Thursday, May 11, 2017

The New Universalism...?

Slavoj Zizek, "Only a New Universalism Can Save Us from the New World Order"
Slavoj Zizek is International Director at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities, University of London, and Senior Researcher at the Department of Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His most recent book is Disparities.

The lesson of the recent referendum in Turkey is a very sad one.

After Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dubious victory, Western liberal media were full of critical analyses: the century of the Kemalist endeavour to secularize Turkey is over; the Turkish voters were offered not so much a democratic choice as a referendum to limit democracy and voluntarily endorse an authoritarian regime.

However, more important and less noticed was the subtle ambiguity of many Western reactions - an ambiguity which recalls the ambiguity of Trump's politics towards Israel: even while he stated that the United States should recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, many of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic.

But is this really an inconsistent stance?

A cartoon published back in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse depicted two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sit at a table, and one of them holding a newspaper and commenting to his friend: "Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!"

This caricature thereby inverts the standard argument against the critics of the policies of the State of Israel. But when today's Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli politics reject Leftist critiques of Israeli policies, is their implicit line of argumentation not uncannily close to its reasoning?

Remember Anders Breivik, the Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer: he was anti-Semitic, but pro-Israel, since he saw in the State of Israel the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion; he even wanted to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, but he wrote in his "Manifesto":
"There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800,000 out of these 1 million live in France and the UK. The US on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem."
His figures thus realize the ultimate paradox of the Zionist anti-Semite - and we find the traces of this strange stance more often than one would expect. Reinhard Heydrich himself, the mastermind of the Holocaust, wrote in 1935:
"We must separate the Jews into two categories, the Zionists and the partisans of assimilation. The Zionists profess a strictly racial concept and, through emigration to Palestine, they help to build their own Jewish State ... our good wishes and our official goodwill go with them."
As Frank Ruda has pointed out, today we are getting a new version of this Zionist anti-Semitism: Islamophobic respect for Islam. The same politicians who warn of the danger of the Islamisation of the Christian West - from Trump to Putin - respectfully congratulated Erdogan for his victory. The authoritarian reign of Islam is fine for Turkey, it would seem, but not for us.

We can thus easily imagine a new version of the cartoon from Die Presse, with two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sitting at a table, one of them holding a newspaper and commenting: "Here you can see again how a totally justified Islamophobia is being misused for a cheap critique of Turkey!"

(Samuel) Huntington's Disease

How are we to understand this weird logic? It is a reaction, a false cure, to the great social disease of our time: Huntington's. Typically, the first symptoms of Huntington's disease are jerky, random and uncontrollable movements called chorea. Chorea may initially manifest as general restlessness, small unintentional or uncompleted motions, lack of coordination.

Does an explosion of brutal populism not look quite similar? It begins with what appear to be random acts of excessive violence against immigrants, outbursts which lack coordination and merely express a general unease and restlessness apropos of "foreign intruders," but then it gradually grows into a well-coordinated and ideologically grounded movement: what the other Huntington (that is, Samuel) called "the clash of civilizations." This lucky coincidence is telling: what is usually referred to under this term is effectively the Huntington's disease of today's global capitalism.

According to Samuel Huntington, after the end of the Cold War, the "iron curtain of ideology" had been replaced by the "velvet curtain of culture." Huntington's dark vision of the "clash of civilizations" may appear to be the very opposite of Francis Fukuyama's bright prospect of the "End of History" in the guise of a world-wide liberal democracy. What could be more different from Fukuyama's pseudo-Hegelian idea that the final formula of the best possible social order was found in capitalist liberal democracy, than a "clash of civilizations" as the fundamental political struggle in the twenty-first century? How, then, do the two fit together?

From today's experience, the answer is clear: the "clash of civilizations" is politics at "the end of history." The ethnic-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which fits global capitalism: in our age of post-politics, when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (ethnic, religious) tensions. Today's rise of "irrational" violence is thus to be conceived as strictly correlative to the depoliticization of our societies - that is, to the disappearance of the political dimension proper, its translation into different levels of "administration" of social affairs.

"America First!"

If we accept this thesis concerning the "clash of civilizations," the only alternative to it remains the peaceful coexistence of civilizations (or of "ways of life" - a more popular term today): so forced marriages, misogynistic violence and homophobia are fine, just as long as they are confined to another country which is otherwise fully included in the world market.

The New World Order (NWO) that is emerging is thus no longer the Fukuyamaist NWO of global liberal democracy, but a NWO of the peaceful coexistence of different politico-theological ways of life - coexistence, of course, against the background of the smooth functioning of global capitalism. The obscenity of this process is that it can present itself as progress in the anti-colonial struggle: the liberal West will no longer be allowed to impose its standards on others; all ways of life will be treated as equal.

It is little wonder, then, that Robert Mugabe exhibited such sympathy for Trump's slogan "America first!": "America first!" for you, "Zimbabwe first!" for me, "India first!" or "North Korea first!" for them. This is already how the British Empire, the first global capitalist empire, functioned: each ethnic-religious community was allowed to pursue its own way of life (for instance, honour killings or the burning of widows by Hindus in India were permitted). While these local "customs" were either criticized as barbaric or praised for their premodern wisdom, they were tolerated because what mattered was that they remained economically part of the Empire.

There is thus something deeply hypocritical about those liberals who criticize the slogan "America first!" - as if this is not more or less what every country is doing, as if America did not play a global role precisely because it suited its own interests. The underlying message of "America first!" is nonetheless a sad one: the American century is over; American exceptionalism is no more; America has resigned itself to being just one among the nations. The supreme irony is that the Leftists, who for a long time criticized the U.S. pretension to be the global policeman, may begin to long for the good old days when, hypocrisy notwithstanding, the United States imposed democratic standards onto the world.

There are already signs that this is happening. In the reactions to Trump's retaliatory missile strike on a Syrian army military base (as a punishment for the use of chemical weapons), the contradictions between those who oppose (and support) Trump exploded: the strike was applauded of some "human rights" liberals and rejected by some Republican conservative isolationists. In short, the paradox is that Trump is at his most dangerous when he acts most like Hillary Clinton.

We can see what "America first!" means in action from the following Reuters news report: "A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters' faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters." Yes, Putin's regime should be relentlessly criticized - but, in this case, has not the United States regularly done the same thing? Did a U.S. team not help Boris Yeltsin win a key election in Russia? And what about the United States' active support for the Maidan uprising in Ukraine?

This is "America first!" in practice: when they are doing it, it's a dangerous plot; when we are doing it, it's supporting democracy.

In this NWO, universality will more and more be reduced to tolerance - tolerance for different "ways of life." Following the formula of Zionist anti-Semitism, there will be no contradiction between imposing in our own countries the strictest "politically correct" pro-feminist rules and simultaneously rejecting any critique of the dark side of Islam as neocolonialist arrogance.

Between Private Capital and State Power

In this New World Order, there will be less and less place for figures like Julian Assange, who, in spite of all his problematic gestures, remains today's most powerful symbol of what Kant called "the public use of reason" - a space for public knowledge and debate outside of state control. No wonder that, against the expectations that Trump will show more leniency towards Assange, the new U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recently stated that the arrest of the Wikileaks founder was now a "priority."

It is well-known what lies ahead: Wikileaks will be proclaimed a terrorist organization, and rather than genuine advocates of public space like Assange, public figures which exemplify the privatization of our commons will predominate. The figure of Elon Musk is emblematic here: he belongs to the same series with Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, all "socially conscious" billionaires. They stand for global capital at its most seductive and "progressive" - which is to say, at its most dangerous.

Musk likes to warn about the threats that new technologies pose to human dignity and freedom - which, of course, doesn't prevent him from investing in a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, a company which is focussed on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interface with computing devices: "Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence."

Every technological innovation is always first presented like this, emphasizing its health or humanitarian benefits, which function to blind us to the more ominous implications and consequences: can we even imagine what new forms of control this so-called "neural lace" contains? This is why it is absolutely imperative to keep it out of the control of private capital and state power - that is, to render it totally accessible to public debate. Assange was right in his strangely ignored book on Google: to understand how our lives are regulated today, and how this regulation is experienced as our freedom, we have to focus on the shadowy collusion between private corporations which control our commons and secret state agencies.

Today's global capitalism can no longer afford a positive vision of emancipated humanity, even as an ideological dream. Fukuyamaist liberal-democratic universalism failed because of its own immanent limitations and inconsistencies, and populism is the symptom of this failure - its Huntington's disease. But the solution is not populist nationalism, Rightist or Leftist. The only solution is a new universalism - it is demanded by the problems humanity is confronting today, from ecological threats to refugee crises.

Protecting the New Commons

In his book What Happened in the Twentieth Century?, Peter Sloterdijk provides his own outline of what is to be done in twenty-first century, best encapsulated in the title of the first two essays in the book, "The Anthropocene" and "From the Domestication of Man to the Civilizing of Cultures."

"Anthropocene" designates a new epoch in the life of our planet in which we, humans, cannot any longer rely on the Earth as a reservoir ready to absorb the consequences of our productive activity: we cannot any longer afford to ignore the side effects (the collateral damage) of our productivity, which cannot any longer be reduced to the background of the figure of humanity. We have to accept that we live on a "Spaceship Earth," and are thus accountable for its conditions. Earth is no longer the impenetrable background/horizon of our productive activity, it emerges as an(other) finite object which we can inadvertently destroy or transform it to make it unliveable.

This means that, at the very moment when we become powerful enough to affect the most basic conditions of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet. A new way to relate to our environs is necessary once we realize this: no longer a heroic worker expressing his/her creative potentials and drawing from the inexhaustible resources from his/her environs, but a much more modest agent collaborating with his/her environs, permanently negotiating a tolerable level of safety and stability.

So in order to establish this new mode of relating to our environs, a radical politico-economic change is necessary, what Sloterdijk calls "the domestication of the wild animal Culture."

Until now, each culture disciplined or educated its own members and guaranteed civic peace among them in the guise of state power, but the relationship between different cultures and states was permanently under the shadow of potential war, with each state of peace nothing more than a temporary armistice. As Hegel conceptualized it, the entire ethic of a state culminates in the highest act of heroism - namely, the readiness to sacrifice one's life for one's nation-state, which means that the wild barbarian relations between states serve as the foundation of the ethical life within a state. Today, is North Korea with it ruthless pursuit of nuclear weapons and rockets advanced enough to reach distant targets not the ultimate example of this logic of unconditional nation-state sovereignty?

However, the moment we fully accept the fact that we live on a Spaceship Earth, the task that urgently imposes itself is that of civilizing civilizations themselves, of imposing universal solidarity and cooperation among all human communities, a task rendered all the more difficult by the ongoing rise of sectarian religious and ethnic "heroic" violence and readiness to sacrifice oneself (and the world) for one's specific Cause.

The measures Sloterdijk proposes as necessary for the survival of humanity - the overcoming of capitalist expansionism, achieving broad international solidarity capable to forming an executive power ready to violate state sovereignty, and so on - are they not all measures destined to protect our natural and cultural commons? If they do not point towards some kind of reinvented Communism, if they do not imply a Communist horizon, then the term "Communism" has no meaning at all.

This is why the idea of the European Union is worth fighting for, despite of the misery of its actual existence: in today's global capitalist world, it offers the only model of a trans-national organization with the authority to limit national sovereignty and the capacity to guarantee a minimum of ecological and social welfare standards. Something that directly descends from the best traditions of European Enlightenment survives in it. Our - Europeans - duty is not to humiliate ourselves as the ultimate culprits of colonialist exploitation but to fight for this part of our legacy as vital for the survival of humanity.

Europe is more and more alone in the New World Order, dismissed as an old, exhausted, irrelevant, contingent, reduced to playing a secondary role in today's bit geo-political conflicts. As Bruno Latour recently put it: "L'Europe est seule, oui, mais seule l'Europe peut nous sauver." Europe is alone, yes, but Europe alone can save us.

4 comments:

(((Thought Criminal))) said...

This is the left's intellectual?

Dude, he's one fidgety nosewipe away from declaring that everyone that shows up gets a trophy.

Where's them cow mutilating trailer park raiding crop circle pressing alien motherfuckers when Spaceship Earth needs a common enemy? Quick, get the hallucinogens into the drinking water!

Thersites said...

lol!

I hear ya. The welfare state "dream" is what keeps the Left afloat.

FreeThinke said...

__ Echoes of An Unknown Mother __

Poignant overtones like evening shade
Overtake as vines on paths of stone
Eventually grow so stones seems less alone.
The path, thus aged and venerable made,

Steeped in twilit mist or morning dew,
Haunts –– bemuses –– leading to the Past ––
A shadowed, brooding mystery holding fast.
Wariness of every person who

Kindles comfort, confidence and trust
Eviscerates hope for fear that once again
Nidifugous trauma’s dormant wrenching pain
Assert itself. So, a protective crust
Wards off gnawing urges to complain,
Except –– beneath –– lurks fear of the insane.


~ FreeThinke

I hasten to add that this sonnet is not in any way autobiographical, but instead an evocation of empathy for a friend who was not as fortunate and blest as we who have cherished, grateful memories of a healthy childhood. - FT

-FJ said...

Happy Mother's Day, FT!