October 6, 2008

The Legislation of Catastrophe

And the most terrible, the most horrible catastrophes imaginable, the conflagration of the universe, can it be anything more than the crackling, the burst, and the evaporation of a grain of powder on a candle?
--Joseph Joubert, 1821

In the long wake of the French Revolution, particularly between 1815 and 1850, liberal politics waged war on threats to social order. Trying to bolster the prospects of liberty in the time of the excessive, ruinous promise of revolution, liberal politics tested again and again the dream of a justice fit for the feared worst. As the grounds forming and supporting the law shifted with the seismic force of violent antagonisms, however, there was a dramatic collision of fears.

For some, the events of the half-century demonstrated the absolute vulnerability of the individual exposed to the riotous calamities of revolution; annihilating social forces quite capable of extinguishing all individual liberties, devastating personhood itself.

For others, the notion that those so vulnerable might be offered legal assistance, and thereby given a voice in the systems of the civic arena, threatened the notion of the law itself. It was as if the impulse to the protect the poor came as the sound of a dam cracking, the wall between order and catastrophe splintering case by case, until the whole social order dissolved under the raging waters of an infinite clamor for justice.

This old negotiation with catastrophe comes to mind when one thinks of the thickly paged bill passed this week to (supposedly, possibly) tend to the financial "crisis" before it becomes a catastrophe. As before, the threat cannot be measured. As before, the measures have no way to dim the threats. This time, the mathematical sublime is not just a philosophical formula, but an apt rendition of the inability of anyone to ever know the risks that are supposed to be contained. Even for those for whom "one trillion" is a real number, there is noone who can know the true amount of credit default swaps that have infested the system of capital. If there is a specter in that machine it is a communal failure of the law, of contracted promises -- a curdled moment in the dream of the risk manager's equation.

And when those promises are broken? When the magical thinking ends? Will we sense at all the tiny flick at the end of the candle, somewhere? Or only feel the loss of some distant light that went out long ago, like some star?

We have now learned that these intertwining bets against and for disaster have come to cast a net over everything were, not surprising, the result of a law. An eleventh hour budget passed on December 15th, 2000 contained legislation that removed the prospect of regulation; it ensured our collective exposure to the blind and hysterical risk games, and that such risk would continue unchecked until now, when it is far too late to address and correct.

Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying that given the state of capital, now is a time above all for thinking, for theory, for finding the true measure of our situation. "What is to be done?" requires knowing with what, as well as what is at stake. He is not so confident that this can be done, however, for we are so often lacking a language, a calculus that can ground a critique. One waits for the language to come, one dreads the catastrophe, one recoils from the abuses written in by the law itself.