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
Thursday, December 31, 2015
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Harvard researchers have discovered a new psychological capacity for cooperation.- Peter Reuell, "Understanding Common Knowledge"
For decades, researchers have examined the psychology behind altruistic cooperation, when one person pays some cost to benefit another. However, another form of cooperation in which both people benefit has been little studied, but that is changing.
A study co-authored by graduate student Kyle Thomas and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker examines how people use “common knowledge” — the shared understanding in which two or more people know something, know that the other one knows, know the other one knows that they know, and so on — to coordinate their actions, and how people’s efforts to cooperate may fail without this infinite level of shared beliefs.
The study is described in a recently published paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study also included Peter DeScioli, now Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University, and Omar Haque, with Harvard Medical School.
“There has been a great deal of research that examines the psychological roots of altruism, and you can think of that as a kind of motivation problem,” explained Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the lead author. “However, when cooperation involves coordinating behavior, the problem people must solve is a knowledge problem rather than a motivation problem: What do partners need to know about each others’ beliefs to coordinate their behavior?”
While the notion of common knowledge has existed for decades and has been applied to fields as varied as philosophy and computer science, studies that focused on the actual psychology of common knowledge have been few and far between, Thomas said.
The chief reason, he said, is that “paying costs to benefit others poses obvious evolutionary puzzles that are not apparent when both people benefit. Because they do not present any evolutionary puzzles, the coordination problems of common knowledge are not nearly as obvious to researchers. The question is, how do we anticipate what our social partners will do, when what they do depends on what they expect us to do? This is a profound social cognition problem. How does one read the mind of a mind reader?”
To examine the psychological roots of coordination and how different levels of knowledge affect it, Thomas and his colleagues recruited participants to play an online game.
The participants were paired off, with each assuming the role of either butcher or baker working in a market. As the game began, each was offered a choice: Try to work together for mutual benefit — butchers making hot dogs and bakers making buns — or work on their own for a lesser, but certain profit.
To test how knowledge levels might affect whether participants would work together, researchers created four levels of knowledge for how participants could earn more by working together.
The first level, called private knowledge, involved telling one player that he could earn more by working with his partner, but leaving him in the dark about what his partner’s knows. At the second level, called secondary knowledge, one player knows conditions are good, and knows his partner knows that as well. In the third, one player knows, knows his partner knows, and knows his partner knows that he knows. To create common knowledge, this information was broadcast over a loudspeaker.
“Each player then makes a decision,” Thomas explained. “They can decide to work alone or work together, and we paid them accordingly.”
As predicted, these levels of knowledge dramatically affected how people played the game.
“What we found was that, for private knowledge, even if we varied the payouts, or the number of people involved, only about 15 percent of people cooperated,” Thomas said. “With shared knowledge, we saw about 50 percent, and with common knowledge, it was 85 percent. It was just a whopping effect. That indicated to us that we are very sensitive to this previously unappreciated mental state. Our minds evolved to understand this important kind of social structure, and how different kinds of knowledge can impact it.”
The effects of common knowledge, however, are hardly limited to the type of economic games described in the study.
“You can see evidence of these coordination problems everywhere,” Thomas said. “We’ve done work on euphemism and indirect speech, where everyone understands the subtext of what’s being said, though it isn’t explicit. You can also see aspects of it when people talk about taboos or political correctness. When something is taboo, that’s a common-knowledge issue because even though everyone may think it, you can’t say it. There’s even evidence that self-conscious emotions, like guilt or pride or shame, are sensitive to common knowledge, and that certain emotional signals like blushing or crying are built around the idea.”
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
American Politics: Avoiding Real Problems in Favour of Imaginary Ones...
One should not underestimate the complexity and persistence of different “ways of life,” and here psychoanalysis can be of some help. Which is the factor that renders different cultures (or, rather, ways of life in the rich texture of their daily practices) incompatible? What is the obstacle that prevents their fusion or, at least, their harmoniously indifferent co-existence?- Slavoj Zizek, "The Need to Traverse the Fantasy: A call to mobilize Europe’s radical-emancipatory tradition and why we need a solidarity of struggle, not a dialogue of cultures"
The psychoanalytic answer is: jouissance. It is not only that different modes of jouissance are incongruous with each other without a common measure; the Other’s jouissance is insupportable for us because (and insofar as) we cannot find a proper way to relate to our own jouissance.
The ultimate incompatibility is not between mine and other’s jouissance, but between myself and my own jouissance, which forever remains an ex-timate intruder. It is to resolve this deadlock that the subject projects the core of its jouissance onto an Other, attributing to this Other full access to a consistent jouissance. Such a constellation cannot but give rise to jealousy: In jealousy, the subject creates/imagines a paradise (a utopia of full jouissance) from which he is excluded.
The same definition applies to what one can call political jealousy, from the anti-Semitic fantasies about the mysterious practices and abilities of the Jews (which sometimes reach the level of madness, like the claim that Jewish men also menstruate) to the Christian fundamentalists’ fantasies about the weird sexual practices of gays and lesbians. As Klaus Theweleit, a scholar of fascist sociology, pointed out, it is all too easy to read such phenomena as mere “projections”: Jealousy can be quite real and well-founded; other people can and do have as much more intense sexual life than the jealous subject—a fact that, as Lacan remarked, doesn’t make jealousy any less pathological. Here is Lacan’s succinct description of the political dimension of this predicament:With our jouissance going off track, only the Other is able to mark its position, but only in so far as we are separated from this Other. Whence certain fantasies – unheard of before the melting pot. Leaving the Other to his own mode of jouissance, that would only be possible by not imposing our own on him, by not thinking of him as underdeveloped.To recapitulate the argument: Due to our impasse with our own jouissance, the only way for us to imagine a consistent jouissance is to conceive it as the Other’s jouissance; however, the Other’s jouissance is by definition experienced as a threat to our identity, as something to be rejected, destroyed even.
With regard to the identity of an ethnic group, this means that “there is always, in any human community, a rejection of an inassimilable jouissance, which forms the mainspring of a possible barbarism.” Here, Lacan underpins Freud, for whom the social bond (group identification) is mediated by the identification of each of its members with the figure of a Leader shared by all: Lacan conceives this symbolic identification with a Master-Signifier as secondary to some preceding rejection of jouissance, which is why, for him, “the founding crime is not the murder of the father, but the will to murder he who embodies the jouissance that I reject.” (And, one might add, even the murder of the primordial father is grounded in the hatred of his excessive jouissance, his possessing of all women.)
Since there is no space here to engage in this explanation (every good introduction to Lacan will do the job), I will limit myself to a passage from Kriss’s reply which condenses his double confusion, theoretical as well as political, culminating in his ridiculous notion of fidelity to a fantasy:In Lacanian terminology, what Zizek identifies as a fundamental disparity between ‘our’ civilized European way of life and the irreducible foreignness of the migrants would be called an asymmetry in the Symbolic order. (It’s not just Lacanianism that he abandons here — what happened to the Hegelian identity of non-identity and identity?) If this asymmetry does exist, then fantasy is precisely the means by which it can be resolved. If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication. If migrants are to live peacefully and happily in Europe, the demand should not be that they give up their fantasy of a better life, but that they cling to it for all its worth.First, the basic premise of Lacan’s theory is that what my critic rather clumsily calls the “asymmetry in the symbolic order” does not primarily occur between different ways of life (cultures) but within each particular culture: each culture is structured around its particular “points of impossibility,” immanent blockades, antagonisms, around its Real.
Second, far from “resolving” it, a fantasy obfuscates it, it covers up the antagonism – a classic case: the fantasmatic figure of the Jew in anti-Semitism obfuscates the class antagonism by way of projecting it onto the “Jew,” the external cause that disturbs an otherwise harmonious social edifice. The statement “If we lack the appropriate signifiers for each other, then the interdicting untruth of fantasy opens up a space for some semblance of communication.” is thus totally misleading: it implies that each culture somehow manages to be in touch with itself, it just lacks appropriate signifiers for other cultures. Lacan’s thesis is, on the contrary, that each culture lacks “appropriate signifiers” for itself, for its own representation, which is why fantasies are needed to fill in this gap.
And it is here that things get really interesting: these fantasies as a rule concern other cultures. Back to the Nazis: the fantasy of the Jew is a key ingredient of the Nazi identity. The Jew as the enemy allows the anti-Semitic subject to avoid the choice between working class and capital: by blaming the Jew whose plotting foments class warfare, he can advocate the vision of a harmonious society in which work and capital collaborate.
This is also why Julia Kristeva is right in linking the phobic object (the Jew whose plots anti-Semites fear) to the avoidance of a choice: “The phobic object is precisely avoidance of choice, it tries as long as possible to maintain the subject far from a decision.”
Does this proposition not hold especially for political phobia? Does the phobic object/abject on the fear of which the rightist-populist ideology mobilizes its partisans (the Jew, the immigrant, today in Europe the refugee) not embody a refusal to choose? Choose what? A position in class struggle. The anti-Semitic fetish-figure of the Jew is the last thing a subject sees just before he confronts social antagonism as constitutive of the social body (I paraphrase here Freud’s definition of fetish as the last thing a subject sees before discovering that a woman doesn’t have a penis).
Saturday, December 26, 2015
If You Could Send Only One Band to North Korea...
Crossing over Arirang Pass.
Dear who abandoned me [here]
Shall not walk even ten li
before his/her feet hurt.
Just as there are many stars in the clear sky,
There are also many dreams in our heart.
There, over there that mountain is Baekdu Mountain,
Where, even in the middle of winter days, flowers bloom.
Look on me! Look on me! Look on me!
In midwinter, when you see a flower, please think of me!
Chorus: Ari-arirang! Ssuri-Ssurirang! Arariga nanne!
O'er Arirang Pass I long to cross today.
Moonkyung weak Bird has too many curves
Winding up, winding down, in tears I go.
Carry me, carry me, carry me and go!
When flowers bloom in Hanyang, carry me and go.
Castor and camellia, bear no beans!
Deep mountain fair maidens would go a-flirting.
Chorus: Ari-Ari, Ssuri-Ssuri, Arariyo!
Ari-Ari Pass I cross and go.
Though I pray, my soya field yet will bear no beans;
Castor and camellia, why should you bear beans?
When I broke the hedge bush stem, you said you'd come away;
At your doorway I stamp my feet, why do you delay?
Precious in the mountains are darae and moroo;
Honey sweet to you and me would be our love so true.
Come to me! Come to me! Come and join me!
In a castor and camellia garden we'll meet, my love!
Thursday, December 24, 2015
More Celebrating of Christmas Rituals...
Rudyard Kipling, "Christmas in India"
Dim dawn behind the tamerisks -- the sky is saffron-yellow --
As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the riverside, each calling to his fellow
That the Day, the staring Easter Day is born.
Oh the white dust on the highway! Oh the stenches in the byway!
Oh the clammy fog that hovers
And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry --
What part have India's exiles in their mirth?
Full day begind the tamarisks -- the sky is blue and staring --
As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly --
Call on Rama -- he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"
High noon behind the tamarisks -- the sun is hot above us --
As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner -- those who tell us how they love us,
And forget us till another year be gone!
Oh the toil that knows no breaking! Oh the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
Oh the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
Youth was cheap -- wherefore we sold it.
Gold was good -- we hoped to hold it,
And to-day we know the fulness of our gain.
Grey dusk behind the tamarisks -- the parrots fly together --
As the sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether.
That drags us back how'er so far we roam.
Hard her service, poor her payment -- she is ancient, tattered raiment --
India, she the grim Stepmother of our kind.
If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
The door is shut -- we may not look behind.
Black night behind the tamarisks -- the owls begin their chorus --
As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us, and the hopeless years before us,
Let us honor, O my brother, Christmas Day!
Call a truce, then, to our labors -- let us feast with friends and neighbors,
And be merry as the custom of our caste;
For if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follow after,
We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.
On Celebrating Christmas in the Blog-o-Sphere...
- Duh Progressive, "The Night Before Christmas (w/ObamaClaus)"
'Twas the night before a certain faith-based celebratory occasion, and all through the house,
Not a creature was aware of an approaching louse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney we don't use,
For proud liberals we are, so we dare not light its fuse.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
Without one thought of fiscal cliffs dancing in their heads.
My wife in his teddy, and I in my Birkenstocks,
Had just settled into bed, boy were we socked.
When in from outside, there seeped such a smell
‘Twas smoke from a Newport Light, I blurted: “What the hell?”
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Turned on my compact florescent light bulb and threw up the sash.
The moon was full, but there was no mid-day glow,
Global warming had once again deprived us of snow
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature Chevy Volt, and eight pathetic reindeer.
With a skinny brown driver, I needn’t a moment of pause,
I knew right then it must be...OBAMA CLAUS!
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
Condescendingly he shouted to each by name!
“Now Morgan! Now Maddow! Now Matthews and Blitzer! On Schultz! On Sharpton! On all ye Bullshitzers!
To the top of the roof! To the top of the wall!
Don your ski masks and gloves, you each have them all!”
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The complaining and parroting of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Obama Claus came with a bound.
He had a big grey beard, and although it was dark,
I couldn’t help thinking: He looks like Karl Marx!
He produced an empty sack, that I saw clear,
“But I put our gifts out already” I said. “Why are you here?”
His eyes were so blood-shot, his nose like a cherry,
My God did he reek of bourbon or sherry!
His usual smile then turned upside down,
“I’ve come for your presents,” he said with a frown.
I asked why, believing not what I heard,
“Others don’t have as many gifts,” he said. “Don’t be a turd.”
But I had worked hard all year, paid my fair share,
“Of that,” said Obama, “I really don’t care.”
“But I’m a loyal Democrat! I’ll even pay more tax,
Please Obama Claus, try to relax!”
He just rolled his eyes, blew smoke in my face,
And began stuffing his sack with considerable haste.
"But I voted for you twice! I thought you were cool!
Obama just chuckled...he was talking to a fool.
“I bust my ass! I work hard for what I make!”
“And that,” Obama snapped, “is your first mistake.”
I lunged for Obama, man I was pissed!
But then three words stopped me: “Presidential kill list”.
I could do nothing, except stand there and huff,
That’s when I realized: America had fucked up!
I imagined four more years, man whata’ bitch!
And I had not voted for Romney all because he was rich,
But it was all over now: we had sealed our fate,
All because some GOP asshole had said “legitimate rape”?
When Obama Claus was finished we had but one gift,
A visit from a Socialist who gave not a shit.
All this time he said only the rich was he after,
Obama Claus deserved an Oscar for Best Actor
He returned to the roof and waiting sycophants,
Never caring at all if we were Donkeys or Elephants.
But I heard him exclaim, as he headed back to his elves,
“Merry Christmas, America! Go fuck yourselves!”
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
When the Republic Became the Empire...
When the final installment of the Star Wars series, Revenge of the Sith, brings us the pivotal moment of the entire saga–the change of the “good” Anakin Skywalker into the “bad” Darth Vader–it aims to draw parallels between our personal and political decisions.- Slavoj Zizek, "The Revenge of Global Finance" (5/21/2005)
In a 2002 Time magazine interview, George Lucas explained the personal level through a type of pop-Buddhism: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”
But more resonant than how Anakin turned into Darth Vader is the parallel political question: How did the Republic turn into the Empire, or, more precisely, how does a democracy become a dictatorship? Lucas explained that it isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, but that the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’ ” The contemporary connotations of this reference to Ancient Rome suggest the Star Wars transformation from Republic to Empire should be read against the background of Hardt and Negri’s Empire (from Nation State to the Global Empire).
The political connotations of the Star Wars universe are multiple and inconsistent. Therein resides the “mythic” power of that universe–a universe that includes a Reaganesque vision of the Free World versus the Evil Empire; the retreat of the Nation States, which can be given a rightist, nationalist Buchanan-Le Pen twist; the contradiction of persons of a noble status (Princesses, Jedi knights, etc.) defending the “democratic” republic; and finally, its key insight that “we are the bad guys,” that the Empire emerges through the very way we, the “good guys,” fight the enemy out there. (In today’s “war on terror,” the real danger is what this war is turning us into.) Such inconsistencies are what make the Star Wars series a political myth proper, which is not so much a narrative with a determinate political meaning, but rather an empty container of multiple, inconsistent and even mutually exclusive meanings. The question “But what does this political myth really mean?” is the wrong question, because its “meaning” is precisely to serve as this vessel of multiple meanings.
Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace gave us a crucial hint as to where to orient ourselves in this melee, specifically, the “Christological” features of the young Anakin (his immaculate conception, his victorious “pod-car” race, with its echoes of the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur, this “tale of Christ”). Since Star Wars’ ideological framework is the New Age pagan universe, it is quite appropriate that its central figure of Evil should echo Christ. Within the pagan horizon, the Event of Christ is the ultimate scandal. The figure of the Devil is specific to the Judeo-Christian tradition. But more than that, Christ himself is the ultimate diabolic figure, insofar as diabolos (to separate, to tear apart the One into Two) is the opposite of symbolos (to gather and unify). He brought the “sword, not peace,” in order to disturb the existing harmonious unity. Or, as Christ told Luke: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” In order for there to be a properly unified “symbolic” community of believers, Christ had to first come and perform the Holy Spirit’s separating “diabolic” founding gesture.
Thus the Christian stance is radically different from the teachings of paganism. In clear contrast to the pagan wisdom that the universe is the abyss of the primordial Ground in which all “false” opposites–Good and Evil, appearance and reality, folly and wisdom, etc.–coincide, Christianity proclaims as the highest action precisely what paganism condemns as the source of all evil–the gesture of separation, of drawing the line, of clinging to an element that disturbs the balance of All.
What this means is that the Buddhist all-encompassing Compassion has to be opposed to the Christian intolerant, violent Love. The Buddhist stance is ultimately that of indifference, of quenching all passions that strive to establish differences, while the Christian love is a violent passion to introduce a difference, a gap in the order of being, to privilege and elevate some object above others. Love is violence not (only) in the vulgar sense of the Balkan proverb, “If he doesn’t beat me, he doesn’t love me!” The choice of love itself is already violent, as it tears an object out of its context and elevates it to the Thing. In Montenegrin folklore, the origin of Evil is a beautiful woman: She makes men lose their balance, she literally destabilizes the universe, coloring all things with a tone of partiality.
In March, the Vatican strongly condemned Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as a book that spreads false teachings (that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that they had descendants, that the true identity of the Grail is Mary’s vagina). The Vatican especially rued that the book is so popular among the younger generation searching for spiritual guidance. The form of the Vatican’s intervention, which barely concealed a longing for the good old days when it could simply burn books, was obviously absurd. (Indeed, one almost suspects a conspiracy between the Vatican and the book’s publisher to give a fresh boost to its sales.) Nevertheless, the content of the Vatican’s message was basically correct. The Da Vinci Code effectively re-inscribes Christianity into the New Age’s paradigm of seeking balance between masculine and feminine principles.
And–back to the Revenge of the Sith–the price for the film’s sticking to these same New Age motifs is not only its ideological confusion, but, simultaneously, its inferior narrative quality. These motifs are why Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader–the series’ pivotal moment–lacks the proper tragic grandeur. Instead of focusing on Anakin’s hubris as an overwhelming desire to intervene, to do Good, to go to the end for those he loves and thus fall to the Dark Side, Anakin is simply shown as an indecisive warrior who is gradually sliding into Evil by giving way to the temptation of Power, by falling under the spell of the evil Emperor. In other words, Lucas lacked the nerve to really apply his parallel between the shift of the Republic to Empire and of Anakin to Darth Vader. Anakin should have become a monster out his very excessive attachment with seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it.
Where, then, does this leave us? The ultimate postmodern irony is today’s strange exchange between the West and the East. At the very moment when, at the level of “economic infrastructure,” Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age “Asiatic” thought. Such Eastern wisdom, from “Western Buddhism” to Taoism, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. But while Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism’s dynamics–by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace–it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.
Consider the phenomenon of “future shock”–the popular term for how people today can no longer psychologically cope with the dazzling rhythm of technological development and the accompanying social change. Before one can become accustomed to the newest invention, another arrives to take its place, so that increasingly one lacks the most elementary “cognitive mapping.” Eastern thought offers a way out that is far superior to the desperate attempt to escape into old traditions. The way to cope with this dizzying change, such wisdom suggests, is to renounce any attempts to retain control over what goes on, rejecting such efforts as expressions of the modern logic of domination. Instead, one should “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of the accelerated process. Such distance is based on the insight that all of the upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being.
Here, one is almost tempted to resuscitate the old, infamous Marxist cliché of religion as “the opium of the people,” as the imaginary supplement of real-life misery. The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist economy while retaining the appearance of sanity. If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary volume to his Protestant Ethic, titled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.
Therefore, the true companion piece to Star Wars III is Alexander Oey’s 2003 documentary, Sandcastles: Buddhism and Global Finance. A wonderfully ambiguous indication of our present ideological predicament, Sandcastles combines the commentaries of economist Arnoud Boot, sociologist Saskia Sassen and the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche. Sassen and Boot discuss the gigantic scope and power, as well as social and economic effects, of global finance. Capital markets, now valued at $83 trillion, exist within a system based purely on self-interest, in which herd behavior, often based on rumors, can inflate or destroy the value of companies–or whole economies–in a matter of hours. Khyentse Rinpoche counters them with ruminations about the nature of human perception, illusion and enlightenment. He tries to throw a new light on the mad dance of billion-dollar speculations with his philosophico-ethical statement, “Release your attachment to something that is not there in reality, but is a perception.” Echoing the Buddhist notion that there is no self, only a stream of continuous perceptions, Sassen comments about global capital: “It’s not that there are $83 trillion. It is essentially a continuous set of movements. It disappears and it reappears.”
But how are we to read this parallel between the Buddhist ontology and the structure of virtual capitalism’s universe? The documentary tends toward the humanist reading: Seen through a Buddhist lens, the exuberance of global financial wealth is illusory, divorced from the objective reality–the very human suffering caused by deals made on trading floors and in boardrooms invisible to most of us. However, if one accepts the premise that the value of material wealth, and one’s experience of reality, is subjective, and that desire plays a decisive role in both daily life and neoliberal economics, isn’t it also possible to draw the exact opposite conclusion? Perhaps our traditional viewpoint of the world was based on naive notions of a substantial, external reality composed of fixed objects, while the hitherto unknown dynamic of “virtual capitalism” confronts us with the illusory nature of reality. What better proof of the non-substantial nature of reality than a gigantic fortune that can dissolve into nothing in a couple of hours due to a sudden false rumor? Consequently, why complain that financial speculations with futures markets are “divorced from objective reality,” when the basic premise of Buddhist ontology is that there is no “objective reality”?
The only “critical” lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence. Thus we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step toward “liberation.” It confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering is not objective reality–there is no such thing–but rather our Desire, our craving for material things. All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance. No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.
It is against such a temptation that we should remain faithful to the Christian legacy of separation, of elevating some principles above others.
Santa Claus Conquers the *Martians (1964)
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
...but for Britain
-Stephen Spender, "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great"
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.
- Susan Cooper, "The Shortest Day"
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Unveiling the University Discourse
Comedy is thus the very opposite of shame: shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling. More closely, the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and the nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze.- Slavoj Zizek, "The Christian-Hegelian Comedy"
Unveils the "why" they're politically correct. "Why?", to gain personal advantages which accompany the perception of possession of or the University's alliance with "*Power," of course (the source of ALL it's so-called "authority").
* RULE 1: “Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.” Power is derived from 2 main sources – money and people. “Have-Nots” must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)- Saul Alinsky, "Rules for Radicals"
Saturday, December 19, 2015
Alternate link to the Zizek talk...
A patient in a large hospital room with many beds complains to the doctor about the constant noise and cries other patients are making, which are driving him crazy. After the doctor replies that nothing can be done if the patients are like that, that one cannot forbid them from expressing their despair since they all know they are dying, the patient goes on: “Why don’t you then put them in a separate room for dying?” The doctor replies calmly and glibly: “But this is a room for those who are dying…” Why does anyone who knows a little bit about Hegel immediately discern a “Hegelian” taste in this morbid joke? It is precisely because of the final twist in which the patient’s subjective position is undermined: he finds himself included into the series from which he wanted to maintain distance.- Slavoj Zizek, "The Christian-Hegelian Comedy"
And, since one is dealing with Hegel here, one is immediately tempted to conceive of this joke as the first term of a triad. Thus, since the basic turn of this joke resides in the inclusion into the series of the apparent exception (the complaining patient is himself dying), its “negation” would be a joke whose final turn would, on the contrary, involve exclusion from the series, i.e., the extraction of the One and its positing as an exception to the series. In a recent Bosnian joke, for example, Fata (the proverbial ordinary Bosnian’s wife) complains to the doctor that Muyo, her husband, makes love to her for hours every evening, so that, even in the darkness of their bedroom, she cannot get enough sleep—again and again, he jumps on her. The good doctor advises her to apply shock therapy: she should keep at her bedside a strong lamp so that, when she gets really tired of sex, she can all of a sudden blind Muyo, and this shock will for sure cool off his excessive passion. That same evening, after hours of sex, Fata does exactly as advised—and recognizes the face of Haso, one of Muyo’s colleagues. Surprised, she asks him, ”But what are you doing here? Where is Muyo, my husband?” The embarrassed Haso answers, “Well, he is there at the door, collecting money from those waiting in line…” And the third term in the Hegelian triad would be here a kind of joke-correlative of the “infinite judgment,” the tautology as supreme contradiction, as in the joke about a man who complains to his doctor that he often hears voices of people who are not present in the room. The doctor inquires, “Really? In order to enable me to discover the meaning of this hallucination, could you describe to me under what precise circumstances you usually hear the voices of people who are not present?” “Well, it mostly happens when I talk on a phone…”
As is often the case, Kierkegaard is here unexpectedly close to Hegel, officially his greatest opponent. Kierkegaard insists on the comical character of Christianity: is there anything more comical than Incarnation, this ridiculous overlapping of the Highest and the Lowest, the coincidence of God, creator of the universe, and a miserable man?1 And, again, the point is that the gap that separates God from man in Christ is purely parallactic: Christ is not a person with two substances, immortal and mortal. Perhaps, this would also be one way to distinguish between pagan gnosticism and Christianity: the problem with Gnosticism is that it is all too serious in developing its narrative of ascent towards Wisdom, that it misses the humorous side of religious experience—Gnostics are Christians who miss the joke of Christianity. (And, incidentally, this is why Mel Gibson’s Passion is ultimately an anti-Christian film: it totally lacks this comic aspect.)
For Hegel, the passage from tragedy to comedy concerns overcoming the limits of representation. While in a tragedy the individual actor represents the universal character he plays, in a comedy he immediately is this character.2 The gap of representation is thus closed, exactly as in the case of Christ who, in contrast to previous pagan divinities, does not “represent” some universal power or principle (as in Hinduism, in which Krishna, Vishna, Shivu, etc., all “stand for” certain spiritual principles or powers such as love, hatred, reason). As this miserable human, Christ directly is God. Christ is not also human distinct from being a god; he is a man precisely insofar as he is God, i.e., the ecce homo is the highest mark of his divinity. There is thus an objective irony in Pontius Pilate’s “Ecce homo!,” when he presents Christ to the enraged mob. Its meaning is not “Look at this miserable tortured creature? Do you not see in it a simple vulnerable man? Have you not any compassion for it?” but, rather, “Here is God himself!”
However, in a comedy, the actor does not coincide with the person he plays in the sense that he plays himself on the stage, that he “is what he really is” up there. It is rather that, in a properly Hegelian way, the gap that separates the actor from his stage persona in a tragedy is transposed into the stage persona itself. A comic character is never fully identified with his role; he always retains the ability to observe himself from outside, “making fun of himself.” Recall the immortal Lucy from I Love Lucy whose trademark gesture when something surprised her was to bend her neck slightly and cast a direct fixed gaze of surprise into the camera—this was not Lucille Ball, the actress, mockingly addressing the public, but an attitude of self-estrangement that was part of “Lucy” (as a screen persona) herself. This is how Hegelian “reconciliation” works: not as an immediate synthesis or reconciliation of opposites, but as the redoubling of the gap or antagonism—the two opposed moments are “reconciled” when the gap that separates them is posited as inherent to one of the terms. In Christianity, the gap that separates God from man is not effectively “sublated” directly in the figure of Christ as God-man, but only in the tensest moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”). In this moment, the gap that separates God from man is transposed into God himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God-Father. The properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature that appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.
And this brings us back to comedy: for Hegel, what happens in comedy is that the Universal appears directly. It appears “as such,” in direct contrast to the mere “abstract” universal which is the “mute” universality of the passive link (common feature) between particular moments. In other words, in comedy, universality directly acts. How? Comedy does not rely on the undermining of our dignity with reminders of the ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence. On the contrary, comedy is the full assertion of universality, the immediate coincidence of universality with the character’s/actor’s singularity. Or to ask it another way, what effectively happens when all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted in a comedy? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated universal values, and this negativity itself is the only true remaining universal force. And does the same not hold for Christ? All stable-substantial universal features are undermined, relativized, by his scandalous acts, so that the only remaining universality is the one embodied in Him, in his very singularity. The universals undermined by Christ are “abstract” substantial universals (presented in the guise of the Jewish Law), while the “concrete” universality is the very negativity of undermining abstract universals.
This direct overlapping of the Universal and the Singular also poses a limit to the standard critique of “reification.” While observing Napoleon on a horse in the streets of Jena after the battle of 1807, Hegel remarked that it was as if he saw there World Spirit riding a horse. The Christological implications of this remark are obvious: what happened in the case of Christ is that God himself, the creator of our entire universe, was walking out there as a common individual. This mystery of incarnation is discernible at different levels, up to parents’ speculative judgment apropos a child that “out there our love is walking,” which stands for the Hegelian reversal of determinate reflection into reflexive determination. The same happens with a king when his subjects see him walking around: “Out there our state is walking.” Marx’s evocation of reflexive determination (in his famous footnote in Chapter 1 of Capital) falls too short: individuals think they treat a person as a king because he is a king in himself, while, effectively, he is a king only because they treat him as one. However, the crucial point is that this “reification” of a social relation in a person cannot be dismissed as a simple “fetishist misperception”; what such a dismissal itself misses is something that, perhaps, could be designated as the “Hegelian performative.” Of course a king is “in himself” a miserable individual, and of course he is a king only insofar as his subjects treat him like one. However, the point is that the “fetishist illusion” which sustains our veneration of the king has in itself a performative dimension—the very unity of our state, that which the king “embodies,” actualizes itself only in the person of a king. Which is why it is not enough to insist on the need to avoid the “fetishist trap” and to distinguish between the contingent person of a king and what he stands for. What the king stands for only comes to be in his person, the same as with a couple’s love which only becomes actual in their offspring (at least within a certain traditional perspective). And it is not difficult to see the extreme proximity of the sublime and the ridiculous in these cases: there is something sublime in stating, “Look out! The World Spirit itself is riding a horse there,” but also something inherently comical.
Comedy is thus the very opposite of shame: shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling. More closely, the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and the nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze. Which is why the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask, we confront exactly the same face as that of the mask. A supreme case of such a comedy occurred in December 2001 in Buenos Aires, when Argentinians took to the streets to protest against the current government, and especially against Domingo Cavallo, the Minister of Economy. When the crowd gathered around Cavallo’s building, threatening to storm it, he escaped wearing a mask of himself (sold in disguise shops so that people could mock him by wearing his mask). It thus seems that at least Cavallo did learn something from the widely spread Lacanian movement in Argentina—the fact that a thing is its own best mask. And is this also not the ultimate definition of the divinity—God also has to wear a mask of himself? Perhaps “God” is the name for this supreme split between the absolute as the noumenal Thing and the absolute as the appearance of itself, for the fact is that the two are the same, that the difference between the two is purely formal. In this precise sense, “God” names the supreme contradiction: God—the absolute irrepresentable Beyond—has to appear as such. What one encounters in tautology is thus pure difference, not the difference between the element and other elements, but the difference of the element from itself. This is why the Marx brothers’ “This man looks as an idiot and acts as an idiot; but this should not deceive you—he is an idiot!” is properly comical: when, instead of a hidden terrifying secret, we encounter behind the veil the same thing as in front of it, this very lack of difference between the two elements confronts us with the “pure” difference that separates an element from itself.
According to an anecdote from the May ’68 period, there was a graffito on a Paris wall that read “God is dead. Nietzsche.” Next day, another graffito appeared below it: “Nietzsche is dead. God.” What is wrong with this joke? Why is it so obviously reactionary? It is not only that the reversed statement relies on a moralistic platitude with no inherent truth; its failure is deeper, and it concerns the form of reversal itself. What makes the joke a bad joke is the pure symmetry of the reversal—the underlying claim of the first graffito (“God is dead. Signed by [obviously living] Nietzsche”) is turned around into a statement which implies “Nietzsche is dead, while I am still alive. God.” There is a well-known Yugoslav riddle-joke: “What is the difference between the Pope and a trumpet? The Pope is from Rome, and the trumpet is made from tin. And what is the difference between the Pope from Rome and the trumpet made from tin? The trumpet made from tin can be from Rome, while the Pope from Rome cannot be made from tin.” In a similar way, one should redouble the Paris graffiti joke: “What is the difference between ‘God is dead’ and ‘Nietzsche is dead’? It was Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead,’ and it was God who said ‘Nietzsche is dead.’ And what is the difference between Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead’ and God who said, ‘Nietzsche is dead’? Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead’ was not dead, while the God who said ‘Nietzsche is dead’ was himself dead.” Crucial for the proper comical effect is not difference where we expect sameness, but, rather, sameness where we expect difference,3 which is why, as Alenka Zupancic has pointed out, the materialist (and therefore properly comic) version of the above joke would have been something like: “God is dead. And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well…” Is this not a comic version of Christ’s complaint on the cross? Christ will die on the cross not to get rid of his mortal envelope and rejoin the divine; he will die because he is God. No wonder, then, that, in the last years of his intellectual activity, Nietzsche used to sign his texts and letters also as “Christ”: the proper comical supplement to Nietzsche’s “God is dead” would have been to make Nietzsche himself add to it: “And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well…”
1. See The Humor of Kierkegaard. An Anthology, edited and introduced by Thomas C. Oden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
2. I rely here heavily on Alenka Zupancic’s unpublished manuscript on comedy.
3. This is why the “What is the difference between…” jokes are most efficient when difference is denied, as in: “What is the difference between toy trains and women’s breasts? None: both are meant for children, and with both it is mostly adult men that play.”
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Living in Stereo
life's the same except for my shoes
life's the same you're shaking like tremolo
life's the same it's all inside you
it's so easy to blow up your problems
it's so easy to play up your breakdown
it's so easy to fly through a window
it's so easy to fool with the sound
it's so tough to get up
it's so tough
it's so tough to live up
it's so tough on you
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
-Kahlil Gibran, "On Children"
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
The creation of large companies must be avoided...
Laboulaye rejects the "statism" of Louis Blanc as well as the "anti-statism" of the Anglophile economists, and shows that the role of the state is precisely to encourage progress, by fostering technological development and education. He clearly differentiates the British from the American model:-Dino De Paoli"The creation of large companies must be avoided; the British-style industrial expansion which leads to pauperization and demoralization must be stopped. . .. In England, the country which, to this day, is still the most affected by the feudal era, where the descendants of the Normand have become large landowners ... and have permitted the building of British industry in a most aristocratic fashion ... industry is found to be organized on the model of ever-divisible territorial property, on the model of its fully aristocratic political society, totally feudal."Laboulaye lists several prescriptions for reaching that goal, including the following:
"In the United States of America ... the organization of industry is totally democratic. The worker only works today, so to speak, in the hope of being his own master tomorrow, and the industrial enterprises grow in number more than in size. In the two countries, the industrial organization is the faithful image of the political laws; it is aristocratic in the first, democratic in the second .... The feeling that one's elevation in society is impossible has indeed largely contributed to the revolution of 1848, the laboring classes always hearing talk about the increase in bankers' wealth, in that of rich speculators, and amidst the crisis of industry, never seeing one of their own ranks rise into property through labor and innovation. Those are the unhappy seeds planted in times of demoralization, which have produced the false ideas that today pose the greatest dangers to the country. Oh, if we could get all the theoreticians to look at the beautiful American industrial scene! ... Either the plain, dumb desire for improvement will lead us into communism ... or it will surely lead us into a frightening equality of misery, through the degradation of everything and everyone; or we shall see an industrial democratic power with a broad base, gifted with an immense energy for productive work, well-being becoming the ensured reward of talent. ... [This] will bring about growth in the wealth of the nation, to undreamed-of proportions.""Credit. The only country with the goal of putting credit at the disposal of any capability that will make it bear fruit, is America. Thus have we seen that country, in a few years, realize undreamed-of progress . . .. Of course, the goal was sometimes missed ... and that nearly always happened when credit was turned into an instrument of speculation, instead of a means of fostering labor. "- Laboulaye "Dictionary of Arts and Manufactures"
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
-Emily Dickinson, "What mystery pervades a well!"
What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar
Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss's face!
The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray
But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Exhorting the Masses to Pursue Greater Sophistication...
Building an Image of Sophistication...
- Kiernan Michau, "Sophisticated Lady" (Sep 19, 2010)
An olive-skinned woman in a ruby satin dress
lazily swishes her martini in a long-stemmed glass.
She rests at the end of the bar
tendrils of smoke blur the curves of her face.
Her posture flawless,
her free hand lightly caressing her thigh,
she surveys the muted room with familiarity,
A wisdom that softens her lips
and hardens her eyes.
She is noticed, and she knows it.
But an air of respect diffuses the scent of carnal desire,
saturating the crisp suits and pearly tablecloths,
allowing her to glow in the periphery
like the candle on the rim of a bathtub.
Greetings are answered with a gentle smile.
Propositions politely refused with a shake of the head.
Veteran patrons don’t linger to chat,
but leave her to her drink and consideration.
She holds a vigil every night,
The same drink, the same bar stool,
The same tired, defiant glimmer in her eye.
Her head tilts elegantly at the sound of the saxophone
And somehow, the newcomers know she has them all figured out.
What she doesn’t know
is that I can see her
all the way through
and her sophistication is my graceful attempt
to cling to my soulfulness
to prevent its being suppressed into silence
by a distant refinement
separating me from desire
and the pounding of my heart.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Thursday, December 3, 2015
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
I'll Go On...
“Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on. For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always, in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little, in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same place as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I’ll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time.”― Samuel Beckett, "The Unnamable"
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Mind Yur U-Knits!
If you praise the rose, this means you blame the darkness,- Mahmud Darwish, "The Rhymed Orations of the Dictator"
In addition, if you recollect the glitter of ancient swords, you blame the peace,
And when you mention jasmine often and you laugh: then you attack the regime
Saturday, November 28, 2015
Canaan was the name of the fourth son of Ham, the youngest son of Noah, the father of all humanity (Genesis 9:18). This Canaan would give his name to the much coveted country of Canaan and the people who live there. The original Canaanites (an ethically diverse group of people) were displaced by Israel (Deuteronomy 7:1, but see our article on the Exodus for additional considerations).The root-verb כנע (kana') is generally thought to mean to be humbled, subdued, or brought into subjection, but more fundamentally, this verb describes the process of synchronicity; bringing elements from a wild, feral state into a state of common order and mutual benefit (like, say, a trade agreement). State formation depends on synchronicity, but, more fundamentally, so does language formation.
Canaan became the recipient of a curious curse that made him the perpetual servant of his two uncles Japheth and Shem. After having survived the flood and their 230 days stay in the Ark (40 days of rain, 150 days of floating, 40 days of drying) Noah planted a vineyard (a common symbol of general human culture), made wine and got drunk, and lay naked in his tent. Then not Canaan but Ham, the father of Canaan, saw Noah naked and quipped about it to Shem and Japheth. The two older brothers walked into their father's tent backwards and covered Noah without looking at him.
When Noah awoke he learned what Ham had done but then lashed out at Canaan, Ham's fourth son. He decreed that Japheth should become large but live in the tents of Shem, but Canaan should be the servant of all of them. Why Noah became so upset with Canaan instead of Ham is not told.
Synchronicity may demand the abandonment of one's naturally free state, which some thinkers interpret as a wholesale loss of freedom. But in fact, the secondary freedom gained (say: the ability to converse) from this initial loss (giving up growling and howling and having to agree on words) is far greater. This same principle may even explain why a universe which operates by means of the second law of thermodynamics (pursue maximum entropy) is able to produce DNA and cells to run it (greater than maximum entropy).
The strength of a group is proportional to its level of synchronicity, and the principles of laughter and harmonic music may have originated as demonstrations of strength (namely group-synchronicity) rather than entertainment (see the name Isaac).
About half of the thirty six occurrences of this verb in the Bible occurs in the reports of military campaigns (Nehemiah 9:24). A large portion of the other occurrences deal with a king's submission to God (1 Kings 21:29).
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes two striking usages of this verb, namely in Leviticus 26:41 and 2 Chronicles 7:14, where humility is marked as a key condition for God's blessing.
This root yields one derivative, the feminine noun כנעה (kin'a), meaning bundle or pack, which demonstrates that the verb does not simply denotes subdual but rather a bringing tightly together (Jeremiah 10:17 only).
Friday, November 27, 2015
Profiles in Courage
Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova (Russian: Валенти́на Влади́мировна Терешко́ва; IPA: [vɐlʲɪnʲˈtʲinə vlɐˈdʲimʲɪrəvnə tʲɪrʲɪʂˈkovə]; born 6 March 1937) is a Russian former cosmonaut. She was the first woman to have flown in space, having been selected from more than four hundred applicants and five finalists to pilot Vostok 6 on 16 June 1963. In order to join the Cosmonaut Corps, Tereshkova was honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force and thus she also became the first civilian to fly in space.
Before her recruitment as a cosmonaut, Tereshkova was a textile-factory assembly worker and an amateur skydiver. After the dissolution of the first group of female cosmonauts in 1969, she became a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, holding various political offices. She remained politically active following the collapse of the Soviet Union and is still regarded as a hero in post-Soviet Russia.
In 2013 she offered to go on a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity arose. At the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics, she was a carrier of the Olympic flag.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
"For anything undertaken in response to the will of the collectivity (in this instance the Party), no matter how distasteful, no matter how unattractive from the standpoint of individual morality, there could be no guilt, no questioning, no remorse." - George Kennan
To George Kennan- Isaiah Berlin
13 February 1951
New College, Oxford
I have ill rewarded your wonderful letter by leaving it so long unanswered. I received it towards the end of term here when I was genuinely worn out by teaching and examining, and scarcely capable of taking anything in, but even then it moved me profoundly. I took it off with me to Italy and read it and re-read it, and kept putting off the day on which I would write an answer worthy of it, but no such day ever came. I began many letters but each seemed trivial, and what the Russians call suetlivo ["in a fussy or bustling manner"]--full of hurrying sentences, scattered and moving in all directions at once, inappropriate either to the theme or to your words about it; but I cannot bear (if only because of the feelings which your letter excited in me) to say nothing merely because I am not sure how much I have to say. So you must forgive me if what I write is chaotic, not merely in form but in substance, and does little justice to your thesis. I shall simply go on and hope for the best, and beg you to pardon me if I am wasting your time.
I must begin by saying that you have put in words something which I believe not only to be the centre of the subject but something which, perhaps because of a certain reluctance to face the fundamental moral issue on which everything turns, I failed to say; but once forced to face it, I realise both that it is craven to sail round it as I have done, and moreover that it is, in fact, what I myself believe, and deeply believe, to be true; and more than this: that upon one's attitude to this issue, which you have put very plainly, and very, if I may say so, poignantly, depends one's entire moral outlook, i.e. everything one believes.
Let me try and say what I think it is; you say (and I am not quoting) that every man possesses a point of weakness, an Achilles' heel, and by exploiting this a man may be made a hero or a martyr or a rag. Again, if I understand you correctly, you think that Western civilisation has rested upon the principle that, whatever else was permitted or forbidden, the one heinous act which would destroy the world was to do precisely this--the deliberate act of tampering with human beings so as to make them behave in a way which, if they knew what they were doing, or what its consequences were likely to be, would make them recoil with horror and disgust. The whole of the Kantian morality (and I don't know about Catholics, but Protestants, Jews, Muslims and high-minded atheists believe it) lies in this; the mysterious phrase about men being "ends in themselves," to which much lip-service has been paid, with not much attempt to explain it, seems to lie in this: that every human being is assumed to possess the capacity to choose what to do, and what to be, however narrow the limits within which his choice may lie, however hemmed in by circumstances beyond his control; that all human love and respect rests upon the attribution of conscious motives in this sense; that all the categories, the concepts, in terms of which we think about and act towards one another--goodness, badness, integrity and lack of it, the attribution of dignity or honour to others which we must not insult or exploit, the entire cluster of ideas such as honesty, purity of motive, courage, sense of truth, sensibility, compassion, justice; and, on the other side, brutality, falseness, wickedness, ruthlessness, lack of scruple, corruption, lack of feelings, emptiness--all these notions in terms of which we think of others and ourselves, in terms of which conduct is assessed, purposes adopted--all this becomes meaningless unless we think of human beings as capable of pursuing ends for their own sakes by deliberate acts of choice--which alone makes nobility noble and sacrifices sacrifices.
The whole of that morality, which is most prominent in the nineteenth century, in particular in the romantic period, but implicit in both Christian and Jewish writings, and far less present in the pagan world, rests on the view that it is a marvellous thing in itself when a man pits himself against the world, and sacrifices himself to an ideal without reckoning the consequences, even when we consider his ideal false and its consequences disastrous. We admire purity of motive as such, and think it a wonderful thing--or at any rate deeply impressive, perhaps to be fought but never despised--when somebody throws away material advantage, reputation etc. for the sake of bearing witness to something which he believes to be true, however mistaken and fanatical we may think him to be. I do not say that we worship passionate self-abandonment or automatically prefer a desperate fanaticism to moderation and enlightened self-interest. Of course not; yet nevertheless we do think such conduct deeply moving, even when misdirected. We admire it always more than calculation; we at least understand the kind of aesthetic splendour which all defiance has for some people--Carlyle, Nietzsche, Leontiev [Konstantin Nikolaevich Leontiev, nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and critic] and Fascists generally. We think that only those human beings are a credit to their kind who do not let themselves be pushed too far by the forces of nature or history, either passively or by glorying in their own impotence; and we idealise only those who have purposes for which they accept responsibility, on which they stake something, and at times everything; living consciously and bravely for whatever they think good, i.e. worth living and, in the last resort, dying for.
All this may seem an enormous platitude, but, if it is true, this is, of course, what ultimately refutes utilitarianism and what makes Hegel and Marx such monstrous traitors to our civilisation. When, in the famous passage, Ivan Karamazov rejects the worlds upon worlds of happiness which may be bought at the price of the torture to death of one innocent child, what can utilitarians, even the most civilised and humane, say to him? After all, it is in a sense unreasonable to throw away so much human bliss purchased at so small a price as one--only one--innocent victim, done to death however horribly--what after all is one soul against the happiness of so many? Nevertheless, when Ivan says he would rather return the ticket, no reader of Dostoevsky thinks this cold-hearted or mad or irresponsible; and although a long course of Bentham or Hegel might turn one into a supporter of the Grand Inquisitor, qualms remain.
Ivan Karamazov cannot be totally exorcised; he speaks for us all, and this I take to be your point, and the foundation of your optimism. What I take you to say, and what I should have said myself if I had had the wit or the depth, is that the one thing which no utilitarian paradise, no promise of eternal harmony in the future within some vast organic whole will make us accept is the use of human beings as mere means--the doctoring of them until they are made to do what they do, not for the sake of the purposes which are their purposes, fulfilment of hopes which however foolish or desperate are at least their own, but for reasons which only we, the manipulators, who freely twist them for our purposes, can understand. What horrifies one about Soviet or Nazi practice is not merely the suffering and the cruelty, since although that is bad enough, it is something which history has produced too often, and to ignore its apparent inevitability is perhaps real Utopianism--no; what turns one inside out, and is indescribable, is the spectacle of one set of persons who so tamper and "get at" others that the others do their will without knowing what they are doing; and in this lose their status as free human beings, indeed as human beings at all.
When armies were slaughtered by other armies in the course of history, we might be appalled by the carnage and turn pacifist; but our horror acquires a new dimension when we read about children, or for that matter grown-up men and women, whom the Nazis loaded into trains bound for gas chambers, telling them that they were going to emigrate to some happier place. Why does this deception, which may in fact have diminished the anguish of the victims, arouse a really unutterable kind of horror in us? The spectacle, I mean, of the victims marching off in happy ignorance of their doom amid the smiling faces of their tormentors? Surely because we cannot bear the thought of human beings denied their last rights--of knowing the truth, of acting with at least the freedom of the condemned, of being able to face their destruction with fear or courage, according to their temperaments, but at least as human beings, armed with the power of choice. It is the denial to human beings of the possibility of choice, the getting them into one's power, the twisting them this way and that in accordance with one's whim, the destruction of their personality by creating unequal moral terms between the gaoler and the victim, whereby the gaoler knows what he is doing, and why, and plays upon the victim, i.e. treats him as a mere object and not as a subject whose motives, views, intentions have any intrinsic weight whatever--by destroying the very possibility of his having views, notions of a relevant kind--that is what cannot be borne at all.
What else horrifies us about unscrupulousness if not this? Why is the thought of someone twisting someone else round his little finger, even in innocent contexts, so beastly (for instance in Dostoevsky's Dyadyushkin son [Uncle's Dream, a novella published in 1859], which the Moscow Arts Theatre used to act so well and so cruelly)? After all, the victim may prefer to have no responsibility; the slave be happier in his slavery. Certainly we do not detest this kind of destruction of liberty merely because it denies liberty of action; there is a far greater horror in depriving men of the very capacity for freedom--that is the real sin against the Holy Ghost. Everything else is bearable so long as the possibility of goodness--of a state of affairs in which men freely choose, disinterestedly seek ends for their own sake--is still open, however much suffering they may have gone through. Their souls are destroyed only when this is no longer possible. It is when the desire for choice is broken that what men do thereby loses all moral value, and actions lose all significance (in terms of good and evil) in their own eyes; that is what is meant by destroying people's self-respect, by turning them, in your words, into rags. This is the ultimate horror because in such a situation there are no worthwhile motives left: nothing is worth doing or avoiding, the reasons for existing are gone. We admire Don Quixote, if we do, because he has a pure-hearted desire to do what is good, and he is pathetic because he is mad and his attempts are ludicrous.
For Hegel and for Marx (and possibly for Bentham, although he would have been horrified by the juxtaposition) Don Quixote is not merely absurd but immoral. Morality consists in doing what is good. Goodness is that which will satisfy one's nature. Only that will satisfy one's nature which is part of the historical stream along which one is carried willy-nilly, i.e. that which "the future" in any case holds in store. In some ultimate sense, failure is proof of a misunderstanding of history, of having chosen what is doomed to destruction, in preference to that which is destined to succeed. But to choose the former is "irrational," and since morality is rational choice, to seek that which will not come off is immoral. This doctrine that the moral and the good is the successful, and that failure is not only unfortunate but wicked, is at the heart of all that is most horrifying both in utilitarianism and in "historicism" of the Hegelian, Marxist type. For if only that were best which made one happiest in the long run, or that which accorded with some mysterious plan of history, there really would be no reason to "return the ticket." Provided that there was a reasonable probability that the new Soviet man might either be happier, even in some very long run, than his predecessors, or that history would be bound sooner or later to produce someone like him whether we liked it or not, to protest against him would be mere silly romanticism, "subjective," "idealistic," ultimately irresponsible. At most we would argue that the Russians were factually wrong and the Soviet method not the best for producing this desirable or inevitable type of man. But of course what we violently reject is not these questions of fact, but the very idea that there are any circumstances in which one has a right to get at, and shape, the characters and souls of other men for purposes which these men, if they realised what we were doing, might reject.
We distinguish to this extent between factual and value judgement--that we deny the right to tamper with human beings to an unlimited extent, whatever the truth about the laws of history; we might go further and deny the notion that "history" in some mysterious way "confers" upon us "rights" to do this or that; that some men or bodies of men can morally claim a right to our obedience because they, in some sense, carry out the behests of "history," are its chosen instrument, its medicine or scourge or in some important sense "Welthistorisch"--great, irresistible, riding the waves of the future, beyond our petty, subjective, not rationally bolsterable ideas of right and wrong. Many a German and I daresay many a Russian or Mongol or Chinese today feels that it is more adult to recognise the sheer immensity of the great events that shake the world, and play a part in history worthy of men by abandoning themselves to them, than by praising or damning and indulging in bourgeois moralisings: the notion that history must be applauded as such is the horrible German way out of the burden of moral choice.
If pushed to the extreme, this doctrine would, of course, do away with all education, since when we send children to school or influence them in other ways without obtaining their approval for what we are doing, are we not "tampering" with them, "moulding" them like pieces of clay with no purpose of their own? Our answer has to be that certainly all "moulding" is evil, and that if human beings at birth had the power of choice and the means of understanding the world, it would be criminal; since they have not, we temporarily enslave them, for fear that, otherwise, they will suffer worse misfortunes from nature and from men, and this "temporary enslavement" is a necessary evil until such time as they are able to choose for themselves--the "enslavement" having as its purpose not an inculcation of obedience but its contrary, the development of power of free judgement and choice; still, evil it remains, even if necessary.
Communists and Fascists maintain that this kind of "education" is needed not only for children but for entire nations for long periods, the slow withering away of the State corresponding to immaturity in the lives of individuals. The analogy is specious because peoples, nations are not individuals and still less children; moreover in promising maturity their practice belies their professions; that is to say, they are lying, and for the most part know that they are. From a necessary evil in the case of the education of helpless children, this kind of practice becomes an evil on a much larger scale, and quite gratuitous, based either on utilitarianism, which misrepresents our moral values, or again on metaphors which misdescribe both what we call good and bad, and the nature of the world, the facts themselves. For we, i.e. those who join with us, are more concerned with making people free than making them happy; we would rather that they chose badly than not at all; because we believe that unless they choose they cannot be either happy or unhappy in any sense in which these conditions are worth having; the very notion of "worth having" presupposes the choice of ends, a system of free preferences; and an undermining of them is what strikes us with such cold terror, worse than the most unjust sufferings, which nevertheless leave the possibility of knowing them for what they are--of free judgement, which makes it possible to condemn them--still open.
You say that men who in this way undermine the lives of other men will end by undermining themselves, and the whole evil system is therefore doomed to collapse. In the long run I am sure you are right, because open-eyed cynicism, the exploitation of others by men who avoid being exploited themselves, is an attitude difficult for human beings to keep up for very long. It needs too much discipline and appalling strain in an atmosphere of such mutual hatred and distrust as cannot last because there is not enough moral intensity or general fanaticism to keep it going. But still the run can be very long before it is over, and I do not believe that the corrosive force from inside will work away at the rate which perhaps you, more hopefully, anticipate. I feel that we must avoid being inverted Marxists. Marx and Hegel observed the economic corrosion in their lifetime, and so the revolution seemed to be always round the corner. They died without seeing it, and perhaps it would have taken centuries if Lenin had not given history a sharp jolt. Without the jolt, are moral forces alone sufficient to bury the Soviet grave-diggers? I doubt it. But that in the end the worm would eat them I doubt no more than you; but whereas you say that is an isolated evil, a monstrous scourge sent to try us, not connected with what goes on elsewhere, I cannot help seeing it as an extreme and distorted but only too typical form of some general attitude of mind from which our own countries are not exempt.
For saying this, E.H. Carr has attacked me with some violence, in a leading article in The Times Literary Supplement last June. This makes me believe I must be even more right than I thought, since his writings are among the more obvious symptoms of what I tried to analyse, and he rightly interprets my articles as an attack on all he stands for. All this comes out particularly in his last oeuvre--on the Russian Revolution--in which the opposition and the victims are not allowed to testify--feeble flotsam adequately taken care of by history, which has swept them away as, being against the current, they, eo ipso, deserve. Only the victors deserve to be heard; the rest--Pascal, Pierre Bezukhov, all Chekhov's people, all the critics and casualties of Deutschtum or White Man's Burdens, or the American Century, or the Common Man on the March--these are historical dust, lishnye lyudi ["superfluous men," in Turgenev's and Dostoevsky's term], those who have missed the bus of history, poor little rats inferior to Ibsenite rebels who are all potential Catilines and dictators. Surely there never was a time when more homage was paid to bullies as such: and the weaker the victim the louder (and sincerer) his paeans--vide E.H. Carr, Koestler, Burnham, Laski, passim? But I must not waste your time any further.
Once more I should like to say how deeply moved I was by your formulation of what it is that excites in us the unparalleled horror which we feel when we read of what goes on in Soviet territories, and to convey my admiration and unbounded moral respect for the insight and scruple with which you set it forth. These qualities seem to me unique at present; more than this I cannot say.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
If we know that the procedures and institutions of constitutional democracies* privilege the wealthy and exclude the poor, if we know that efforts toward inclusion remain tied to national boundaries, thereby disenfranchising yet again those impacted by certain national decisions and policies, and if we know that the expansion and intensification of networked communications that was supposed to enhance democratic participation serves primarily to integrate and consolidate communicative capitalism, why do we present our political hopes as aspirations to democracy, rather than something else? Why in the face of democracy’s obvious inability to represent justice in the social field that has emerged in the incompatibility between the globalized economy and welfare states to displace the political, do critical left political and cultural theorists continue to emphasize a set of arrangements that can be filled in, substantialized, by fundamentalisms, nationalisms, populisms, and conservatisms diametrically opposed to progressive visions of social and economic equality? The answer is that democracy is the form our attachment to Capital takes. Faithful to democracy, we eschew the demanding task of politicizing the economy and envisioning a different political order.Jodi Dean, "Zizek Against Democracy"
*Adopting Hegel’s insight that the Universal “can realize itself only in impure, deformed, corrupted forms,” he emphasizes the impossibility of grasping the Universal as an intact purity.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Monday, November 23, 2015
Saturday, November 21, 2015
RMS Queen Mary
RMS Queen Mary is a retired ocean liner that sailed primarily on the North Atlantic Ocean from 1936 to 1967 for the Cunard Line (known as Cunard-White Star Line when the vessel entered service). Built by John Brown & Company in Clydebank, Scotland, Queen Mary along with her running mate, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, were built as part of Cunard's planned two-ship weekly express service between Southampton, Cherbourg, and New York City. The two ships were a British response to the superliners built by German and French companies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Queen Mary was the flagship of the Cunard Line from May 1936 until October 1946 when she was replaced in that role by Queen Elizabeth.from Wikipedia
Friday, November 20, 2015
In the Wake of Paris Attacks the Left Must Embrace Its Radical Western Roots
In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza and Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the “humanitarian” topic of the refugees. Class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity. With the Paris terror killings on Friday, November 13, even this topic (which still refers to large socio-economic issues) is now eclipsed by the simple opposition of all democratic forces caught in a merciless war with forces of terror.ANd a critique of the above.
It is easy to imagine what will follow: paranoiac search for ISIS agents among the refugees. (Media already gleefully reported that two of the terrorists entered Europe through Greece as refugees.) The greatest victims of the Paris terror attacks will be refugees themselves, and the true winners, behind the platitudes in the style of je suis Paris, will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides. This is how we should really condemn the Paris killings: not just to engage in shows of anti-terrorist solidarity but to insist on the simple cui bono (for whose benefit?) question.
There should be no “deeper understanding” of the ISIS terrorists (in the sense of “their deplorable acts are nonetheless reactions to European brutal interventions”); they should be characterized as what they are: the Islamo-Fascist counterpart of the European anti-immigrant racists—the two are the two sides of the same coin. Let’s bring class struggle back—and the only way to do it is to insist on global solidarity of the exploited.
The deadlock that global capitalism finds itself in is more and more palpable. How to break out of it? Fredric Jameson recently proposed global militarization of society as a mode of emancipation: Democratically motivated grassroots movements are seemingly doomed to failure, so perhaps it’s best to break global capitalism’s vicious cycle through “militarization,” which means suspending the power of self-regulating economies. Perhaps the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe provides an opportunity to test this option.
It is at least clear that what is needed to stop the chaos is large-scale coordination and organization, which includes but is not limited to: reception centers near to the crisis (Turkey, Lebanon, the Libyan coast), transportation of those granted entrance to European way stations, and their redistribution to potential settlements. The military is the only agent that can do such a big task in an organized way. To claim that such a role for the military smells of a state of emergency is redundant. When you have tens of thousands of people passing through densely populated areas without organization you have an emergency state—and it is in a state of emergency that parts of Europe are right now. Therefore, it is madness to think that such a process can be left to unwind freely. If nothing else, refugees need provisions and medical care.
Taking control of the refugee crisis will mean breaking leftist taboos.
For instance, the right to “free movement” should be limited, if for no other reason than the fact that it doesn’t exist among the refugees, whose freedom of movement is already dependent on their class. Thus, the criteria of acceptance and settlement have to be formulated in a clear and explicit way—whom and how many to accept, where to relocate them, etc. The art here is to find the middle road between following the desires of the refugees (taking into account their wish to move to countries where they already have relatives, etc.) and the capacities of different countries.
Another taboo we must address concerns norms and rules. It is a fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights. Tolerance as a solution (mutual respect of each other’s sensitivities) obviously doesn’t work: fundamentalist Muslims find it impossible to bear our blasphemous images and reckless humor, which we consider a part of our freedoms. Western liberals, likewise, find it impossible to bear many practices of Muslim culture.
In short, things explode when members of a religious community consider the very way of life of another community as blasphemous or injurious, whether or not it constitutes a direct attack on their religion. This is the case when Muslim extremists attack gays and lesbians in the Netherlands and Germany, and it is the case when traditional French citizens view a woman covered by a burka as an attack on their French identity, which is exactly why they find it impossible to remain silent when they encounter a covered woman in their midst.
To curb this propensity, one has to do two things. First, formulate a minimum set of norms obligatory for everyone that includes religious freedom, protection of individual freedom against group pressure, the rights of women, etc.—without fear that such norms will appear “Eurocentric.” Second, within these limits, unconditionally insist on the tolerance of different ways of life. And if norms and communication don’t work, then the force of law should be applied in all its forms.
Another taboo that must be overcome involves the equation of any reference to the European emancipatory legacy to cultural imperialism and racism. In spite of the (partial) responsibility of Europe for the situation from which refugees are fleeing, the time has come to drop leftist mantras critiquing Eurocentrism.
The lessons of the post-9/11 world are that the Francis Fukuyama dream of global liberal democracy is at an end and that, at the level of the world economy, corporate capitalism has triumphed worldwide. In fact, the Third World nations that embrace this world order are those now growing at a spectacular rate. The mask of cultural diversity is sustained by the actual universalism of global capital; even better if global capitalism’s political supplement relies on so-called “Asian values.”
Global capitalism has no problem in accommodating itself to a plurality of local religions, cultures and traditions. So the irony of anti-Eurocentrism is that, on behalf of anti-colonialism, one criticizes the West at the very historical moment when global capitalism no longer needs Western cultural values in order to smoothly function. In short, one tends to reject Western cultural values at the very time when, critically reinterpreted, many of those values (egalitarianism, fundamental rights, freedom of the press, the welfare-state, etc.) can serve as a weapon against capitalist globalization. Did we already forget that the entire idea of Communist emancipation as envisaged by Marx is a thoroughly “Eurocentric” one?
The next taboo worth leaving behind is that any critique of the Islamic right is an example of “Islamophobia.” Enough of this pathological fear of many Western liberal leftists who worry about being deemed guilty of Islamophobia. For example, Salman Rushdie was denounced for unnecessarily provoking Muslims and thus (partially, at least) responsible for the fatwa condemning him to death. The result of such a stance is what one can expect in such cases: The more Western liberal leftists wallow in their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam.
This constellation perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: The more you obey what the pseudo-moral agency that the sadistic and primitive superego demands of you, the more guilty you are of moral masochism and identification with the aggressor. Thus, it is as if the more you tolerate Islamic fundamentalism, the stronger its pressure on you will be.
And one can be sure that the same holds for the influx of immigrants: The more Western Europe will be open to them, the more it will be made to feel guilty that it did not accept even more of them. There will never be enough of them. And with those who are here, the more tolerance one displays towards their way of life, the more one will be made guilty for not practicing enough tolerance.
The political economy of the refugees: Global capitalism and military intervention
As a long-term strategy, we should focus on what one cannot but call the “political economy of refugees,” which means focusing on the ultimate causes underlying the dynamics of global capitalism and military interventions. The ongoing disorder should be treated as the true face of the New World Order. Consider the food crisis now plaguing the “developing” world. None other than Bill Clinton made it clear in his comments, at a 2008 UN gathering marking World Food Day, that the food crisis in many Third World countries cannot be put on the usual suspects like corruption, inefficiency and state interventionism—the crisis is directly dependent on the globalization of agriculture. The gist of Clinton’s speech was that today’s global food crisis shows how “we all blew it, including me when I was president,” by treating food crops as commodities instead of as a vital right of the world’s poor.
Clinton was very clear in putting blame not on individual states or governments but on U.S. and EU long-term global policies carried out for decades by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international economic institutions. Such policies pressured African and Asian countries into dropping government subsidies for fertilizer, improved seed and other farm inputs. This allowed the best land to be used for export crops, which effectively compromised the countries’ self-sufficiency. The integration of local agriculture into global economy was the result of such “structural adjustments,” and the effect was devastating: Farmers were thrown out of their land and pushed into slums fitted for sweat-shop labor, while countries had to rely more and more on imported food. In this way, they are kept in postcolonial dependence and became more and more vulnerable to market fluctuations. For instance, grain prices skyrocketed last year in countries like Haiti and Ethiopia, both of which export crops for biofuel and consequently starve their populations.
In order to approach these problems properly, one will have to invent new forms of large-scale collective action; neither the standard state intervention nor the much-praised local self-organization can do the job. If the problem will not be solved, one should seriously consider that we are approaching a new era of apartheid in which secluded, resource-abundant parts of the world will be separated from the starved-and-permanently-at-war parts. What should people in Haiti and other places with food shortages do? Do they not have the full right to violently rebel? Or, to become refugees? Despite all the critiques of economic neo-colonialism, we are still not fully aware of the devastating effects of the global market on many local economies.
As for the open (and not-so-open) military interventions, the results have been told often enough: failed states. No refugees without ISIS and no ISIS without the U.S. occupation of Iraq, etc. In a gloomy prophecy made before his death, Col. Muammar Gaddafi said: “Now listen you, people of NATO. You’re bombing a wall, which stood in the way of African migration to Europe and in the way of al Qaeda terrorists. This wall was Libya. You’re breaking it. You’re idiots, and you will burn in Hell for thousands of migrants from Africa.” Was he not stating the obvious?
The Russian story, which basically elaborates Gaddafi, has its element of truth, in spite of the obvious taste of pasta putinesca. Boris Dolgov of the Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation told TASS:
That the refugee crisis is an outcome of US-European policies is clear to the naked eye. … The destruction of Iraq, the destruction of Libya and attempts to topple Bashar Assad in Syria with the hands of Islamic radicals—that’s what EU and US policies are all about, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees are a result of that policy.
Similarly, Irina Zvyagelskaya, of the oriental studies department at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told TASS:
The civil war in Syria and tensions in Iraq and Libya keep fueling the flow of migrants, but that is not the only cause. I agree with those who see the current events as a trend towards another mass resettlement of peoples, which leave the weaker countries with ineffective economies. There are systemic problems that cause people to abandon their homes and take to the road. And the liberal European legislation allows many of them to not only stay in Europe, but also to live there on social benefits without seeking employment.
And Yevgeny Grishkovets, the Russian author, playwright and stage director, writing in in his blog agrees:
These people are exhausted, angry and humiliated. They have no idea of European values, lifestyles and traditions, multiculturalism or tolerance. They will never agree to abide by European laws. … They will never feel grateful to the people whose countries they have managed to get into with such problems, because the very same states first turned their own home countries into a bloodbath. … Angela Merkel vows modern German society and Europe are prepared for problems. … That’s a lie and nonsense!
However, while there is some general truth in all this, one should not jump from this generality to the empirical fact of refugees flowing into Europe and simply accept full responsibility. The responsibility is shared. First, Turkey is playing a well-planned political game (officially fighting ISIS but effectively bombing the Kurds who are really fighting ISIS). Then we have the class division in the Arab world itself (the ultra-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Emirates accepting almost no refugees). And what about Iraq with its tens of billions of oil reserves? How, out of all this mess, does there emerge a flow of refugees?
What we do know is that a complex economy of refugee transportation is making millions upon millions of dollars profit. Who is financing it? Streamlining it? Where are the European intelligence services? Are they exploring this dark netherworld? The fact that refugees are in a desperate situation in no way excludes the fact that their flow into Europe is part of a well-planned project.
Sure, Norway exists
Let me address my so-called leftist critics who find my breaking of the above-mentioned taboos in articles published in the London Review of Books and In These Times problematic. Nick Riemer, writing in Jacobin, condemns the “reactionary nonsense” I am “promoting”:
It should be obvious to Zizek that the West can’t intervene militarily in a way that avoids the “neocolonial traps of the recent past.” Refugees, for their part, aren’t wayfarers on someone else’s soil, present only under sufferance and, as such, the objects of “hospitality.” Regardless of the customs they bring with them, they should enjoy the same rights as the members of the diverse communities that make up Europe—a pluralism entirely ignored in Zizek’s astonishing reference to a unique “Western European way of life.”
The claim that underlies this view is much stronger than Alain Badiou's qui est ici est d'ici (those who are here are from here)—it is more something like qui veut venir ici est d'ici (those who want to come here are from here). But even if we accept it, it is Riemer who entirely ignores the point of my remark: of course “they should enjoy the same rights as the members of the diverse communities that make up Europe,” but which exactly are these “same rights” refugees should enjoy?
While Europe is now fighting for full gay and woman's rights (the right to abortion, the rights of same-sex married couples, etc.), should these rights also be extended to gays and women among the refugees even if they are in conflicts with “the customs they bring with them” (as they often obviously are)? And this aspect should in no way be dismissed as marginal: from Boko Haram to Robert Mugabe to Vladimir Putin, the anti-colonialist critique of the West more and more appears as the rejection of the Western “sexual” confusion, and as the demand for returning to the traditional sexual hierarchy.
I am, of course, well aware how the immediate export of Western feminism and individual human rights can serve as a tool of ideological and economic neocolonialism (we all remember how some American feminists supported the U.S. intervention in Iraq as a way to liberate women there, while the result is exactly the opposite). But I absolutely reject to draw from this the conclusion that the Western Left should make here a “strategic compromise,” and silently tolerate “customs” of humiliating women and gays on behalf of the “greater” anti-imperialist struggle.
Along with Jürgen Habermas and Peter Singer, Reimer then accuses me of endorsing “an elitist vision of politics—the enlightened political class versus a racist and ignorant population.” When I read this, I again could not believe my eyes! As if I hadn’t written pages and pages on criticizing precisely European liberal political elite! As for “racist and ignorant population,” we stumble here upon another Leftist taboo: Yes, unfortunately, large parts of the working class in Euroope is racist and anti-immigrant, a fact which should in no way be dismissed as as the result of the manipulation of an essentially “progressive” working class.
Riemer's final critique is: “Zizek’s fantasy that refugees pose a threat to the ‘Western’ ‘way of life’ that may be remedied by better kinds of military and economic ‘intervention’ abroad is the clearest illustration of how the categories in which analysis is conducted can open the door to reaction.” As for the danger of military interventions, I am well aware of it, and I also consider a justified intervention almost impossible. But when I speak of the necessity of radical economic change, I of course do not aim at some kind of “economic intervention” in parallel with military intervention, but of a thorough radical transformation of global capitalism that should begin in the developed West itself. Every authentic leftist knows that this is the only true solution—without it, the developed West will continue to devastate Third World countries, and with fanfare mercifully take care of their poor.
Along similar lines, Sam Kriss’ critique is especially interesting in that he also accuses me of not being a true Lacanian:
It’s even possible to argue that the migrants are more European than Europe itself. Zizek mocks the utopian desire for a Norway that doesn’t exist, and insists that migrants should stay where they’re sent. (It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those trying to reach a certain country might have family members already there, or be able to speak the language, that it’s driven precisely by a desire to integrate. But also—isn’t this precisely the operation of the objet petit a [the unatainable object of desire] ? What kind of Lacanian tells someone that they should effectively abandon their desire for something just because it’s not attainable? Or are migrants not worthy of the luxury of an unconscious mind?) In Calais, migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom protested against their conditions with placards demanding “freedom of movement for all.” Unlike racial or gender equality, the free movement of peoples across national borders is a supposedly universal European value that has actually been implemented—but, of course, only for Europeans. These protesters put the lie to any claim on the part of Europe to be upholding universal values. Zizek can only articulate the European “way of life” in terms of vague and transcendent generalities, but here it is in living flesh. If the challenge of migration is one of European universalism against backwards and repressive particularism, then the particularism is entirely on the part of Europe. … “The Non-Existence of Norway” isn’t a theoretical analysis, it’s a gentle word of heartfelt advice in the ear of the European bureaucratic class, one that’s not particularly interested in Lacan. For all his insistence on “radical economic change,” this epistolary structure ensures that such a change is, for the time being, entirely off the table. Hence the insistence that there is not, and can never be, a Norway. The capitalists do not intend to make one, and Zizek does not intend to address those that could. To which the Marxist response must be that if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves.
“Migrants are more European than Europe itself” is an old leftist thesis that I too have often used, but one has to be specific about what it means. In my critic’s reading, it means migrants actualize the principle—“freedom of movement for all”—more seriously than Europe. But, again, one has to be precise here. There is “freedom of movement” in the sense of freedom to travel, and the more radical “freedom of movement” in the sense of the freedom to settle in whatever country I want. But the axiom that sustains the refugees in Calais is not just the freedom to travel, but something more like, “Everyone has the right to settle in any other part of the world, and the country they move into has to provide for them.” The EU guarantees (sort of, more or less) this right for its members and to demand the globalization of this right equals the demand to expand the EU to the entire world.
The actualization of this freedom presupposes nothing less than a radical socio-economic revolution. Why? New forms of apartheid are emerging. In our global world, commodities circulate freely but not people. Discourse around porous walls and the threat of inundating foreigners are an inherent index of what is false about capitalist globalization. It is as if the refugees want to extend the free, global circulation of commodities to people as well, but this is presently impossible due to the limitations imposed by global capitalism.
From the Marxist standpoint, “freedom of movement” relates to the need of capital for a “free” labor force—millions torn out of their communal life to be employed in sweatshops. The universe of capital relates to individual freedom of movement in an inherently contradictory way: Capitalism needs “free” individuals as cheap labor forces, but it simultaneously needs to control their movement since it cannot afford the same freedoms and rights for all people.
Is demanding radical freedom of movement, precisely because it does not exist within the existing order, a good starting point for the struggle? My critic admits the impossibility of the refugee’s demand, yet he affirms it on account of its very impossibility—all the while accusing me of a non-Lacanian, vulgar pragmatism. The part about objet a as impossible, etc., is simply ridiculous, theoretical nonsense. The “Norway” I refer to is not objet a but a fantasy. Refugees who want to reach Norway present an exemplary case of ideological fantasy—a fantasy-formation that obfuscates the inherent antagonisms. Many of the refugees want to have a cake and eat it: They basically expect the best of the Western welfare-state while retaining their specific way of life, though in some of its key features their way of life is incompatible with the ideological foundations of the Western welfare-state.
Germany likes to emphasize the need to integrate the refugees culturally and socially. However—and here is another taboo to be broken—how many of the refugees really want to be integrated? What if the obstacle to integration is not simply Western racism? (Incidentally, fidelity to one’s objet a in no way guarantees authenticity of desire—even a brief perusal of Mein Kampf makes it clear that Jews were Hitler’s objet a, and he certainly remained faithful to the project of their annihilation.) This is what is wrong with the claim “if there is no Norway, then we’ll have to build it ourselves”—yes, but it will not be the fantasmic “Norway” refugees are dreaming about.
Ritualized violence and fundamentalism
Along these lines, in his attack on me, Sebastian Schuller raises the question: “Is Zizek now going over to PEGIDA [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident]?”
Schuller's blog post even attributes a statement to me that, of course, I never made: “I no longer know any classes, only Europeans.” What we must do is move beyond the cliché of refugees as proletarians with “nothing to lose but their chains” invading bourgeois Europe: There are class divisions in Europe as well as in the Middle East, and the key question is how these different class dynamics interact.
This brings us to the reproach that, while I call for a critique of the dark underside of the Islamic right, I remain silent about the dark underside of the European world: “And what about Crosses in the school? What about the church tax? What about the diverse Christian sects with absurd moral ideas? What about the Christians who announce that gays will be barbecued in hell?” This is a weird reproach—the parallel between Christian and Muslim fundamentalism is a topic over-analyzed in our media (as well as in my books).
Be that as it may, let’s recall what happened in Rotherham, England: At least 1,400 children were subjected to brutal sexual exploitation between 1997 and 2013; children as young as 11 were raped by multiple perpetrators, abducted, trafficked to other cities, beaten and intimidated; “doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone, as the official report put it.” There had been three previous inquiries into these goings on that led to nothing. One inquiry team noted a fear among council staff that they’d be labelled “racist” if they pursued the matter. Why? The perpetrators were almost exclusively members of Pakistani gangs and their victims—referred by the perpetrators as “white trash”—were white schoolgirls.
Reactions were predictable. Mostly through generalization, many on the Left resorted to all possible strategies in order to blur facts. Exhibiting political correctness at its worst, in two Guardian articles the perpetrators were vaguely designated as “Asians.” Claims were made. This wasn’t about ethnicity and religion but rather about domination of man over women. Who are we with our church pedophilia and Jimmy Saville to adopt a high moral ground against a victimized minority? Can one imagine a more effective way to open up the field to UKIP and other anti-immigrant populists who exploit the worries of ordinary people?
What is not acknowledge is that such anti-racism is in effect a form of covert racism since it condescendingly treats Pakistanis as morally inferior beings who should not be held to normal human standards.
In order to break out of this deadlock, one should begin with the very parallel between the Rotherham events and pedophilia within the Catholic Church. In both cases, we are dealing with organized—ritualized even—collective activity. In the case of Rotherham, another parallel may be even more pertinent. One of the terrifying effects of the non-contemporaneity of different levels of social life is the rise of systematic violence against women. Violence that is specific to a certain social context is not random violence but systematic—it follows a pattern and transmits a clear message. While we were right to be terrified at the gang rapes in India, as Arundhati Roy pointed out, the cause of the unanimous moral reaction was that the rapists were poor and from lower strata. Nonetheless, the world-wide echo of violence against women is suspicious, so, perhaps, it would be worthwhile to widen our perception and include other similar phenomena.
The serial killings of women in Ciudad Juarez at the border are not just private pathologies, but a ritualized activity, part of the subculture of local gangs and directed at single young women working in new assembling factories. These murders are clear cases of macho reaction to the new class of independent working women: The social dislocation due to fast industrialization and modernization provokes a brutal reaction in males who experience this development as a threat. And the crucial feature in all these cases is that the criminally violent act is not a spontaneous outburst of raw brutal energy which breaks the chains of civilized customs, but something learned, externally imposed, ritualized and part of the collective symbolic substance of a community. What is repressed for the “innocent” public gaze is not the cruel brutality of the act, but precisely its “cultural,” ritualistic character as symbolic custom.
The same perverted social-ritual logic is at work when Catholic Church representatives insist that these intercontinental cases of pedophilia, deplorable as they are, are the Church’s internal, problem, and then display great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigation. Church reps are, in a way, right. The pedophilia of Catholic priests is not something that merely concerns the persons who accidentally (read: privately) happened to choose the profession of a priest. It is a phenomenon that concerns the Catholic Church as an institution, and is inscribed into its very functioning as a socio-symbolic institution. It does not concern the “private” unconscious of individuals, but the “unconscious” of the institution itself. It is not something that happens because the institution has to accommodate itself to the pathological realities of libidinal life in order to survive, but something that the institution itself needs in order to reproduce itself. One can well imagine a “straight” (not pedophiliac) priest who, after years of service, gets involved in pedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an institutional unconscious designates the disavowed underside that, precisely as disavowed, sustains the public institution. (In the U.S. military, this underside consists of the obscene sexualized hazing rituals that help sustain the group solidarity.) In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the Church tries to hush up the embarrassing pedophilic scandals: In defending itself, the Church defends its innermost obscene secret. Identifying oneself with this secret side is key for the very identity of a Christian priest: If a priest seriously (not just rhetorically) denounces these scandals he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community. He is no longer “one of us.” Similarly, when a US southerner in the 1920s denounced the KKK to the police he excluded himself from his community by betraying its fundamental solidarity.
We should approach the Rotherham events in exactly the same way since we are dealing with the “political unconscious” of Pakistani Muslim youth. The kind of violence at work is not chaotic violence but ritualized violence with precise ideological contours. A youth group, which experiences itself as marginalized and subordinated, took revenge at low-class girls of the predominant group. It is fully legitimate to raise the question of whether there are features in their religion and culture which open up the space for brutality against women without blaming Islam as such (which is in itself no more misogynistic than Christianity). In many Islamic countries and communities one can observe consonance between violence against women, the subordination of women and their exclusion from public life.
Among many fundamentalist groups and movements strict imposition of hierarchical sexual difference is at the very top of their agenda. But we should simply apply the same criteria on both (Christian and Islamic fundamentalist) sides, without fear of admitting that our liberal-secular critique of fundamentalism is also stained by falsity.
Critique of religious fundamentalism in Europe and the United States is an old topic with endless variation. The very pervasiveness of the self-satisfactory way that the liberal intelligentsia make fun of fundamentalists covers up the true problem, which is its hidden class dimension. The counterpart of this “making-fun-of” is the pathetic solidarity with the refugees and the no less false and pathetic self-humiliation of our self-admonition. The real task is to build bridges between “our” and “their” working classes. Without this unity (which includes the critique and self-critique of both sides) class struggle proper regresses into a clash of civilizations. That’s why yet another taboo should be left behind.
The worries and cares of so-called ordinary people affected by the refugees are oft dismissed as an expression of racist prejudices if not outright neo-Fascism. Should we really allow PEGIDA & company to be the only way open to them?
Interestingly, the same motif underlies the “radical” leftist critique of Bernie Sanders: What bothers his critics is precisely his close contact with small farmers and other working people in Vermont, who usually give their electoral support to Republican conservatives. Sanders is ready to listen to their worries and cares, not dismiss them as racist white trash.
Where does the threat come from?
Listening to ordinary people’s worries, of course, in no way implies that one should accept the basic premise of their stance—the idea that threats to their way of life comes from outside, from foreigners, from “the other.” The task is rather to teach them to recognize their own responsibility for their future. To explain this point, let’s take an example from another part of the world.
Udi Aloni’s new film Junction 48 (upcoming in 2016) deals with the difficult predicament of young “Israeli Palestinians” (Palestinians descended from the families that remained in Israel after 1949), whose everyday life involves a continuous struggle at two fronts—against Israeli state oppression as well as fundamentalist pressures from within their own community. The main role is played by Tamer Nafar, a well-known Israeli-Palestinian rapper, who, in his music, mocks the tradition of the “honor killing” of Palestinian girls by their Palestinian families. A strange thing happened to Nafar during a recent visit to the United States. At UCLA after Nafar performed his song protesting “honor killings,” some anti-Zionist students reproached him for promoting the Zionist view of Palestinians as barbaric primitives. They added that, if there are any honor killings, Israel is responsible for them since the Israeli occupation keeps Palestinians in primitive, debilitating conditions. Here is Nafar’s dignified reply: “When you criticize me you criticize my own community in English to impress your radical professors. I sing in Arabic to protect the women in my own hood.”
An important aspect of Nafar’s position is that he is not just protecting Palestinian girls from family terror he is allowing them to fight for themselves—to take the risk. At the end of Aloni’s film, after the girl decides to perform at a concert against her family’s wishes, and the film ends in a dark premonition of honor killing.
In Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm X there is a wonderful detail: After Malcolm X gives a talk at a college, a white student girl approaches him and asks him what she can do to help the black struggle. He answers: “Nothing.” The point of this answer is not that whites should just do nothing. Instead, they should first accept that black liberation should be the work of the blacks themselves, not something bestowed on them as a gift by the good white liberals. Only on the basis of this acceptance can they do something to help blacks. Therein resides Nafar’s point: Palestinians do not need the patronizing help of Western liberals, and they need even less the silence about “honor killing” as part of the Western Left’s “respect” for Palestinian way of life. The imposition of Western values as universal human rights and the respect for different cultures, independent of the horrors sometimes apart of these cultures, are two sides of the same ideological mystification.
In order to really undermine homeland xenophobia against foreign threats, one should reject its very presupposition, namely that every ethnic group has its own proper “Nativia.” On Sept. 7, 2015, Sarah Palin gave an interview to Fox News with Fox and Friends host Steve Doocey:
“I love immigrants. But like Donald Trump, I just think we have too darn many in this country. Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans—they’re changing up the cultural mix in the United States away from what it used to be in the days of our Founding Fathers. I think we should go to some of these groups and just ask politely: “Would you mind going home? Would you mind giving us our country back?”
“Sarah you know I love you,“ Doocey interjected, “And I think that’s a great idea with regards to Mexicans. But where are the Native Americans supposed to go? They don’t really have a place to go back to do they?”
Sarah replied: “Well I think they should go back to Nativia or wherever they came from. The liberal media treats Native Americans like they’re gods. As if they just have some sort of automatic right to be in this country. But I say if they can’t learn to get off those horses and start speaking American, then they should be sent home too.”
Unfortunately, we immediately learned that this story—too good to be true—was a hoax brilliantly performed by Daily Currant. However, as they say, “Even if it’s not true, it is well conceived.” In its ridiculous nature, it brought out the hidden fantasy that sustains the anti-immigrant vision: In today’s chaotic global world there is a “Nativia“ to which people who bother us properly belong. This vision was realized in apartheid South Africa in the form of Bantustans—territories set aside for black inhabitants. South African whites created the Bantustans with the idea of making them independent, thereby ensuring that black South Africans would loose their citizenship rights in the remaining white-controlled areas of South Africa. Although Bantustans were defined as the “original homes“ of the black peoples of South Africa, different black groups were allocated to their homelands in a brutally arbitrary way. Bantustans amounted to 13 percent of the country’s land carefully selected not to contain any important mineral reserves—the resource-rich remainder of the country would then be in the hands of the white population. The Black Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 formally designated all black South Africans as citizens of the homelands, even if they lived in “white South Africa,” and cancelled their South African citizenship. From the standpoint of apartheid, this solution was ideal: Whites possessed most of the land while blacks were proclaimed foreigners in their own country and treated as guest workers who could, at any point, be deported back to their “homeland.” What cannot but strike the eye is the artificial nature of this entire process. Black groups were suddenly told that an unattractive and infertile piece of land was their “true home.” And today, even if a Palestinian state were to emerge on the West Bank, would it not be precisely such a Bantustan, whose formal ”independence” would serve the purpose of liberating the Israeli government from any responsibility for the welfare of the people living there.
But we should also add to this insight that the multiculturalist or anti-colonialist’s defense of different “ways of life” is also false. Such defenses cover up the antagonisms within each of these particular ways of life by justifying acts of brutality, sexism and racism as expressions of a particular way of life that we have no right to measure with foreign, i.e. Western values. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s talk at the UN general assembly is a typical anti-colonialist defense used as a justification for brutal homophobia:
Respecting and upholding human rights is the obligation of all states, and is enshrined in the United Nations charter. Nowhere does the charter arrogate the right to some to sit in judgment over others, in carrying out this universal obligation. In that regard, we reject the politicization of this important issue and the application of double standards to victimize those who dare think and act independently of the self-anointed prefects of our time. We equally reject attempts to prescribe “new rights” that are contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs. We are not gays! Cooperation and respect for each other will advance the cause of human rights worldwide. Confrontation, vilification, and double-standards will not.
What can Mugabe’s emphatic claim “We are not gays!” mean with regard to the fact that, for certain, there are many gays also in Zimbabwe? It means, of course, that gays are reduced to an oppressed minority whose acts are often directly criminalized. But one can understand the underlying logic: The gay movement is perceived as the cultural impact of globalization and yet another way globalization undermines traditional social and cultural forms such that the struggle against gays appears as an aspect of the anti-colonial struggle.
Does the same not hold for, say, Boko Haram? For certain Muslims the liberation of women appears as the most visible feature of the destructive cultural impact of capitalist modernization. Therefore, Boko Haram, which can be roughly and descriptively translated as “Western education [of women specifically] is forbidden,” can perceive itself as a way of fighting the destructive impact of modernization when it imposes hierarchic regulation between the two sexes.
The enigma is thus: Why do Muslim extremists, who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination, and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target what is (for us, at least) the best part of the Western legacy—our egalitarianism and personal freedoms? The obvious answer could be that their target is well-chosen: What makes the liberal West so unbearable is that they not only practice exploitation and violent domination, but that, to add insult to injury, they present this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite—of freedom, equality and democracy.
Mugabe’s regressive defense of particular ways of life finds its mirror-image in what Viktor Orban, the rightwing Prime Minister of Hungary, is doing. On Sept. 3, 2015, he justified closing off the border with Serbia as an act of defending Christian Europe against invading Muslims. This was the same Orban who, back in July 2012, said that in Central Europe a new economic system must be built: “And let us hope that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival. … Cooperation is a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way, for example in the Scandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force.”
The irony of these lines was not lost on some old Hungarian dissidents: When the Soviet army moved into Budapest to crush the 1956 anti-Communist uprising the message repeatedly sent by the beleaguered Hungarian leaders to the West was: “We are defending Europe here.” (Against the Asiatic Communists, of course.) Now, after Communism collapsed, the Christian-conservative government paints as its main enemy Western multi-cultural consumerist liberal democracy for which today’s Western Europe stands, and calls for a new more organic communitarian order to replace the “turbulent” liberal democracy of the last two decades. Orban already expressed his sympathies towards cases of “capitalism with Asian values” like Putin’s Russia, so if the European pressure on Orban continues we can easily imagine him sending the message to the East: “We are defending Asia here!“ (And, to add an ironic twist, are, from the West European racist perspective, today’s Hungarians not descendants of the early medieval Huns—Attila is even today a popular Hungarian name.)
Is there a contradiction between these two Orbans: Orban the friend of Putin who resents the liberal-democratic West and Orban the defender of Christian Europe? There is not. The two faces of Orban provide the proof (if needed) that the principal threat to Europe is not Muslim immigration but its anti-immigrant, populist defenders.
So what if Europe should accept the paradox that its democratic openness is based on exclusion. In other words, there is “no freedom for the enemies of freedom,” as Robespierre put it long ago? In principle, this is, of course, true, but it is here that one has to be very specific. In a way, Norway’s mass murderer Andres Breivik was right in his choice of target: He didn’t attack the foreigners but those within his own community who were too tolerant towards intruding foreigners. The problem is not foreigners—it is our own (European) identity.
Although the ongoing crisis of the European Union appears as a crisis of economy and finances, it is in its fundamental dimension an ideological-political crisis. The failure of referendums concerning the EU constitution a couple of years ago gave a clear signal that voters perceived the European Union as a “technocratic” economic union, lacking any vision which could mobilize people. Till the recent wave of protests from Greece to Spain, the only ideology able to mobilize people has been the anti-immigrant defense of Europe.
There is an idea circulating in the underground of the disappointed radical Left that is a softer reiteration of the predilection for terrorism in the aftermath of the 1968 movement: the crazy idea that only a radical catastrophe (preferably an ecological one) can awaken masses and thus give a new impetus to radical emancipation. The latest version of this idea relates to the refugees: only an influx of a really large number of refugees (and their disappointment since, obviously, Europe will not be able to satisfy their expectations) can revitalize the European radical Left.
I find this line of thought obscene: notwithstanding the fact that such a development would for sure give an immense boost to anti-immigrant brutality, the truly crazy aspect of this idea is the project to fill in the gap of the missing radical proletarians by importing them from abroad, so that we will get the revolution by means of an imported revolutionary agent.
This, of course, in no way entails that we should content ourselves with liberal reformism. Many leftist liberals (like Habermas) who bemoan the ongoing decline of the EU seem to idealize its past: The “democratic” EU the loss of which they bemoan never existed. Recent EU policies, such as those imposing austerity on Greece, are just a desperate attempt to make Europe fit for new global capitalism. The usual Left-liberal critique of the EU—it’s basically OK, except for a “democratic deficit”— betrays the same naivety as the critics of ex-Communist countries who basically supported them, except for the complaint about the lack of democracy: In both cases, the “democratic deficit” is and was a necessary part of the global structure.
But here, I am even more of a skeptical pessimist. When I was recently answering questions from the readers of Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s largest daily, about the refugee crisis, the question that attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, but with a rightist-populist twist: When Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands into Germany, which was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly point out the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate radical opening of the borders: Are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals suspension of—in effect imposing a gigantic change in a country’s status quo without democratic consultation of its population? (Their answer would have been, of course, that refugees should also be given the right to vote—but this is clearly not enough, since this is a measure that can only happen after refugees are already integrated into the political system of a country.) A similar problem arises with the calls for transparency of the EU decisions: what I fear is that, since in many countries the majority of the public was against the Greek debt reduction, rendering EU negotiations public would make representatives of these countries advocate even tougher measures against Greece.
We encounter here the old problem: What happens to democracy when the majority is inclined to vote for racist and sexist laws? I am not afraid to conclude: Emancipatory politics should not be bound a priori by formal-democratic procedures of legitimization. No, people quite often do NOT know what they want, or do not want what they know, or they simply want the wrong thing. There is no simple shortcut here.
We definitely live in interesting times.
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