Dino De Paoli, "Lazare Carnot's Grand Strategy for Political Victory" (excerpt)
Carnot, the Leibnizian
Benjamin Franklin, whose efforts to secure French support for the American Revolution are well known, fought against such nostalgic defenders of feudalism in America and in Europe. Less well known, is that he reorganized the French Leibnizians, and trained Lazare Carnot. Carnot, the "moralist," was a happy man. His wine cellar full of Burgundy wine, his poetry, his jokes, all show that in him, morality did not rhyme with morosity. Carnot studied at a school run by the Oratorian Fathers, where he was taught the work of Leibniz, before pursuing his studies under the direction of another pupil of the Oratorians, Gaspard Monge. The latter was the pedagogical director of the school of military engineering at Mézière. His educational method deeply influenced a whole generation of European scientists.
In 1783-84, Carnot came into contact with Franklin's Parisian circles, and began the fundamental political endeavor which was to determine his later activities. In his "Essay on Machines," Carnot defined himself as a Leibnizian, in the broadest sense of the term. Society can only progress through the scientific study of technological innovation, he maintained. It was from that standpoint that Carnot would establish the new bases for a study of mechanics, defined as the search for the best possible way for a machine to transform the energy flux. This conception is opposite to fixed Cartesian analysis. The true science of thermodynamics was born.
At about the same time, Carnot helped his friends the Montgolfier brothers, in their experiments on the first aerostatic balloons, the development of which inflicted a terrible defeat on those who claimed that man would never achieve mastery over nature and vanquish its laws, notably that of gravity. Carnot went even further, and, the following year, after the launching and ascent of a montgolfière, in 1784, he presented to the Academy of Sciences a memorandum on the ways in which balloons could be directed with engines, and perhaps even a steam engine:"It is heat which, producing systolic and diastolic expansion in the balloon, must give the impulsion to the wheels.... You must note, in passing, gentlemen, how many arms will be spared in manufacturing, when the mechanics of fire are better known.... Within ten years, this will produce astonishing revolutions in the [mechanical] arts."Carnot later collaborated with inventor Robert Fulton on naval propulsion with steam engines, and on the use of submarines to beat the British fleet. "It is a newborn child!" Franklin exclaimed, when he saw the experiments. It is from these beginnings, that hydrodynamics and aerodynamics were developed, proceeding from a conception of man fundamentally opposed to that of Voltaire and Rousseau.
In 1806, Carnot wrote in a report to the Academy of Sciences on the work of the physicist Nicéphore Niepce on a combustion engine:"The discovery of a new motor force in nature is always a precious thing, when we can succeed in regularizing its effects, and use it to spare man's efforts.... Antiquity knew little of those motor forces; they only employed living human beings, weights, waterfalls, or wind. Those forces all being developed by nature itself, it was necessary, in order to apply them, to know only the effect of the lever.... But those assemblies of levers are only inert masses, merely able to transmit the action of moving forces without ever increasing them:If man wants to progress, he must create new forms of energy of greater and greater densities. This implies precise social and political considerations which Carnot was to elaborate in his first writings, "Eloge de Vauban" ("In Praise of Vauban") (1784) and "Memoire sur les Places Fortes" ("Memorandum on Fortifications") (1788)."It is the motor force which is everything. Modern man has discovered several motor forces, or rather has created them: because, though their elements be necessarily pre-existing, in nature, their dissemination nullifies them in this respect; they only acquire the quality of moving forces through artificial means, such as the expansive force of water reduced to steam, as the upward force which launches the aerostatic balloon."" This notion fundamentally refutes the mechanical interpretation of the laws of thermodynamics, as well as the simplistic interpretation of the principle of conservation of energy attributed to Carnot. It also destroys the stupid arguments of today's ecology movement for solar energy, for new "diffuse" sources of energy.
In those two works, Carnot for the first time clearly presents his idea of a republican nation-state, and that idea is very different from simple anti-monarchism. Republicanism can take diverse institutional forms, among them, the American model of parliamentary democracy. Carnot used the work of French military engineer Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, to present his own credo on the necessity for the spiritual and material progress of the labor force.
This was the cornerstone of the reforms Carnot later introduced, notably when he reorganized the army. Like Vauban, Carnot was not attacking the king, so much as he was attacking the court, that gathering of lazy and parasitical aristocrats who ruined the French economy.
Led by the Orléans family, the court sabotaged the attempts of the Marquis de Lafayette to build the French republic in the image of the American republic. Thus Carnot wrote in his "In Praise of Vauban":"May the triumph of reason be regarded as the most sublime effort of virtue.... If victory over our passions elevates us above human nature, the natural inclination to do good makes us divine.... Vauban did a special study of [the peasant's] labor, of his way of life. He researched the value of land, the way to cultivate it.... According to his calculations, for every 24 inhabitants in the kingdom, only one cultivates the land; thus, it is he who will feed the 23 others. What a difference between that father nourishing the fatherland and the man of leisure (the courtier)! The latter only begins to be useful when he dies.... He replenishes the earth only when he returns to it; however, it is that man of leisure who enjoys the fruits of all.... Vauban looked for the cause of disorder and found it in the excessive inequality of fortunes, in a revolting multitude of useless jobs, in a barbaric tax distribution system.... "The population was always regarded as the cause, the sign of prosperity of empires, but the number of citizens is proportional to the sum of their useful labor altogether."Carnot goes on to describe how activity can be promoted by correctly orienting the redistribution of wealth. Then he warns:"When the hard-earned bread which the poor farmer produced, and which he was going to share with his children, is pitilessly stolen from him, what can be expected of that monstrous system, except depopulation of the countryside, sowing jealousy and hatred among the citizenry, the spread of apathy, the crushing of trust and happiness in the hearts of men, and making them all indifferent to the success of the state and the destiny of the fatherland, by breaking all the ties which united men to it?|... "Vauban believed that any right which is damaging to society, is unjust, that those who have labored equally for it, have the same rights to its benefits.... "The government must prevent that odious multiplicity of prerogatives which condemn the most valuable class of men to indigence and scorn."
Today, that concept is forgotten, thrown away as "Marxist." How stupid! The Marxist apostles of those times, Gracchus Babeuf, the socialist Jacques-René Hébert, were guillotined, with Carnot assenting. Fabian socialists despise the labor force.
Carnot also details Vauban's economic reform proposals, adding his own view of what it means to be a wise man:"How rare it is that the wise man is able to obtain the fruits of his labor! He is ahead of his century, and his language can only be heard by posterity, but that is enough to sustain him.... He is a friend of those yet to be born; he converses with them in his profound reflections. As a citizen, he watches over the fatherland, he takes part in its triumphs; as a philosopher, he has already overcome the barriers which separate empires; he is the citizen of every land, contemporary of all ages; he follows man from his fragile origin to the final perfection of his being. From the moment when, weak and alone, he is the plaything of all that surrounds him, up to the times when, reunited with all his fellow men in a unanimous concert of all the means allocated to his species, he commands the universe as a master: What an immense gap between these two extremities! ... When, through those very convulsions, man has come to know the sum of his capabilities, the immense scope of his power.... Then, I say, will anything remain impossible for him? Ah! If in spite of the dissipation and difficulty of his individual efforts, he has learned to master thunder, to force gravity itself to reach the regions of the thunderbolt.... "What will he not do, when he brings together so many forces antagonized and broken by innumerable shocks, when private interest will have become general interest and virtue, the enlightened desire for happiness? Then the elements will be tamed, man will be respected by the entirety of nature; he will penetrate into the sanctuary of its laws; he will know its interconnections and causality."Such is the true spirit of the American Revolution, that of Franklin, so profoundly antagonistic to that of Voltaire, Rousseau, and, later, to the Jesuits associated with Augustin Cauchy under the reign of Charles X. The thoughts cited above are the life-force, the vis viva of Monge, Carnot, Franklin, and the republican movement of the nineteenth century.
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
Our boat is asleep on Serchio's stream,
Its sails are folded like thoughts in a dream,
The helm sways idly, hither and thither;
Dominic, the boatman, has brought the mast,
And the oars, and the sails; but ’tis sleeping fast,
Like a beast, unconscious of its tether.
The stars burnt out in the pale blue air,
And the thin white moon lay withering there;
To tower, and cavern, and rift, and tree,
The owl and the bat fled drowsily.
Day had kindled the dewy woods,
And the rocks above and the stream below,
And the vapours in their multitudes,
And the Apennine’s shroud of summer snow,
And clothed with light of aery gold
The mists in their eastern caves uprolled.
Day had awakened all things that be,
The lark and the thrush and the swallow free,
And the milkmaid’s song and the mower’s scythe
And the matin-bell and the mountain bee:
Fireflies were quenched on the dewy corn,
Glow-worms went out on the river’s brim,
Like lamps which a student forgets to trim:
The beetle forgot to wind his horn,
The crickets were still in the meadow and hill:
Like a flock of rooks at a farmer’s gun
Night’s dreams and terrors, every one,
Fled from the brains which are their prey
From the lamp’s death to the morning ray.
All rose to do the task He set to each,
Who shaped us to His ends and not our own;
The million rose to learn, and one to teach
What none yet ever knew or can be known.
And many rose
Whose woe was such that fear became desire;--
Melchior and Lionel were not among those;
They from the throng of men had stepped aside,
And made their home under the green hill-side.
It was that hill, whose intervening brow
Screens Lucca from the Pisan’s envious eye,
Which the circumfluous plain waving below,
Like a wide lake of green fertility,
With streams and fields and marshes bare,
Divides from the far Apennines—which lie
Islanded in the immeasurable air.
‘What think you, as she lies in her green cove,
Our little sleeping boat is dreaming of?’
‘If morning dreams are true, why I should guess
That she was dreaming of our idleness,
And of the miles of watery way
We should have led her by this time of day.’--
‘Never mind,’ said Lionel,
‘Give care to the winds, they can bear it well
About yon poplar-tops; and see
The white clouds are driving merrily,
And the stars we miss this morn will light
More willingly our return to-night.--
How it whistles, Dominic’s long black hair!
List, my dear fellow; the breeze blows fair:
Hear how it sings into the air--’
--‘Of us and of our lazy motions,’
Impatiently said Melchior,
‘If I can guess a boat’s emotions;
And how we ought, two hours before,
To have been the devil knows where.’
And then, in such transalpine Tuscan
As would have killed a Della-Cruscan,
So, Lionel according to his art
Weaving his idle words, Melchior said:
‘She dreams that we are not yet out of bed;
We’ll put a soul into her, and a heart
Which like a dove chased by a dove shall beat.’
‘Ay, heave the ballast overboard,
And stow the eatables in the aft locker.’
‘Would not this keg be best a little lowered?’
‘No, now all’s right.’ ‘Those bottles of warm tea--
(Give me some straw)—must be stowed tenderly;
Such as we used, in summer after six,
To cram in greatcoat pockets, and to mix
Hard eggs and radishes and rolls at Eton,
And, couched on stolen hay in those green harbours
Farmers called gaps, and we schoolboys called arbours,
Would feast till eight.’
With a bottle in one hand,
As if his very soul were at a stand
Lionel stood—when Melchior brought him steady:--
‘Sit at the helm—fasten this sheet--all ready!’
The chain is loosed, the sails are spread,
The living breath is fresh behind,
As with dews and sunrise fed,
Comes the laughing morning wind;--
The sails are full, the boat makes head
Against the Serchio’s torrent fierce,
Then flags with intermitting course,
And hangs upon the wave, and stems
The tempest of the...
Which fervid from its mountain source
Shallow, smooth and strong doth come,--
Swift as fire, tempestuously
It sweeps into the affrighted sea;
In morning’s smile its eddies coil,
Its billows sparkle, toss and boil,
Torturing all its quiet light
Into columns fierce and bright.
The Serchio, twisting forth
Between the marble barriers which it clove
At Ripafratta, leads through the dread chasm
The wave that died the death which lovers love,
Living in what it sought; as if this spasm
Had not yet passed, the toppling mountains cling,
But the clear stream in full enthusiasm
Pours itself on the plain, then wandering
Down one clear path of effluence crystalline
Sends its superfluous waves, that they may fling
At Arno’s feet tribute of corn and wine;
Then, through the pestilential deserts wild
Of tangled marsh and woods of stunted pine,
It rushes to the Ocean.
dedicated to FT, who definitely needs to take a "boat ride"! ;)
Monday, June 29, 2015
As for the US themselves, Zakaria's diagnosis is that "America is increasingly embracing a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness as the key measures of legitimacy. /.../ The result is a deep imbalance in the American system, more democracy but less liberty." The remedy is thus to counteract this excessive "democratization of democracy" (or "deMOREcracy") by delegating more power to impartial experts insulated from the democratic fray, like the independent central banks. Such a diagnosis cannot but provoke an ironic laughter: today, in the alleged "overdemocratization," the US and the UK started a war on Iraq against the will of the majority of their own populations, not to mention the international community. And are we not all the time witnessing the imposition of key decisions concerning global economy (trade agreements, etc.) by "impartial" bodies exempted from democratic control? Is the idea that, in our post-ideological era, economy should be de-politicized and run by experts, today not a commonplace shared by all participants? Even more fundamentally, is it not ridiculous to complain about "overdemocratization" in a time when the key economic and geopolitic decisions are as a rule not an issue in elections: for at least three decades, what Zakaria demands is already a fact. What we are effectively witnessing today is a split into ideological life-style issues where fierce debates rage and choices are solicited (abortion, gay marriages, etc.), and the basic economic policy which is presented as a depoliticized domain of expert decisions - the proliferation of "overdemocracy" with the "excesses" or affirmative action, the "culture of complaint," and the demands for financial and other restitutions of victims, is ultimately the front whose back side is the silent weaving of the economic logic.- Slavoj Zizek, "Too Much Democracy" (4/14/03)
Saturday, June 27, 2015
- André Breton, "Free Union" (1931)
My wife with the hair of a wood fire
With the thoughts of heat lightning
With the waist of an hourglass
With the waist of an otter in the teeth of a tiger
My wife with her rosette mouth and a bouquet of stars of the last magnitude
With the teeth of tracks of white mice on the white earth
With the tongue of rubbed amber and glass
My wife with the tongue of a stabbed host
With the tongue of a doll that opens and closes its eyes
With the tongue of an unbelievable stone
My wife with her eyelashes in the strokes of a child's writing
With eyebrows from the edge of a swallow's nest
My wife with brows of slates on a hothouse roof
And with steam on the windowpanes
My wife with shoulders of champagne
And of a fountain with dolphin heads beneath the ice
My wife with wrists of matches
My wife with fingers of luck and the ace of hearts
With fingers of mown hay
My wife with armpits of marten and of beechnut
And of Midsummer Night
Of privet and of an angelfish nest
With arms of seafoam and of riverlocks
And of a mingling of the wheat and the mill
My wife with legs of flares
With the movements of clockwork and despair
My wife with calves of eldertree pith
My wife with feet of initials
With feet of rings of keys and Java sparrows drinking
My wife with a neck of unpearled barley
My wife with a throat of the valley of gold
Of a tryst in the very bed of the torrent
With breasts of night
My wife with her undersea molehill breasts
My wife with breasts of the ruby's crucible
With breasts of the spectre of the rose beneath the dew
My wife with the belly of an unfolding of the fan of days
With the belly of a gigantic claw
My wife with the back of a bird fleeing vertically
With a back of quicksilver
With a back of light
With a nape of rolled stone and wet chalk
And of the drop of a glass where one has just been drinking
My wife with hips of a skiff
With hips of a chandelier and of arrow-feathers
And of shafts of white peacock plumes
Of an insensible pendulum
My wife with buttocks of sandstone and asbestos
My wife with buttocks of swans' backs
My wife with buttocks of spring
With the sex of an iris
My wife with the sex of placer and platypus
My wife with a sex of seaweed and ancient sweetmeat
My wife with a sex of mirror
My wife with eyes full of tears
With eyes of purple panoply and of a magnetic needle
My wife with savanna eyes
My wife with eyes of water to be drunk in prison
My wife with eyes of wood always under the axe
My wife with eyes of water-level air-level earth and fire
Friday, June 26, 2015
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Nietzsche’s opposition between "wanting nothing", in the sense of "I do not want anything", and the nihilistic stance of actively wanting the Nothingness itself. Following Nietzsche, Lacan emphasized how, in anorexia, the subject doesn’t simply not eat anything, he rather actively wants to eat the Nothingness itself. The same goes for the famous patient who felt guilty of stealing, although he didn’t effectively steal anything — what he did steal was, again, Nothingness itself. Along the same lines, in the case of caffeine–free diet Coke, we drink Nothingness itself, the pure semblance of a property. This example makes palpable the link between three notions: that of Marxist surplus-value, that of Lacan’s objet petit a as surplus enjoyment, a concept which Lacan elaborated with direct reference to Marxist surplus value, and the paradox of the superego, long ago perceived by Freud. The more profit you have, the more you want, the more you drink Coke, the more you are thirsty, the more you obey the superego command, the more you are guilty.
This superego–paradox also allows us to throw new light onto the functioning of today’s art scene. Its basic feature is not only the much deplored commodification of the culture, but also the less noted, perhaps even more crucial opposite movement: the growing culturalization of the market economy itself. Culture is less and less a specific sphere exempt from the market and more and more its central component. What this short’circuit between market and culture entails is the disappearance of the old modernist avant-garde logic of provocation, of shocking the establishment. Today, more and more, the cultural economic apparatus itself, in order to reproduce itself, has not only to tolerate but to directly incite stronger and stronger shocking effects and products. Let us recall recent trends in visual arts: gone are the days when we had simple statues or unframed paintings — what we get now are expositions of frames themselves without paintings, expositions of dead cows and their excrement, videos of the inside of the human body, inclusion of smell in the exhibition, and so on. Here, again, as in the domain of sexuality, perversion is no longer subversive: the shocking excesses of part of the system itself.
So what is superego? The external opposition between pleasure and duty is precisely overcome in the superego. It can be overcome in two opposite ways. On one hand, we have the paradox of the extremely oppressive, so–called totalitarian post–traditional power which goes further than the traditional authoritarian power. It does not only tell you "Do your duty, I don’t care if you like it or not." It tells you not only "You must obey my orders and do your duty" but "You must do it with pleasure. You must enjoy it." It is not enough for the subjects to obey their leader, they must actively love him.
It’s my old thesis that Freud was right, he just got it in the wrong temporal succession. I claim that in this obsession with false memory syndrome, imagining some brutal raping father, it is not that, as Freud thought, the we have first in some mystical past the rapist father who possessed all the women of the tribe and then through the murder of the father, the father returns as symbolic authority. It’s rather the opposite. The symbolic authority disintegrates and what fills in its void is this brutal Ur–Father. It’s the modern totalitarian masters who are much closer to this Ur–Father figure.
So what happens with the functioning of subjects when symbolic authority loses its efficiency? I claim we get subjects who are strangely de–realized, deprived of their psychology as if we are dealing with robotic puppets that are obeying some strange blind mechanism.
Let’s say that you have a wife who sleeps with other men and you are pathologically jealous. Even if your jealousy is grounded in fact it’s still a pathology. Why? Because, even if what the Nazis claimed about Jews was up to a point true, anti–Semitism was formally wrong, in the same sense that in psychoanalysis a symptomatic action is wrong. It is wrong because it served to replace or repress another true trauma, as something that inherently functioning as a displacement, an act of displacement, as something to be interpreted. It’s not enough to say anti–Semitism factually wrong, it’s morally wrong, the true enigma is ,why did the Nazis need the figure of the Jew for their ideology to function? Why is it that if you take away their figure of the Jew their whole edifice disintegrates. For example, let’s say I have a paranoiac idea that you are trying to kill me. You miss the point if you try to explain to me that it’s morally wrong for me to kill you in pre–emptive self–defense. The point is, why in order to retain my balance do I need the fantasy of you trying to kill me? As Freud points out paranoia is not simply the illness, it’s a false attempt of recovery. The true zero point is where your whole universe disintegrates. Paranoia is the misdirected attempt to reconstitute your universe so that you can function again. If you take from the paranoiac his paranoiac symptom, it’s the end of the world for him. Along the same lines, we have false acts. What an authentic act is precisely what allows you to break out of this deadlock of the symptom, superego and so on. In an authentic act I do not simply express, or actualize my inner nature. I rather redefine myself, the very core of my identity. In this since I claim that an act is very close to what Kierkegaard was trying to conceptualize as the Christian rebirth. Kierkegaard was very precise in opposing the Christian rebirth to the pagan pre–modern Socratic logic of remembrance. This is the crucial choice that psychoanalysis is confronted with. Is psychoanalysis the ultimate in the logic of Socratic remembrance, where I say "I must return to my roots, it’s already deep in me the truth of my unconscious desire, I just must realize my inner self", or is psychoanalysis dependent on an act in the way that Christianity is an act, where you are born again, not in a religious sense, but redefine what you truly are. You go through a symbolic suicide and become another person.
Something like this is always at work in an authentic act. You always have this dimension of sacrificing the most precious part of yourself. This is the generative moment of subjectivity.
Lacan proposed as one of the definitions of what he calls a "true woman" a certain act of taking from her partner, obliterating or destroying, that which means everything to him. The precious treasure around which their life turns. The exemplary figure of such an act in literature, of course, is Medea. Upon learning that Jason plans to abandon her, she kills her two young children, her husband’s most precious possession. Perhaps it is time against the overblown celebration of Antigone to reassert Medea, her uncanny counterpart. To make this point clear, let me quote you perhaps the most tragic example of such a Medea–like act which constitutes modern subjectivity. Do you know Toni Morrison, her novel "Beloved"? We have exactly such an act there. This is the novel about the painful birth of African–American subjectivity. "Beloved" focuses on the traumatic desperate act of the heroine "Sita". After escaping slavery in the middle of the last century with her four children, and then enjoying a month of the colored life in the North with her mother–in–law in Cincinnati, the cruel overseer of the plantation from which she escaped attempts to capture her by right of the fugitive slave law. Finding herself in a hopeless situation, she resorts to a radical measure in order to spare her children the return to bondage. She slices the throat of her eldest daughter, tries to kill two boys and bash out the brains of her infant daughter. Crucial to understand this desperate measure, let’s examine Sita’s apparently paradoxical ruminations. "If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died and that would have been something I could not have beared." Killing her daughter was the only was to preserve the minimum dignity of her life. In an interview Morrison says "By what may seem the ultimate cruelty of killing her offspring, she is claiming her role as a parent, claiming the autonomy, the freedom she needs to protect her children and give them some dignity". In a radical situation of a forced choice, in which because of slavery relations Sita’s children weren’t hers at all, the only way to protect them, to save their dignity, was to kill them. The character of Sita’s act becomes clear if we compare it with what is perhaps one of its literary models, William Styron’s "Sophie’s Choice", in which the heroine, confronted with the choice of saving one of her two children from the gas chamber, concedes to this blackmail by the Nazi officer and sacrifices her older daughter in order to save her young son, with the predictable result that this choice will haunt her for the rest of her life, driving her to suicide years later. Although Sita’s act haunts her as well, we’re dealing with the exact opposite action. While Sophie’s guilt results from her compromising attitude of accepting the terms of the choice, with Sita what she was not able to come to terms with was the properly ethical monstrosity of her act. At the end of the novel, the ghost of her daughter disappears and she can finally subjectize and assume her act. What makes her act so monstrous is, to use the Kierkegaardian term, the "suspension of the ethical" involved in it. In reading of Antigone, Lacan emphasizes that after her excommunication from the community, she enters the domain of what in Greek is called ate, the domain unspeakable horror of being between two deaths, still alive but excluded from the community. The same goes for Sita. Morrison has said that "She has stepped across the line. It’s understandable but it’s excessive. This is what the townspeople in Cincinnati respond to by excommunicating her. Not her grief, but her arrogance. They abandon her because of what they felt was her pride. Her statement about what is valuable to her damns what they think is valuable to them. They have had losses too. In her unwillingness to apologize or to bend, they know she would kill her child again. That is what separates her from them." What makes her monstrous not her act as such, but the way she refuses to relativize her act, accept responsibility and concede that she acted in an unforgivable way out of despair or madness. She doesn’t compromise, she says "No, it was a free act, not a desperate psychopathological confusion".-Slavoj Zizek, "The Superego and the Act"
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Monday, June 22, 2015
The protests on Wall Street and at St Paul’s Cathedral are similar, Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post, ‘in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions’. ‘Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square,’ she went on, ‘to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions.’- Slavoj Žižek, "Democracy is the enemy" (28 October 2011)
Once you have reduced the Tahrir Square protests to a call for Western-style democracy, as Applebaum does, of course it becomes ridiculous to compare the Wall Street protests with the events in Egypt: how can protesters in the West demand what they already have? What she blocks from view is the possibility of a general discontent with the global capitalist system which takes on different forms here or there.
‘Yet in one sense,’ she conceded, ‘the international Occupy movement’s failure to produce sound legislative proposals is understandable: both the sources of the global economic crisis and the solutions to it lie, by definition, outside the competence of local and national politicians.’ She is forced to the conclusion that ‘globalisation has clearly begun to undermine the legitimacy of Western democracies.’ This is precisely what the protesters are drawing attention to: that global capitalism undermines democracy. The logical further conclusion is that we should start thinking about how to expand democracy beyond its current form, based on multi-party nation-states, which has proved incapable of managing the destructive consequences of economic life. Instead of making this step, however, Applebaum shifts the blame onto the protesters themselves for raising these issues:‘Global’ activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout: ‘We need to have a process!’ Well, they already have a process: it’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.So, Applebaum’s argument appears to be that since the global economy is outside the scope of democratic politics, any attempt to expand democracy to manage it will accelerate the decline of democracy. What, then, are we supposed to do? Continue engaging, it seems, in a political system which, according to her own account, cannot do the job.
There is no shortage of anti-capitalist critique at the moment: we are awash with stories about the companies ruthlessly polluting our environment, the bankers raking in fat bonuses while their banks are saved by public money, the sweatshops where children work overtime making cheap clothes for high-street outlets. There is a catch, however. The assumption is that the fight against these excesses should take place in the familiar liberal-democratic frame. The (explicit or implied) goal is to democratise capitalism, to extend democratic control over the global economy, through the pressure of media exposure, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, police investigations etc. What goes unquestioned is the institutional framework of the bourgeois democratic state. This remains sacrosanct even in the most radical forms of ‘ethical anti-capitalism’ – the Porto Allegre forum, the Seattle movement and so on.
Here, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, respect for human rights. Real freedom resides in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by ‘extending’ democracy: say, by setting up ‘democratic’ banks under the people’s control. Radical changes in this domain should be made outside the sphere of such democratic devices as legal rights etc. They have a positive role to play, of course, but it must be borne in mind that democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction. Badiou was right to say that the name of the ultimate enemy today is not capitalism, empire, exploitation or anything of the kind, but democracy: it is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic mechanisms as the only legitimate means of change, which prevents a genuine transformation in capitalist relations.
The Wall Street protests are just a beginning, but one has to begin this way, with a formal gesture of rejection which is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content. So we should not be distracted by the question: ‘But what do you want?’ This is the question addressed by male authority to the hysterical woman: ‘All your whining and complaining – do you have any idea what you really want?’ In psychoanalytic terms, the protests are a hysterical outburst that provokes the master, undermining his authority, and the master’s question – ‘But what do you want?’ – disguises its subtext: ‘Answer me in my own terms or shut up!’ So far, the protesters have done well to avoid exposing themselves to the criticism that Lacan levelled at the students of 1968: ‘As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.’