Wednesday, September 18, 2019
The Saudi-led destruction of Yemen - and the inevitable Houthi response - is part and parcel of the usual geopolitical games. Israel re-shaping the West Bank under the radar is where the rules are changing
When, a couple of days ago, Saudi Aramco’s crude-oil processing facilities were attacked with drones – it is thought by the Houthis in Yemen – our media repeatedly characterised this event as a “game-changer”. But was it really this? In some sense yes, since it perturbed the global oil supply and made a large armed conflict in the Middle East much more probable. However, one should be careful not to miss the cruel irony of this claim.
Houthi rebels in Yemen have been in an open war with Saudi Arabia for years, with Saudi armed forces (and the US and the UK supplying arms) practically destroying the entire country, indiscriminately bombing civilian objects. The Saudi intervention has led to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the century with tens of thousands of children dead. As it was in the cases of Libya and Syria, destroying an entire country is obviously not a game-changer – just part and parcel of a very normal geopolitical game.
Even if we condemn the Houthis' alleged act, should we really be surprised to see them, cornered and in a desperate situation, striking back in whatever way they could? Far from changing the game, could the attack have been its logical culmination? They might have finally found the way to grab Saudi Arabia where it really hurts. Or, to paraphrase Brecht’s famous line from his Beggar’s Opera “what is robbing a bank compared to founding a new bank”, what is destroying a country compared to slightly disturbing the reproduction of global capital?
The media attention grabbed by the “game-changing” attack also conveniently distracted us from other truly game-changing projects like the Israeli plan to annex large, fertile chunks of the West Bank. What this means is that all the talk about the two state solution was just that; empty talk meant to obfuscate the ruthless realisation of a modern-day colonisation project in which what awaits the West Bank Palestinians will be in the best case a couple of tightly controlled Bantustans. One should also note that Israel is doing this with the silent connivance of Saudi Arabia – a further proof that a new axis of evil is emerging in the Middle East composed of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and the emirates. It is here that the rules of the game are truly changing!
And, to broaden the scope of our analysis, one should also be attentive to how the game is changing with Hong Kong protests. A dimension as a rule ignored in our media is that of class struggle which sustains the Hong Kong protests against China’s efforts to constrain its autonomy. Hong Kong protests first erupted in poor districts – the rich were prospering under Chinese control.
Then a new voice was heard: one banner carried at the march read “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong” in English. Some marchers sang the US national anthem as they moved towards the consulate. “We share the same US values of liberty and democracy,” 30-year-old banker David Wong said. Every serious analysis of the Hong Kong protests has to focus on how a social protest, potentially a true game-changer, was recuperated into the standard narrative of the democratic revolt against totalitarian rule.
And the same goes for mainland China itself. In the last few days our media have reported on how the Unirule Institute of Economics, one of China’s few remaining outposts of liberal thought, has been ordered to shut down. Another sign of the dramatically shrinking space for public debate under the government of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping?
Yes, sure. But we are here far from the police intimidation, beatings and arrests to which leftist students are submitted to. Ironically, taking the official return to Marxism more seriously than it was meant, groups of students organised links with workers who suffer extreme exploitation in factories around Beijing. Pollution in chemical factories is largely uncontrolled and ignored by state power, and students have been helping workers to organise themselves and formulate their demands to improve their conditions.
It is these links – between students and workers – that pose the true challenge to the regime, while the struggle between the new hard line of Xi Jinping and the pro-capitalist liberals is ultimately part of the dominant game, the tension between the two versions of the unbridled capitalist development, authoritarian and liberal.
In all these cases, from Yemen to China, one should thus learn to distinguish between the conflicts which are part of the game and the true game-changers. These are either ominous turns to the worse masked as the continuation of the normal state of things (Israel annexing large parts of the West Bank), or the hopeful signs of something really new emerging. The predominant liberal view is obsessed by the first and largely ignores the second.
What really makes me mad when I read critical (and even some favorable) reactions to my work is the recurring characterization of me as a postmodern cultural critic – the one thing I don’t want to be. I consider myself a philosopher dealing with fundamental ontological questions, and, furthermore, a philosopher in the traditional vein of German Idealism.
Everyone who has seen Hitchcock’s Vertigo remembers the mysterious scene in the sequoia park where Madeleine walks over to a redwood cross-section of an over-thousand-year-old trunk showing its growth history by date, points to two circular lines close to the outer edge and says: “Here I was born . . . and here I died.” In a similar way, we can imagine a philosophy muse in front of a timeline of European history, pointing to two date markers close to each other and saying: “Here I was born . . . and here I died.” The first marker designates 1781, the publication date of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the second one 1831, the year of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s death.
For me, in some sense, all of philosophy happened in these fifty years: the vast development prior to it was just a preparation for the rise of the notion of the transcendental, and in the post-Hegelian development, philosophy returns in the guise of the common Judy, i.e., the vulgar nineteenth-century empiricism. For me, all four great German idealists — Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel — articulated a distance towards idealist subjectivity and gained a non-metaphysical insight into the essence of history and the alienation of our existence. They struggled with how to break out of the horizon of absolute subjectivity without regressing to pre-transcendental realism.
But which Hegel am I referring to here? Where am I speaking from? To simplify it to the utmost, the triad that defines my philosophical stance is that of Baruch Spinoza, Kant and Hegel. Spinoza is arguably the pinnacle of realist ontology: there is substantial reality out there, and we can get to know it through our reason, dispelling the veil of illusions. Kant’s transcendental turn introduces a radical gap here: we cannot ever gain access to the way things are in themselves, our reason is constricted to the domain of phenomena, and if we try to reach beyond phenomena to the totality of being, our mind gets caught in necessary antinomies and inconsistencies. What Hegel does here is to posit that there is no reality in-itself beyond phenomena, which does not mean that all that there is is the interplay of phenomena. The phenomenal world is marked by the bar of impossibility, but beyond this bar there is nothing, no other world, no positive reality, so we are not returning to pre-Kantian realism; it is just that what for Kant is the limitation of our knowledge, the impossibility to reach the thing-in-itself, is inscribed into this thing itself.
Furthermore, Hegel is NOT a critical thinker: his basic stance is that of reconciliation – not reconciliation as a long-term goal but reconciliation as a fact which confronts us with the unexpected bitter truth of the actualized Ideal. If there is a Hegelian motto, it is something like: find a truth in how things turn wrong! The message of Hegel is not “the spirit of trust” (the title of Robert Brandom’s latest book on Hegel’s Phenomenology) but rather the spirit of distrust – his premise is that every large human project turns wrong and only in this way attests to its truth. The French Revolution wanted universal freedom and climaxed in terror, Communism wanted global emancipation and gave birth to Stalinist terror… Hegel’s lesson is thus a new version of Big Brother’s famous slogan from George Orwell’s 1984 ”freedom is slavery”: when we try to enforce freedom directly, the result is slavery. So whatever Hegel is, he is decidedly not a thinker of a perfect ideal that we approach infinitely.
Heinrich Heine (who was Hegel’s student in the philosopher’s last years) propagated the story that he once told Hegel he cannot endorse Hegel’s formula “all that is actual is rational,” and that Hegel looked carefully around and told his student not too loudly: “Perhaps, I should say: all that is actual should be rational.” Even if factually true, this anecdote is philosophically a lie – if not an outright invention of Heine, it represents Hegel’s attempt to cover up from his student the painful message or truth of his thinking.
Such a Hegel is the central point of reference of my entire work.
Saturday, September 14, 2019
The Bohlen–Pierce scale (BP scale) is a musical tuning and scale, first described in the 1970s, that offers an alternative to the octave-repeating scales typical in Western and other musics, specifically the equal tempered diatonic scale.
The interval 3:1 (often called by a new name, tritave) serves as the fundamental harmonic ratio, replacing the diatonic scale's 2:1 (the octave). For any pitch that is part of the BP scale, all pitches one or more tritaves higher or lower are part of the system as well, and are considered equivalent.
The BP scale divides the tritave into 13 steps, either equal tempered (the most popular form), or in a justly tuned version. Compared with octave-repeating scales, the BP scale's intervals are more consonant with certain types of acoustic spectra.
The scale was independently described by Heinz Bohlen, Kees van Prooijen and John R. Pierce. Pierce, who, with Max Mathews and others, published his discovery in 1984, renamed the Pierce 3579b scale and its chromatic variant the Bohlen–Pierce scale after learning of Bohlen's earlier publication. Bohlen had proposed the same scale based on consideration of the influence of combination tones on the Gestalt impression of intervals and chords.
The intervals between BP scale pitch classes are based on odd integer frequency ratios, in contrast with the intervals in diatonic scales, which employ both odd and even ratios found in the harmonic series. Specifically, the BP scale steps are based on ratios of integers whose factors are 3, 5, and 7. Thus the scale contains consonant harmonies based on the odd harmonic overtones 3:5:7:9 (play (help·info)). The chord formed by the ratio 3:5:7 (play (help·info)) serves much the same role as the 4:5:6 chord (a major triad play (help·info)) does in diatonic scales (3:5:7 = 1:1 & 2/3:2 & 1/3 and 4:5:6 = 2:2 & 1/2:3 = 1:1 & 1/4:1 & 1/2).
Friday, September 13, 2019
As part of the activities marking the centenary of the University of Ljubljana, the Faculty of Arts is organising the Philosophy Summer School ‘Fail better!’ led by the internationally renowned scholars known as ‘the Ljubljana School’, Slavoj Žižek, Alenka Zupančič and Mladen Dolar, who will each give three extensive lectures and present their latest work. The programme will be concluded by a common session.
The title of the Summer School is taken from the famous quote by Samuel Beckett, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ (Worstward Ho), and refers to a stark sense of failure of critical thought and of emancipatory politics, the rise of new populism, the emergence of previously unthinkable leaders, the looming social and economic contradictions, and the apocalyptic perspectives of global and ecological catastrophes. Such failure, however, is a starting point that instigates new intellectual engagement.
The title of the Summer School is taken from the famous quote by Samuel Beckett, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ (Worstward Ho), and refers to a stark sense of failure of critical thought and of emancipatory politics, the rise of new populism, the emergence of previously unthinkable leaders, the looming social and economic contradictions, and the apocalyptic perspectives of global and ecological catastrophes. Such failure, however, is a starting point that instigates new intellectual engagement.
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Heaven is not enough, and has to be supplemented by the permission to take a look at another’s suffering — only in this way, as Aquinas says, the blessed souls 'may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly'
A well-crafted worldwide publicity campaign is raising expectations for The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her Handmaid’s Tale. This, perhaps, is the right moment to take a deeper look into the reasons of our fascination with the dark world of the Republic of Gilead.
Since Gilead is run by Christian fundamentalists, the best way to begin is with theology.
In his Summa Theologica, philosopher Thomas Aquinas concludes that the blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned in order that their bliss be more delightful for them. Aquinas, of course, takes care to avoid the obscene implication that good souls in heaven can find pleasure in observing the terrible suffering of other souls, because good Christians should feel pity when they see suffering. So, will the blessed in heaven also feel pity for the torments of the damned? Aquinas’s answer is no: not because they directly enjoy seeing suffering, but because they enjoy the exercise of divine justice.
But what if enjoying Divine Justice is the rationalisation, the moral cover-up, for sadistically enjoying the neighbour’s eternal suffering? What makes Aquinas’s formulation suspicious is the surplus enjoyment watching the pain of others secretly introduces: as if the simple pleasure of living in the bliss of heaven is not enough, and has to be supplemented by the enjoyment of being allowed to take a look at another’s suffering — only in this way, the blessed souls “may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly”.
We can easily imagine the appropriate scene in heaven: when some blessed souls complain that the nectar served was not as tasty as the last time, and that blissful life up there is rather boring after all, angels serving the blessed souls would snap back: “You don’t like it here? So take a look at how life is down there, at the other end, and maybe you will learn how lucky you are to be here!”
And the corresponding scene in hell should also be imagined in a totally different way: far away from the Divine gaze and control, the damned souls enjoy an intense and pleasurable life in hell — only from time to time, when the Devil’s administrators of hell learn that the blessed souls from heaven will be allowed to observe briefly life in hell, they kindly implore the damned souls to stage a performance and pretend to suffer terribly in order to impress the idiots from heaven.
In short, the sight of the other’s suffering is the obscure cause of desire which sustains our own happiness (bliss in heaven) — if we take it away, our bliss appears in all its sterile stupidity. And, incidentally, does the same not hold for our daily portion of Third World horrors – wars, starvations, violence – on TV screens? We need it to sustain the happiness of our consumerist heaven.
And this brings us to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: a case of the direct “critical” depiction of the oppressive atmosphere of an imagined conservative-fundamentalist rule. The novel and the television series allow us to dwell in the weird pleasure in fantasising a world of brutal patriarchal domination. Of course, nobody would openly admit the desire to live in such nightmarish world, but this assurance that we really don’t want it makes fantasising about it, imagining all the details of this world, all the more pleasurable. Yes, we feel pain while experiencing this pleasure, but psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s name for this pleasure-in-pain is jouissance.
The obverse of this ambiguity is the fundamental blindness of Atwood’s tale for the limitations of our liberal-permissive universe: the entire story is an exercise in what American literary critic Fredric Jameson called “nostalgia for the present” – it is permeated by the sentimental admiration for our liberal-permissive present ruined by the new Christian-fundamentalist rule, and it never even approaches the question of what is wrong in this present so that it gave birth to the nightmarish Republic of Gilead. “Nostalgia for the present” falls into the trap of ideology because it is blind for the fact that this present permissive Paradise is boring, and (exactly like the blessed souls in Paradise) it needs a look into the hell of religious fundamentalism to sustain itself.
This is ideology at its purest, ideology in the simple and brutal sense of legitimising the existing order and obfuscating its antagonisms. In exactly the same way, liberal critics of Trump and alt-right never seriously ask how our liberal society could give birth to Trump.
In this sense, the image of Donald Trump is also a fetish: the last thing a liberal sees before confronting class struggle. That’s why liberals are so fascinated and horrified by Trump: to avoid the class topic. German philosopher Friedrich Hegel’s motto, “evil resides in the gaze which sees evil everywhere”, fully applies here: the very liberal gaze which demonises Trump is also evil because it ignores how its own failures opened up the space for Trump’s type of patriotic populism.
Saturday, September 7, 2019
Friday, September 6, 2019
Through all his shocking vulgarities, he is providing his followers with a narrative which makes sense
Not such a long time ago, in a galaxy that now appears far, far away, the public space was clearly distinguished from the obscenities of private exchanges. Politicians, journalists and other media personalities were expected to address us with a minimum of dignity, talking and acting as if the common good is their main preoccupation, avoiding vulgar expressions and reference to personal intimacies. There were, of course, rumors about their private vices, but they remained that – private matters mentioned only in the yellow press. Today, however, not only we can read in the mass media about the intimate details of public personalities, populist politicians themselves often regress to shameless obscenity. It is the very public domain in which ‘fake news’ circulates, in which rumors and conspiracy theories abound.
One should not lose sight of what is so surprising about this rise of shameless obscenity, so well noted and analyzed by Angela Nagle in her book Kill All Normies. Traditionally (or in our retroactive view of tradition, at least), shameless obscenity was subversive, an undermining of traditional domination, depriving the Master of his false dignity. I remember from my own youth how in the 1960s protesting students liked to use obscene words or gestures to embarrass figures of power and, so they claimed, denounce their hypocrisy. However, what we are seeing today is not the disappearance of authority, of Master figures, but its forceful reappearance – we are getting something unimaginable decades ago, obscene Masters.
Donald Trump is the emblematic figure of this new type of obscene populist Master, and the usual argument against him – that his populism (worry for the well-being of the poor ordinary people) is fake, that his actual politics protects the interests of the rich – is all too inadequate. The followers of Trump do not act ‘irrationally’, they are not victims of primitive ideological manipulations which make them vote against their interests. They are quite rational in their own terms: they vote for Trump because in the ‘patriotic’ vision he is selling around, he also addresses their ordinary everyday problems – guaranteeing them safety, a permanent job, et cetera.
When he was elected president, I was asked by a couple of publishers to write a book which would submit the Trump phenomenon to a psychoanalytic critics, and my answer was that we do not need psychoanalysis to explore the ‘pathology’ of his success – the only thing to psychoanalyze is the irrational stupidity of the left-liberal reactions to it, the stupidity which makes it more and more probable that Trump will be re-elected. To use what is perhaps the lowest point of Trump’s vulgarities, the left has not yet learned how to grab him by the pussy.
Trump is not winning just by shamelessly bombarding us with messages which generate obscene enjoyment at how he dares to violate the elementary norms of decency. Through all his shocking vulgarities, he is providing his followers with a narrative which makes sense – a very limited and twisted sense, but nonetheless a sense which obviously does a better job than the left-liberal narrative. His shameless obscenities serve as signs of solidarity with so-called ordinary people (‘you see, I am the same as you, we are all red under our skin’), and this solidarity also signals the point at which Trump’s obscenity reaches its limit. Trump is not totally obscene: when he talks about the greatness of America, when he dismisses his opponents as enemies of the people, et cetera, he intends to be taken seriously, and his obscenities are meant to precisely emphasize by contrast the level at which he is serious: they are meant to function as an obscene display of his belief in the greatness of America.
In order to undermine Trump, one should begin by displacing the site of his obscenity and treat as obscene his ‘serious’ statements. Trump is not truly obscene when he uses vulgar terms, he is truly obscene when he talks about America as the greatest country in the world, when he imposes his economic measures, et cetera. The obscenity of his speech masks this more basic obscenity. One could paraphrase here the well-known Marx brothers’ dictum: Trump acts and looks like a shamelessly obscene politician, but this should not deceive us – he really is a shamelessly obscene politician.
Public obscenity that proliferates today constitutes a third domain between the private and the public space: the private space elevated into the public sphere. It seems to be the form that fits best our immersion into cyberspace, our participation in all possible forums; Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. No wonder, then, that Trump makes most of his decisions public through Twitter. However, we don’t get here the ‘real Trump’: the domain of public obscenities is not that of sharing intimate experiences, it is a public domain full of lies, hypocrisies and pure malevolence, a domain in which we engage in a way similar to that of wearing a disgusting mask. The standard relationship between my intimacy and the big Other of public dignity is thus turned around: obscenities are no longer limited to private exchanges, they explode in the public domain itself, allowing me to dwell in the illusion that it’s all just an obscene game while I remain innocent in my intimate purity. The first task of a critic is to demonstrate how fake this purity is.
Thursday, September 5, 2019
Democratic capitalism is in crisis and we are slowly approaching an alternative -- what is poetically called "capitalism with Asian values," which has nothing to do with Asia but is a more authoritarian one. And again, it's not just China or Singapore -- it's Russia, it's Turkey. Even in places where democracy is still formally alive, it's becoming more and more irrelevant as we see with this TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership -- a proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the United States) and other commercial agreements, which are incredibly important. They set the frame for what governments can do, but without any democratic consultation -- they're half-secret, and so on.- Slavoj Zizek
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Our meagre efforts are like a soccer fan in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome
Just when the burning of the Amazon forests drifted from our headlines, we learned that almost 4,000 new forest fires were started in Brazil in the two days after the government banned deliberate burning of the Amazon.
These figures trigger alarm: are we really heading towards a collective suicide? By destroying the Amazon rainforests, Brazilians are killing “the lungs of our Earth”. However, if we want to confront seriously threats to our environment, what we should avoid are precisely such quick extrapolations which fascinate our imagination.
Two or three decades ago, everyone in Europe was talking about Waldsterben, the dying of forests. The topic was on the covers of all popular weeklies, and there were calculations of how in half a century Europe will be without forests. Now there are more forests in Europe than at any point in the 20th century, and we are becoming aware of other dangers – of what happens in the depth of the oceans, for example.
While we should take ecological threats extremely seriously, we should also be fully aware of how uncertain analyses and projections are in this domain – we will know for sure what is going on only when it is too late. Fast extrapolations only hand arguments to climate change deniers. We should avoid at all costs the trap of an “ecology of fear,” a hasty, morbid fascination with looming catastrophe.
This ecology of fear has the hallmarks of a developing, predominant form of ideology in global capitalism, a new opium for the masses replacing the declining religion. It takes over the old religion’s fundamental function, that of installing an unquestionable authority which can impose limits.
The lesson hammered into us is that of our own finitude: we are just one species on our Earth embedded in a biosphere which reaches far beyond our horizon. In our exploitation of natural resources, we are borrowing from the future, so one should treat our Earth with respect, as something ultimately sacred, something that should not be unveiled totally, that should and will forever remain a mystery, a power we should trust, not dominate.
While we cannot gain full mastery over our biosphere, it is, unfortunately, in our power to derail it, to disturb its balance so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process. This is why, although ecologists are all the time demanding that we make radical changes to our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite: a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress. Every radical change can have the unintended consequence of catastrophe.
Things get even more difficult here. Even when we profess the readiness to assume responsibility for ecological catastrophes, this can be a tricky stratagem to avoid facing the true scale of the threat. There is something deceptively reassuring in this readiness to assume the guilt for threats to our environment: we like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, then it all depends on us, we pull the strings of the catastrophe, so we can also save ourselves simply by changing our lives.
What is really difficult for us (at least for us in the west) to accept is that we might be reduced to a purely passive role of impotent observers who can only sit and watch our fate. To avoid this, we are prone to engage in frantic activity, we recycle old paper, buy organic food, whatever, just so that we can be sure we are doing something, making our contribution.
We are like a soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in a superstitious belief that this will somehow influence the outcome.
It is true that the typical form of fetishist disavowal around ecology is: “I know very well (that we are all threatened), but I don’t really believe it (so I am not ready to do anything really important like changing my way of life).”
But there is also the opposite form of disavowal: “I know very well that I cannot really influence the process which can lead to my ruin (like a volcanic outburst), but it is nonetheless too traumatic for me to accept this, so I cannot resist the urge to do something, even if I know it is ultimately meaningless.”
Is it not for that reason we buy organic food? Who really believes that the half-rotten and expensive “organic” apples are really healthier? The point is that, by way of buying them, we do not just buy and consume a product – we simultaneously do something meaningful, show our care and global awareness, we participate in a large collective project.
The predominant ecological ideology treats us as a priori guilty, indebted to Mother Nature, under the constant pressure of the ecological superego agency which addresses us in our individuality: “What did you do today to repay your debt to nature? Did you put all your newspapers into a proper recycling bin? And all the bottles of beer or cans of Coke? Did you use your bike or public transport instead of your car? Did you open the windows wide rather than firing up the air conditioning?”
The ideological stakes of such individualisation are easy to see: I get lost in my own self-examination instead of raising much more pertinent global questions about our entire industrial civilization.
Ecology thus lends itself easily to ideological mystification. It can be a pretext for New Age obscuration (the praising of the pre-modern etc), or for neocolonialism (developed world complaints of the threat of rapid growth in developing countries such as Brazil or China), or as a cause to honour “green capitalists” (buy green and recycle, as if taking into account ecology justifies capitalist exploitation). All of these tensions exploded in our reactions to the recent Amazon fires.
There are five main strategies to distract from the true dimensions of the ecological threat. First there is simple ignorance: it’s a marginal phenomenon, not worthy of our preoccupation, life goes on, nature will take care of itself.
Second, there is the belief that science and technology can save us. Third, that we should leave the solution to the market (with higher taxation of polluters, etc). Fourth, we resort to the superego pressure on personal responsibility instead of large systemic measures (each of us should do what we can – recycle, consume less, etc).
And fifth, perhaps the worst, is the advocating of a return to natural balance, to a more modest, traditional life by means of which we renounce human hubris and become again respectful children of our Mother Nature.
This whole paradigm of Mother Nature derailed by our hubris is wrong. The fact that our main sources of energy (oil, coal) are remnants of past catastrophes which occurred prior to the advent of humanity is a clear reminder that Mother Nature is cold and cruel.
This, of course, in no way means that we should relax and trust our future: the fact that it is not clear what is going on makes the situation even more dangerous. Plus, as it is fast becoming evident, migrations (and walls meant to prevent them) are getting more and more intertwined with ecological disturbances like global warming. The ecological apocalypse and the refugees apocalypse are more and more overlapping in what Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur, described entirely accurately:
“We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario,” he said, “where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”
Those least responsible for global emissions also have the least capacity to protect themselves.
So, the Leninist question: what is to be done? We are in a deep mess: there is no simple “democratic” solution here. The idea that people themselves (not just governments and corporations) should decide sounds deep, but it begs an important question: even if their comprehension is not distorted by corporate interests, what qualifies them to pass judgement in such a delicate matter?
What we can do is at least set the priorities straight and admit the absurdity of our geopolitical war games when the very planet for which wars are fought is under threat.
In the Amazon, we see the ridiculous game of Europe blaming Brazil and Brazil blaming Europe. It has to stop. Ecological threats make it clear that the era of sovereign nation states is approaching its end – a strong global agency is needed with the power to coordinate the necessary measures. And does such the need for such an agency point in the direction of what we once called “communism”?
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
- Rex Butler, "Slavoj Zizek: What is a Master-Signifier"
...in 1930s Germany the Nazi narrative of social reality won out over the socialist-revolutionary narrative not because it was better able to account for the 'crisis' in liberal-bourgeois ideology, but because it was able to impose the idea that there was a 'crisis' - a 'crisis' of which the socialist-revolutionary narrative was itself a part and which must ultimately be explained because of the 'Jewish conspiracy' (TS, 179).
The same 'arbitrariness' applies not only to reality but to those ideological systems by which we construct reality. That is, again following the analogy of Saussure's conception of language, the meaning of particular political or ideological terms is not fixed or unchanging but given only through their articulation with other terms. For example, the meaning of 'ecologism' is not the same in every ideological system but shifts between several possible meanings: there is feminist ecology, in which the exploitation of nature is seen as masculine; socialist ecology, in which the exploitation of nature is seen as the product of capitalism; conservative ecology, which urges us to get back to the cycles of nature; and even capitalist ecology, which sees the free market as the only solution to our current environmental problems (SO, 87). The same would apply to the terms 'feminism', 'socialism', 'conservatism' and 'capitalism' themselves. And ideology is the struggle over which of these elements not only is defined by its relationship with the others but also allows this relationship, is that medium through which they are organized. It is the struggle not only to be one of those free-floating ideological signifiers whose meaning is 'quilted' or determined by another but also that signifier which gives those others their meaning, to which they must ultimately be understood to be referring.
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Modern censorship is more dangerous than open totalitarianism, it being concealed and incorporated in our daily routine, says Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, commenting on the insider leak detailing Google’s news blacklist.
The intellectual told RT he’s not advocating for online anarchy, comparing it to snuff movies in hardcore pornography – some regulation should be in place to block harmful content on the internet, he says. But hiding political motives for suppressing voices online is what worries Zizek the most.
“We all know we have to censor things at some level, but the main rule for me is that the process should be transparent. Not in the way – I’m talking about the developed West – it is done now, when all of a sudden somebody is prohibited and you are not even allowed to debate it,” Zizek explains. The “false choice” between politically correct censorship and radical liberalism is a trap, he believes.
This week, conservative transparency group Project Veritas published documents it received from an ex-Google employee. The documents appeared to confirm that Google can boost or de-rank news sources based on a seemingly biased set of internal rules. Calling the practices “dark and nefarious” the whistleblower, Zachary Vorhies, also leaked a doc detailing Google’s “blacklist” that lists nearly 500 websites, including both conservative and leftist media outlets.
Zizek believes the Big Tech's practice of blacklists and shadow bans could prove an opportunity for right-wing activists to show themselves as a group fighting establishment politics and targeted for their opposition. The philosopher thinks this tactic will actually backfire against liberals by giving “the new populist right a position where they can say: you see, we’re the true alternative, we’re the true oppressed.”
Google is likely not the only tech megacorporation with a tight grip on their users’ digital menu, Zizek argues – but “the process isn’t some kind of a dark plot,” rather an inconspicuous slide “into a new, controlled society.”
What’s terrifying about it is that we don’t even experience it as something controlled. We just use social media, buy things, go to a doctor – and all the data about us is out there. But those are the things that we perceive as our freedom. So what we perceive as freedom becomes the very way we are controlled.One doesn’t know anymore “if there is secret police following you or somebody reading your letters,” and this in Zizek’s mind is what differentiates it from the totalitarianism of the past. Modern control is hidden and undeclared, Zizek says.
Thursday, August 15, 2019
My view is inscribed in my gaze; I can’t escape myself in the gaze.
The gaze is always already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its blind spot, that which is “in the object more than the object itself”, the point from which the object itself returns the gaze, as political philosopher Slavoj Zizek theorised. “Sure, the picture is in my eye, but me, I am also in the picture.” This is so relevant today as we discuss media credibility and the future of journalism.
Enter ideology and riven politics: the media in South Africa is not one homogenous whole but is split and fractured, and so it should be. It should be multiple, but more and more mainstream media is resembling the politics of the day: in two binary oppositions with no nuance, a typical characteristic of social media too.
If you are confused about what is real, what is true, fact, propaganda or fiction, you are not alone; join the rest of the world. I come back to this point about my place, my gaze. Ideological dogma provides safe havens from truth, nuance and complexity. And so there is groupthink – you are either for the public protector or not, for gun control or not, are a feminist or not, believe in the bogus rogue unit at SARS or not, accept that climate change exists or not.
So my view is inscribed in my gaze and therefore I cannot see because I cannot afford to see – it blocks the ideology and it’s in the excess that the ideology resides. There is always some truth but it’s in the excess and surplus that we get the ideology.
Let us take some examples of the ideological excess: all tax revenue collection institutions in the world need an investigative unit – but if you are hiding something and you need to discredit an institution then you replace “investigative” with “rogue”. Then you label and hail all who seek the facts or put the facts forward as being part of a “cabal”. You need to build your story. For those on the side supporting the end to corruption, there is so much at stake politically in the country that they get caught up in the fights on social media, rather than sticking with the facts of which there are enough. But the ideological interpellators (those who label, hail and shame) provoke on a daily if not hourly basis, and so often journalists respond and provide the oxygen for the fire. Because journalism became embroiled in such excess and surplus, the credibility of the industry, the craft or profession is now at stake. But the facts have to be told and some journalists are doing this.
Journalism is not objective, nor are journalists neutral amorphous operators. Some think they are but they carry around all their biases and lived experiences, naturally. Hence I remind about the “blind spots” of ideology; and what we are seeing today are fantasmic operators who are not just creating fantasy but are operating in theoretical amnesia – conscious or unconscious – that they are ideological subjects doing the work of crooks.
The traditional model of journalism is dying or dead; Facebook and Google need regulation, but this won’t stop death. Job losses are phenomenal due to technological disruption/social media, and companies now make profits but only for the bosses, whose jobs they save. As newsrooms are shed of senior staff the quality of journalism has declined, especially with no subs’ desks and not even replaced by fact-checkers. This is the biggest threat to the credibility of news media – 50% of professional journalist jobs have been lost over the past decade, according to the SA Job Losses in Journalism survey of 2018, which is part of the international wing of the New Beats project.
We can’t easily change the times we live in the ideological chasms with two wide-apart rifts consisting of hard lines, or enemy lines. It’s quite the opposite of the legitimate adversaries we are supposed to be in a democracy. But news media can avoid being part of the hard enemy lines and instead be more nuanced to highlight the complexities. One of the ways to do this is for journalists to move out of the opinion space of toxic Twitter and deal with just the facts and analysis.
Credibility is also at stake if we do not have one big media ethics code, rather than different things applying to different aspects of media – because of convergence we have a radio newscast, going online, then getting tweeted and then redundantly in the newspaper the next day – so of course, we need one code. We definitely should be thinking of ways to strengthen the regulation of the online and social media space.
Then there are tax incentives that can be imagined to encourage organisations, civil societies, government entities and businesses to encourage philanthropic support for journalism; and then there are green shoots and non-profits that can be supported. If we don’t sort out this space, our democracy is at stake.
It’s going to be chaotic, vile and messy for a while.
This column was written in preparation for the panel discussion on the Future of Journalism series: Part 1 on media credibility, organised by Media Monitoring Africa and the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg, 13 August 2019.
Rejecting the Hoard Leader by Denying SuperEgo: Inventing Law Out of the Liberal Fear of Harrassment
Alibi for militarist interventions, sacralization for the tyranny of the market, ideological foundation for the fundamentalism of the politically correct: can the ‘symbolic fiction’ of universal rights be recuperated for the progressive politicization of actual socio-economic relations?
Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others.
Let us begin with fundamentalism. Here, the evil (to paraphrase Hegel) often dwells in the gaze that perceives it. Take the Balkans during the 1990s, the site of widespread human-rights violations. At what point did the Balkans—a geographical region of South-Eastern Europe—become ‘Balkan’, with all that designates for the European ideological imaginary today? The answer is: the mid-19th century, just as the Balkans were being fully exposed to the effects of European modernization. The gap between earlier Western European perceptions and the ‘modern’ image is striking. Already in the 16th century the French naturalist Pierre Belon could note that ‘the Turks force no one to live like a Turk’. Small surprise, then, that so many Jews found asylum and religious freedom in Turkey and other Muslim countries after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled them from Spain in 1492—with the result that, in a supreme twist of irony, Western travellers were disturbed by the public presence of Jews in big Turkish cities. Here, from a long series of examples, is a report from N. Bisani, an Italian who visited Istanbul in 1788:A stranger, who has beheld the intolerance of London and Paris, must be much surprised to see a church here between a mosque and a synagogue, and a dervish by the side of a Capuchin friar. I know not how this government can have admitted into its bosom religions so opposite to its own. It must be from degeneracy of Mahommedanism, that this happy contrast can be produced. What is still more astonishing is to find that this spirit of toleration is generally prevalent among the people; for here you see Turks, Jews, Catholics, Armenians, Greeks and Protestants conversing together on subjects of business or pleasure with as much harmony and goodwill as if they were of the same country and religion. The very feature that the West today celebrates as the sign of its cultural superiority—the spirit and practice of multicultural tolerance—is thus dismissed as an effect of Islamic ‘degeneracy’. The strange fate of the Trappist monks of Etoile Marie is equally telling. Expelled from France by the Napoleonic regime, they settled in Germany, but were driven out in 1868. Since no other Christian state would take them, they asked the Sultan’s permission to buy land near Banja Luka, in the Serb part of today’s Bosnia, where they lived happily ever after—until they got caught in the Balkan conflicts between Christians.
Where, then, did the fundamentalist features—religious intolerance, ethnic violence, fixation upon historical trauma—which the West now associates with ‘the Balkan’, originate? Clearly, from the West itself. In a neat instance of Hegel’s ‘reflexive determination’, what Western Europeans observe and deplore in the Balkans is what they themselves introduced there; what they combat is their own historical legacy run amok. Let us not forget that the two great ethnic crimes imputed to the Turks in the 20th century—the Armenian genocide and the persecution of the Kurds—were not committed by traditionalist Muslim political forces, but by the military modernizers who sought to cut Turkey loose from its old-world ballast and turn it into a European nation-state. Mladen Dolar’s old quip, based on a detailed reading of Freud’s references to the region, that the European unconscious is structured like the Balkans, is thus literally true: in the guise of the Otherness of ‘Balkan’, Europe takes cognizance of the ‘stranger in itself’, of its own repressed.
But we might also examine the ways in which the ‘fundamentalist’ essentialization of contingent traits is itself a feature of liberal-capitalist democracy. It is fashionable to complain that private life is threatened or even disappearing, in face of the media’s ability to expose one’s most intimate personal details to the public. True, on condition that we turn things around: what is effectively disappearing here is public life itself, the public sphere proper, in which one operates as a symbolic agent who cannot be reduced to a private individual, to a bundle of personal attributes, desires, traumas and idiosyncrasies. The ‘risk society’ commonplace—according to which the contemporary individual experiences himself as thoroughly ‘denaturalized’, regarding even his most ‘natural’ traits, from ethnic identity to sexual preference, as being chosen, historically contingent, learned—is thus profoundly deceiving. What we are witnessing today is the opposite process: an unprecedented re-naturalization. All big ‘public issues’ are now translated into attitudes towards the regulation of ‘natural’ or ‘personal’ idiosyncrasies.
This explains why, at a more general level, pseudo-naturalized ethno-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which best suits global capitalism. In the age of ‘post-politics’, when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the sole remaining legitimate sources of conflict are cultural (religious) or natural (ethnic) tensions. And ‘evaluation’ is precisely the regulation of social promotion that fits with this re-naturalization. Perhaps the time has come to reassert, as the truth of evaluation, the perverted logic to which Marx refers ironically in his description of commodity fetishism, quoting Dogberry’s advice to Seacoal at the end of Capital’s Chapter 1: ‘To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.’ To be a computer expert or a successful manager is a gift of nature today, but lovely lips or eyes are a fact of culture.
Unfreedom of choice
As to freedom of choice: I have written elsewhere of the pseudo-choice offered to the adolescents of Amish communities who, after the strictest of upbringings, are invited at the age of seventeen to plunge themselves into every excess of contemporary capitalist culture—a whirl of fast cars, wild sex, drugs, drink and so forth.  After a couple of years, they are allowed to choose whether they want to return to the Amish way. Since they have been brought up in virtual ignorance of American society, the youngsters are quite unprepared to cope with such permissiveness, which in most cases generates a backlash of unbearable anxiety. The vast majority vote to return to the seclusion of their communities. This is a perfect case of the difficulties that invariably accompany ‘freedom of choice’: while Amish children are formally given a free choice, the conditions in which they must make it render the choice unfree.
The problem of pseudo-choice also demonstrates the limitations of the standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women who wear the veil: acceptable if it is their own free choice rather than imposed on them by husbands or family. However, the moment a woman dons the veil as the result of personal choice, its meaning changes completely: it is no longer a sign of belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of idiosyncratic individuality. In other words, a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil that effectively chooses a choice. This is why, in our secular liberal democracies, people who maintain a substantial religious allegiance are in a subordinate position: their faith is ‘tolerated’ as their own personal choice, but the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them—a matter of substantial belonging—they stand accused of ‘fundamentalism’. Plainly, the ‘subject of free choice’, in the ‘tolerant’, multicultural sense, can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being uprooted from one’s particular life-world.
The material force of the ideological notion of ‘free choice’ within capitalist democracy was well illustrated by the fate of the Clinton Administration’s ultra-modest health reform programme. The medical lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defence lobby) succeeded in imposing on the public the idea that universal healthcare would somehow threaten freedom of choice in that domain. Against this conviction, all enumeration of ‘hard facts’ proved ineffective. We are here at the very nerve-centre of liberal ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the ‘psychological’ subject, endowed with propensities which he or she strives to realize. And this especially holds today, in the era of a ‘risk society’ in which the ruling ideology endeavours to sell us the very insecurities caused by the dismantling of the welfare state as the opportunity for new freedoms. If labour flexibilization means you have to change jobs every year, why not see it as a liberation from the constraints of a permanent career, a chance to reinvent yourself and realize the hidden potential of your personality? If there is a shortfall on your standard health insurance and retirement plan, meaning you have to opt for extra coverage, why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either a better lifestyle now or long-term security? Should this predicament cause you anxiety, the ‘second modernity’ ideologist will diagnose you as desiring to ‘escape from freedom’, of an immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the ‘psychological’ individual, pregnant with natural abilities, you will automatically tend to interpret all these changes as the outcome of your personality, not as the result of being thrown around by market forces.
Politics of jouissance
What of the basic right to the pursuit of pleasure? Today’s politics is ever more concerned with ways of soliciting or controlling jouissance. The opposition between the liberal-tolerant West and fundamentalist Islam is most often condensed as that between, on the one side, a woman’s right to free sexuality, including the freedom to display or expose herself and to provoke or disturb men; and, on the other side, desperate male attempts to suppress or control this threat. (The Taliban forbade metal-tipped heels for women, as the tapping sounds coming from beneath an all-concealing burka might have an overpowering erotic appeal.)
Both sides, of course, mystify their position ideologically and morally. For the West, women’s right to expose themselves provocatively to male desire is legitimized as their right to enjoy their bodies as they please. For Islam, the control of female sexuality is legitimized as the defence of women’s dignity against their being reduced to objects of male exploitation. So when the French state prohibits Muslim girls from wearing the veil in school, one can claim that they are thus enabled to dispose of their bodies as they wish. But one can also argue that the true traumatic point for critics of Muslim ‘fundamentalism’ was that there were women who did not participate in the game of making their bodies available for sexual seduction, or for the social exchange and circulation involved in this. In one way or another, all the other issues—gay marriage and adoption, abortion, divorce—relate to this. What the two poles share is a strict disciplinary approach, differently directed: ‘fundamentalists’ regulate female self-presentation to forestall sexual provocation; pc feminist liberals impose a no-less-severe regulation of behaviour aimed at containing forms of harassment.
Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others. The same goes for the emergent logic of humanitarian or pacifist militarism. War is acceptable insofar as it seeks to bring about peace, or democracy, or the conditions for distributing humanitarian aid. And does the same not hold even more for democracy and human rights themselves? Human rights are ok if they are ‘rethought’ to include torture and a permanent emergency state. Democracy is ok if it is cleansed of its populist excesses and limited to those mature enough to practise it.
Caught in the vicious cycle of the imperative of jouissance, the temptation is to opt for what appears its ‘natural’ opposite, the violent renunciation of jouissance. This is perhaps the underlying motif of all so-called fundamentalisms—the endeavour to contain (what they perceive as) the excessive ‘narcissistic hedonism’ of contemporary secular culture with a call to reintroduce the spirit of sacrifice. A psychoanalytic perspective immediately enables us to see why such an endeavour goes wrong. The very gesture of casting away enjoyment—‘Enough of decadent self-indulgence! Renounce and purify!’—produces a surplus-enjoyment of its own. Do not all ‘totalitarian’ universes which demand of their subjects a violent (self-)sacrifice to the cause exude the bad smell of a fascination with a lethal-obscene jouissance? Conversely, a life oriented towards the pursuit of pleasure will entail the harsh discipline of a ‘healthy lifestyle’—jogging, dieting, mental relaxation—if it is to be enjoyed to the maximum. The superego injunction to enjoy oneself is immanently intertwined with the logic of sacrifice. The two form a vicious cycle, each extreme supporting the other. The choice is never simply between doing one’s duty or striving for pleasure and satisfaction. This elementary choice is always redoubled by a further one, between elevating one’s striving for pleasure into one’s supreme duty, and doing one’s duty not for duty’s sake but for the gratification it brings. In the first case, pleasures are my duty, and the ‘pathological’ striving for pleasure is located in the formal space of duty. In the second case, duty is my pleasure, and doing my duty is located in the formal space of ‘pathological’ satisfactions.
Defence against power?
But if human rights as opposition to fundamentalism and as pursuit of happiness lead us into intractable contradictions, are they not after all a defence against the excess of power? Marx formulated the strange logic of power as ‘in excess’ by its very nature in his analyses of 1848. In The Eighteenth Brumaire and The Class Struggles in France, he ‘complicated’ in a properly dialectical way the logic of social representation (political agents representing economic classes and forces). In doing so, he went much further than the usual notion of these ‘complications’, according to which political representation never directly mirrors social structure—a single political agent can represent different social groups, for instance; or a class can renounce its direct representation and leave to another the job of securing the politico-juridical conditions of its rule, as the English capitalist class did by leaving to the aristocracy the exercise of political power. Marx’s analyses pointed towards what Lacan would articulate, more than a century later, as the ‘logic of the signifier’. Apropos the Party of Order, formed after the defeat of the June insurrection, Marx wrote that only after Louis-Napoleon’s December 10 election victory allowed it to ‘cast off’ its coterie of bourgeois republicans was the secret of its existence, the coalition of Orléanists and Legitimists into one party, disclosed. The bourgeois class fell apart into two big factions which alternately—the big landed proprietors under the restored monarchy and the finance aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie under the July Monarchy—had maintained a monopoly of power. Bourbon was the royal name for the predominant influence of the interests of the one faction, Orléans the royal name for the predominant influence of the interests of the other faction—the nameless realm of the republic was the only one in which both factions could maintain with equal power the common class interest without giving up their mutual rivalry. 
This, then, is the first complication. When we are dealing with two or more socio-economic groups, their common interest can only be represented in the guise of the negation of their shared premise: the common denominator of the two royalist factions is not royalism, but republicanism. (Just as today, the only political agent that consistently represents the interests of capital as such, in its universality, above particular factions, is the ‘social liberal’ Third Way.) Then, in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx dissected the makeup of the Society of December 10, Louis-Napoleon’s private army of thugs:Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel-keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10 . . . This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpen proletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrases. The logic of the Party of Order is here brought to its radical conclusion. In the same way that the only common denominator of all royalist factions is republicanism, the only common denominator of all classes is the excremental excess, the refuse, the remainder, of all classes. That is to say, insofar as the leader perceives himself as standing above class interests, his immediate class base can only be the excremental remainder of all classes, the rejected non-class of each class. And, as Marx develops in another passage, it is this support from the ‘social abject’ which enables Bonaparte to shift his position as required, representing in turn each class against the others.
As the executive authority which has made itself independent, Bonaparte feels it to be his task to safeguard ‘bourgeois order’. But the strength of this bourgeois order lies in the middle class. He poses, therefore, as the representative of the middle class and issues decrees in this sense. Nevertheless, he is somebody solely because he has broken the power of that middle class, and keeps on breaking it daily. He poses, therefore, as the opponent of the political and literary power of the middle class. 
But there is more. In order for this system to function—that is, for the leader to stand above classes and not to act as a direct representative of any one class—he also has to act as the representative of one particular class: of the class which, precisely, is not sufficiently constituted to act as a united agent demanding active representation. This class of people who cannot represent themselves and can thus only be represented is, of course, the class of small-holding peasants, who form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse . . . They are consequently incapable of enforcing their class interests in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself. 
These three features together form the paradoxical structure of populist-Bonapartist representation: standing above all classes, shifting among them, involves a direct reliance on the abject/remainder of all classes, plus the ultimate reference to the class of those who are unable to act as a collective agent demanding political representation. This paradox is grounded in the constitutive excess of representation over the represented. At the level of the law, the state power merely represents the interests of its subjects; it serves them, is responsible to them, and is itself subject to their control. However, at the level of the superego underside, the public message of responsibility is supplemented by the obscene message of the unconditional exercise of power: ‘Laws do not really bind me, I can do to you whatever I want, I can treat you as guilty if I decide to do so, I can destroy you on a whim’. This obscene excess is a necessary constituent of the notion of sovereignty. The asymmetry here is structural: the law can only sustain its authority if subjects hear in it the echo of the obscene, unconditional self-assertion of power.
This excess of power brings us to the ultimate argument against ‘big’ political interventions which aim at global transformation: the terrifying experiences of the 20th century, a series of catastrophes which precipitated disastrous violence on an unprecedented scale. There are three main theorizations of these catastrophes. First, the view epitomized by the name of Habermas: Enlightenment is in itself a positive, emancipatory process with no inherent ‘totalitarian’ potential; the catastrophes that have occurred merely indicate that it remains an unfinished project, and our task should be to bring this project to completion. Second, the view associated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and, today, with Agamben. The ‘totalitarian’ bent of Enlightenment is inherent and definitive, the ‘administered world’ is its true consequence, and concentration camps and genocides are a kind of negative-teleological endpoint of the entire history of the West. Third, the view developed in the works of Etienne Balibar, among others: modernity opens up a field of new freedoms, but at the same time of new dangers, and there is no ultimate teleological guarantee of the outcome. The contest remains open and undecided.
The starting point of Balibar’s text on violence is the insufficiency of the standard Hegelian-Marxist notion of ‘converting’ violence into an instrument of historical Reason, a force which begets a new social formation.  The ‘irrational’ brutality of violence is thus aufgehoben, ‘sublated’ in the strict Hegelian sense, reduced to a particular ‘stain’ that contributes to the overall harmony of historical progress. The 20th century confronted us with catastrophes—some directed against Marxist political forces, others generated by Marxist engagement itself—which cannot be ‘rationalized’ in this way. Their instrumentalization into the tools of the Cunning of Reason is not only ethically unacceptable but also theoretically wrong, ideological in the strongest sense of the term. In his close reading of Marx, Balibar nonetheless discerns an oscillation between this teleological ‘conversion-theory’ of violence, and a much more interesting notion of history as an open-ended process of antagonistic struggles, whose final ‘positive’ outcome is not guaranteed by any encompassing historical necessity.
Balibar argues that, for necessary structural reasons, Marxism is unable to think the excess of violence that cannot be integrated into the narrative of historical Progress. More specifically, it cannot provide an adequate theory of fascism and Stalinism and their ‘extreme’ outcomes, Shoah and Gulag. Our task is therefore twofold: to deploy a theory of historical violence as something which cannot be instrumentalized by any political agent, which threatens to engulf this agent itself in a self-destructive vicious cycle; and also to pose the question of how to turn the revolutionary process itself into a civilizing force. As a counter-example, take the process that led to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine de Medici’s goal was limited and precise: hers was a Machiavellian plot to assassinate Admiral de Coligny—a powerful Protestant pushing for war with Spain in the Netherlands—and let the blame fall on the over-mighty Catholic family of de Guise. Thus Catherine sought to engineer the fall of both the houses that posed a menace to the unity of the French state. But the bid to play her enemies off against each other degenerated into an uncontrolled frenzy of blood. In her ruthless pragmatism, Catherine was blind to the passion with which men clung to their beliefs.
Hannah Arendt’s insights are crucial here, emphasizing the distinction between political power and the mere exercise of violence. Organizations run by direct non-political authority—Army, Church, school—represent examples of violence (Gewalt), not of political power in the strict sense of the term.  At this point, however, we need to recall the distinction between the public, symbolic law and its obscene supplement. The notion of the obscene double-supplement of power implies that there is no power without violence. Political space is never ‘pure’ but always involves some kind of reliance on pre-political violence. Of course, the relationship between political power and pre-political violence is one of mutual implication. Not only is violence the necessary supplement of power, but power itself is always-already at the root of every apparently ‘non-political’ relationship of violence. The accepted violence and direct relationship of subordination within the Army, Church, family and other ‘non-political’ social forms is in itself the reification of a certain ethico-political struggle. The task of critical analysis is to discern the hidden political process that sustains all these ‘non’ or ‘pre’-political relationships. In human society, the political is the encompassing structuring principle, so that every neutralization of some partial content as ‘non-political’ is a political gesture par excellence.
It is within this context that we can situate the most salient human rights issue: the rights of those who are starving or exposed to murderous violence. Rony Brauman, who co-ordinated aid to Sarajevo, has demonstrated how the very presentation of the crisis there as ‘humanitarian’, the very recasting of a political-military conflict into humanitarian terms, was sustained by an eminently political choice—basically, to take the Serb side in the conflict. The celebration of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Yugoslavia took the place of a political discourse, Brauman argues, thus disqualifying in advance all conflicting debate. 
From this particular insight we may problematize, at a general level, the ostensibly depoliticized politics of human rights as the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political ends. As Wendy Brown has suggested apropos Michael Ignatieff, such humanitarianism presents itself as something of an anti-politics, a pure defence of the innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defence of the individual against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture, state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations or instantiations of collective power against individuals. 
However, the question is: what kind of politicization do those who intervene on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose? Do they stand for a different formulation of justice, or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects? For example, it is clear that the us-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by hard-headed politico-economic interests but also relied on a determinate idea of the political and economic conditions under which ‘freedom’ was to be delivered to the Iraqi people: liberal-democratic capitalism, insertion into the global market economy, etc. The purely humanitarian, anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus amounts to an implicit prohibition on elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation.
At an even more general level, we might problematize the opposition between the universal (pre-political) human rights possessed by every human being ‘as such’ and the specific political rights of a citizen, or member of a particular political community. In this sense, Balibar argues for the ‘reversal of the historical and theoretical relationship between “man” and “citizen”’ that proceeds by ‘explaining how man is made by citizenship and not citizenship by man.’  Balibar alludes here to Arendt’s insight on the condition of refugees:The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were still human.  This line, of course, leads straight to Agamben’s notion of homo sacer as a human being reduced to ‘bare life’. In a properly Hegelian dialectics of universal and particular, it is precisely when a human being is deprived of the particular socio-political identity that accounts for his determinate citizenship that—in one and the same move—he ceases to be recognized or treated as human.  Paradoxically, I am deprived of human rights at the very moment at which I am reduced to a human being ‘in general’, and thus become the ideal bearer of those ‘universal human rights’ which belong to me independently of my profession, sex, citizenship, religion, ethnic identity, etc.What, then, happens to human rights when they are the rights of homo sacer, of those excluded from the political community; that is, when they are of no use, since they are the rights of those who, precisely, have no rights, and are treated as inhuman? Jacques Rancière proposes a salient dialectical reversal: ‘When they are of no use, one does the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. One gives them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes and rights.’ Nevertheless, they do not become void, for ‘political names and political places never become merely void’. Instead the void is filled by somebody or something else:if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact the human rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the ‘right to humanitarian interference’—a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the humanitarian organizations themselves. The ‘right to humanitarian interference’ might be described as a sort of ‘return to sender’: the disused rights that had been sent to the rightless are sent back to the senders. So, to put it in the Leninist way: what the ‘human rights of Third World suffering victims’ effectively means today, in the predominant discourse, is the right of Western powers themselves to intervene politically, economically, culturally and militarily in the Third World countries of their choice, in the name of defending human rights. The reference to Lacan’s formula of communication (in which the sender gets his own message back from the receiver-addressee in its inverted, i.e. true, form) is very much to the point here. In the reigning discourse of humanitarian interventionism, the developed West is effectively getting back from the victimized Third World its own message in its true form.
The moment human rights are thus depoliticized, the discourse dealing with them has to change: the pre-political opposition of Good and Evil must be mobilized anew. Today’s ‘new reign of ethics’, clearly invoked in, say, Ignatieff’s work, thus relies on a violent gesture of depoliticization, depriving the victimized other of any political subjectivization. And, as Rancière points out, liberal humanitarianism à la Ignatieff unexpectedly meets the ‘radical’ position of Foucault or Agamben with regard to this depoliticization: their notion of ‘biopolitics’ as the culmination of Western thought ends up getting caught in a kind of ‘ontological trap’, in which concentration camps appear as ontological destiny: ‘each of us would be in the situation of the refugee in a camp. Any difference grows faint between democracy and totalitarianism and any political practice proves to be already ensnared in the biopolitical trap’. 
We thus arrive at a standard ‘anti-essentialist’ position, a kind of political version of Foucault’s notion of sex as generated by the multitude of the practices of sexuality. ‘Man’, the bearer of human rights, is generated by a set of political practices which materialize citizenship; ‘human rights’ are, as such, a false ideological universality, which masks and legitimizes a concrete politics of Western imperialism, military interventions and neo-colonialism. Is this, however, enough?
The Marxist symptomal reading can convincingly demonstrate the content that gives the notion of human rights its specific bourgeois ideological spin: universal human rights are effectively the right of white, male property-owners to exchange freely on the market, exploit workers and women, and exert political domination. This identification of the particular content that hegemonizes the universal form is, however, only half the story. Its crucial other half consists in asking a more difficult, supplementary question: that of the emergence of the form of universality itself. How—in what specific historical conditions—does abstract universality become a ‘fact of (social) life’? In what conditions do individuals experience themselves as subjects of universal human rights? Therein resides the point of Marx’s analysis of ‘commodity fetishism’: in a society in which commodity exchange predominates, individuals in their daily lives relate to themselves, and to the objects they encounter, as to contingent embodiments of abstract-universal notions. What I am, in terms of my concrete social or cultural background, is experienced as contingent, since what ultimately defines me is the ‘abstract’ universal capacity to think or to work. Likewise, any object that can satisfy my desire is experienced as contingent, since my desire is conceived as an ‘abstract’ formal capacity, indifferent to the multitude of particular objects that may, but never fully do, satisfy it.
Or take the example of ‘profession’: the modern notion of profession implies that I experience myself as an individual who is not directly ‘born into’ his social role. What I will become depends on the interplay between contingent social circumstances and my free choice. In this sense, today’s individual has a profession, as electrician, waiter or lecturer, while it is meaningless to claim that the medieval serf was a peasant by profession. In the specific social conditions of commodity exchange and the global market economy, ‘abstraction’ becomes a direct feature of actual social life, the way concrete individuals behave and relate to their fate and to their social surroundings. In this regard Marx shares Hegel’s insight, that universality becomes ‘for itself’ only when individuals no longer fully identify the kernel of their being with their particular social situation; only insofar as they experience themselves as forever ‘out of joint’ with it. The concrete existence of universality is, therefore, the individual without a proper place in the social edifice. The mode of appearance of universality, its entering into actual existence, is thus an extremely violent act of disrupting the preceding organic poise.
It is not enough to make the well-worn Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it. At this level the counter-argument (made, among others, by Lefort and Rancière), that the form is never ‘mere’ form but involves a dynamics of its own, which leaves traces in the materiality of social life, is fully valid. It was bourgeois ‘formal freedom’ that set in motion the very ‘material’ political demands and practices of feminism or trade unionism. Rancière’s basic emphasis is on the radical ambiguity of the Marxist notion of the ‘gap’ between formal democracy—the Rights of Man, political freedoms—and the economic reality of exploitation and domination. This gap can be read in the standard ‘symptomatic’ way: formal democracy is a necessary but illusory expression of a concrete social reality of exploitation and class domination. But it can also be read in the more subversive sense of a tension in which the ‘appearance’ of égaliberté is not a ‘mere appearance’ but contains an efficacy of its own, which allows it to set in motion the rearticulation of actual socio-economic relations by way of their progressive ‘politicization’. Why shouldn’t women also be allowed to vote? Why shouldn’t workplace conditions be a matter of public concern as well?
We might perhaps apply here the old Lévi-Straussian term of ‘symbolic efficiency’: the appearance of égaliberté is a symbolic fiction which, as such, possesses actual efficiency of its own; the properly cynical temptation of reducing it to a mere illusion that conceals a different actuality should be resisted. It is not enough merely to posit an authentic articulation of a life-world experience which is then reappropriated by those in power to serve their particular interests or to render their subjects docile cogs in the social machine. Much more interesting is the opposite process, in which something that was originally an ideological edifice imposed by colonizers is all of a sudden taken over by their subjects as a means to articulate their ‘authentic’ grievances. A classic case would be the Virgin of Guadalupe in newly colonized Mexico: with her appearance to a humble Indian, Christianity—which until then served as the imposed ideology of the Spanish colonizers—was appropriated by the indigenous population as a means to symbolize their terrible plight.
Rancière has proposed a very elegant solution to the antinomy between human rights, belonging to ‘man as such’, and the politicization of citizens. While human rights cannot be posited as an unhistorical ‘essentialist’ Beyond with regard to the contingent sphere of political struggles, as universal ‘natural rights of man’ exempted from history, neither should they be dismissed as a reified fetish, the product of concrete historical processes of the politicization of citizens. The gap between the universality of human rights and the political rights of citizens is thus not a gap between the universality of man and a specific political sphere. Rather, it ‘separates the whole of the community from itself’.  Far from being pre-political, ‘universal human rights’ designate the precise space of politicization proper; what they amount to is the right to universality as such—the right of a political agent to assert its radical non-coincidence with itself (in its particular identity), to posit itself as the ‘supernumerary’, the one with no proper place in the social edifice; and thus as an agent of universality of the social itself. The paradox is therefore a very precise one, and symmetrical to the paradox of universal human rights as the rights of those reduced to inhumanity. At the very moment when we try to conceive the political rights of citizens without reference to a universal ‘meta-political’ human rights, we lose politics itself; that is to say, we reduce politics to a ‘post-political’ play of negotiation of particular interests.--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 Quoted in Bozidar Jezernik, Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers, London 2004, p. 233.
 ‘The constitution is dead. Long live proper politics’, Guardian, 4 June 2005.
 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. i, Moscow 1969, p. 83.
 Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, Moscow 1975, p. 149.
 Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, p. 194.
 Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. xi, pp. 187–8.
 Etienne Balibar, ‘Gewalt’: entry for Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 5, ed. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Hamburg 2002.
 Hannah Arendt, On Violence, New York 1970.
 Rony Brauman, ‘From Philanthropy to Humanitarianism’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, Spring–Summer 2004, pp. 398–9 and 416.
 Wendy Brown, ‘Human Rights as the Politics of Fatalism’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, p. 453.
 Etienne Balibar, ‘Is a Philosophy of Human Civic Rights Possible?’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 320–1.
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1958, p. 297.
 See Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, Stanford 1998.
 Jacques Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103, no. 2–3, pp. 307–9.
 Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 301.
 Rancière, ‘Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, p. 305.
Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Across Europe, the politics of the far right is infecting us all with the need for a 'reasonable' anti-immigration policy
The recent expulsion of Roma, or Gypsies, from France drew protests from all around Europe – from the liberal media but also from top politicians, and not only from those on the left. But the expulsions went ahead, and they are just the tip of a much larger iceberg of European politics.
A month ago, a book by Thilo Sarrazin, a bank executive who was considered politically close to the Social Democrats, caused an uproar in Germany. Its thesis is that German nationhood is threatened because too many immigrants are allowed to maintain their cultural identity. Although the book, titled Germany Does Away with Itself, was overwhelmingly condemned, its tremendous impact suggests that it touched a nerve.
Incidents like these have to be seen against the background of a long-term rearrangement of the political space in western and eastern Europe. Until recently, most European countries were dominated by two main parties that addressed the majority of the electorate: a right-of-centre party (Christian Democrat, liberal-conservative, people's) and a left-of-centre party (socialist, social-democratic), with smaller parties (ecologists, communists) addressing a narrower electorate.
Recent electoral results in the west as well as in the east signal the gradual emergence of a different polarity. There is now one predominant centrist party that stands for global capitalism, usually with a liberal cultural agenda (for example, tolerance towards abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities). Opposing this party is an increasingly strong anti-immigrant populist party which, on its fringes, is accompanied by overtly racist neofascist groups. The best example of this is Poland where, after the disappearance of the ex-communists, the main parties are the "anti-ideological" centrist liberal party of the prime minister Donald Tusk and the conservative Christian Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski brothers. Similar tendencies are discernible in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Hungary. How did we get here?
After decades of hope held out by the welfare state, when financial cuts were sold as temporary, and sustained by a promise that things would soon return to normal, we are entering a new epoch in which crisis – or, rather, a kind of economic state of emergency, with its attendant need for all sorts of austerity measures (cutting benefits, diminishing health and education services, making jobs more temporary) is permanent. Crisis is becoming a way of life.
After the disintegration of the communist regimes in 1990, we entered a new era in which the predominant form of the exercise of state power became a depoliticised expert administration and the co-ordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this kind of politics, the only way to actively mobilise people, is through fear: the fear of immigrants, the fear of crime, the fear of godless sexual depravity, the fear of the excessive state (with its burden of high taxation and control), the fear of ecological catastrophe, as well as the fear of harassment (political correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear).
Such a politics always relies on the manipulation of a paranoid multitude – the frightening rallying of frightened men and women. This is why the big event of the first decade of the new millennium was when anti-immigration politics went mainstream and finally cut the umbilical cord that had connected it to far right fringe parties. From France to Germany, from Austria to Holland, in the new spirit of pride in one's cultural and historical identity, the main parties now find it acceptable to stress that immigrants are guests who have to accommodate themselves to the cultural values that define the host society – "it is our country, love it or leave it" is the message.
Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by such populist racism. However, a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect of differences share with those who oppose immigration the need to keep others at a proper distance. "The others are OK, I respect them," the liberals say, "but they must not intrude too much on my own space. The moment they do, they harass me – I fully support affirmative action, but I am in no way ready to listen to loud rap music." What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late-capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the right to be kept at a safe distance from others. A terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented belongs in Guantánamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologist should be silenced because he spreads hatred. Such people are toxic subjects who disturb my peace.
On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex? The Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare? The contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics? This leads us to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness – the decaffeinated Other.
The mechanism of such neutralisation was best formulated back in 1938 by Robert Brasillach, the French fascist intellectual, who saw himself as a "moderate" antisemite and invented the formula of reasonable antisemitism. "We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; … We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual antisemitism is to organise a reasonable antisemitism."
Is this same attitude not at work in the way our governments are dealing with the "immigrant threat"? After righteously rejecting direct populist racism as "unreasonable" and unacceptable for our democratic standards, they endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures or, as today's Brasillachs, some of them even Social Democrats, tell us: "We grant ourselves permission to applaud African and east European sportsmen, Asian doctors, Indian software programmers. We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable violent anti-immigrant defensive measures is to organise a reasonable anti-immigrant protection."
This vision of the detoxification of one's neighbour suggests a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. It reveals the regression from the Christian love of one's neighbour back to the pagan privileging of our tribe versus the barbarian Other. Even if it is cloaked as a defence of Christian values, it is itself the greatest threat to Christian legacy.