of “presentism” (or as I prefer, “immediatism”) prevails over one concerned with past and future, in what form might that be expressed politically?
A few of the more perceptive commentaries have come close to answering this via foregrounding the influence of the Michigan-based right-wing think tank The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in the development of Governor Snyder’s EFM policy. Writing in Salon, for instance, Paul Rosenberg notes that “what’s happening now is rooted in a state-level attack on democracy . . . [based upon The Mackinac Center’s agenda to] consistently shift the framework of policy debate in a given ideological direction.” Similarly, on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow describes Snyder’s EFM policy as “the single most radical policy” in all of American history, one which also derives from a think tank that targeted Michigan professors who uttered Maddow’s name in personal emails.
While Maddow is incorrect—the emergency manager policy at a minimum, is not as extreme as legally-enshrined slavery was—the policy is nevertheless of a piece with it on the level of the unrestrained structural authority thereby enabled, in a form that conjoins the culture and technology of our time with a neoliberal policy apparatus. That apparatus, of course, is one that The Mackinac Center not only celebrates, but directly cultivates through the development of policy documents like the one that lead to Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, Director of Labor Policy Paul Kersey’s Reconsidering Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act: Restoring Balance to Public Sector Labor Relations.
Initially focused on eliminating public sector labor union influence, The Mackinac Center’s January 2011 document articulates how EFM laws like the Snyder-championed House Bill 4214 could “end with the state appointing an emergency financial manager.” Of course, the effects of such a fundamental shift in governance structures would be felt much more broadly than just labor relations: and, as the think tank noted in March 2011, “The Mackinac Center in January highlighted four ways that the law needed to be improved. The new law implements all of them [HB 4214]”. These included: protecting the EFM from litigation; increasing the scope of the manager’s authority to cover all areas; allowing the manager to move around charter provisions; and, giving the manager more opportunity to reform union agreements.
In effect, what Zygmunt Bauman has described as “liquid modernity” was being written into actual state policy: policy in which, given that the EFM could both enact and suspend laws willy-nilly, “all agreements are temporary, fleeting, and valid only until further notice.” First and foremost, of course, this includes the right of the citizenry to enact policy themselves, either through referendum, or through elected representatives. The withdrawal of this right produces a new state-form that, even if its temporary, emergency nature eludes a single, ultimate definition, is certainly articulable as a liquid state, one in which no rights or other guarantees are fixed interminably, and which can be edited and revised as easily as a Wikipedia page could be.
The Flint Water Crisis makes more clear than ever then, that some form of postdemocratic “emergency government” has been introduced, one in which the first and most extreme consequences are reserved for working-class, minority-majority communities in the first world, as they already have been for some time in the third world. Of course, the ongoing epidemic of summary executions meted out by local police departments already set the pace for a full understanding of this development over the past several years, but the potentially fatal poisoning of thousands of children, the elderly, and others lacking fully-functioning immune systems does so with greatly-intensified force.
In our time, legally-sanctioned mass murder in the form Lauren Berlant refers to as “slow death” is becoming normalized on cultural level, such that more often than not, the perpetrators of such acts go unpunished. This is particularly clear upon revisiting the legitimation rhetoric used when Governor Snyder and The Mackinac Center replaced numerous, popularly-elected municipal governments across the state of Michigan with EFMs. In the Flint case, prior to Early, the initial EFM was Michael Brown. Consider then, the following Op-Ed in which The Flint Journal defended Brown’s appointment in January 2012, amidst widespread public outcry:
Some are equating Brown and his colleagues in a half-dozen other local governments in Michigan to dictators. That’s harsh, but with an element of truth. With a swipe of his pen and state approval, Brown can make major changes in city spending, personnel and negotiated contracts; eliminate or combine whole city departments and even merge the entire city with its neighbors. So, yes, we can see why emergency financial managers make a lot of people uneasy. We are reassured, though, from what we’ve seen in Brown’s first report to the state. It’s almost entirely composed of ideas that should be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to city affairs for the past two or three years. No surprises, but plenty of ideas that were born here. Nobody had the political will or the power to enact them. That’s what’s different now. Brown can make them happen.
In short, The Flint Journal reassured riled-up city residents by appealing to the canard of localism, reassuring them that, even if the newly-appointed EFM was in fact making decisions in a manner that displaced popular authority, he was nevertheless doing so with full awareness of local opinions and desires, “ideas that were born here”. The question this raises however, is whether that in and of itself, is sufficient as an explanation: does an appeal to local needs and supposedly pre-existing desires itself adequately legitimate the unilateral form of EFM-based policy-making, as opposed to duly-elected policy-making via the city council? And if so, is it not simply on the basis that he can make them happen faster, “with a swipe of his pen”, than a deliberative public body could?
Legitimations of authoritarianism and the rise of the “authoritarian personality” of course, have been a central concern for social and political theorists dating back at least to the horrors of Nazi Germany, so their reappearance in media outlets like The Flint Journal today should give us pause. As noted, we are living in a time of the liquid state, one in which political authoritarianism with a decidedly opportunist bent is rearing its head to a degree that was previously unimaginable in the US, much as it has been around the world since WWII. What is different today is that there is no substantial counterbalance as there had been in the leadup to fascism in Europe, which means that would-be authoritarians have a much freer hand to create impermanent, “liquid” structures entirely distinct from the attempt at authoritative permanence and solidity experienced there.
Would Flint have seen EFMs displacing the democratically-elected city council in the absence of the larger cultural and technological milieu of Rushkoff’s presentism, or my immediatism – a culture of instantly-deployed social media posting and cellphone-based text-messaging that has displaced the norms associated with periodical media in print and broadcast form? Perhaps, but the fact that US society has grown increasingly comfortable with unmediated, willy-nilly decision-making on an individual level – decision-making that isn’t slowed down by the periodical rhythms of public or representative deliberation so as to instead, simply decide as quickly as possible – probably also has some reverberations on a collective level, too.
A liquid economy is one in which, as Marx and Engels famously argued (picked up on by both Bauman and Marshall Berman), “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… [thus] all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind… [and along with this transition,] the weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.”
Of course, whether this liquification, this constant revolutionizing of the means of production and relations of production simply amounts to capitalists automating production lines and firing workers such that they are disemployed en masse, or police officers engaging in summary execution rather than sending a court case through the established channels, or EFMs sourcing public water from a poisoned/poisoning supply rather than carefully vetting the range of options, ultimately makes little difference. In all cases, the common denominator is that the process of the decision has become liquified and rendered capable of circumventing any form of interlocution. As a result, the EFM’s decisions are made “with a swipe of his pen”, rather than a popularly-elected group of representatives that might deliberate, and agree or disagree.
Of course, the flip side of such a liquid economy is that it is not simply a matter of culture and technology speeding-up “too quickly”. The point is not to argue in favor of slowing down compared to the print- and broadcast-based culture and technology of the past, but to instead think through the manner in which the weapons of the bourgeoisie might become the weapons of the proletariat. US and world political economy will almost doubtlessly remain at speed going forward, no matter what interventions might be made at this point. Thus, the real danger lies in the failure of the working- and middle-classes to match the capitalist speed-up with a speed-up of their own, one that resituates, redirects, and redeploys what doing so is about, on the most basic of levels.
Before that can happen though, we need to understand not only the political and economic sources of the current malaise, but also the cultural and technological sources. Snyder’s EFMs were legitimated in several sources on the basis that “a single manager can respond to problems quickly, as meetings and board approvals are unnecessary.” And of course, as Marx reminds us in the Grundrisse, the origins of such developments cannot be separated from an economic system mobilized by the most efficient disposal of time, which in the US case is historically coupled with the authoritarian nature of American federalism, mobilized by figures like John C. Calhoun to justify slavery.
But the concept of the liquid state also exemplifies the insights of Deleuze and Guattari’s much-cited work A Thousand Plateaus on the question: today, they argue, “the totalitarian State is not a maximum State but rather, following Virilio’s formulation, the minimum State of anarchocapitalism.” While the more common assumption today is that communism and fascism formed the totalitarian nexus of the twentieth century that more enlightened twenty-first century liberalism avoids, they point to Pinochet, whose Chicago Boys-inspired, proto-neoliberal state apparatus served as a central inspiration for the installation of dictatorship in Chile.
Whether the Flint Water Crisis is best read through the lens of the liquid state or minimum state totalitarianism is an open question, but the resistance to representative mediation in states like Michigan today is clear, especially in working-class, minority-majority communities. The fewer the elected officials, the more quickly decisions can be made: temporal expenditures can be greatly reduced once election campaigns, civil deliberation, intergovernmental negotiation, and related features of representative democracy no longer constitute an obstacle to decision-making. In this respect, a minimum state can indeed be authoritarian, despite the fact that economists who call for less government frame the argument as a matter of intensifying liberty.
In a liquid environment, governance is no longer slowed down by a majoritarian citizenry to which elected rulers are at least formally accountable, nor to other officials with whom they are expected to share decision-making processes. Rather, governance operates at the velocity appropriate to the economy of which it is an expression: that of speed at the speed-limit, of instantaneity. This is seen especially clearly in that in the name of empowering the “will to enact,” governor-appointed officials on the level of the state replace the elected city council persons who are the supposed hallmark of representative governance and local governance in particular.
And, reducing their lengthy, necessarily mediated deliberations to the immediate, unimpeded decision of a single, unchallenged “decider”—a boss, in short—arrives amidst the rising influence of real-time culture and technology, an influence that intensifies especially when combined with the liquid economics of efficiency and austerity. The rhetoric of urgency need not even be articulated, since both are already culturally and technologically presupposed: as the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt famously argued, representative democracy is insufficient to deal with the emergency situations since its essence is to “permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.”
What the emerging liquid economy demands then, is a particular politicization of immediacy that relies upon the emergent habitus it inculcates in order to justify an increasingly authoritarian mode of both state and economy. But as the role of The Mackinac Center in the Flint Water Crisis clarifies, it cannot do so without developing a significant rhetorical defense of authoritarian modes of governance that nevertheless, do not fundamentally depart from already-existing assumptions amongst the well-inculcated US populace, particularly about the sacrosanct status of the free market—or more accurately, the liquid market. Where the free market claims to enhance the freedom of all given sufficient personal talent and effort, the liquid economy no longer guarantees anything, since “the people operating the levers of power on which the fate of the less volatile partners in the relationship depends can at any moment escape beyond reach.”
Free-market ideology is famously Austrian in character, and is centered around two central figures: Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. While Mises was the one who most explicitly flirted with fascism, the architects of Michigan’s liquid state and liquid economy are closer to Hayek, conceptually. And unsurprisingly, they are as deluded about what the “road to serfdom” amounts to culturally and technologically as they are politically and economically. Isaac M. Morehouse, Director of Student Leadership at The Mackinac Center, for instance, champions Hayek’s claim that economic planning is unsupportable, since no single individual can attain sufficient knowledge about all the unique contexts in which needs would be identified and resources allocated.
Celebrating Hayek’s influence upon Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Morehouse suggests that the success of self-edited Wikipedia pages demonstrate that the identification of needs and allocation of resources must be left up to separate, autonomous individuals to discover, bringing dispersed knowledge together in an efficient and expedient disposal of time that brings many actors into a convergent state within which they might isonomize the production process. Under cultural and technological conditions of immediacy, Morehouse opines, the entries would be continuously updated as new events occur, so that “the” encyclopedia would never be outdated but would always be updated with the latest information, unlike the quickly-outdated artifacts previously produced under print capitalism.
Much as with the liquid state and liquid economy then, liquid media are those in which publication is “increasingly mobile, slippery, shifty, evasive and fugitive,” including, obviously, categories previously catalogued with some solidity, by the print-based encyclopedias. As Morehouse explains, “most often the edition on your shelf has facts and figures that are already out of date and can never keep up with the rapidly changing world.” Insofar as Wikipedia entries are temporally superior in that they are altered in “real-time” just as Facebook pages and blogs trump periodicals because they are updated “instantly,” Morehouse claims they exemplify the Hayekian claim that “millions of individuals’ localized knowledge freely pooled together is greater than any central authority could compile alone.”
Never mind, of course, that the same Mackinac Center that published Morehouse’s article on the folly of allowing economic planning to be performed by “any single individual” also lobbied for the decidedly single individual that is the centerpiece of EFM policy over the course of the past decade—asking as far back as 2005, for instance, “Can Detroit’s Problems Be Corrected by an Emergency Financial Manager?”, with ample funding from the billionaire families behind Amway, Walmart and other major corporations. And yet, perhaps this disjuncture between democracy and dictatorship within the Mackinac Center’s output is itself evidence of the centrality of liquidity as a structural element of the contemporary period, one that becomes at least temporarily describable as “minimum state totalitarianism” in situations like the Flint Water Crisis.
The Mackinac Center’s deployment of the liquid dynamic then, is giving rise to new forms of power and authority in the state, economy, and media alike that support the definitions of liberty they employ, but with added twist. Despite appearances, the legitimation of Hayek via Wikipedia is not at odds with the more explicitly authoritarian discourse that confronts working-class and middle-class people in the realm of mortgages and student loans. Efficiency, expediency, and liquidity are all beyond dichotomies of democracy and dictatorship, since the emphasis is not on one or the other, but on the zone of indistinction between them, that which makes them all possible in a given, unpredictable situation. The rise of EFMs provides one of the clearest examples of the manner in which the immediacy of contemporary capitalism is not only about democratically empowering dispersed individuals to pool collective knowledge into digital entries, but is also on an ideological level, deeply antidemocratic in nature.
In other words, the new media environment is one in which, as David Weinberger’s book title insists, Everything Is Miscellaneous: digital culture is producing a “digital disorder” in which all that was previously defined according to the hierarchies of space are now recontextualized according to the immediacy of time, the fluidity of the modern. Weinberger asserts that ideological categories that came into being in the era of print capitalism are dissolving into a post-ideological, virtual space just as democracy and dictatorship dissolve into one another as well. As people use Wikipedia and other user-generated media to define political ideologies, political terms and political networks, each of the old categories becomes as subject to the vicissitudes of individual idiosyncrasy as does the liquidity it ensures between democracy and dictatorship.
This is especially the case since at the same moment that immediacy has enabled the spread of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, liquidified economic imperatives have enabled ideologies of efficiency and expediency to supplant Keynesian and print- and broadcast-bases for representative democracy. The ideological success of the once-marginal Austrian wing can certainly be attributed in part to what Paul Virilio calls the culture of reflex, in which rapid-fire dissemination is prioritized over the content of what is disseminated. Whereas in the past, parliamentary and extraparliamentary political movements alike relied upon predictable, periodic intervals separating publication and organization, today the Mackinac Center celebrates the immediacy of communication which blurs all rhythms and distinctions.
In doing so, it produces a generalized miscellaneity within which political categories are opened to relativization and resignification, while an anti-interpretive, anti-intellectual discourse reigns over what is then resignified. Given the simultaneous legitimation of an at least temporary dictatorship, it is also no surprise that references to liberty rarely mention their relationship, or lack thereof, to the more explicitly egalitarian domain of democracy. And while The Mackinac Center’s ongoing critiques of democracy [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] reveal explicit hostility to equally enfranchised, shared decisionmaking, by avoiding such references in public discussion on the part of the representatives like Governor Snyder whom they support, an emergent liquid state is enabled to reinflect terms such as liberty that would otherwise be signified differently.
In this manner, policy agendas such as the installation of EFMs and the call for the deactivation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are understood as advancing rather than obstructing the image right-wing think tanks disseminate of “liberty.” And it is, of course, little distance from that point to further posit that representative democracy itself constrains liberty and should thus be abolished and replaced with some other state form preferred by dominant economic forces. As a result, in the name of liberty, the freedom of to engage in it is restricted, while a postdemocratic, immediatist movement is primed for expansion in the form of the liquid state.