.

And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance (aka "Liberating Tolerance")


Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, "A Critique of Pure Tolerance" (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), pp. 95-137
This essay is dedicated to my students at Brandeis University.


THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period--a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.

The author is fully aware that, at present, no power, no authority, no government exists which would translate liberating tolerance into practice, but he believes that it is the task and duty of the intellectual to recall and preserve historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities--that it is his task to break the concreteness of oppression in order to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does.

Tolerance is an end in itself. The elimination of violence, and the reduction of suppression to the extent required for protecting man and animals from cruelty and aggression are preconditions for the creation of a humane society. Such a society does not yet exist; progress toward it is perhaps more than before arrested by violence and suppression on a global scale. As deterrents against nuclear war, as police action against subversion, as technical aid in the fight against imperialism and communism, as methods of pacification in neo-colonial massacres, violence and suppression are promulgated, practiced, and defended by democratic and authoritarian governments alike, and the people subjected to these governments are educated to sustain such practices as necessary for the preservation of the status quo. Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.

This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested. The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies. Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities. It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.

Tolerance toward that which is radically evil now appears as good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence or more affluence. The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces, the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception in merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence are not distortions and aberrations, they are the essence of a system which fosters tolerance as a means for perpetuating the struggle for existence and suppressing the alternatives. The authorities in education, morals, and psychology are vociferous against the increase in juvenile delinquency; they are less vociferous against the proud presentation, in word and deed and pictures, of ever more powerful missiles, rockets, bombs--the mature delinquency of a whole civilization.

According to a dialectical proposition it is the whole which determines the truth--not in the sense that the whole is prior or superior to its parts, but in the sense that its structure and function determine every particular condition and relation. Thus, within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game. To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counterviolence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude. And yet (and only here the dialectical proposition shows its full intent) the existence. and practice of these liberties remain a precondition for the restoration of their original oppositional function, provided that the effort to transcend their (often self-imposed) limitations is intensified. Generally, the function and value of tolerance depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which tolerance is practiced. Tolerance itself stands subject to overriding criteria: its range and its limits cannot be defined in terms of the respective society. In other words, tolerance is an end in itself only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as by the ruled, by the lords as well as by the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as by their victims. And such universal tolerance is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction. As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are 'loaded': they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality (which is certainly compatible with constitutional equality), i.e., by the class structure of society. In such a society, tolerance is de facto limited on the dual ground of legalized violence or suppression (police, armed forces, guards of all sorts) and of the privileged position held by the predominant interests and their 'connections'.

These background limitations of tolerance are normally prior to the explicit and judicial limitations as defined by the courts, custom, governments, etc. (for example, 'clear and present danger', threat to national security, heresy). Within the framework of such a social structure, tolerance can be safely practiced and proclaimed. It is of two kinds:
1) the passive toleration of entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on man and nature is evident, and
2) the active, official tolerance granted to the Right as well as to the Left, to movements of aggression as well as to movements of peace, to the party of hate as well as to that of humanity I call this non-partisan tolerance 'abstract' or 'pure' inasmuch as it refrains from taking sides--but in doing so it actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination.
The tolerance which enlarged the range and content of freedom was always partisan--intolerant toward the protagonists of the repressive status quo. The issue was only the degree and extent of intolerance. In the firmly established liberal society of England and the United States, freedom of speech and assembly was granted even to the radical enemies of society, provided they did not make the transition from word to deed, from speech to action.

Relying on the effective background limitations imposed by its class structure, the society seemed to practice general tolerance. But liberalist theory had already placed an important condition on tolerance : it. was 'to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties'. John Stuart Mill does not only speak of children and minors; he elaborates: 'Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.' Anterior to that time, men may still be barbarians, and 'despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.' Mill's often-quoted words have a less familiar implication on which their meaning depends: the internal connection between liberty and truth. There is a sense in which truth is the end of liberty, and liberty must be defined and confined by truth. Now in what sense can liberty be for the sake of truth? Liberty is self-determination, autonomy--this is almost a tautology, but a tautology which results from a whole series of synthetic judgments. It stipulates the ability to determine one's own life: to be able to determine what to do and what not to do, what to suffer and what not. But the subject of this autonomy is never the contingent, private individual as that which he actually is or happens to be; it is rather the individual as a human being who is capable of being free with the others. And the problem of making possible such a harmony between every individual liberty and the other is not that of finding a compromise between competitors, or between freedom and law, between general and individual interest, common and private welfare in an established society, but of creating the society in which man is no longer enslaved by institutions which vitiate self-determination from the beginning. In other words, freedom is still to be created even for the freest of the existing societies. And the direction in which it must be sought, and the institutional and cultural changes which may help to attain the goal are, at least in developed civilization, comprehensible, that is to say, they can be identified and projected, on the basis of experience, by human reason.

In the interplay of theory and practice, true and false solutions become distinguishable--never with the evidence of necessity, never as the positive, only with the certainty of a reasoned and reasonable chance, and with the persuasive force of the negative. For the true positive is the society of the future and therefore beyond definition arid determination, while the existing positive is that which must be surmounted. But the experience and understanding of the existent society may well be capable of identifying what is not conducive to a free and rational society, what impedes and distorts the possibilities of its creation. Freedom is liberation, a specific historical process in theory and practice, and as such it has its right and wrong, its truth and falsehood.

The uncertainty of chance in this distinction does not cancel the historical objectivity, but it necessitates freedom of thought and expression as preconditions of finding the way to freedom--it necessitates tolerance. However, this tolerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed; it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the' possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.

The danger of 'destructive tolerance' (Baudelaire), of 'benevolent neutrality' toward art has been recognized: the market, which absorbs equally well (although with often quite sudden fluctuations) art, anti-art, and non-art, all possible conflicting styles, schools, forms, provides a 'complacent receptacle, a friendly abyss'[1] in which the radical impact of art, the protest of art against the established reality is swallowed up. However, censorship of art and literature is regressive under all circumstances. The authentic oeuvre is not and cannot be a prop of oppression, and pseudo-art (which can be such a prop) is not art. Art stands against history, withstands history which has been the history of oppression, for art subjects reality to laws other than the established ones: to the laws of the Form which creates a different reality--negation of the established one even where art depicts the established reality. But in its struggle with history, art subjects itself to history: history enters the definition of art and enters into the distinction between art and pseudo-art. Thus it happens that what was once art becomes pseudo-art. Previous forms, styles, and qualities, previous modes of protest and refusal cannot be recaptured in or against a different society. There are cases where an authentic oeuvre carries a regressive political message--Dostoevski is a case in point. But then, the message is canceled by the oeuvre itself: the regressive political content is absorbed, aufgehoben in the artistic form: in the work as literature.

Tolerance of free speech is the way of improvement, of progress in liberation, not because there is no objective truth, and improvement must necessarily be a compromise between a variety of opinions, but because there is an objective truth which can be discovered, ascertained only in learning and comprehending that which is and that which can be and ought to be done for the sake of improving the lot of mankind. This common and historical 'ought' is not immediately evident, at hand: it has to be uncovered by 'cutting through', 'splitting', 'breaking asunder' (dis-cutio) the given material--separating right and wrong, good and bad, correct and incorrect. The subject whose 'improvement' depends on a progressive historical practice is each man as man, and this universality is reflected in that of the discussion, which a priori does not exclude any group or individual. But even the all-inclusive character of liberalist tolerance was, at least in theory, based on the proposition that men were (potential) individuals who could learn to hear and see and feel by themselves, to develop their own thoughts, to grasp their true interests and rights and capabilities, also against established authority and opinion. This was the rationale of free speech and assembly. Universal toleration becomes questionable when its rationale no longer prevails, when tolerance is administered to manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinion of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.

The telos of tolerance is truth. It is clear from the historical record that the authentic spokesmen of tolerance had more and other truth in mind than that of propositional logic and academic theory. John Stuart Mill speaks of the truth which is persecuted in history and which does not triumph over persecution by virtue of its 'inherent power', which in fact has no inherent power 'against the dungeon and the stake'. And he enumerates the 'truths' which were cruelly and successfully liquidated in the dungeons and at the stake: that of Arnold of Brescia, of Fra Dolcino, of Savonarola, of the Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites. Tolerance is first and foremost for the sake of the heretics--the historical road toward humanitas appears as heresy: target of persecution by the powers that be. Heresy by itself, however, is no token of truth.

The criterion of progress in freedom according to which Mill judges these movements is the Reformation. The evaluation is ex post, and his list includes opposites (Savonarola too would have burned Fra Dolcino). Even the ex post evaluation is contestable as to its truth: history corrects the judgment--too late. The correction does not help the victims and does not absolve their executioners. However, the lesson is clear: intolerance has delayed progress and has prolonged the slaughter and torture of innocents for hundreds of years. Does this clinch the case for indiscriminate, 'pure' tolerance? Are there historical conditions in which such toleration impedes liberation and multiplies the victims who are sacrificed to the status quo? Can the indiscriminate guaranty of political rights and liberties be repressive? Can such tolerance serve to contain qualitative social change?

I shall discuss this question only with reference to political movements, attitudes, schools of thought, philosophies which are 'political' in the widest sense--affecting the society as a whole, demonstrably transcending the sphere of privacy. Moreover, I propose a shift in the focus of the discussion: it will be concerned not only, and not primarily, with tolerance toward radical extremes, minorities, subversives, etc., but rather with tolerance toward majorities, toward official and public opinion, toward the established protectors of freedom. In this case, the discussion can have as a frame of reference only a democratic society, in which the people, as individuals and as members of political and other organizations, participate in the making, sustaining, and changing policies. In an authoritarian system, the people do not tolerate--they suffer established policies.

Under a system of constitutionally guaranteed and (generally and without too many and too glaring exceptions) practiced civil rights and liberties, opposition and dissent are tolerated unless they issue in violence and/or in exhortation to and organization of violent subversion. The underlying assumption is that the established society is free, and that any improvement, even a change in the social structure and social values, would come about in the normal course of events, prepared, defined, and tested in free and equal discussion, on the open marketplace of ideas and goods.[2] Now in recalling John Stuart Mill's passage, I drew attention to the premise hidden in this assumption: free and equal discussion can fulfill the function attributed to it only if it is rational expression and development of independent thinking, free from indoctrination, manipulation, extraneous authority. The notion of pluralism and countervailing powers is no substitute for this requirement. One might in theory construct a state in which a multitude of different pressures, interests, and authorities balance each other out and result in a truly general and rational interest. However, such a construction badly fits a society in which powers are and remain unequal and even increase their unequal weight when they run their own course. It fits even worse when the variety of pressures unifies and coagulates into an overwhelming whole, integrating the particular countervailing powers by virtue of an increasing standard of living and an increasing concentration of power. Then, the laborer, whose real interest conflicts with that of management, the common consumer whose real interest conflicts with that of the producer, the intellectual whose vocation conflicts with that of his employer find themselves submitting to a system against which they are powerless and appear unreasonable. The idea of the available alternatives evaporates into an utterly utopian dimension in which it is at home, for a free society is indeed unrealistically and undefinably different from the existing ones. Under these circumstances, whatever improvement may occur 'in the normal course of events' and without subversion is likely to be an improvement in the direction determined by the particular interests which control the whole.

By the same token, those minorities which strive for a change of the whole itself will, under optimal conditions which rarely prevail, will be left free to deliberate and discuss, to speak and to assemble - and will be left harmless and helpless in the face of the overwhelming majority, which militates against qualitative social change. This majority is firmly grounded in the increasing satisfaction of needs, and technological and -mental co-ordination, which testify to the general helplessness of radical groups in a well-functioning social system.

Within the affluent democracy, the affluent discussion prevails, and within the established framework, it is tolerant to a large extent. All points of view can be heard: the Communist and the Fascist, the Left and the Right, the white and the Negro, the crusaders for armament and for disarmament. Moreover, in endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to 'the people' for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this. basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought.

In the contemporary period, the democratic argument for abstract tolerance tends to be invalidated by the invalidation of the democratic process itself. The liberating force of democracy was the chance it gave to effective dissent, on the individual as well as social scale, its openness to qualitatively different forms of government, of culture, education, work--of the human existence in general. The toleration of free discussion and the equal right of opposites was to define and clarify the different forms of dissent: their direction, content, prospect. But with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites in a society which uses technology as an instrument of domination, effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge; in the formation of opinion, in information and communication, in speech and assembly. Under the rule of monopolistic media--themselves the mere instruments of economic and political power--a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined wherever they affect the vital interests of the society. This is, prior to all expression and communication, a matter of semantics: the blocking of effective dissent, of the recognition of that which is not of the Establishment which begins in the. language that is publicized and administered. The meaning of words is rigidly stabilized. Rational persuasion, persuasion to the opposite is all but precluded. The avenues of entrance are closed to the meaning of words and ideas other than the established one--established by the publicity of the powers that be, and verified in their practices. Other words can be spoken and heard, other ideas can be expressed, but, at the massive scale of the conservative majority (outside such enclaves as the intelligentsia), they are immediately 'evaluated' (i.e. automatically understood) in terms of the public language--a language which determines 'a priori' the direction in which the thought process moves. Thus the process of reflection ends where it started: in the given conditions and relations. Self-validating, the argument. of the discussion repels the contradiction because the antithesis is redefined in terms of the thesis. For example, thesis: we work for peace; antithesis: we prepare for war (or even: we wage war); unification of opposites; preparing for war is working for peace. Peace is redefined as necessarily, in the prevailing situation, including preparation for war (or even war) and in this Orwellian form, the meaning of the word 'peace' is stabilized. Thus, the basic vocabulary of the Orwellian language operates as a priori categories of understanding: preforming all content. These conditions invalidate the logic of tolerance which involves the rational development of meaning and precludes the 'closing of meaning. Consequently, persuasion through discussion and the equal presentation of opposites (even where it is really, equal) easily lose their liberating force as factors of understanding and learning; they are far more likely to strengthen the established thesis and to repel the alternatives.

Impartiality to the utmost, equal treatment of competing and conflicting issues is indeed a basic requirement for decision-making in the democratic process--it is an equally basic requirement for defining the limits of tolerance. But in a democracy with totalitarian organization, objectivity may fulfill a very different function, namely, to foster a mental attitude which tends to obliterate the difference between true and false, information and indoctrination, right and wrong. In fact, the decision between opposed opinions has been made before the presentation and discussion get under way--made, not by a conspiracy or a sponsor or a publisher, not by any dictatorship, but rather by the 'normal course of events', which is the course of administered events, and by the mentality shaped in this course. Here, too, it is the whole which determines the truth. Then the decision asserts itself, without any open violation of objectivity, in such things as the make-up of a newspaper (with the breaking up of vital information into bits interspersed between extraneous material, irrelevant items, relegating of some radically negative news to an obscure place), in the juxtaposition of gorgeous ads with unmitigated horrors, in the introduction and interruption of the broadcasting of facts by overwhelming commercials. The result is a neutralization of opposites, a neutralization, however, which takes place on the firm grounds of the structural limitation of tolerance and within a preformed mentality. When a magazine prints side by side a negative and a positive report on the FBI, it fulfills honestly the requirements of objectivity: however, the chances are that the positive wins because the image of the institution is deeply engraved in the mind of the people. Or, if a newscaster reports the torture and murder of civil rights workers in the same unemotional tone he uses to describe the stockmarket or the weather, or with the same great emotion with which he says his commercials, then such objectivity is spurious--more, it offends against humanity and truth by being calm where one should be enraged, by refraining from accusation where accusation is in the facts themselves. The tolerance expressed in such impartiality serves to minimize or even absolve prevailing intolerance and suppression. If objectivity has anything to do with truth, and if truth is more than a matter of logic and science, then this kind of objectivity is false, and this kind of tolerance inhuman. And if it is necessary to break the established universe of meaning (and the practice enclosed in this universe) in order to enable man to find out what is true and false, this deceptive impartiality would have to be abandoned. The people exposed to this impartiality are no tabulae rasae, they are indoctrinated by the conditions under which they live and think and which they do not transcend. To enable them to become autonomous, to find by themselves what is true and what is false for man in the existing society, they would have to be freed from the prevailing indoctrination (which is no longer recognized as indoctrination). But this means that the trend would have to be reversed: they would have to get information slanted in the opposite direction. For the facts are never given immediately and never accessible immediately; they are established, 'mediated' by those who made them; the truth, 'the whole truth' surpasses these facts and requires the rupture with their appearance. This rupture--prerequisite and token of all freedom of thought and of speech--cannot be accomplished within the established framework of abstract tolerance and spurious objectivity because these are precisely the factors which precondition the mind against the rupture.

The factual barriers which totalitarian democracy erects against the efficacy of qualitative dissent are weak and pleasant enough compared with the practices of a dictatorship which claims to educate the people in the truth. With all its limitations and distortions, democratic tolerance is under all circumstances more humane than an institutionalized intolerance which sacrifices the rights and liberties of the living generations for the sake of future generations. The question is whether this is the only alternative. I shall presently try to suggest the direction in which an answer may be sought In any case, the contrast is not between democracy in the abstract and dictatorship in the abstract.

Democracy is a form of government which fits very different types of society (this holds true even for a democracy with universal suffrage and equality before the law), and the human costs of a democracy are always and everywhere those exacted by the society whose government it is. Their range extends all the way from normal exploitation, poverty, and insecurity to the victims of wars, police actions, military aid, etc., in which the society is engaged--and not only to the victims within its own frontiers. These considerations can never justify the exacting of different sacrifices and different victims on behalf of a future better society, but they do allow weighing the costs involved in the perpetuation of an existing society against the risk of promoting alternatives which offer a reasonable chance of pacification and liberation. Surely, no government can be expected to foster its own subversion, but in a democracy such a right is vested in the people (i.e. in the majority of the people). This means that the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and if they are blocked by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior--thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives. And to the degree to which freedom of thought involves the struggle against inhumanity, restoration of such freedom would also imply intolerance toward scientific research in the interest of deadly 'deterrents', of abnormal human endurance under inhuman conditions, etc. I shall presently discuss the question as to who is to decide on the distinction between liberating and repressive, human and inhuman teachings and practices; I have already suggested that this distinction is not a matter of value-preference but of rational criteria.

While the reversal of the trend in the educational enterprise at least could conceivably be enforced by the students and teachers themselves, and thus be self-imposed, the systematic withdrawal of tolerance toward regressive and repressive opinions and movements could only be envisaged as results of large-scale pressure which would amount to an upheaval. In other words, it would presuppose that which is still to be accomplished: the reversal of the trend. However, resistance at particular occasions, boycott, non-participation at the local and small-group level may perhaps prepare the ground The subversive character of the restoration of freedom appears most clearly in that dimension of society where false tolerance and free enterprise do perhaps the most serious and lasting damage, namely in business and publicity. Against the emphatic insistence on the part of spokesmen for labor, I maintain that practices such as planned obsolescence, collusion between union leadership and management, slanted publicity are not simply imposed from above on a powerless rank and file, but are tolerated by them and the consumer at large. However, it would be ridiculous to speak of a possible withdrawal of tolerance with respect to these practices and to the ideologies promoted by them. For they pertain to the basis on which the repressive affluent society rests and reproduces itself and its vital defenses - their removal would be that total revolution which this society so effectively repels.

To discuss tolerance in such a society means to reexamine the issue of violence and the traditional distinction between violent and non-violent action. The discussion should not, from the beginning, be clouded by ideologies which serve the perpetuation of violence. Even in the advanced centers of civilization, violence actually prevails: it is practiced by the police, in the prisons and mental institutions, in the fight against racial minorities; it is carried, by the defenders of metropolitan freedom, into the backward countries. This violence indeed breeds violence. But to refrain from violence in the face of vastly superior violence is one thing, to renounce a priori violence against violence, on ethical or psychological grounds (because it may antagonize sympathizers) is another. Non-violence is normally not only preached to but exacted from the weak--it is a necessity rather than a virtue, and normally it does not seriously harm the case of the strong. (Is the case of India an exception? There, passive resistance was carried through on a massive scale, which disrupted, or threatened to disrupt, the economic life of the country. Quantity turns into quality: on such a scale, passive resistance is no longer passive - it ceases to be non-violent. The same holds true for the General Strike.) Robespierre's distinction between the terror of liberty and the terror of despotism, and his moral glorification of the former belongs to the most convincingly condemned aberrations, even if the white terror was more bloody than the red terror. The comparative evaluation in terms of the number of victims is the quantifying approach which reveals the man-made horror throughout history that made violence a necessity. In terms of historical function, there is a difference between revolutionary and reactionary violence, between violence practiced by the oppressed and by the oppressors. In terms of ethics, both forms of violence are inhuman and evil--but since when is history made in accordance with ethical standards? To start applying them at the point where the oppressed rebel against the oppressors, the have-nots against the haves is serving the cause of actual violence by weakening the protest against it.
Comprenez enfin ceci: si la violence a commencé ce soir, si l'exploitation ni l'oppression n'ont jamais existé sur terre, peut-être la non-violence affichée peut apaiser la querelle. Mais si le régime tout entier et jusqu'à vos non-violentes pensées sont conditionnées par une oppression millénaire, votre passivité ne sert qu'à vous ranger du côté des oppresseurs.[3]

[rough translation: Understand finally this: if violence were to begin this evening, if neither exploitation nor oppression had ever existed in the world, perhaps concerted non-violence could relieve the conflict. But if the whole governmental system and your non-violent thoughts are conditioned by a thousand-year-old oppression, your passivity only serves to place you on the side of the oppressors.]
The very notion of false tolerance, and the distinction between right and wrong limitations on tolerance, between progressive and regressive indoctrination, revolutionary and reactionary violence demands the statement of criteria for its validity. These standards must be prior to whatever constitutional and legal criteria are set up and applied in an existing society (such as 'clear and present danger', and other established definitions of civil rights and liberties), for such definitions themselves presuppose standards of freedom and repression as applicable or not applicable in the respective society: they are specifications of more general concepts. By whom, and according to what standards, can the political distinction between true and false, progressive and regressive (for in this sphere, these pairs are equivalent) be made and its validity be justified? At the outset, I propose that the question cannot be answered in terms of the alternative between democracy and dictatorship, according to which, in the latter, one individual or group, without any effective control from below, arrogate to themselves the decision. Historically, even in the most democratic democracies, the vital and final decisions affecting the society as a whole have been made, constitutionally or in fact, by one or several groups without effective control by the people themselves. The ironical question: who educates the educators (i.e. the political leaders) also applies to democracy. The only authentic alternative and negation of dictatorship (with respect to this question) would be a society in which 'the people' have become autonomous individuals, freed from the repressive requirements of a struggle for existence in the interest of domination, and as such human beings choosing their government and determining their life. Such a society does not yet exist anywhere. In the meantime, the question must be treated in abstracto--abstraction, not from the historical possibilities, but from the realities of the prevailing societies.

I suggested that the distinction between true and false tolerance, between progress and regression can be made rationally on empirical grounds. The real possibilities of human freedom are relative to the attained stage of civilization. They depend on the material and intellectual resources available at the respective stage, and they are quantifiable and calculable to a high degree. So are, at the stage of advanced industrial society, the most rational ways of using these resources and distributing the social product with priority on the satisfaction of vital needs and with a minimum of toil and injustice. In other words, it is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation. Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.

The question, who is qualified to make all these distinctions, definitions, identifications for the society as a whole, has now one logical answer, namely, everyone 'in the maturity of his faculties' as a human being, everyone who has learned to think rationally and autonomously. The answer to Plato's educational dictatorship is the democratic educational dictatorship of free men. John Stuart Mill's conception of the res publica is not the opposite of Plato's: the liberal too demands the authority of Reason not only as an intellectual but also as a political power. In Plato, rationality is confined to the small number of philosopher-kings; in Mill, every rational human being participates in the discussion and decision--but only as a rational being. Where society has entered the phase of total administration and indoctrination, this would be a small number indeed, and not necessarily that of the elected representatives of the people. The problem is not that of an educational dictatorship, but that of breaking the tyranny of public opinion and its makers in the closed society.

However, granted the empirical rationality of the distinction between progress and regression, and granted that it may be applicable to tolerance, and may justify strongly discriminatory tolerance on political grounds (cancellation of the liberal creed of free and equal discussion), another impossible consequence would follow. I said that, by virtue of its inner logic, withdrawal of tolerance from regressive movements, and discriminatory tolerance in favor of progressive tendencies would be tantamount to the 'official' promotion of subversion. The historical calculus of progress (which is actually the calculus of the prospective reduction of cruelty, misery, suppression) seems to involve the calculated choice between two forms of political violence: that on the part of the legally constituted powers (by their legitimate action, or by their tacit consent, or by their inability to prevent violence), and that on the part of potentially subversive movements. Moreover, with respect to the latter, a policy of unequal treatment would protect radicalism on the Left against that on the Right. Can the historical calculus be reasonably extended to the justification of one form of violence as against another? Or better (since 'justification' carries a moral connotation), is there historical evidence to the effect that the social origin and impetus of violence (from among the ruled or the ruling classes, the have or the have-nots, the Left or the Right) is in a demonstratable relation to progress (as defined above)?

With all the qualifications of a hypothesis based on an 'open' historical record, it seems that the violence emanating from the rebellion of the oppressed classes broke the historical continuum of injustice, cruelty, and silence for a brief moment, brief but explosive enough to achieve an increase in the scope of freedom and justice, and a better and more equitable distribution of misery and oppression in a new social system--in one word: progress in civilization. The English civil wars, the French Revolution, the Chinese and the Cuban Revolutions may illustrate the hypothesis. In contrast, the one historical change from one social system to another, marking the beginning of a new period in civilization, which was not sparked and driven by an effective movement 'from below', namely, the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, brought about a long period of regression for long centuries, until a new, higher period of civilization was painfully born in the violence of the heretic revolts of the thirteenth century and in the peasant and laborer revolts of the fourteenth century.[4]

With respect to historical violence emanating from among ruling classes, no such relation to progress seems to obtain. The long series of dynastic and imperialist wars, the liquidation of Spartacus in Germany in 1919, Fascism and Nazism did not break but rather tightened and streamlined the continuum of suppression. I said emanating 'from among ruling classes': to be sure, there is hardly any organized violence from above that does not mobilize and activate mass support from below; the decisive question is, on behalf of and in the interest of which groups and institutions is such violence released? And the answer is not necessarily ex post: in the historical examples just mentioned, it could be and was anticipated whether the movement would serve the revamping of the old order or the emergence of the new.

Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: ... it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word. The traditional criterion of clear and present danger seems no longer adequate to a stage where the whole society is in the situation of the theater audience when somebody cries: 'fire'. It is a situation in which the total catastrophe could be triggered off any moment, not only by a technical error, but also by a rational miscalculation of risks, or by a rash speech of one of the leaders. In past and different circumstances, the speeches of the Fascist and Nazi leaders were the immediate prologue to the massacre. The distance between the propaganda and the action, between the organization and its release on the people had become too short. But the spreading of the word could have been stopped before it was too late: if democratic tolerance had been withdrawn when the future leaders started their campaign, mankind would have had a chance of avoiding Auschwitz and a World War.

The whole post-fascist period is one of clear and present danger. Consequently, true pacification requires the withdrawal of tolerance before the deed, at the stage of communication in word, print, and picture. Such extreme suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger. I maintain that our society is in such an emergency situation, and that it has become the normal state of affairs. Different opinions and 'philosophies' can no longer compete peacefully for adherence and persuasion on rational grounds: the 'marketplace of ideas' is organized and delimited by those who determine the national and the individual interest. In this society, for which the ideologists have proclaimed the 'end of ideology', the false consciousness has become the general consciousness--from the government down to its last objects. The small and powerless minorities which struggle against the false consciousness and its beneficiaries must be helped: their continued existence is more important than the preservation of abused rights and liberties which grant constitutional powers to those who oppress these minorities. It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don't have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise, and that liberation of the Damned of the Earth presupposes suppression not only of their old but also of their new masters.

[missing paragraph added 10/24/15]

Withdrawal of tolerance from regressive movements before they can become active; intolerance even toward thought, opinion, and word, and finally, intolerance in the opposite direction, that is, toward the self-styled conservatives, to the political Right--these anti-democratic notions respond to the actual development of the democratic society which has destroyed the basis for universal tolerance. The conditions under which tolerance can again become a liberating and humanizing force have still to be created. When tolerance mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society, when it serves to neutralize opposition and to render men immune against other and better forms of life, then tolerance has been perverted. And when this perversion starts in the mind of the individual, in his consciousness, his needs, when heteronomous interests occupy him before he can experience his servitude, then the efforts to counteract his dehumanization must begin at the place of entrance, there where the false consciousness takes form (or rather: is systematically formed)--it must begin with stopping the words and images which feed this consciousness. To be sure, this is censorship, even precensorship, but openly directed against the more or less hidden censorship that permeates the free media. Where the false consciousness has become prevalent in national and popular behavior, it translates itself almost immediately into practice: the safe distance between ideology and reality, repressive thought and repressive action, between the word of destruction and the deed of destruction is dangerously shortened. Thus, the break through the false consciousness may provide the Archimedean point for a larger emancipation--at an infinitesimally small spot, to be sure, but it is on the enlargement of such small spots that the chance of change depends.

The forces of emancipation cannot be identified with any social class which, by virtue of its material condition, is free from false consciousness. Today, they are hopelessly dispersed throughout the society, and the fighting minorities and isolated groups are often in opposition to their own leadership. In the society at large, the mental space for denial and reflection must first be recreated. Repulsed by the concreteness of the administered society, the effort of emancipation becomes 'abstract'; it is reduced to facilitating the recognition of what is going on, to freeing language from the tyranny of the Orwellian syntax and logic, to developing the concepts that comprehend reality. More than ever, the proposition holds true that progress in freedom demands progress in the consciousness of freedom. Where the mind has been made into a subject-object of politics and policies, intellectual autonomy, the realm of 'pure' thought has become a matter of political education (or rather: counter-education).

This means that previously neutral, value-free, formal aspects of learning and teaching now become, on their own grounds and in their own right, political: learning to know the facts, the whole truth, and to comprehend it is radical criticism throughout, intellectual subversion. In a world in which the human faculties and needs are arrested or perverted, autonomous thinking leads into a 'perverted world': contradiction and counter-image of the established world of repression. And this contradiction is not simply stipulated, is not simply the product of confused thinking or fantasy, but is the logical development of the given, the existing world. To the degree to which this development is actually impeded by the sheer weight of a repressive society and the necessity of making a living in. it, repression invades the academic enterprise itself, even prior to all restrictions on academic freedom. The pre-empting of the mind vitiates impartiality and objectivity: unless the student learns to think in the opposite direction, he will be inclined to place the facts into the predominant framework of values. Scholarship, i.e., the acquisition and communication of knowledge, prohibits the purification and isolation of facts from the context of the whole truth. An essential part of the latter is recognition of the frightening extent to which history is made and recorded by and for the victors, that is, the extent to which history was the development of oppression. And this oppression is in the facts themselves which it establishes; thus they themselves carry a negative value as part and aspect of their facticity. To treat the great crusades against humanity (like that against the Albigensians) with the same impartiality as the desperate struggles for humanity means neutralizing their opposite historical function, reconciling the executioners with their victims, distorting the record. Such spurious neutrality serves to reproduce acceptance of the dominion of the victors in the consciousness of man. Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created.

Education offers still another example of spurious, abstract tolerance in the guise of concreteness and truth: it is epitomized in the concept of self-actualization. From the permissiveness of all sorts of license to the child, to the constant psychological concern with the personal problems of the student, a large-scale movement is under way against the evils of repression and the need for being oneself. Frequently brushed aside is the question as to what has to be repressed before one can be a self, oneself. The individual potential is first a negative one, a portion of the potential of his society: of aggression, guilt feeling, ignorance, resentment, cruelty which vitiate his life instincts. If the identity of the self is to be more than the immediate realization of this potential (undesirable for the individual as a human being), then it requires repression and sublimation, conscious transformation. This process involves at each stage (to use the ridiculed terms which here reveal their succinct concreteness) the negation of the negation, mediation of the immediate, and identity is no more and no less than this process. 'Alienation' is the constant and essential element of identity, the objective side of the subject--and not, as it is made to appear today, a disease, a psychological condition. Freud well knew the difference between progressive and regressive, liberating and destructive repression. The publicity of self-actualization promotes the removal of the one and the other, it promotes existence in that immediacy which, in a repressive society, is (to use another Hegelian term) bad immediacy (schlechte Unmittelbarkeit). It isolates the individual from the one dimension where he could 'find himself': from his political existence, which is at the core of his entire existence. Instead, it encourages non-conformity and letting-go in ways which leave the real engines of repression in the society entirely intact, which even strengthen these engines by substituting the satisfactions of private, and personal rebellion for a more than private and personal, and therefore more authentic, opposition. The desublimation involved in this sort of self-actualization is itself repressive inasmuch as it weakens the necessity and the power of the intellect, the catalytic force of that unhappy consciousness which does not revel in the archetypal personal release of frustration - hopeless resurgence of the Id which will sooner or later succumb to the omnipresent rationality of the administered world - but which recognizes the horror of the whole in the most private frustration and actualizes itself in this recognition.

I have tried to show how the changes in advanced democratic societies, which have undermined the basis of economic and political liberalism, have also altered the liberal function of tolerance. The tolerance which was the great achievement of the liberal era is still professed and (with strong qualifications) practiced, while the economic and political process is subjected to an ubiquitous and effective administration in accordance with the predominant interests. The result is an objective contradiction between the economic and political structure on the one side, and the theory and practice of toleration on the other.. The altered social structure tends to weaken the effectiveness of tolerance toward dissenting and oppositional movements and to strengthen conservative and reactionary forces. Equality of tolerance becomes abstract, spurious. With the actual decline of dissenting forces in the society, the opposition is insulated in small and frequently antagonistic groups who, even where tolerated within the narrow limits set by the hierarchical structure of society, are powerless while they keep within these limits. But the tolerance shown to them is deceptive and promotes co-ordination. And on the firm foundations of a co-ordinated society all but closed against qualitative change, tolerance itself serves to contain such change rather than to promote it.

[missing paragraph added 10/24/15]

These same conditions render the critique of such tolerance abstract and academic, and the proposition that the balance between tolerance toward the Right and toward the Left would have to be radically redressed in order to restore the liberating function of tolerance becomes only an unrealistic speculation. Indeed, such a redressing seems to be tantamount to the establishment of a "right of resistance" to the point of subversion. There is not, there cannot be any such right for any group or individual against a constitutional government sustained by a majority of the population. But I believe that there is a "natural right" of resistance for oppressed and overpowered minorities to use extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate. Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy; it is nonsensical to invoke the absolute authority of this law and this order against those who suffer from it and struggle against it--not for personal advantages and revenge, but for their share of humanity. There is no other judge over them than the constituted authorities, the police, and their own conscience. If they use violence, they do not start a new chain of violence but try to break an established one. Since they will be punished, they know the risk, and when they are willing to take it, no third person, and least of all the educator and intellectual, has the right to preach them abstention.

POSTSCRIPT 1968 [back to top]

UNDER the conditions prevailing in this country, tolerance does not, and cannot, fulfill the civilizing function attributed to it by the liberal protagonists of democracy, namely, protection of dissent. The progressive historical force of tolerance lies in its extension to those modes and forms of dissent which are not committed to the status quo of society, and not confined to the institutional framework of the established society. Consequently, the idea of tolerance implies the necessity, for the dissenting group or individuals, to become illegitimate if and when the established legitimacy prevents and counteracts the development of dissent. This would be the case not only in a totalitarian society, under a dictatorship, in one-party states, but also in a democracy (representative, parliamentary, or 'direct') where the majority does not result from the development of independent thought and opinion but rather from the monopolistic or oligopolistic administration of public opinion, without terror and (normally) without censorship. In such cases, the majority is self-perpetuating while perpetuating the vested interests which made it a majority. In its very structure this majority is 'closed', petrified; it repels a priori any change other than changes within the system. But this means that the majority is no longer justified in claiming the democratic title of the best guardian of the common interest. And such a majority is all but the opposite of Rousseau's 'general will': it is composed, not of individuals who, in their political functions, have made effective 'abstraction' from their private interests, but, on the contrary, of individuals who have effectively identified their private. interests with their political functions. And the representatives of this majority, in ascertaining and executing its will, ascertain and execute the will of the vested interests, which have formed the majority. The ideology of democracy hides its lack of substance.

In the United States, this tendency goes hand in hand with the monopolistic or oligopolistic concentration of capital in the formation of public opinion, i.e., of the majority. The chance of influencing, in any effective way, this majority is at a price, in dollars, totally out of reach of the radical opposition. Here too, free competition and exchange of ideas have become a farce. The Left has no equal voice, no equal access to the mass media and their public facilities - not because a conspiracy excludes it, but because, in good old capitalist fashion, it does not have the required purchasing power. And the Left does not have the purchasing power because it is the Left. These conditions impose upon the radical minorities a strategy which is in essence a refusal to allow the continuous functioning of allegedly indiscriminate but in fact discriminate tolerance, for example, a strategy of protesting against the alternate matching of a spokesman for the Right (or Center) with one for the Left. Not 'equal' but more representation of the Left would be equalization of the prevailing inequality.

Within the solid framework of pre-established inequality and power, tolerance is practiced indeed. Even outrageous opinions are expressed, outrageous incidents are televised; and the critics of established policies are interrupted by the same number of commercials as the conservative advocates. Are these interludes supposed to counteract the sheer weight, magnitude, and continuity of system-publicity, indoctrination which operates playfully through the endless commercials as well as through the entertainment?

Given this situation, I suggested in 'Repressive Tolerance' the practice of discriminating tolerance in an inverse direction, as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right, thus counteracting the pervasive inequality of freedom (unequal opportunity of access to the means of democratic persuasion) and strengthening the oppressed against the oppressed. Tolerance would be restricted with respect to movements of a demonstrably aggressive or destructive character (destructive of the prospects for peace, justice, and freedom for all). Such discrimination would also be applied to movements opposing the extension of social legislation to the poor, weak, disabled. As against the virulent denunciations that such a policy would do away with the sacred liberalistic principle of equality for 'the other side', I maintain that there are issues where either there is no 'other side' in any more than a formalistic sense, or where 'the other side' is demonstrably 'regressive' and impedes possible improvement of the human condition. To tolerate propaganda for inhumanity vitiates the goals not only of liberalism but of every progressive political philosophy.

If the choice were between genuine democracy and dictatorship, democracy would certainly be preferable. But democracy does not prevail. The radical critics of the existing political process are thus readily denounced as advocating an 'elitism', a dictatorship of intellectuals as an alternative. What we have in fact is government, representative government by a non-intellectual minority of politicians, generals, and businessmen. The record of this 'elite' is not very promising, and political prerogatives for the intelligentsia may not necessarily be worse for the society as a whole.

In any case, John Stuart Mill, not exactly an enemy of liberal and representative government, was not so allergic to the political leadership of the intelligentsia as the contemporary guardians of semi-democracy are. Mill believed that 'individual mental superiority' justifies 'reckoning one person's opinion as equivalent to more than one':
Until there shall have been devised, and until opinion is willing to accept, some mode of plural voting which may assign to education as such the degree of superior influence due to it, and sufficient as a counterpoise to the numerical weight of the least educated class, for so long the benefits of completely universal suffrage cannot be obtained without bringing with them, as it appears to me, more than equivalent evils.[5] 
'Distinction in favor of education, right in itself', was also supposed to preserve 'the educated from the class legislation of the uneducated', without enabling the former to practice a class legislation of their own.[6]
Today, these words have understandably an anti-democratic, 'elitist' sound--understandably because of their dangerously radical implications. For if 'education' is more and other than training, learning, preparing for the existing society, it means not only enabling man to know and understand the facts which make up reality but also to know and understand the factors that establish the facts so that he can change their inhuman reality. And such humanistic education would involve the 'hard' sciences ('hard' as in the 'hardware' bought by the Pentagon?), would free them from their destructive direction. In other words, such education would indeed badly serve the Establishment, and to give political prerogatives to the men and women thus educated would indeed be anti-democratic in the terms of the Establishment. But these are not the only terms.

However, the alternative to the established semi-democratic process is not a dictatorship or elite, no matter how intellectual and intelligent, but the struggle for a real democracy. Part of this struggle is the fight against an ideology of tolerance which, in reality, favors and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination. For this struggle, I proposed the practice of discriminating tolerance. To be sure, this practice already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve. I committed this petitio principii in order to combat the pernicious ideology that tolerance is already institutionalized in this society. The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority - minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.


Notes [back to top]
1) Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (Faber, London, 1963). [back to ref1]

2) I wish to reiterate for the following discussion that, de facto, tolerance is not indiscriminate and 'pure' even in the most democratic society The 'background limitations' stated on page [2 of this book?] restrict tolerance before it begins to operate. The antagonistic structure of society rigs the rules of the game. Those who stand against the established system are a priori at a disadvantage, which is not removed by the toleration of their ideas, speeches, and newspapers. [back to ref2]

3) Sartre, Preface to Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de Ia Terre (Maspéro, Paris, 1961). p. 22. [back to ref3]

4) In modern times, fascism has been a consequence of the transition to industrial society without a revolution. See Barrington Moore, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Allen Lane, London, 1963). [back to ref4]

5) Considerations on Representative Government (Chicago: Gateway Edition, 1962), p. 183. [back to ref5]

6) Considerations on Representative Government (Chicago: Gateway Edition, 1962), p. 181. [back to ref6]

More on the Subject by James Lindsay 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Hypno-... e-r-r-r-r, Hyper-normalisation - Updated

How "politics" became an interpassive exercise in keeping everything the same, an "entertainment" for the blue-pillers and every "entertainment" product produced was a "sequel/prequel" devoid of any "new" content/ideas espousing a new and/or different "future".  A "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" continuity.

But hey, I must be feeling nostalgic again, aren't you... ?

Friday, January 14, 2022

Resurrecting a Muddle - SPOILER Alert!

 
Slavoj Zizek, "A Muddle Instead of a Movie"
To prevent the excessive use of exploding petards in the holidays period, the Slovene ministry of defence posted on December 23, 2021 a tweet entitled “Become a soldier!” which says: “DON’T THROW FIRECRACKERS!!! Become a volunteer soldier, ignite an explosive, throw a bomb!” The pragmatic reason is clear: Slovenia doesn’t have mandatory military service and lacks soldiers, plus throwing firecrackers can occasionally cause some damage. However, the brutal irony of this tweet cannot but strike the eye.

The common wisdom is that, in order to avoid actual violence, we should channel our need for it into more sublimated forms, like competitive sport events (such as boxing). We read a lot about the potentially harmful consequences of children playing violent video games, where they need to kill opponents. The debate is: do such games incite real violence or do they allow players to act out their destructive impulses in a harmless way and thus prevent real violence? But the case of the Slovene ministry tweetowever is almost the opposite. In order to avoid throwing firecrackers (which is, despite all the dangers, a minimally sublimated form of violence), become a soldier and train for the real violence of wounding and killing people!

This perverted logic is the hidden truth of many of today’s complaints that we live in a fake virtual world and that we should return to real life, whatever the risks. Far from being opposed to the fascination with fiction, the escape into the Real is its immanent other side: both extremes characterize what was once called postmodernism, and the problem with Matrix Resurrections is that it proposes a postmodern solution in an era, which left postmodernism behind.

What is postmodernism reduced to its bare minimum? In the opening scene of the TV version of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, a mouse scurries through the walls of a boarding house in London searching for morsels of food. Having made its way to the upstairs bedroom, it pauses, its whiskers twitching: the crumbs from a bedtime cookie are lying on a saucer. But something strange is happening and it dares not advance to the plate of crumbs—one of the humans is killing the nice young girl who always eats cookies at bedtime.[1] The mouse knows the murderer’s identity, but the police are confused until Poirot enters the scene. From time to time, the mouse is shown in a close-up crawling in the background; it is noticed by humans only at the very end, after Poirot explains the case. At that very moment, the mouse appears on the bookshelf behind Poirot, Poirot’s secretary Ms. Lemon notices it and emits a terrified scream. So, Poirot finally puts in words what the mouse knew all the time… But already this reading of the presence of the mouse in contrast to the narrative line is too much, since it ignores the stupid, meaningless presence of the mouse as a little bit of the real totally indifferent to human concerns. This is how postmodernism works.

And my first reaction to Matrix Resurrections was that it has too many persons who, although officially part of the narrative, are effectively nothing but mice running around. There was much praise for the “complexity” of the story, as if the blurring of clear choices somehow makes the movie psychologically more “realist.” In a properly postmodern way, this complexity is inscribed into the narrative form itself as a wealth of self-reflexive moments: “quotes” from the preceding Matrix trilogy, bits of dialogue which evoke theories about the Matrix series or theories which served as its foundation (Baudrillard, especially). As Rightist rednecks like to say about intellectuals, Lana Wachovsky is often too bright for her own good.

The first thing that stands out in the multitude of reviews of Matrix Resurrections is how easily the movie’s plot (especially its ending) were interpreted as a metaphor for our socio-economic situation. Radical Leftist pessimists read it as an insight into how, to put it bluntly, there is no hope for humanity: we cannot survive outside the Matrix (the network of corporate capital that controls us); freedom is impossible.[2] Then, there are social-democratic pragmatic “realists” who see in the movie a version of some kind of progressive alliance between humans and machines: sixty years after the destructive Machine Wars, “the human survivors have allied with some of the machines to fight an anomaly that jeopardizes the whole Matrix. Scarcity among the Machines led to a civil war that saw a faction of Machines and programs defect and join human society.”[3] Humans also change: Io (a human city in reality outside the Matrix led by General Niobe) is a much better place to live than Zion, their previous city in reality (there are clear hints of destructive revolutionary fanaticism in Zion in previous Matrix movies).

At this point, we have to introduce a key factor and a new person. Scarcity among the Machines refers not just to the devastating effects of war, but, above all, to the lack of energy produced by humans for the matrix. Remember the basic premise of the Matrix series: what we experience as the reality we live in is an artificial virtual reality generated by the “Matrix,” the mega-computer directly attached to all our minds. It is in place so that we can be effectively reduced to a passive state of living batteries providing the Matrix with the energy. However, the unique impact of the film resides not so much in this premise, which is its central thesis, but in its central image of the millions of human beings leading a claustrophobic life in water-filled cradles, kept alive in order to generate energy for the Matrix. So, when (some of the) people “awaken” from their immersion into the Matrix-controlled virtual reality, this awakening is not an opening unto the wide space of external reality, but, first, a horrible realization of this enclosure, where each of us is effectively just a foetus-like organism, immersed in pre-natal fluid… This utter passivity is the foreclosed fantasy that sustains our conscious experience as active, self-positing subjects. It is the ultimate perverse fantasy, the notion that we are the instruments of the Other’s (Matrix’s) jouissance, sucked out of our life-substance, like batteries.[4]

Therein resides the true libidinal enigma of this dispositif: why does the Matrix need human energy? The purely energetic solution is, of course, meaningless. The Matrix could have easily found another, more reliable, source of energy which would have not demanded the extremely complex arrangement of virtual reality coordinated for millions of human units. The only consistent answer is that the Matrix feeds on human jouissance, and so we are back at the fundamental Lacanian thesis that the big Other itself, far from being an anonymous machine, needs the constant influx of jouissance. This is how we should turn around the state of things presented by the film: what the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation, is effectively its exact opposite, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being.

But how does the Matrix react to the fact that humans produce less energy? Here, a new figure called “Analyst” enters. He discovers that if the Matrix manipulates the fears and desires of humans, they produce more energy that can be sucked by the machines:
“The Analyst is the new Architect, the manager of this new version of the Matrix. But where the Architect sought to control human minds through cold, hard math and facts, the Analyst likes to take a more personal approach, manipulating feelings to create fictions that keep the blue-pills in line. (He observes that humans will ‘believe the craziest shit,’ which really isn’t very far off from the truth if you’ve ever spent any time on Facebook.) The Analyst says that his approach has made humans produce more energy to feed the Machines than ever before, all while keeping them from wanting to escape the simulation.”
With a little bit of irony, we could say that the Analyst corrects the falling rate of profit in the situation of using humans as energy batteries. He realizes that just stealing enjoyment from humans is not productive enough; we (the Matrix) should also manipulate the experience of humans that serve as batteries so that they will experience more enjoyment. The victims themselves have to enjoy: the more humans enjoy, the more surplus-enjoyment can be drawn from them. Lacan’s parallel between surplus-value and surplus-enjoyment is again confirmed here. The problem is just that, though the new regulator of the Matrix is called “Analyst” (with an obvious reference to the psychoanalyst), he doesn’t act as a Freudian analyst, but as a rather primitive utilitarian following the maxim of avoiding pain and fear and getting pleasure. There is no pleasure-in-pain, no “beyond the pleasure principle,” no death drive, in contrast to the first film in which Smith, the agent of the Matrix, gives a different, much more Freudian explanation:
“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. NO one would accept the program. Entire crops /of the humans serving as batteries/ were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was re-designed to this: the peak of your civilization.”
One could effectively claim that Smith (let us not forget: not a human being as others but a virtual embodiment of the Matrix—the big Other—itself) is the stand-in for the figure of the analyst within the universe of the film much more than the Analyst. This regression of the last film is confirmed by another archaic feature, the affirmation of the productive force of sexual relationship:
“Analyst explains that after Neo and Trinity died, he resurrected them to study them, and found they overpowered the system when they worked together, but if they are kept close to each other without making contact, the other humans within the Matrix would produce more energy for the machines.”
In many media outlets Matrix Resurrections was hailed as less “binary,” as more open towards the “rainbow”! Of transgender experiences, too, but, as we can see, the old Hollywood formula of the production of a couple matrix here again: “Neo himself has no interest in anything except rekindling his relationship with Trinity.”[5]

This brings us back to the basic question: what does the Matrix Machine stand for, if we read it not as a direct description of our reality but as a metaphor for our actual situation? It stands for two big Others, two alienated substances that control us: capital and the symbolic order, the order of symbolic fictions that structures our reality. In both cases, the danger to resist is that of a paranoiac reading, as if capital is impersonated in corporate bosses or bank managers who control the game, or as if the symbolic universe is programmed by a Matrix-like machine.

There is a fundamental difference between the subject’s alienation in the symbolic order and the worker’s alienation in capitalist social relations. We have to avoid the two symmetrical traps, which open up if we insist on the homology between the two alienations: the idea that capitalist social alienation is irreducible since the signifying alienation is constitutive of subjectivity, as well as the opposite idea that the signifying alienation could be abolished in the same way Marx imagined the overcoming of capitalist alienation. The point is not just that the signifying alienation is more fundamental and will persist even if we abolish the capitalist alienation; it is a more refined one. The very figure of a subject that would overcome the signifying alienation and become a free agent who is a master of the symbolic universe, i.e., who is no longer embedded in a symbolic substance, can only arise within the space of capitalist alienation, the space, in which free individuals interact.

The lesson is, thus, that we should reject any reference to positive Life as the ground, which is perverted in alienation (as Marx often does). There is no actual life external to alienation, which serves as its positive foundation. The true fetish is not the fetishist reversal of the “natural” hierarchy (instead of actual productive life serving as the foundation of the spectral life of capital, actual life itself is reduced to a subordinate moment of the mad dance of speculative capital). The true fetish is the very notion of direct positive life preceding alienation, an organic life whose balance was destroyed by capitalist alienation. Such a notion is a fetish, since it disavows the antagonisms that traverse the very heart of actual life.

The best-known scene in the first Matrix occurs when Morpheus offers to Neo the choice between Blue Pill and Red Pill. But this choice is a strange no-choice: when we live immersed in virtual reality, we don’t take any pill. So, the only choice is “Take the red pill or do nothing.” Blue pill is a placebo, it changes nothing. Plus, we don’t have only virtual reality regulated by the Matrix (accessible if we choose the blue pill) and external “real reality” (the devastated real world full of ruins accessible if we choose the red pill). We have, rather, the Machine itself, which constructs and regulates our experience. This, the flow of digital formulas and not the ruins, is what Morpheus refers to when he says to Neo, “Welcome to the desert of the real!” This Machine is, in the film’s universe, an object that is present in “real reality”: gigantic computers constructed by humans and holding us prisoners and regulate our self-experiences.

The choice between the blue pill and the red pill in the first Matrix movie is false, but this does not mean that all reality is just in our brain. We interact in the real world, but through our fantasies imposed on us by the symbolic universe, in which we live. Symbolic universe is “transcendental”; the idea that there is an agent controlling it as an object is a paranoiac dream. Symbolic universe is no object in the world; it provides the very frame of how we approach objects. In this sense, there is nothing outside the symbolic Matrix since we (subjects) cannot step out of ourselves, i.e., as it were stand on our shoulders and draw a clear line of distinction between what only appears to us and what belongs to “the things in themselves.” The Machine in the sense of the symbolic big Other is Kant’s transcendental frame, which structures our approach to reality.

“Transcendental” does not signal the superiority of the subject, but, precisely, its limitation: everything we experience, interact with, appears on a horizon of meaning or within symbolic space into which we are “thrown,” as Heidegger would have put it. When Heidegger characterizes a human being as “being-in-the-world,” this does not mean that we are an object in the world; it means that, because of our limitations, we cannot ever fully self-objectivize ourselves. We cannot perceive and analyse ourselves as just another object in the world, precisely because we are always-already IN the world.

Does this mean that the symbolic universe, as the transcendental horizon that regulates our approach to reality, is our ultimate point of reference, something behind or beneath which we cannot reach? What eludes reality (constructed/mediated by the big Other) is the Real in the Lacanian sense, something that resists symbolization.[6] Now we come to the key point. Lacan’s key name for the Real is jouissance, and this is why the Matrix needs humans: to appropriate from them jouissance, by means of which it can fill in (or, rather, cover up) its inconsistencies and antagonisms.[7]

Today, however, we are getting closer and closer to manufactured machines that promise to provide a virtual universe into which we can enter (or which controls us against our will). China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences pursues what it calls the “intelligentization” of warfare: “War has started to shift from the pursuit of destroying bodies to paralyzing and controlling the opponent.”[8] We can be sure that the West is doing the same; the only difference will be (maybe) that if it goes public about it, there will be a humanitarian twist (“we are not killing humans; just for a brief time diverting their minds…”).

One of the names for “taking the blue pill” is Zuckerberg’s project of “meta-verse”: we take the blue pill by registering in the meta-verse in which the limitations, tensions and frustrations of ordinary reality are magically left behind. But we have to pay a big price for it: “Mark Zuckerberg ‘has unilateral control over 3 billion people’ due to his unassailable position at the top of Facebook, the whistle-blower Frances Haugen told to the British MPs as she called for urgent external regulation to rein in the tech company’s management and reduce the harm being done to society.”[9] The big achievement of modernity, public space, is thus disappearing.

Days after the Haugen revelations, Zuckerberg announced that his company will change its name from “Facebook” to “Meta,” and outlined his vision of “metaverse” in a speech that is a true neo-feudal manifesto:
“Zuckerberg wants the metaverse to ultimately encompass the rest of our reality – connecting bits of real space here to real space there, while totally subsuming what we think of as the real world. In the virtual and augmented future Facebook has planned for us, it’s not that Zuckerberg’s simulations will rise to the level of reality, it’s that our behaviors and interactions will become so standardized and mechanical that it won’t even matter. Instead of making human facial expressions, our avatars can make iconic thumbs-up gestures. Instead of sharing air and space together, we can collaborate on a digital document. We learn to downgrade our experience of being together with another human being to seeing their projection overlaid into the room like an augmented reality Pokemon figure.”[10]
Metaverse will act as a virtual space beyond (meta) our fractured and hurtful reality, a virtual space in which we will smoothly interact through our avatars with elements of augmented reality (reality overlaid with digital signs). It will, thus, be nothing less than meta-physics actualized: a meta-physical space fully subsuming reality which will be allowed to enter it in fragments only insofar as it will be overlaid by digital guidelines manipulating our perceptions. And the catch is that we will get a privately owned commons, with a private feudal Lord overseeing and regulating our interactions.

This brings us back to the beginning of the movie where Neo visits a therapist (Analyst) in recovery from a suicide attempt. The source of his suffering is that he has no way of verifying the reality of his confused thoughts, so he is afraid of losing his mind. In the course of the film, we learn that “the therapist is the least trustworthy source that Neo could have turned to. The therapist is not just part of a fantasy that might be a reality, and vice versa /…/ He is just one more layer of fantasy-as-reality, and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of whims, and desires, and dreams that exists in two states at once.” Is, then, Neo’s suspicion, which drove him to suicide, just not confirmed?

The film’s end brings hope by merely giving the opposite spin on this insight: yes, our world is composed of layers of “fantasy-as-reality, and reality-as-fantasy, a mess of whims, and desires”; there is no Archimedean point, which eludes the deceitful layers of fake realities. However, this very fact opens up a new space of freedom—the freedom to intervene and rewrite fictions that dominate us. Since our world has such a composition, this means that the Matrix is also a mess! The paranoiac version is wrong; there is no hidden agent (Architect or Analyst) who controls it all and secretly pulls the strings. The lesson is that “we should learn to fully embrace the power of the stories that we spin for ourselves, whether they be video games or complex narratives about our own pasts /…/ – we might rewrite everything. We can make of fear and desire as we wish; we can alter and shape the people who we love, and we dream of.”

The movie ends, then, with a rather boring version of the postmodern notion that there is no ultimate “real reality,” just an interplay of the multitude of digital fictions:
“Neo and Trinity have given up on the search of epistemic foundations. They do not kill the therapist who has kept them in the bondage of The Matrix. Instead, they thank him. After all, through his work, they have discovered the great power of re-description, the freedom that comes when we stop our search for truth, whatever that nebulous concept might mean, and strive forever for new ways of understanding ourselves. And then, arm in arm, they take off, flying through a world that is theirs to make of.”[11]
The movie’s premise that machines need humans is thus correct: they need us not for our intelligence and conscious planning, but at a more elementary level of libidinal economy. The idea that machines could reproduce without humans is similar to the dream of market economy reproducing itself without humans is wrong. Some analysts recently proposed the that, with the explosive growth of robotization of production and of artificial intelligence which will more and more play the managerial role of organizing production, capitalism will gradually morph into a self-reproducing monster, a network of digital and production machines with less and less need for humans. Property and stocks will remain, but competition on stock exchanges will be done automatically, just to optimize profit and productivity. So, for whom or what will things be produced? Will humans not remain as consumers? Ideally, we can even imagine machines just feeding each other, producing machined parts, energy…

Perversely attractive as it is, this prospect is an ideological fantasy: capital is not an objective fact like a mountain or a machine, which will remain even if all people disappear. It exists only as a virtual Other of society, a “reified” form of social relationship, in the same way that values of stocks are the outcome of the interaction of thousands of individuals, but appear to each of them as something objectively given.

— Every reader has for sure noticed that, in my description of the movie, I rely quite heavily on a multitude on reviews, which I extensively quote. The reason is now clear: in spite of its occasional brilliance, the film is ultimately not worth seeing, which is why I also wrote this review without seeing it. The editorial that appeared in Pravda on January 28, 1936 brutally dismissed Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as “Muddle Instead of Music” (the text’s title). Although Matrix Resurrections is very intelligently made and full of admirable effects, it ultimately remains a muddle instead of a movie. Resurrections is the fourth film in the Matrix series, so let’s just hope that Lana’s next movie will be what the 5th symphony was for Shostakovich, an American artist’s creative response to justified criticism.


Notes:
[1] Description taken from Amazon.com: Customer reviews: Poirot – Hickory Dickory Dock <https://www.amazon.com/Poirot-Hickory-Dickory-David-Suchet/product-reviews/B00005RIWY?pageNumber=2>

[2] https://gossipchimp.com/what-the-matrix-resurrections-is-telling-us-there-is-no-hope-for-humanity/.

[3] The Matrix Resurrections Ending Explained and Spoiler Questions Answered | Den of Geek < https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/the-matrix-resurrections-ending-spoilers/>.

[4] I refer here to my reading of the first Matrix movie available online at https://www.lacan.com/zizek-matrix.htm.

[5] The Matrix Resurrections review – The Verge < https://www.theverge.com/2021/12/21/22841582/matrix-resurrections-lana-wachowski-keanu-reeves-carrie-anne-moss-review>

[6] I’ve written about this extensively in my previous books, so I don’t want to lose space here for explaining it.

[7] I’ve dealt with the notion of the Real in most of my philosophical books. See, for example, Absolute Recoil, London: Verso Books 2015.

[8] China ‘brain control’ warfare work revealed – Washington Times < https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/dec/29/pla-brain-control-warfare-work-revealed/>

[9] Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen calls for urgent external regulation | Facebook | The Guardian. < https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/oct/25/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-calls-for-urgent-external-regulation>

[10] See https://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/28/opinions/zuckerberg-facebook-meta-rushkoff/index.html.

[11] Nothing But A Brain: The Philosophy Of The Matrix: Resurrections (ethics.org.au) < https://ethics.org.au/nothing-but-a-brain-the-philosophy-of-the-matrix-resurrections/>

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Get Your NFT's...

Slavoj Zizek, "It’s naive to think Bitcoin & NFT give us freedom"
In a world where digital control and manipulation have become a norm, many believe that cryptocurrency and Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, enable freedom. But this is not exactly true.


The best indication of the changes affecting our financial system is the rise of two new interrelated phenomena: Cryptocurrency and NFTs. Both emerged from a libertarian idea to bypass state apparatuses and establish direct communication between concerned parties.

However, in both cases, we see how the idea turned into its opposite, with bitcoin and NFTs now having their own 1% which dominate and manipulate the field. Here we should avoid both extremes: neither praising Bitcoin or NFT as offering us new freedom, nor dismissing them as the latest speculative capitalist madness.

In our usual experience of money, its payment value is guaranteed by some state authority, such as a central bank, and the state can also misuse its authority, by printing money and causing inflation, etc.

The value of bitcoin, a digital currency or cryptocurrency, is not guaranteed by any public institution of authority. It is determined by what people are willing to pay for it right now. And they are ready to pay for it and accept it as money if they believe in it, if they trust it.

Here, in the domain of cold and ruthless financial speculation, confidence and trust enter the stage: bitcoin is like an ideological Causer that exists as a real force only if enough people believe in it – without individuals who believe in the Communist cause, for instance, there would’ve been no Communism.

There’s a similarity between this and how stocks are priced: if more people want to buy than sell, prices will likely go up, whereas when there are more sellers, the price usually falls. However, one difference is that – at least, in principle – the value of stocks is not purely self-referential, it refers to investments that are expected to generate profit from ‘real’ production.

The maximum number of bitcoins that can be issued, or mined, is limited; cryptocurrency inventor Satoshi Nakamoto capped it at 21 million (about 19 million has already been mined). This makes Bitcoin similar to gold and other precious metals, but it has no intrinsic “real value.”

How can this be? Bitcoins have to be registered in blockchains which are “essentially decentralized ledgers. They’re a ‘place’ to store information and, crucially, because they are decentralized, cannot be edited without the knowledge of other users on the blockchain. The idea is that blockchains are able to store records of information without the need for third parties (e.g., banks and financial institutions), so that the system is essentially self-sufficient and self-regulating. As a digital infrastructure, an added benefit is that huge legal fees added by third parties are avoided,” according to an article published by Aesthetics for Birds website.

Here we stumble upon the tension that defines blockchains: precisely because there is no third party and the system is essentially self-sufficient and self-regulating, every registration/inscription of a new bitcoin involves a tremendous amount of work through which the new bitcoin will be brought to “the knowledge of other users on the blockchain.” Since there is no third party to which every bitcoin owner could refer, each new owner has to elaborate a complex texture of algorithms and codes which guarantee that the specific identity of the new bitcoin will be clearly perceived by all others without turning it into something that can be appropriated by others.

Blockchain – as a non-alienated ‘Big Other' – needs a lot more work than inscription into an alienated third party, creating the new ‘proletarians’ of this new domain out of the bitcoin ‘miners’ who do this work. We move from old miners who do their difficult work deep beneath the earth as the genuine 19th-century kat’ exochen proletarians, to the bitcoin miners who toil to construct and secure the space for a bitcoin in the digital ‘Big Other.’

The paradox here is that they do not work to produce new use-values, but to create new space for exchange-value. To guarantee that bitcoins do not need a legal external authority and the accompanying legal fees, an effort is required which takes a lot of time and uses so much energy (electricity) that it is a heavy ecological burden.

The potentially progressive idea of Bitcoin as global, independent of particular state apparatuses, thus actualizes itself in a form which undermines its premises. This makes it similar to NFTs.

NFT (non-fungible token) – proclaimed by Collins Dictionary its word of the year for 2021 – was also invented as a decentralized, anti-State, libertarian attempt to save the autonomy of artists from institutional clutches. The price we pay for this idea is that “the creation of an NFT is an attempt to create artificial scarcity where there is none. Anyone can create an NFT for a digital asset, even if there’s no actual asset behind it!”

The paradox of NFTs is that they introduce scarcity into a domain where items are accessible to everyone for free. For this reason, NFTs compel us to rethink the notion of property, of owning something in a digital space:

“Through subscription services, we have temporary access, but never own a thing. In some quite important sense we might ask, were we to own something, what would it be? An original master of a film or music? Perhaps. But in reality what we can say is ours is either the temporary access, or a download. The download is likely to be absolutely identical to every other download that exists. In other words, our owning it doesn’t preclude others from owning it. This is why even the thought of owning a piece of art online has a tinge of absurdity about it. If the song exists as a file, it can exist identically in an infinite number of digital spaces. But NFTs provide a kind of ‘solution’: artificial scarcity. They give us digital collectibles in a world where duplication has zero costs.”

What is intriguing in NFTs is the idea of taking a digital asset that anyone can copy and claiming ownership of it. An NFT has almost no use-value (maybe it brings some social prestige to owners), and what sustains it is its potential future exchange-value. It is a copy with a price, an item of purely symbolic ownership that can bring profit.

The key Hegelian insight here – just as in the case of bitcoin – is that, although Bitcoin and NFT appear as an anomaly, as a pathological deviation of the ‘normal’ functioning of money and commodities, the two effectively actualize a potentiality that is already contained in the very notion of commodity and money.

Exemplary here is the figure of Peter Thiel, a German-American billionaire and co-founder of PayPal, who declared that “[Artificial Intelligence] is communist and crypto is libertarian.” Why? Because with AI, “you’re sort-of going to have the big eye of Sauron watching you at all times, in all places.”

“The main AI applications that people seem to talk about are using large data to sort-of monitor people, … where you can know enough about people that you know more about them than they know about themselves, and you can sort-of enable communism to work, maybe not so much as an economic theory, but at least as a political theory. So it is definitely a Leninist thing. And then, it is literally communist, because China loves AI…” Thiel said.

That sounds evident and convincing. However, as Thom Dunn duly noted:
“Thiel's big critique here does seem to be about the authoritarian use of data and surveillance. Which, okay, cool, I agree, that’s a valid concern. I don’t know what that has to do [with] a revolutionary vanguard party forming a transitional state in order to establish a classless and leaderless society, but, um, sure. China does technically call itself a government. So I think I get what he’s putting down here. But just so we’re clear: this is the guy who helped found Palantir. Like, the big data analytics company that literally [taught] ICE to organize its authoritarian tactics. Which is the same Peter Thiel who also founded the Anduril surveillance company, and used his billions to destroy a successful news organization for criticizing him. And he’s afraid of AI because of … communism?”
Impossible to miss the irony here: the libertarian anti-Leninist Thiel relies on the very ‘Leninist’ AI mechanisms he deplores. The same goes for former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who (yet another irony) allegedly described himself as “Leninist”:
“Bannon’s White House adventure was only one stage of a long journey – the migration of revolutionary-populist language, tactics, and strategies from the left to the right. Bannon has reportedly said: ‘I’m a Leninist. Lenin … wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,’” Thiel reminds us.
This same Bannon who’s rambling against big corporations that, together with apparatuses of state, control and exploit ordinary working Americans, had allegedly intended to use sophisticated AI during the 2016 election campaign. It was revealed that Cambridge Analytica (CA), a political consulting firm where Bannon was vice president between 2014 and 2016, had scraped masses of user data from Facebook to provide information on populations of interest to political campaigns around the world.

The company was shut down in 2018, after Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, blew the whistle on how CA had engaged in data-mining operations. Wylie, a gay Canadian vegan who, at 24, came up with an idea that led to the foundation of CA, which he described to The Guardian as “Bannon’s psychological warfare.” At a certain point, Wylie was genuinely freaked out: “It’s insane. The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”

What makes this story so fascinating is that it combines elements which we usually perceive as opposites. The right-wingers say that addresses the concerns of ordinary white, hard-working, deeply religious people who stand for simple traditional values and abhor corrupted eccentrics like homosexuals and vegans, but also digital nerds–and then we learn that their “psychological warfare” is created by precisely such a nerd who stands for all they oppose. There is more than an anecdotal value in this: it clearly signals the vacuity of far-right populism, which has to rely on the latest technological advances to maintain its popular redneck appeal.

There is no contradiction between Thiel’s anti-Leninism and Bannon’s Leninism: if we understand under ‘Leninism’ the practice of total digital control over populations, they both practice it while maintaining a libertarian face. The difference resides only in the fact that, for Bannon, Leninism means destruction of the state and its apparatuses (without, of course, really intending it).

To conclude, digital control and manipulation are not an anomaly, a deviation, of today’s libertarian project, they are its necessary framework, its formal condition of possibility. The system can afford the appearance of freedom only under the conditions of digital and other modes of control that regulate our freedom – for the system to function, we HAVE to remain formally free and perceive ourselves as free.