on that commander-in-chief and living with a narcissist

The flurry over the past five days of executive orders, bald-faced lies, frightening gag rules, ridiculous and dangerous policy announcements and logic-defying interviews has been exhausting. The only comparison I have is my experience living with a narcissist.

Narcissists are addicted to attention, regardless of how negative or questionable the premise. If unable to generate a flow of praise and adoration, a range of tactics can be used to present oneself as a victim, as aggrieved, as injured, as sick and needing care. If even this fails, creating enemies and generating highly moralizing or demonizing arguments about these enemies serves as a useful drama- and attention-generating strategy.

There is no reasoning with such an individual. Any attempt to pin down inconsistency or question the basis of their actions gets redirected into the above strategies: if you won’t adore me, then pay attention to the grievances I have, and if you won’t do that then maybe you’re an enemy who is a terrible person and is doing terrible things.

The appeal of the narcissist is that they believe their lives and experience to be singularly more important than any other. On this basis – that they are more important than you are – all their attention-generating strategies make sense. Only with this running assumption can comparing their behaviour to common standards and norms be avoided. The narcissist must be special, an exception, unique, so that normal rules don’t apply to them.

Individuals with low self-esteem can be attracted to narcissists because narcissists do in an exaggerated and deformed way what they cannot. You may not think of yourself as worthwhile, but the narcissist definitely thinks of themselves as worthwhile and can even give you tiny bits of self-worth by sharing in this adoration of the narcissist. This is the role of sycophants.

Living with a narcissist is very taxing. Ultimately, you don’t matter, unless you are holding up a mirror to the narcissist. Constantly moving from crisis to crisis, from outrage to outrage, in the narcissist’s effort to avoid being exposed while maintaining a flow of attention is exhausting. The only solutions involve removing yourself from their sphere of influence, or establishing extremely rigid boundaries, in which case you will cease to be useful to the narcissist and be discarded.

This is made somewhat more difficult when the narcissist happens to occupy a position of power and endless screen time. I find myself following the news closely just in case maybe he’s thinking about pushing the Big Red Button today or something. There must be, however, a point at which we cease to be amazed, surprised, or bewildered by this attention-seeking behaviour. I think we’d all be better off if we roll our eyes at the manipulations of a man-child throwing a tantrum, and focus our attention and energies on surviving and building the world we want.


on writing

Is a voice really that important? If I don’t write them down, will these thoughts still have mattered? Will they be recorded in some great divine volume? Will anyone read them? Will they amount to anything? Should I even bother typing them out?

These are the questions that largely prohibit any writing from taking place. Not the divine volume bit, but everything else. I continue to struggle to write because it probably doesn’t mean anything, and but fail to experience the liberating effects of that meaninglessness — if there are no consequences to writing, if it can simply happen and not matter, then what’s the harm? Rather than feel anxious over its potential worth, why not simply go for it and delight in its potential worthlessness?

And yet words mean something! They mean a great deal in fact. One might even argue that the world is made of words, and without them we’d merely have shapes and rocks and grunting and smashing of stones and skulls.

The responsibility of writing weighs me down. If words do indeed make the world, it’s a tremendous task to choose them, to select them carefully, to place them in the correct order so as to convey a precise meaning. Sometimes if you’re lucky you can get those bonus points that clever writers are so good at, using prose and alliteration and imagery and that whole bit and condensing it all into a perfectly crystalized thought that doesn’t just convey meaning but creates a kind of delight when read. At its worst you create a muddled mess in other people’s heads, and then they think that that mess is what’s in your head, and heck they might be right, and you just thought it looked nice and you didn’t know any better because you never took art history.

Yes, it is a responsibility, I don’t want to waste anybody’s time or make them dumber for having read the words I happened to have printed. But while this great soul-searching over meaning and precision occurs, everybody else is building the world with the words all the time, and for the most part it’s nice and sometimes a bit odd to happen upon the worlds others have built. Some, however, possess a great power to build with their words, and the worlds they build are bigly terrible, just tremendously bad, really the best of the best of the worst, fantastically terrible. They can build worlds that other people are forced to live in, as if a great wall were built that others must pay for.

So the responsibility bit comes along again, but this time as a responsibility to act, to intervene, to counter. This is worse than the initial responsibility of choosing your world-building materials carefully; this now summons the entirety of my Catholic guilt, in which I was blessed with literacy with a reason and I had better not waste the gifts God gave me. This is not just about me but about the people around me, people whom I both love and often cannot stand and whom I wish would think more and whose easy-ticket rides to comfort and wealth I often envy. Yes even the ones that say completely reprehensible things, I owe it to them to at the very least articulate the thing that they never bothered to think, so that they have at the very least the opportunity to think it through.

Then there’s the completely psychoanalytic level at which to think this through, in which it really becomes eye-rollingly embarrassing to point out that oh sure isn’t it nice to think of writing, of expressing yourself, of enforcing a kind of world-building on your surroundings, as this noble mission, a burdensome task! Wow, what a hardship that must be! How do you even do it Joel? You must be soooo smart. People everywhere have to slap together words and give themselves emergency-shelter worlds all the time just so that they can exist, and here you are griping about the luxury of a library at your disposal. Give me a fucking break!

In effect it’s a round-about way of having an ego, which is really what you need when you’re writing. The premise behind the whole activity is that your thoughts are important enough that other people should read them and probably agree with them too. I mean, who does that? Really though. The majority of people who engage in this activity say some completely dumb, absolutely terrible shit, for terrible reasons, using terrible reasoning, in some terrible paper or terrible website that is paid for by terrible people that I don’t want anything to do with.

There’s good writing too though. There’s writing that has actually blown my mind, writing that I’ve escaped to, writing that has explained the world I live in in marvellously complex ways, writing that has made me put the book down and say out loud “holy fucking shit.” The real fear, the real danger, is that in trying to build worlds with words like these mind-blowing ones, I end up creating dog shit, stringing together countless words, all with the potential and promise of some emancipatory vista, while really ending up just smelling bad and sticking to your shoe in an unfortunately unforgettable way.

tl;dr: I should write more but instead of pretending it’s some responsibility I should just make sure it’s not shit.

Horrific Commodities


Halloween is great, filled with spooky and creepy things. A week or so ago, reading Marx’s Capital, I was struck by this passage on what appears to be a haunted table – describing it first as ordinary, sensuous and made of wood, Marx continues:

But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing on its own free will.

I immediately thought of Oculus, a film in which a large gothic-looking mirror is responsible for killing those who possess it, and then of all the other haunted objects / cursed things that populate the horrific imagination. What is fascinating is that all these stories present as horrifying precisely Marx’s point about commodity-fetishism: that the THINGS are manipulating US, rather than US manipulating the THINGS.

Granted, Marx is making use of horrific imagery to de-naturalize and make strange an ordinary and domestic object, just as horror stories tend to do with dolls, puppets, monkey’s claws, mirrors, houses… The reason these “work” as horror stories might be because they describe in an exaggerated way the relations that commodity-forms imply. David McNally, in Monsters of the Market, makes a similar case, arguing that

the very insidiousness of the capitalist grotesque has to do with its invisibility with, in other words, the way in which monstrosity becomes normalised and naturalised via its colonisation of the essential fabric of everyday-life, beginning with the very texture of corporeal experience in the modern world. What is most striking about capitalist monstrosity, in other words, is its elusive everydayness, its apparently seamless integration into the banal and mundane rhythms of quotidian existence.

I’m definitely going to think about this tonight as I snack on delicious little individually wrapped candy bars that have been made by child slaves.

Film Review: This Changes Everything

Had the opportunity to view the This Changes Everything documentary film tonight, with Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein in attendance. Generally it’s fine and I’m glad it exists and that people watch it, but it’s not particularly ground-breaking.

A few gripes:

  • It takes a long time for the film to name capitalism as the thing that changes, which it really should do much earlier;
  • Starting off with a distinction between use-value and exchange-value would have been really useful (remember the first chapter of Capital?). The film covers several accounts of “sacrifice zones” where petro-carbon extractive industries are ruining communities. The film stresses the uses of the land/ecology for the local community and contrasts this to the greed/destruction/ruin of industry. Yes it’s short-sighted, yes, it doesn’t care about traditions/local people, yes it’s a process that will cook the planet, because the exchange-value of the commodity is higher than dealing with the (potentially nonexistent) replacement of use-values for the affected communities. Will industry or the Alberta government fully cost and then replace/compensate First Nations in Fort Chip for lost and poisoned game/fish/land? Probably not, because that would cost a lot. So the choice is screw over current residents (no cost) and get barrels full of bitumen, OR … do neither. Court battles might create a precedent for costing these losses (which would be great), but it hasn’t happened yet.
  • I’m sympathetic to precapitalist worldviews and how they value things, but just as the “free market” doesn’t wonderfully reconcile all things to resolve all worldly problems, likewise, “nature” and its precapitalist and Romantic concepts are completely not useful in a sustainability/climate conversation. It’s ridiculous to invoke a “get back to nature” nostalgia/authenticity argument.
    WE LIVE ON A FLYING ROCK THAT HAS ASTEROIDS HIT IT AND END MOST LIFE EVERY ONCE IN AWHILE. WE LIVE ON A PLANET THAT OCCASIONALLY HAS ICE AGES. It’s hippie bullshit to appeal to some Mother Goddess. What we really need is to understand the fragile balance of variables that we have LUCKED OUT on as a species for the recent planetary past, and then design and plan for the extremes that are likely to happen when those balances get out of whack and extreme events occur. Maintaining nature/civilization, spiritual/material dichotomies is not helpful at all and will only direct energy and attention to navel-gazing consumerism.
    We don’t need to be more “spiritual” and “in touch” with nature. What we need is to realize that it’s really dumb and life-threatening to just dump waste (CO2 or otherwise) into a complex set of variables that maintains a livable ecosystem.
  • The need to “leap” to green/sustainable tech that is widely distributed (and not monopolized by an energy system) is basically an argument that the means of power production should be democratically controlled but they don’t really frame it that way…

Lastly, if you’ve not yet read them: Jodi Dean on Naomi Klein, and Capitalist Klein vs. Socialist Klein are both good reads.

Summer Reading List 2015


Here’s my reading list for this summer! Obviously it’s open to change, but it’s a start.

Ken Wark’s stuff on the Situationists should be interesting to read alongside Lefebvre’s Critique and will help to give some context to the latter. I’m also really looking forward to reading Wark’s Molecular Red after having gone through Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Wark’s discussion of the anthropocene touches on Robinson’s Red Mars in particular (terraforming I assume), so I’m hoping I”ll enjoy Molecular Red more after having read the Mars trilogy.

Lissagaray obviously is going to be a bit of a slog to get through, but it’s an important primary source for stuff on the 1871 Commune. I’ve been reading so much secondary / tertiary analysis that I feel obligated to kind of know what I’m talking about historically. The Commune features pretty heavily in some recent work (Harvey’s Paris, Capital of Modernity, Merrifield’s The New Urban Question, and Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis among others), so having some historically familiarity with the EVENT should be an asset.

I’ve read bits and pieces of Ross’s Communal Luxury (and have her book on Paris ’68 out from the library), but I think Luxury deserves a decent cover-to-cover read. The analysis should be particularly interesting after having freshly read Lissagaray.

The Hollis and Peet books on geography and social science are required texts for a class I’ll be taking this fall, so I’m just being a keener and trying to get a head start.

Use of Weapons and Star Fraction are apparently about Space Communism on some level. I think I picked these titles from a list China Miéville came up with of socialist-inspired SF. Sounds right up my alley.

Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions — no particular reason, just haven’t read it yet. I try to read something new of Harvey’s every summer (last summer was Paris), and he’s usually pretty fun to read.

The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends: I read Coming Insurrection a couple years ago and thought it was cool enough. Merrifield’s a big fan of them too. Found this copy in a Harvard bookstore. Hopefully it’ll be just as interesting as Insurrection. (Didn’t some of these guys get busted for messing with a rail line as some sort of pretext? Who knows.)

Margaret Somers came out with The Power of Market Fundamentalism around this time last year, and I think I’ve renewed the library hold on it for a solid year ever since. I really just need to get around to reading it. It’s a contemporary discussion of the relevance of Polanyi’s Great Transformation and general critique, looks super interesting, I just need to actually sit down and read the damn thing.

If you bothered to read this and have any additional recommendations, or want to chat about any of these books, feel free to let me know!

The Economics of Conservative Consolidation in Alberta


A great floor-crossing has occurred! Political betrayal! Promises broken! The opposition, neutralized!

A lot of ink is being spilled on the betrayal of values, voter’s wishes and intentions, political opportunism, etc. The affair is being individualized and personalized: what was Danielle Smith thinking? How could she do this? But this is all less interesting than the economics at work in Alberta’s political establishment.

The Wildrose has its beginnings in the Stelmach era, when milquetoast increases to the royalty regime were considered. This resource-royalty re-tooling was occurring at exactly the same time as a global economic recession in which the future and viability of capitalism itself was in question. The global economic recession was cast by certain oilpatch-aligned folks as caused primarily by Stelmach and his royalty-regime. This marks the beginning of the Wildrose’s electoral and funding success.

What was fascinating, over the course of the next few years, was the crisis of identity this right-wing faction caused in PC ranks. PCs had typically filled the right-wing side of the room, and their conservative cred was never questioned by the opposition, which before the Wildrose made up the centre-left wing of the political spectrum. Suddenly, though, the PCs had to be more conservative than the Wildrose, while also not alienating voters who were increasingly urban and socially liberal. It was also highly entertaining to see a party exploit any populist issue available (power lines!) to position itself as the party ‘of the people’ against the corrupt establishment — a trope that’s well-worn in Alberta’s political history.

It’s difficult not to see a relation between the threatened profitability of the oil sector and the rise of the Wildrose. Until recently, oil prices have tracked steadily upwards ever since the 2008 recession. So, too, did the popularity of the Wildrose. I suggest that the Wildrose’s function was to represent this economic interest provincially, preventing any further action on royalty rates or fiscally progressive policy from occurring.

It’s telling, also, that the rationale for this enormous floor-crossing is about “uncertain economic times” and needing to “pull together as conservatives.” Alberta’s oilpatch isn’t going to be the target of any redistributive policy from the PCs anytime soon: oil prices are sinking, projects are on hold, and government coffers are looking increasingly bare.

The major threat to industry is not from the PCs, in tinkering with royalty rates or what-have-you, but from the left side of the spectrum: the coming fiscal/budgetary crisis means seriously considering Alberta’s revenue problem. Running a province on oil revenue (instead coming up with sane taxation policy) is great for everyone when oil is flowing, but when prices drop suddenly the ability to fund everything dries up. The conservative consolidation we’re seeing is simply preparation for the substantial budget cuts we’re going to see — and it will likely hit the public sector hard. Healthcare, education, social services.