The latest trend in the vagaries of Leftist politics is the weird movement of MeToo. The Left, however, should learn from the rise of Rightist populism, because WeToo can play the populist game…
We are repeatedly told that Left populism is de facto winning and it works. But where and how does it work? Everywhere where it became a serious force, from Latin America to Spain’s Podemos, it stumbled upon a fatal limit. As for Corbyn’s Labour Party, its politics cannot be called populist in any meaningful way. (Plus, it hasn’t yet come to power; only once this happens will the real test come). Against Rightist populist passions (from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson), today’s Labour politics is precisely a triumph of rational pragmatic argumentation, where one can disagree with some proposed measures, but the line of argumentation is always clear. Can one imagine a politician less prone to outbursts of passion than Corbyn, which, to avoid a misunderstanding, is for me what makes Corbyn great?
This fact alone renders problematic Left populist reliance on the opposition between cold pragmatic-rational argumentation and passionate confrontation. Although Left populists insist that there are limits to this confrontation, they remain within the democratic frame: according to them, antagonisms should be transposed into agonistic competition in which all sides obey basic democratic rules. But what if these rules are no longer accepted by all agents?
When, two years ago, I was answering questions posed by the readers of Sueddeutsche Zeitung about the refugee crisis, the question which attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, if with a rightist-populist twist. After Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands of immigrants into Germany, what was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly show the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate a radical opening of the borders to refugees: are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals the suspension of democracy, since they encourage a gigantic change, which should be allowed to affect a country without democratic consultation of its population?
I remember watching George Soros some time ago on TV where he advocated the idea that Europe should accept another million refugees. Despite his best humanitarian motifs, one aspect did trouble me: what right does he, a billionaire, have to promote such a large displacement of people without even raising the question of what the local population in Europe may think of it? Yuval Harari points out how the ongoing troubles with immigrants in Germany confront us with the limits of democracy: how are we to counter anti-immigrant populists who demand a referendum on immigrants, assured that the majority of Germans will vote against them? Is the solution, then, to give the voting rights also to immigrants? To whom among them? To those who are already in Germany, to those who want to go there…? At the end of this line of thought, we get the idea of world-wide elections which is self-defeating for a simple and precise reason:»People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don’t understand my feelings and don’t care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bind, such as shared religious beliefs and national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics.«1Where this “agreement on the basics” is missing, the only procedure at our disposal (outside an outright war, of course) are negotiations. That’s, incidentally why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations. And negotiations by definition imply the overcoming of the antagonistic logic of Us against Them. According to Left populists, the main reason for the defeat of the Left is the non-combative stance of rational argumentation and lifeless universalism in theory epitomized by the names of Giddens, Beck, and Habermas. This post-political Third Way cannot combat in an efficient way the agonistic logic of Us against Them, successfully mobilized by anti-immigrant Rightist populists. Consequently, to combat this Rightist populism effectively is to have recourse to Left populism which, while retaining the basic populist coordinates (agonistic logic of Us against Them, of the “people” against a corrupted elite), fills them in with a Leftist content: Them are not poor refugees or immigrants but financial capital, technocratic state bureaucracy, etc. This populism moves beyond the old working-class anti-capitalism, as it tries to bring together a multiplicity of struggles from ecology to feminism, from the right to employment to free education and healthcare, etc., as Podemos is doing in Spain…
With regard to a pragmatic and dispassionate politics of rational compromise, one should first note that the ideology of neoliberalism (also in its liberal-Left version) is anything but “rational.” Quite the contrary, it is EXTREMELY confrontational, inasmuch as it brutally excludes those who do not accept it under the pretext that they are dangerous anti-democratic utopians. Its expert knowledge is ideology at its purest. The problems with the Third Way Left, which endorsed neoliberal economics, was not that it was too pragmatic-rational, but that it was precisely not truly rational, seeing that it was permeated by unprincipled pragmatism which in advance endorsed the opponent’s premises. Leftist politics today does not need (just) confrontational passion; much more than that it needs a true cold rationality. Cold analysis and passionate struggle not only do not exclude each other, they need each other.
The formula of agonistic politicization, of a passionate confrontation directed against lifeless universalism, is precisely all too formal, ignoring as it does the big question that lurks in the background: why did the Left abandon the agonistic logic of Us against Them decades ago? Was it not because of the deep structural changes in capitalism, changes which cannot be confronted by means of a simple populist mobilization? The Left abandoned antagonistic confrontation because it failed in its struggle with capitalism, because it accepted the global triumph of capitalism. As Peter Mandelson said, in economy, we are all Thatcherites, so all that remains to the Left is the multiplicity of particular struggles: human rights, feminism, anti-racism, and especially multiculturalism. (It is interesting to note that Ernesto Laclau, the theoretical father of Left populism, first enthusiastically greeted Blair’s Third Way politics – as a liberation from class essentialism, etc. -, and only later targeted it as the mode of non-antagonist politics.)
Podemos undoubtedly stands for populism at its best: against the arrogant Politically Correct intellectual elites which despise the “narrowness” of the ordinary people who are considered “stupid” for “voting against their interests,” its organizing principle is to listen to and organize those “from below” against those “from above,” beyond all traditional Left and Right models. The idea is that the starting point of emancipatory politics should be the concrete experience of the suffering and injustices of ordinary people in their local life-world (home quarters, the workplace, etc.), not abstract visions of a future Communist, or whatever, society. Although the new digital media seem to open up the space for new communities, the difference between these new communities and the old life-world communities is crucial. The old communities are not chosen, I am born into them, and they form the very space of my socialization, while the new (digital) communities include me into a specific domain defined by my interests and thus depending on my choice. Far from making the old communities deficient, the fact that they do not rely on my free choice makes them superior with regard to the new digital communities since they compel me to find my way into a pre-existing not-chosen life-world in which I encounter (and have to learn to deal with) real differences, while the new digital communities depending on my choice sustain the ideological myth of the individual who somehow pre-exists a communal life and is free to choose it.
Even if this approach undoubtedly contains a (very big) grain of truth, its problem is that, to put it bluntly, not only, as Laclau liked to emphasize, society doesn’t exist, but “people” also doesn’t exist. This thesis is not to be taken as an abstract theoretical statement about the inconsistence that traverses the social body. Rather, it refers to a quite concrete, even experiential, fact. “People” is a false name for the social totality. In our global capitalism, totality is “abstract,” invisible; there is no way to ground it in concrete life-worlds. In other words, in today global capitalist universe, a “concrete experience” of being a member of a particular life-world with its customs, living links, forms of solidarity, etc., is already something “abstract” in the strict sense of a particular experience which obliterates the thick network of financial, social, etc., processes that rule and regulate this concrete particular world. Here Podemos will encounter problems if it at some point takes power: what specific economic measures (beyond the standard Keynesian bag of tricks) will it enact to limit the power of capital?
Therein resided the difference between Syriza and Podemos. Syriza touched the Real of our global order. It threatened the reign of Capital, which is why it had to be humiliated without mercy. The heroism of Syriza was that, after winning the democratic political battle, they risked a step further into disturbing the smooth flow of the reproduction of Capital. The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our Real. That is to say, today’s protests and revolts are sustained by a combination (overlapping) of different levels, and this combination accounts for their strength: they fight for (“normal” parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees; for welfare-state against neoliberalism; against corruption in politics and economy (companies polluting environment, etc.); for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals (participation, etc.); and, finally, questioning the global capitalist system as such and trying to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society.
Two traps are to be avoided here: false radicalism, proclaiming that what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism, while all other fights are secondary, as well as false gradualism, asking us to fight against military dictatorship and for simple democracy, to forget Socialist dreams, which will come later – maybe… When we have to deal with a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans that one cannot but characterize as crowd-pleasers – For Democracy! Against Corruption!, and so forth. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospects for a decent life) persists in a new guise.
In Egypt, protesters succeeded in getting rid of the oppressive Mubarak regime, but corruption remained, and the prospects of a decent life moved even further away. After the overthrow of an authoritarian regime, the last vestiges of patriarchal care for the poor can fall away, so that the newly gained freedom is de facto reduced to the freedom to choose the preferred form of one’s misery. The majority not only remain poor, but, to add insult to injury, are also being told that, since they are now free, poverty is their own responsibility. In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was a flaw in our goal itself, that this goal was not specific enough – say, that standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom. Political freedom can easily provide the legal frame for economic slavery, with the underprivileged “freely” selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy: we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realize a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent to this principle itself. Understanding this is a big step of political pedagogy.
The double U-turn that the Greek crisis took in July 2015 cannot but appear as a leap not just from tragedy to comedy but, as Stathis Kouvelakis noted, from tragedy full of comic reversals directly into a theatre of the absurd. Is there any other way to characterize the extraordinary reversal of one extreme into its opposite that would bedazzle even the most speculative Hegelian philosopher? Tired of the endless negotiations with the EU executives in which one humiliation followed another, Syriza called for a referendum on Sunday July 5 asking the Greek people if they supported or rejected the EU proposal of new austerity measures. Although the government itself clearly stated that it supported the NO, the result was a surprise for the government itself: the overwhelming majority of over 61% voted NO to European blackmail. Rumors began to circulate that the result – victory for the government – was a bad surprise for Tsipras himself, who secretly hoped that the government would lose, so that a defeat would allow him to save face in surrendering to the EU demands (“we have to respect the voters’ voice”). However, literally the morning after, Tsipras announced that Greece is ready to resume negotiations, and days later Greece agreed to a EU proposal which was basically the same as what the voters rejected (in some details even harsher). In short, he acted as if the government had lost, not won, the referendum. Here we encounter the truth of populism: its failure to confront the real of the capital. The supreme populist moment (referendum victory) immediately reverted into capitulation, into confession of impotence with regard to the capitalist order. There is no simple betrayal in this reversal, but the expression of a deep necessity.
Laclau insisted on the need to construct some figure of the Enemy as immanent to populism, not as its weakness, but as the resource of its strength. Left populism should construct a different figure of the Enemy, not the threatening racial Other (immigrant, Jew, Muslim…) but the financial elites, fundamentalists, and other “usual suspects” of the progressives. This urge to construct the Enemy is another fatal limitation of populism. Today, the ultimate “enemy” is not a concrete social agent but in some sense the system itself, a certain functioning of the system, which cannot be easily located into agents. Years ago, Alain Badiou wrote that one doesn’t fight capitalism but its concrete agents: therein resides the problem, since the true target IS capitalism. Today, it seems easy to say that the Enemy is neo-Fascist anti-immigrant nationalism or, in the US, Trump. Still, the fact remains that the rise of Trump is ultimately the effect of the failure of liberal-democratic consensus, and so, although one should, of course, not exclude new forms of “anti-Fascist” alliances with the latter, this consensus remains THE thing to be changed.
It is because of their focus on concrete enemies that Left populists seem to privilege national sovereignty, the strong nation state, as a defense against global capital (even Auferstehen in Germany basically follows this path). In this way, most of them not only (by definition) endorse populism but even nationalism, presenting their struggle as a defense against international financial capital. Some Left populists in the US already used the term “national socialism.”2 While, of course, it would be stupid and unfair to claim that they are closet Nazis, one should nonetheless insist that internationalism is a key component in any project of radical emancipation. Whatever critical remarks one makes against Varoufakis’s DIEM, the movement at least sees clearly that resistance against global capital has to be itself global, a new form of universalism.
There definitely are enemies and the topic of conspiracies is not to be simply dismissed. Years ago, Fred Jameson perspicuously noted that in today’s global capitalism, things happen which cannot be explained with a reference to some anonymous “logic of the capital.” For example, now we know that the financial meltdown of 2008 was the result of a well-planned “conspiracy” of some financial circles. However, the true task of social analysis still remains to explain how contemporary capitalism opened up the space for such “conspiratorial” interventions. This is also why references to “greed” and the appeal to capitalists to show social solidarity and responsibility are misplaced: “greed” (search for profit) IS what motivates capitalist expansion; the wager of capitalism IS that acting out of individual greed will contribute to the common good. So, again, instead of focusing on individual greed and approach the problem of growing inequality in moralist terms, the task is to change the system so that it will no longer allow or even solicit “greedy” acting.
The problem we are facing is best exemplified by what took place a couple of years ago in Croatia. Two public protest gatherings were announced: trade unions called for a protest against the exploding unemployment and poverty, felt very much by ordinary people; Rightist nationalists announced a gathering in order to protest the re-introduction of the official status of Cyrillic writing in Vukovar (because of the Serb minority there). To the first gathering, a couple of hundred people came, and to the second gathering, over one hundred thousand people showed up. Poverty was experienced as a daily-life problem much more than the Cyrillic threat by ordinary people, and the rhetoric of trade unions didn’t lack passion and confrontational spirit, but…
One has to accept that some kind of especially strong economy of jouissance is at work in the identification with one’s own “way of life,” some core of the Real which is very difficult to rearticulate symbolically. Recall Lenin’s shock at the patriotic reaction of Social-Democrats to the outburst of World War I. People are willing to suffer for their way of life, up to today’s refugees who are not ready to “integrate.” In short, there are two Reals (the real of capital; the real of ethnic identification) that cannot be dissolved into the fluid elements of a symbolic hegemony.
Thursday, October 18, 2018
Sunday, October 14, 2018
- William Blake, "London"
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
- John Masefield (1914)
You showed me nutmegs and nutmeg husks,
Ostrich feathers and elephant tusks,
Hundreds of tons of costly tea,
Packed in wood by Cingalee,
And a myriad of drugs which disagree.
Cinnamon, Myrrh, and mace you showed,
Golden paradise birds that glowed,
More cigars than a man could count,
And a billion cloves in an odorous mount,
And choice port wine from a bright glass fount.
You showed, for a most delightful hour,
The wealth of the world and London’s power.
“Behold now this vast city [London]; a city of refuge, the mansion-house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with His protection.”-- John Milton
Saturday, October 13, 2018
The violent deaths of two young men have united Bosnians, crossing rigid ethnic lines. Could something finally be stirring in the divided Balkan country?- Slavoj Zizek, "Tragic deaths inspire a Bosnian miracle"
When we think of miracles and Bosnia, the first association that pops up is the appearance of the Virgin Mary a couple of decades ago in Medjugorje – an event that brought millions of pilgrims to the area.
However, a week ago, a much greater and more important miracle took place in Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb part of Bosnia ("Republika Srpska"), and then also in other Bosnian cities across the ethnic divide.
The miracle is not the elections which took place this Sunday. As usual, Bosnian elections (with all the accompanying irregularities) were marked by apathy and indifference, and just confirmed the tripartite division of the state along ethnic lines.
Today, the Serb part is more and more acting as a sovereign state, while in the Muslim Sarajevo, Islamization progresses, evidenced by how it's more and more difficult to get a beer in a restaurant or bar, among other things.
Meanwhile, a specific form of the much-publicized PPP (public-private partnership) is flourishing in all of Bosnia: local political elites intertwined with half-legal private businesses, their rule legitimized as protectors of ethnic entities (Bosnians, Serbs etc.) against the "enemy." In such a situation where poverty is everywhere and young people are migrating to Western Europe in search of jobs, nationalism thrives and defense of ethnic identity easily prevails over economic issues.
Lessons from past
The problem facing Bosnia is best exemplified by what took place a couple of years ago in Croatia. There, two public protest gatherings were announced: trade unions called for a protest against exploding unemployment and poverty (felt very much by ordinary people). At the same time, rightist nationalists announced a gathering in order to protest the re-introduction of the official status of Cyrillic writing in Vukovar (because of the Serb minority there).
Of course, at the first gathering, a couple of hundred people came, and to the second gathering, over 100,000 people came. Poverty was experienced as a daily life problem much more than the Cyrillic threat by ordinary people, but nonetheless trade unions failed to mobilize the masses.
Wise commentators like to evoke such stories to cynically mock leftist claims that our goal should be to defeat local nationalism and to bring about a transnational coalition of those who are manipulated and exploited by the ruling ethnic elites. They patiently explain how, especially in an area like the Balkans, "irrational" ethnic hatred runs all too deep to be overcome by "rational" economic concerns – meaning the transnational coalition of the exploited is a miracle that will never happen.
Well, suddenly this miracle is happening now. And it makes Medjugorje pale by comparison.
David Dragicevic, a young Serb-Bosnian hacker, disappeared in the night from March 17 to March 18 this year, and his body was found in the vicinity of Banja Luka on March 24; it was clear from his heavily disfigured body that he was killed by protracted brutal torture.
From March 26, daily protests have taken place in the main square of Banja Luka, organized by his father Davor under the title "Justice for David." Police first declared David's death a suicide, and only after strong public pressure began to investigate it as a case of murder, but with no results yet.
Eventually, it became clear that David had discovered traces of corruption and other criminal activities of the ruling clique. So he had to disappear.
A week ago, the continuous protests erupted into a large mass gathering, with tens of thousands participating, and dozens of buses bringing people from all of Republika Srpska into Banja Luka. The ruling clique reacted with panic: thousands of policemen controlled the streets and blocked entry to the city.
Now comes the true miracle. Unexpectedly, in a wonderful display of trans-ethnic solidarity, similar gatherings took place in other Bosnian cities where Muslims are a majority. In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, hundreds demanded justice for a similar case that happened in their midst: the death of Dzenan Memic, who disappeared in the night of February 8 to February 9, 2016, which was never seriously investigated, although his body was also disfigured by traces of torture.
Protesters in Banja Luka, Sarajevo, and other Bosnian cities exchanged messages and emphasized their solidarity across ethnic divides, since they all share the same fate of being controlled by corrupted PPP elites.
So, finally, they became fully aware that the true threat does not come from other ethnic groups but from the corruption in their own group, and that they can get rid of this malignant tumor only by acting together. And then the impossible and "unimaginable" (for cynical realists) happened.
Of course, one should not expect too much from such explosions. A similar trans-ethnic movement against economic poverty already took place a couple of years ago, in an echo of the Arab Spring, and gradually dwindled.
However, the fire continues to burn beneath the surface, and this fire is the only beacon of hope in Bosnia. In this, it reconfirms the truth of Abraham Lincoln's old saying: You can deceive some people all the time, you can deceive all the people for some time, but you cannot deceive all the people all the time.
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
The motto of every authentic radical change is the same as the quote from Virgil that Freud chose as the epigraph for his Interpretation of Dreams. It is Acheronta movebo – I will move the infernal regions. Dare to disturb the underground of the unspoken underpinnings of our everyday lives! There are two such “infernal regions” in our societies: (1) the political unconscious proper, i.e., the vast domain of obscene unwritten rules that supplement public rules, and (2) the digital network which regulates our daily lives, from the public sphere to the innermost intimate sphere. Let’s take a closer look at each of the two.-Slavoj Zizek, "Acheronta Movebo"
The Catholic unconscious is structured like paedophilia
The sheer number of paedophiliac crimes that were taking place in the Catholic Church all around the world, from Ireland and Pennsylvania to Australia, crimes committed by members of the institution which propagates itself as the moral compass of our society, compels us to raise some difficult questions. Almost as terrible as the horror of the crimes is the way the Church tried to downplay the scandal.
In my own country, Slovenia, the leading figure of the Church, Cardinal Rode, displayed open cynical “realism”: in one of his radio interviews, he said that “statistically, this is an irrelevant problem – one or at the utmost two out of a hundred priests had a kind of adventure.” What immediately drew the attention of the public was the term “a kind of adventure” used as a euphemism for paedophilia: a brutal crime of raping children was presented as a normal display of adventurous “vivacity” (another term used by Rode), and, as Rode quipped in another interview: “In forty years’ time you would expect some small sins to occur, won’t you?” This is Catholic obscenity at its purest: no solidarity with the victims (children), but what we find beneath the morally upright posture is just the barely concealed solidarity with the perpetrators on behalf of cynical realism (that’s how life is, we are all red under our skin, priests can also be adventurous and vivacious…), so that, in the end, the only true victims appear to be the Church and the perpetrators themselves, exposed to the unfair media campaign. The lines are thus clearly drawn: paedophilia is ours, our own dirty secret, and it is, as such, normalized, the secret foundation of our normality, Or, as G.K. Chesterton put it a century ago in his Orthodoxy (unaware of the full consequences of his words, of course):“The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.”The perverse conclusion is unavoidable here: do you want to enjoy the pagan dream of pleasurable life without paying the price of melancholic sadness for it? Choose Christianity! We can discern the traces of this paradox up to the well-known Catholic figure of the Priest (or a Nun) as the ultimate bearer of sexual wisdom. Recall what is arguably the most powerful scene in The Sound of Music. After Maria escapes the von Trapp family and goes back to the monastery, unable to deal with her sexual attraction towards Baron von Trapp, she cannot find peace there, since she is still longing for the Baron. In a memorable scene, the Mother Superior summons her and advises her to return to the von Trapp family and try to sort out her relationship with the Baron. She delivers this message in a weird song “Climb every mountain!”, whose surprising motif is: Do it! Take the risk and try everything your heart wants! Do not allow petty considerations to stand in your way! The uncanny power of this scene resides in its unexpected display of the spectacle of desire, which renders the scene literally embarrassing: the very person whom one would expect to preach abstinence and renunciation turns out to be the agent of fidelity to one’s desire. Today, with cases of paedophilia popping up all over the Catholic Church, one can easily imagine a new version of the scene from The Sound of Music: a young priest approaches the abbot, complaining that he is still tortured by desires for young boys, and demanding further punishment; the abbot answers by singing “Climb every young boy…”
When Church representatives insist that these cases, deplorable as they are, are the Church’s internal problem – and consequently display great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigation – they are, in a way, right. The paedophilia of Catholic priests is not something that concerns only the persons who, for accidental reasons of private history with no relation to the Church as an institution, happen to be paedophiles. This abuse is a phenomenon that concerns the Catholic Church as such, because it is inscribed into its very functioning as a social institution. In this way, it does not only concern the “private” unconscious of individuals, but the “unconscious” (the part which should not be talked about publicly) of the institution of the Catholic Church itself. This abuse is not something that happens because the institution has to accommodate itself to the pathological realities of libidinal life in order to survive, but something that the institution itself needs in order to reproduce itself. One can well imagine a non-paedophile priest who, after years of service, gets involved in paedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an institutional unconscious designates the obscene disavowed underside that sustains the public institution. In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the Church tries to hush up its paedophilic scandals; rather, in defending itself, the Church is defending its innermost obscene secret.
Freud considered the church and the army the two exemplary cases of an organized crowd. No wonder, then, that we find the same phenomenon abundantly in the army: the underside of obscene sexualized rituals such as fragging sustains military group solidarity. This obscene underground enables us to approach in a new way the (today half-forgotten) Abu Ghraib phenomenon: images of US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners. Does anyone still remember the unfortunate Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Saddam’s information minister who, in his daily press conferences, heroically denied even the most evident facts and stuck to the Iraqi line? Once, however, he did strike a strange truth. When, confronted with the claims that the US army is already in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: “They are not in control of anything – they don’t even control themselves!” When the scandalous news broke out about the weird things going on in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, we got a glimpse of this very dimension that Americans do not control themselves.
When I saw the well-known photo of a naked prisoner with a black hood covering his head, electric cables attached to his limbs, standing on a chair in a ridiculous theatrical pose, these images immediately brought to my mind the obscene underside of the US popular culture – say, the initiation rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo in order to be accepted into a closed community. Do we not see similar photos at regular intervals in the US press, when some scandal explodes in an army unit or on a high school campus, where an initiation ritual went overboard and soldiers or students got hurt beyond a level considered tolerable, forced to assume a humiliating pose, to perform debasing gestures (like penetrating their anal opening with a beer bottle in front of their peers), to suffer being pierced by needles, etc.
What this means is that self-identification with this secret side is a key constituent of the very identity of a soldier – and of a Catholic priest. If a priest seriously – not just rhetorically – publicly denounces these scandals, he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community; he is no longer “one of us”. (In exactly the same way a citizen of a town in the South of the US in the 1920s, if he denounced the Ku Klux Klan to the police, excluded himself from his community, i.e., betrayed its fundamental solidarity.) Consequently, the answer to the Church’s reluctance should be not only that we are dealing with criminal cases and that, if the Church does not fully participate in their investigation, it is an accomplice after the fact. The Church as an institution should itself be investigated with regard to the way it systematically creates conditions for such crimes. Sentimental admission of guilt and the theatrics of repentance are not enough: only the full and active collaboration with police counts here.
This obscene underground, the unconscious terrain of dirty habits, is what is really difficult to change. However, there is another such underground, a kind of externalized or materialized unconscious: the digital material grid of our lives, this new figure of what Lacan called the “big Other.”
The fate of the digital commons: A Trotskyite view
In the overflow of celebratory reactions to the centenary of the October Revolution in 2017, its central lesson for today passed unnoticed (or was mentioned as a proof that the October Revolution was a coup performed by a narrow group and not a true popular uprising at all). This lesson concerns the unique collaboration between Lenin and Trotsky.
The kernel of Lenin’s “utopia” arises out of the ashes of the catastrophe of 1914, in his settling of accounts with the Second International orthodoxy: the radical imperative to smash the bourgeois state, which means the state as such, and to invent a new communal social form without a standing army, police or bureaucracy, a form through which all could take part in the administration of the social matters. This was for Lenin no theoretical project for some distant future. In October 1917, Lenin claimed that “we can at once set in motion a state apparatus constituting of ten if not twenty million people.”1 This urge of the moment is the true utopia. What one should stick to is the madness (in the strict Kierkegaardian sense) of this Leninist utopia – and, if anything, Stalinism stands for a return to realistic “common sense.”
One cannot overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution. In this book, “the vocabulary and grammar of the Western tradition of politics were abruptly dispensed with.”2 What then followed can be called, borrowing the title of Althusser’s text on Machiavelli, la solitude de Lenine: the time when he basically stood alone, struggling against the current in his own party. When, in his “April Theses” from 1917, Lenin discerned the Augenblick, the unique chance for a revolution, his proposals were first met with stupor or contempt by a large majority of his party colleagues. Within the Bolshevik party, no prominent leader supported his call to revolution, and Pravda took the extraordinary step of dissociating the party, and the editorial board as a whole, from Lenin’s “April Theses”. Far from being an opportunist flattering and exploiting the prevailing mood of the populace, Lenin’s views were highly idiosyncratic. Bogdanov characterized the “April Theses” as “the delirium of a madman,”3 and Nadezhda Krupskaya herself concluded that “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”4
In February 1917, Lenin was stranded in Zurich, with no reliable contacts to Russia, mostly learning about the events from the Swiss press; in October, he led the first successful socialist revolution. So what happened in between? In February, Lenin immediately perceived the revolutionary chance, the result of unique contingent circumstances: if the moment is not to be seized, the chance for the revolution would be forfeited, perhaps for decades. Even a couple of days before the October Revolution, Lenin wrote: “The triumph of both the Russian and the world-revolution depends on a two or three days’ struggle.” In his stubborn insistence that one should take the risk and pass to the act, Lenin was alone, ridiculed by the majority of the Central Committee members of his own party: however, indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, one should not modify the story of the October Revolution into that of the lone genius confronted with the disoriented masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the party nomenklatura, found an echo in what one is tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grass-roots democracy, of local committees popping up all around Russia’s big cities and, while ignoring the authority of the “legitimate” government, taking things into their hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution, the obverse of the myth of the tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries who accomplished a coup d’etat…
Still, the notion that a tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries accomplished a coup d’etat is not just a myth; there is a crucial grain of truth in it. When popular dissatisfaction grew and Lenin’s idea that there was a chance for the revolution was accepted, the majority of the Bolshevik party leaders were trying to organize a mass popular uprising; Trotsky, however, advocated a view which, to traditional Marxists, couldn’t but appear as “Blanquist”: a narrow well-trained elite should take power. After a short oscillation, Lenin defended Trotsky, specifying why Trotsky is not advocating Blanquism:“In his letter of October 17, Lenin defended Trotsky’s tactics: ‘Trotsky is not playing with the ideas of Blanqui,’ he said. ‘A military conspiracy is a game of that sort only if it is not organized by the political party of a definite class of people and if the organizers disregard the general political situation and the international situation in particular. There is a great difference between a military conspiracy, which is deplorable from every point of view, and the art of armed insurrection.’”In this precise sense, “Lenin was the ‘strategus,’ idealist, inspirer, the deus ex machina of the revolution, but the man who invented the technique of the Bolshevik coup d’etat was Trotsky.” Against the latter “Trotskyite” defenders of an (almost) “democratic” Trotsky who advocates authentic mass mobilization and grass-root democracy, one should emphasize that Trotsky was all too well aware of the inertia of the masses – the most one can expect of the “masses” is chaotic dissatisfaction. A narrow well-trained revolutionary striking force should use this chaos to strike at power and thereby open up the space where the masses can really organize themselves… Here, however, the crucial question arises: what does this narrow elite do? In what sense does it “take power”? The true novelty of Trotsky becomes visible here: the striking force does not “take power” in the traditional sense of a palace coup d’etat, occupying government offices and army headquarters; it does not focus on confronting police or army on the barricades. Let us quote some passages from Curzio Malaparte’s unique The Technique of Coup d’Etat (1931) to get the taste of it:“Kerenski’s police and the military authorities were especially concerned with the defense of the State’s official and political organizations: the Government offices, the Maria Palace where the Republican council sat, the Tauride Palace, seat of the Duma, the Winter Palace, and General Headquarters. When Trotsky discovered this mistake he decided to attack only the technical branches of the national and municipal Government. Insurrection for him was only a question of technique. ‘In order to overthrow the modern State,’ he said, ‘you need a storming party, technical experts and gangs of armed men led by engineers.’”5Trotsky thus targeted the material (technical) grid of power (railways, electricity, water supply, post, etc.), the grid without which state power hangs in the void and becomes inoperative. Let the mobilized masses fight police and storm the Winter Palace (an act without any real relevance); the essential move is accomplished by a tiny well-trained minority… Instead of indulging in a miserable moralist-democratic rejection of such a procedure, one should rather analyse it coldly and think about how to apply it today, since today Trotsky’s insight gained new actuality with the progressive digitalization of our lives in what could be characterized as the new era of post-human power.
Most of our activities (and passivities) are now registered in some digital cloud which also permanently evaluates us, tracing not only our acts but also our emotional states. When we experience ourselves as free to the utmost (surfing the web where everything is available), we are totally “externalized” and subtly manipulated. The digital network gives new meaning to the old slogan “the personal is political.” And it’s not only the control of our intimate lives that is at stake: today everything is regulated by some digital network, from transport to health, from electricity to water. That’s why the web is our most important commons today, and the struggle for its control is THE struggle today. The enemy is the combination of privatized and state-controlled commons, corporations (Google, Facebook) and state security agencies (NSA). But we know all this, so where does Trotsky enter here?
The digital network that sustains the functioning of our societies as well as their control mechanisms is the ultimate figure of the technical grid that sustains power. Does this not lend a new actuality to Trotsky’s idea that the key to the state is not in its political and secretarial organizations but in its technical services? Consequently, in the same way that, for Trotsky, taking control of the post, electricity, railways, etc., was the key moment of the revolutionary seizure of power, is it not that today, the “occupation” of the digital grid is absolutely crucial if we are to break the power of the state and capital? And, in the same way that Trotsky required the mobilization of a narrow well-trained “storming party, technical experts and gangs of armed men led by engineers” to resolve this “question of technique,” the lesson of the last decades is that neither massive grass-roots protests (as we have seen in Spain and Greece) nor well-organized political movements (parties with elaborate political visions) are enough. We also need a narrow striking force of dedicated “engineers” (hackers, whistle-blowers…) organized as a disciplined conspiratorial group. Its task will be to “take over” the digital grid, to rip it off the hands of corporations and state agencies which now de facto control it.
Wikileaks was here just the beginning, and our motto should be a Maoist one: Let a hundred Wikileaks blossom. The panic and fury with which those in power, those who control our digital commons, reacted to Assange is proof that such an activity hits the nerve. There will be many blows below the belt in this fight: our side will be accused of playing into the enemy’s hands (like the campaign against Assange for being in the service of Putin). But we should get used to it and learn to strike back with interest, ruthlessly playing one side against each other in order to bring them all down. Were Lenin and Trotsky also not accused of being paid by Germans and/or by Jewish bankers? As for the scare that such an activity would disturb the functioning of our societies and thus threaten millions of lives, we should bear in mind that it is those in power who are ready to selectively shut down the digital grid in order to isolate and contain protests. When massive public dissatisfactions explode, the first move is always to disconnect the internet and cell phones.
We need thus the political equivalent of the Hegelian triad of the Universal, the Particular, and the Singular. Universal: a mass Podemos-style upheaval. Particular: a political organization which translates dissatisfaction into an operative political program. Singular: “elitist” specialized groups which, acting in a purely “technical” way, undermine the functioning of state control and regulation. Without this third element, the first two remain impotent.
Friday, October 5, 2018
Don't walk away, in silence.
See the danger
Don't walk away.
Walk in silence
Don't turn away, in silence.
Worn like a mask of self-hate
Confronts and then dies.
Don't walk away.
People like you find it easy
Naked to see
Walking on air.
Hunting by the rivers
Through the streets
Every corner abandoned too soon
Set down with due care.
Don't walk away in silence
Don't walk away.