I have NO CONFIDENCE is the Deep State. Deep Staters gain no rewards from doing the right thing, only from doing the "expedient" thing.
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
Saturday, December 29, 2018
How to Watch the News
I have NO CONFIDENCE is the Deep State. Deep Staters gain no rewards from doing the right thing, only from doing the "expedient" thing.
Friday, December 28, 2018
Wednesday, December 26, 2018
Monday, December 24, 2018
Ring Out, Wild Bells!
- Alfred Lord Tennyson (1850)
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
The Eve of Christmas
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, "The Eve of Christmas"
The time draws near the birth of Christ:
The moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.
Four voices of four hamlets round,
From far and near, on mead and moor,
Swell out and fail, as if a door
Were shut between me and the sound:
Each voice four changes on the wind,
That now dilate, and now decrease,
Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.
This year I slept and woke with pain,
I almost wish’d no more to wake,
And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again:
But they my troubled spirit rule,
For they controll’d me when a boy;
They bring me sorrow touch’d with joy,
The merry merry bells of Yule.
Saturday, December 22, 2018
Humanism & Misinterpretting Today's Problems
The French Yellow Vest movement exposes a problem at the heart of today’s politics. Too much adherence to popular “opinion” and not enough innovation and fresh ideas.
Already a quick glance at the imbroglio makes it clear that we are caught in multiple social struggles. The tension between the liberal establishment and the new populism, the ecological struggle, efforts in support of feminism and sexual liberation, plus ethnic and religious battles and the desire for universal human rights. Not to mention, trying to resist digital control of our lives.
So, how to bring all these struggles together without simply privileging one of them as the “true” priority? Because this balance provides the key to all other struggles.
Half a century ago, when the Maoist wave was at its strongest, Mao Zedong’s distinction between “principal” and “secondary” contradictions (from his treatise “On Contradiction,” written in 1937) was a common currency in political debates. Perhaps, this distinction deserves to be brought back to life.
Let’s begin with a simple example: Macedonia – what’s in a name? A couple of months ago, the governments of Macedonia and Greece concluded an agreement on how to resolve the problem of the name “Macedonia.” It should change its name into “Northern Macedonia.”
This solution was instantly attacked by the radicals in both countries. Greek opponents insisted “Macedonia” is an old Greek name, and Macedonian opponents felt humiliated by being reduced to a “Northern” province since they are the only people who call themselves “Macedonians.”
Imperfect as it was, the solution offered a glimpse of hope to end a long and meaningless struggle with a reasonable compromise.
But it was caught in another “contradiction” – the struggle between big powers (the US and EU on the one side, Russia on the other side). The West put pressure on both sides to accept the compromise so that Macedonia could quickly join the EU and NATO, while, for exactly the same reason (seeing in it the danger of its loss of influence in the Balkans), Russia opposed it, supporting conservative nationalist forces in both countries, to varying degrees.
So, which side should we take here? I think we should decidedly take the side of compromise, for the simple reason that it is the only realist solution to the problem. Russia opposed it simply because of its geopolitical interests, without offering another solution, so supporting Russia here would have meant sacrificing the reasonable solution of the singular problem of Macedonian and Greek relations to international geopolitical interests.
Now let’s take the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer and daughter of the firm’s founder, in Vancouver. She is accused of breaking US sanctions on Iran, and faces extradition to the US, where she could be jailed for up to 30 years if found guilty.
What is true here? In all probability, one way or another, all big corporations discreetly break the laws. But it’s more than evident that this is just a “secondary contradiction” and that another battle is being fought here. It’s not about trade with Iran, it’s about the big struggle for domination in the production of digital hardware and software.
What Huawei symbolizes is a China which is no longer the Foxconn China, the place of half-slave labor assembling machines developed elsewhere, but a place where software and hardware is also conceived. China has the potential to become a much stronger agent in the digital market than Japan with Sony or South Korea with Samsung, through economic heft and numbers.
But enough of particular examples. Things get more complex with the struggle for universal human rights. We get here the “contradiction” between proponents of these rights and those who warn that, in their standard version, universal human rights are not truly universal but implicitly privilege Western values (individuals have primacy over collectives, etc.) and are thereby a form of ideological neocolonialism. No wonder that the reference to human rights served as a justification of many military interventions, from Iraq to Libya.
Partisans of universal human rights counter that their rejection often serves to justify local forms of authoritarian rule and repression as elements of a particular way of life. But how to decide here?
A middle-of-the-road compromise is not enough, so one should give preference to universal human rights for a very precise reason. The dimension of universality has to serve as a medium in which multiple ways of life can coexist, and the Western notion of universality of human rights contains the self-critical dimension which makes visible its own limitations.
When the standard Western ideas are criticized for a particular bias, this critique itself has to refer to some notion of more authentic universality which makes us see the distortion of a false universality.
But some form of universality is always here, even a modest vision of the coexistence of different and ultimately incompatible ways of life has to rely on it. In short, what this means is that the “principal contradiction” is not that of the tension(s) between different ways of life but the “contradiction” within each way of life (“culture,” organization of its jouissance) between its particularity and its universal claim.
To use a technical term, each particular way of life is by definition caught in “pragmatic contradiction,” its claim to validity is undermined not by the presence of other ways of life but by its own inconsistency.
Things get even more complex with the “contradiction” between the alt-right descent into racist/sexist vulgarity and the politically correct stiff regulatory moralism.
Thus, it is crucial, from the standpoint of the progressive struggle for emancipation, not to accept this “contradiction” as primary but to unravel in it the displaced and distorted echoes of class struggle.
In a fascist way, the rightist populist figure of the enemy (the combination of financial elites and invading immigrants) combines both extremes of the social hierarchy, thereby blurring the class struggle.
On the opposite end and in an almost symmetrical way, the politically-correct anti-racism and anti-sexism struggles barely conceal that their ultimate target is white working class racism and sexism, thereby also neutralizing class struggle.
That’s why the designation of political correctness as “cultural Marxism” is false. Political correctness in all its pseudo-radicality is, on the contrary, the last defense of “bourgeois” liberalism against Marxism, obfuscating/displacing class struggle as the “principal contradiction.”
The same goes for the transgender and #MeToo struggle. It is also overdetermined by the “principal contradiction” of the class struggle which introduces an antagonism into its very heart.
Tarana Burke, who created the #MeToo campaign more than a decade ago, observed in a recent critical note that in the years since the movement began, it deployed an unwavering obsession with the perpetrators — a cyclical circus of accusations, culpability, and indiscretions.
“We are working diligently so that the popular narrative about MeToo shifts from what it is,” Burke said.
“We have to shift the narrative that it’s a gender war, that it’s anti-male, that it’s men against women, that it’s only for a certain type of person — that it’s for white, cisgender, heterosexual, famous women.“
In short, one should struggle to refocus #MeToo onto the daily suffering of millions of ordinary working women and housewives. This emphatically can be done. For example, in South Korea, #MeToo exploded with tens of thousands of ordinary women demonstrating against their sexual exploitation.
The ongoing Yellow Vests (gilets jaunes) protests in France condense all we were talking about. Their fatal limitation resides precisely in their much-praised “leaderless” character, their chaotic self-organization.
In a typical populist way, the Yellow Vest movement bombards the state with a series of demands which are inconsistent and impossible to meet within the existing economic system. What it lacks is a leader who would not only listen to the people but translate their protest into a new, coherent vision of society.
The “contradiction” between the demands of the Yellow Vests and the state is “secondary”: their demands are rooted in the existing system. The true “contradiction” is between our entire socio-political system and (the vision of) a new society in which the demands formulated by the protesters no longer arise. How?
The old Henry Ford was right when he remarked that, when he offered the first serially produced car, he didn’t follow what people wanted. As he put it succinctly, if asked what they want, the people would have answer: “A better and stronger horse to pull our carriage!”
This insight finds an echo in Steve Jobs’ infamous motto that “a lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.”
In spite of all one has to criticize in the activity of Jobs, he was close to an authentic master in how he understood his motto. When he was asked how much customer feedback Apple uses, he snapped back: “It's not the customers’ job to know what they want… we figure out what we want.”
Note the surprising turn of this argumentation. After denying that customers know what they want, Jobs doesn’t go on with the expected direct reversal “it is our task (the task of creative capitalists) to figure out what customers want and then ‘show it to them’ on the market.”
Instead, he continues “we figure out what we want” – this is how a true master works. He doesn’t try to guess what people want. He simply obeys his own desire so that it is left to the people to decide if they will follow him.
In other words, his power stems from his fidelity to his vision, from not compromising it.
And the same goes for a political leader that is needed today. Protesters in France want a better (stronger and cheaper) horse – in this case, ironically, cheaper fuel for their cars.
They should be given the vision of a society where the price of fuel no longer matters in the same way that, after cars, the price of horse fodder no longer matters.
Thursday, December 20, 2018
h/t - Jen
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Who could look up from the numbers and say
"Something ain't right"?
Who could disrupt the abundance and pray
Not for weight but for light?
How could we risk the empire
As the apprentice descends into seasons of Idol
When our old, white Lincoln encrypted and high
Sputters down from the sky
Red-eyed in July, weeping glycol?
We shout out loud, megaphone
Kinda zoned but listening in
We browse our own episodes
That's a product, that's a brand, that's a lifestyle
'Cause the monster eats its young
Till they're gone, gone, gone
And the rules are there to hurt
And that's the way it's done
And the monster eats its young
Till they're gone, gone, gone
Till it's satisfied and done
It wants blood, blood, blood
Monday, December 17, 2018
-Slavoj Zizek, "The yellow vest protesters revolting against centrism mean well – but their left wing populism won’t change French politics"
The demands of the protesters aren’t possible to implement within the current capitalist system – and they aren't ambitious enough to provoke a change to a more egalitarian, ecologically sustainable system either
The ongoing protests of yellow vests (gilets jaunes) in France continue for the fifth weekend. They began as a grassroots movement that grew out of widespread discontent with a new eco-tax on petrol and diesel, seen as hitting those living and working outside metropolitan areas where there is no public transport. In the past weeks the movement has grown to include a panoply of demands, including Frexit (the exit of France from EU), lower taxes, higher pensions, and an improvement in ordinary French people’s spending power.
They offer an exemplary case of the leftist populism, of the explosion of people’s wrath in all its inconsistency: lower taxes and more money for education and health care, cheaper petrol and ecological struggle… Although the new petrol tax was obviously an excuse or, rather, pretext, not what the protests are “really about”, it is significant to note that what triggered the protests was a measure intended to act against global warming. No wonder Trump enthusiastically supported yellow vests (even hallucinating shouts of some of the protesters “We want Trump!”), noting that one among the demands was for France to step out of the Paris agreement.
The yellow vests movement fits the specific French left tradition of large public protests targeting political elites (more than business or financial elites). However, in contrast to the 68’ protests, the yellow vests are much more a movement of the France profonde, its revolt against big metropolitan areas, which means that its leftist orientation is much more blurred. (Both Le Pen and Melenchon support the protests.) As expected, commentators are asking which political force will appropriate the revolt energy, Le Pen or a new left, with purists demanding that it remains a “pure” protest movement at a distance from established politics.
One should be clear here: in all the explosion of demands and expression of dissatisfaction, it is clear the protesters don’t really know what they want, they don’t have a vision of a society they want, just a mixture of demands that are impossible to meet within the system although they address them at the system. This feature is crucial: their demands express their interests rooted in the existing system.
One should not forget that they are addressing these demands at the (political) system at its best, which, in France, means: Macron. The protests mark the end of the Macron dream. Recall the enthusiasm about Macron offering new hope not only of defeating the rightist populist threat but of provide a new vision of progressive European identity, which brought philosophers as opposed as Habermas and Sloterdijk to support Macron. Recall how every leftist critique of Macron, every warning about the fatal limitations of his project, was dismissed as “objectively” supporting Marine Le Pen.
Today, with the ongoing protests in France, we are brutally confronted with the sad truth of the pro-Macron enthusiasm. Macron’s TV address to the protesters on 10 December was a miserable performance, half-compromise half-apology, which convinced no one and stood out by its lack of vision. Macron may be the best of the existing system, but his politics is located within the liberal-democratic coordinates of the enlightened technocracy.
We should therefore give the protests a conditional yes – conditional since it is clear that left populism does not provide a feasible alternative to the system. That is to say, let’s imagine that the protesters somehow win, take power and act within the coordinates of the existing system (like Syriza did in Greece) – what would have happened then? Probably some kind of economic catastrophe. This doesn’t mean that we simply need a different socioeconomic system, a system which would be able to meet the protesters’ demands: the process of radical transformation would also give rise to different demands and expectations. Say, with regard to fuel costs, what is really needed is not just cheap fuel, the true goal is to diminish our dependency on oil for ecological reasons, to change not only our transportation but our entire way of life. The same holds for lower taxes plus better healthcare and education: the whole paradigm will have to change.
The same holds for our big ethical-political problem: how to deal with the flow of refugees? The solution is not to just open the borders to all who want to come in, and to ground this openness in our generalised guilt (“our colonisation is our greatest crime which we will have to repay forever”). If we remain at this level, we serve perfectly the interests of those in power who foment the conflict between immigrants and the local working class (which feels threatened by them) and retain their superior moral stance. (The moment one begins to think in this direction, the politically correct left instantly cries fascism – see the ferocious attacks on Angela Nagle for her outstanding essay “The Left Case against Open Borders”) Again, the “contradiction” between advocates of open borders and populist anti-immigrants is a false “secondary contradiction” whose ultimate function is to obfuscate the need to change the system itself: the entire international economic system which, in its present form, gives rise to refugees.
Does this mean that we should patiently wait for a big change? No, we can begin right now by measures which appear modest but nonetheless undermine the foundations of the existing system like a patient subterranean digging of a mole. What about the overhaul of our entire financial system which would affect the rules of how credits and investments work? What about imposing new regulations which would prevent the exploitation of the third world countries from which refugees come?
The old 68’ motto Soyons realists, demandons l’impossible! remains fully relevant – on condition that we take note of the shift to which it has to be submitted. First, there is “demanding the impossible” in the sense of bombarding the existing system with demands that it cannot meet: open borders, better healthcare, higher wages… Here we are today, in the midst of a hysterical provocation of our masters (technocratic experts). This provocation has to be followed by a key step further: not demanding the impossible from the system but demanding the “impossible” changes of the system itself. Although such changes appear “impossible” (unthinkable within the coordinates of the system), they are clearly required by our ecological and social predicament, offering the only realist solution.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
Friday, December 14, 2018
- Sir Philip Sidney, "Philomela"
The Nightingale, as soon as April bringeth
Unto her rested sense a perfect waking,
While late-bare Earth, proud of new clothing, springeth,
Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making;
And mournfully bewailing,
Her throat in tunes expresseth
What grief her breast oppresseth,
For Tereus' force on her chaste will prevailing.
O Philomela fair, O take some gladness
That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness!
Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;
Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.
Alas! she hath no other cause of anguish
But Tereus' love, on her by strong hand wroken;
Wherein she suffering, all her spirits languish,
Full womanlike complains her will was broken
But I, who, daily craving,
Cannot have to content me,
Have more cause to lament me,
Since wanting is more woe than too much having.
O Philomela fair, O take some gladness
That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness!
Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;
Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.
How all occasions do inform against me,-Shakespeare, "Hamlet" (Act IV Sc 4)
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Of thinking too precisely on th' event—
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward—I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do,”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do ’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me.
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep—while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? Oh, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
Thursday, December 13, 2018
Monday, December 10, 2018
Saturday, December 8, 2018
Viva la Resistance!
The flag of Brittany is called the Gwenn-ha-du, pronounced [ɡwɛnaˈdyː], which means white and black in Breton. It is also unofficially used in the département of Loire-Atlantique although this now belongs to the Pays de la Loire and not to the région of Brittany, as the territory of Loire-Atlantique is historically part of the province of Brittany. Nantes (Naoned), its préfecture, was once one of the two capital cities of Brittany.
The flag's dimensions are not fixed and may vary from 9 cm × 14 cm (3.5 in × 5.5 in) to 8 m × 12 m (26 ft × 39 ft). The flag is not only used by cultural associations or separatists but by other people. For years, the authorities considered the flag as a separatist symbol, but the attitude has now changed and the flag, no longer having any political connotations, can appear everywhere, even on public buildings, along with the other official flags. It is widely used throughout Brittany and can even be seen on town halls in the region. Because of the absence of legislation concerning regional flags in France the flag is also flown on sailboats and fishing boats. The design of the ermine spots can vary, but the version most frequently seen is shown above.
The flag was created in 1923 by Morvan Marchal. He used as his inspiration the flags of the United States and Greece as these two countries were seen at that time as the respective symbols of liberty and democracy.
The nine horizontal stripes represent the traditional dioceses of Brittany into which the duchy was divided historically. The five black stripes represent the French or Gallo speaking dioceses of Dol, Nantes, Rennes, Saint-Malo and Saint-Brieuc; the four white stripes represent the Breton speaking dioceses of Trégor, Léon, Cornouaille and Vannes. The ermine canton recalls the arms of the Duchy of Brittany.
The flag first came to notice by a wider public at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. It was adopted by various cultural and nationalist groups through the 1920s and 1930s. However, its association with nationalist and separatist groups during the Second World War brought suspicions of collaboration on the flag. A revival of interest in the flag took place in the 1960s. Since then, it has lost an association with separatism in the mind of the public and become a widely accepted symbol for all Brittany and Bretons. The older ermine field flag and black cross continue to be rarely used, though, by some individuals and groups.
Exogamy or Endogamy? Helen of Troy, Where are You?
In his book In Praise of Love (2009), the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou attacks the notion of ‘risk-free love’, which he sees written in the commercial language of dating services that promise their customers ‘love, without falling in love’. For Badiou, the search for ‘perfect love without suffering’ signifies a ‘modern’ variant of ‘traditional’ arranged-marriage practices – a risk-averse, calculated approach to love that aims to diminish our exposure to differences: ‘Their idea is you calculate who has the same tastes, the same fantasies, the same holidays, wants the same number of children. [They try] to go back to arranged marriages,’ writes Badiou. The philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek subscribes to similar ideas about arranged marriages, referring to them as a ‘pre-modern procedure’.
When it comes to the view of arranged marriage in the West, Badiou and Žižek offer relatively genteel criticisms. Popular and learned representations of the practice almost always associate it with honour killings, acid attacks, and child marriages. It’s often presumed to be the same thing as a forced marriage; coerced, dutiful, predictable – the very opposite of individual agency and romantic love.
Due to the growth of international migration, the question of how Western states treat arranged marriages bears very serious consequences in terms of how we perceive the emotional lives of migrants and diasporic community members. The prevalent Western perception of illegitimacy is unwarranted, based both on ignorance of arranged marriage and on a lack of insight into Western norms.
Badiou criticises both libertinism (superficial and narcissistic) and arranged-marriage practices (empty of that organic, spontaneous and unsettling desire that inspires emotional transgressions). He argues that love is real when it is transgressive – a disruptive experience that opens people to new possibilities and a common vision of what they could be together. It possesses the power to floor the ego, overcome the selfish impulse, and transfigure a random encounter into a meaningful, shared continuity. To Badiou, love is not simply a search for an adequate partner, it is a construction of an almost traumatic transformation that compels us to look at the world ‘from the point of view of two and not one’.
Do arranged marriage practices suppress the transgressive power of love, as Badiou implies? Can choosing an arranged marriage be the act of a free person, and does that person then feel with as much depth as those who met through a friend, or at college, or via a dating app? Any answer must take into account that there are different arranged-marriage practices, and that what people experience as true love varies across different cultures.
It is important to emphasise the difference between arranged marriages – which respect consent of prospective spouses – and forced marriages, where such consent is absent. By distinguishing forced and arranged marriages, we can begin to see an overlap of the cultural logics that underpin arranged marriages and ‘modern’ match-making practices.
Arranged marriage usually refers to a broad spectrum of practises in which parents or relatives act as matchmakers. They introduce their young ones to ‘suitable’ partners and influence their personal decisions. Such arrangements are fairly common in much of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. Some arranged marriages are the result of several different introductions organised by families or professional matchmakers, followed by chaperoned or unchaperoned meetings of the prospective couple. The meetings serve as prelude to family discussions that culminate in a decision by the couple. Other marriages are arranged only in the sense that they receive the blessing of the families after a couple expresses the desire to marry (self-arranged).
To varying degrees, each arranged marriage is influenced by filial and social pressures on the agency of the prospective couple. But so are Western marriages, in form. In romantic love too, social class, education, profession, religion (factors that are deeply influenced by family), all mediate and shape attraction and compatibility. The social reality we are raised in shapes our freedom to choose partners, even to feel desire. For Badiou, love becomes meaningful when it is subsumed under anticonsumerist politics. Others find meaning in different ideals.
Couples in arranged marriages often find romance in family-initiated introductions because it speaks to their broader value system. For many, it is a smarter, more spiritual form of love because it prioritises collective will and emotional labour over sexual impulse and selfish individuality. This is perhaps one reason why couples in arranged marriages express high levels of satisfaction in their relationships, sometimes more so than couples in love marriages.
Another common criticism of arranged marriages goes something like this: arranged marriages are not built upon informed desire. Since partners lack familiarity with each other, they cannot be expected to possess any genuine feelings for each other. But as the British psychotherapist Adam Phillips has observed, the romantic euphoria we feel towards a desired partner is not always derived from our knowledge of them, but from prior expectations of meeting someone like them: In Missing Out (2013), he writes:[T]he person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; … you have dreamed them up before you met them. You recognise them with such certainty because you already, in a certain sense, know them; and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them for ever, and yet, at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familiar foreign bodies.This sense of dreamed-up familiarity inspires people to pursue real intimacy. Arranged marriages work in the same way.
It is hard to universalise notions of love because it is such a dynamic, delicate and complicated experience. What Western observers often forget is that people of other cultures are constantly carrying out subtle transgressions against the lazy stereotypes in which they are viewed.
Postcolonial feminist theory has demonstrated that women who opt for arranged marriages are not passive subscribers of patriarchal traditions, but engaged in negotiating the practice to shift the balance of power in their favour. Arranged marriage might not be the perfect solution to the problem of love, but it isn’t a fossilised holdover from archaic times. It’s an ever-evolving, modern phenomenon and should be understood as such.
Badiou’s definition of true love is limiting, idealistic and dismissive of the cultures and experiences of most people in the world. It gets in the way of understanding how love can be expressed and experienced within even the most seemingly ‘traditional’ practices. This misunderstanding and limitation poses real dangers in our current political climate.
As the volatile Western political world plunges deeper into xenophobia and nativism, empathy is ever more at risk. Dismissive and stigmatising caricatures of cultural differences can be – and often are – enlisted to cast migrants and people in diasporic communities as lesser or somehow not worthy of respect.
History has repeatedly shown us that imagining a group of people as unloving beings serves as a prerequisite to mistreating them. While it is necessary for us to condemn violent and coercive social practices such as forced marriages, we must not malign an entire culture as the loveless ‘other’. What would that say about the quality of our love?
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Slavoj Zizek @ NYPL 12/3/18
Philippe Petit and Slavoj Zizek: Act of Courage | LIVE from the NYPL from The New York Public Library on Vimeo.
Really starts @ 9:41
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
Monday, December 3, 2018
This week, a CNN poll revealed anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe. A question now is: where does honest criticism of Israeli state policy end and anti-Semitism begin?
The results are eye-opening and working. With 20 percent of young French people unaware of the Holocaust. Indeed, a similar number believe anti-Semitism is a response to Jewish people's own behavior. Also, a third of respondents think Jews have too much influence.
While we should, without any restraints, condemn and fight all forms of anti-Semitism, we should nonetheless add some other observations to the results of the poll.
First, it would be interesting to learn how the percentage of those with a negative stance towards Jews compares to the percentage of those with a negative stance towards Muslims and Blacks – just to make sure that we don't find some racism unacceptable and another racism normal.
Second, one should raise here the paradox of Zionist anti-Semitism: quite many European (and American) anti-Semites just don't want too many Jews in their own country but they fully support the expansion of Israel onto the West Bank. So, how do we count them?
This brings us to the key question: how do we measure anti-Semitism? Where does the legitimate criticism of Israeli politics in the West Bank end and anti-Semitism begin? Let's explain this through some further observations.
One of the best indications of the gradual disappearance of the sense of irony in our public space was the repetition of a certain metaphor about the negotiations between the state of Israel and Palestinians. About a decade ago, when some kind of peace talks were still going on, the Palestinian negotiator noted how while Israel was negotiating how to divide the West Bank, it was gradually building more and more settlements there.
He compared dealing with Israelis to two guys at a table negotiating how to split the pizza between them. But while their debate goes on and on, one of the guys is all the time eating parts of the pizza.
In a recent documentary report about the West Bank, a settler mentions the same anecdote, but with no sad irony, just with a brutal satisfaction: "Our negotiations with Palestinians are like debating about how to cut a pizza while we are all the time eating slices of it," accompanied by a mischievous smile.
There is something truly disturbing in the way the TV documentary from which we quoted the remark on eating pizza presents the West Bank settlements. We learn that, for the majority of the new settlers, what brought them to move there was not a Zionist dream but a simple wish to live in a nice and clean habitat close to a big city (Jerusalem, in this case).
They describe their life there as much better than living in a suburb of Los Angeles: green surroundings, clean air, cheap water and electricity, with a large city easily accessible by special highways. Plus all the local infrastructure (schools, shopping centers, etc.) but cheaper than in the US, built and sustained by Israeli state support.
As for the Palestinian cities and villages which surround them, they are basically invisible, present in two main forms: cheap labor building the settlements with occasional acts of violence treated as a nuisance.
In short, the majority of settlers live in invisible bubbles, isolated from their surroundings outside and behaving as if what goes on outside their bubbles belongs to another world that doesn't really concern them.
The dream that underlies this politics is best rendered by the wall that separates a settler's town from the Palestinian town on a nearby hill somewhere in the West Bank. The Israeli side of the wall is painted with the image of the countryside beyond the wall – but without the Palestinian town, depicting just nature, grass, trees… is this not ethnic cleansing at its purest, imagining the outside beyond the wall as it should be, empty, virginal and waiting to be settled?
So should we doubt that Israel sincerely wants peace in the Middle East? Of course it does. Because colonizers and occupiers in general always want peace, after they've got what they wanted, because peace means they can enjoy what they grabbed.
No doubt after Germany occupied most of Europe in 1941, it also sincerely wanted peace (and ruthlessly fought all resistance as terrorists). In fact, as for the use of the term "colonization," one should recall that the early Zionists themselves used it to designate their endeavor a century ago.
Now we should return to our starting point: if anyone who just read these lines considers them anti-Semitic, then, I think, he or she is not only totally wrong but also posing a threat to what is most valuable in the Jewish tradition.
Sunday, December 2, 2018
Friday, November 30, 2018
Thursday, November 29, 2018
The mysterious case of disappearing Chinese Marxists shows what happens when state ideology goes badly wrong
These days, the most dangerous thing to do today in China is to believe in the official doctrine itself
Today’s Cambodia is the emblem of the antagonisms of the “developing” part of our world. A short time ago, they condemned the last surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for their crimes – but where is Cambodia now, when (officially, at least) it settled accounts with the Khmer Rouge horrors? Full of sweatshops, child prostitution all around and foreigners owning most of restaurants and hotels – one form of misery is often replaced by another marginally better version. But is China not caught in a similar, although less extreme, predicament?
In dealing with critical voices, Chinese authorities increasingly seem to resort to a particular procedure: a person (an ecological activist, a Marxist student, the chief of Interpol, a religious preacher, a Hong Kong publisher, even a popular movie actress) suddenly disappears for a couple of weeks before reappearing in public with specific accusations raised against them. This protracted period of silence delivers a key message to citizens: China can exert impenetrable power on anyone without any requirement of any proof. Only when this is accepted does legal reasoning follow.
But the case of disappearing Marxist students is nonetheless specific. While all disappearances concern individuals whose activities can be somehow characterised as a threat to the state, the disappearing Marxist students legitimise their critical activity by a reference to the official ideology itself.
In the past few years, Chinese leadership decided to reassert ideological orthodoxy. There is less tolerance for religion, and texts of Marx, Lenin and Mao are massively reprinted. However, the message that comes with that is almost always, “don’t take it seriously”.
The disappeared students were doing exactly what was imposed on them: action upon official ideology, solidarity with over-exploited workers, ecology and women’s rights, the list goes on. Two of the best-known examples (at least in our media reports) are those of Zhang Shengye and Yue Xin. While strolling in the campus, Zhang, a graduate student at Peking University (also known as “Beida” university) in Beijing, was all of a sudden surrounded by a group of men in black jackets from a black car who, after beating him heavily, pushed him into a car and drove him away. Other students who filmed the event on their mobile phones were also beaten and compelled to erase the recordings. From that moment, nobody heard anything about Zhang.
Yue Xin, a 22-year-old student at the same university, who led the campaign to clarify the suicide of a student raped by a high party functionary, also disappeared. And when her mother tried to unearth what happened to her daughter, she too went missing. Yue was a member of a Marxist circle which combined struggle for workers’ rights with ecological concerns and a Chinese version of #MeToo. She joined dozens of other students from different universities who went to Shenzhen to support workers in a local robot factory in their demand for an independent trade union. Soon after, in a brutal police crackdown, 50 students and workers disappeared.
What triggered such a panicked reaction in the party leadership was, of course, the spectre of a network of self-organisation emerging through direct horizontal links between groups of students and workers, and based in Marxism, with sympathy in some old party cadres and even parts of the army.
Such a network directly undermines the legitimacy of the party rule and denounces it as an imposture. No wonder, then, that in recent years China closed down many Maoist websites and prohibited many Marxist debate groups at universities. These days, the most dangerous thing to do today in China is to believe in and take seriously the official ideology itself.
However, we should avoid the trap of throwing all sympathy behind Marxist students, hoping they will somehow win, or at least compel the party to change its line into taking workers’ concerns more seriously. We (and they) should rather raise a more basic and disturbing question: why is it that states in which Marxism was elevated into the official ideology were precisely the states where any independent workers’ movement was most brutally crushed and exploitation of workers given a free rein?
It is no longer enough to just to express regret that the Chinese party is not effectively faithful to its Marxist ideology. Rather, we must query whether something is wrong with the ideology itself, at least in its traditional form.
Monday, November 26, 2018
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Monday, November 19, 2018
Zizek @ Cambridge Union
Sunday, November 11, 2018
Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Monday, November 5, 2018
- John Boyle O'Reilly, "A White Rose"
THE red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.
But I send you a cream-white rosebud,
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.
Sunday, November 4, 2018
Saturday, November 3, 2018
Friday, November 2, 2018
Allegory of Man
Surviving British paintings on religious subjects from this period are extremely few. The early history of this panel-painting is unknown, but as the inscriptions on it are in English, it must have been made for British usage. Such a combination of images, labels and texts is more usually found in prints from this period, but no engraved prototype for this work has so far been found.Source
The painting is inscribed as follows: 'O MAN THOW WRETCED CREATVRE HOW MAIEST THOVE DELITE IN RICHES BEWTY STRENGTH OR OTHER WORDLY THINGE. REMEMBRINGE THINE ENEMYES WHICH CONTINVALLY SEEKE THEE TO DESTROYE & BRINGE THEE TO NOTHING BVT SINE SHAME AND FYER EVERLASTINGE. THEREFORE FAST WATCH & PRAYE CONTINVALY WT FERVENT DESIER VNTO IESVS THE MIGHTIE CAPTAYNE WHO ONLY IS HABLE TO DEFEND THEE FROM THEIR FIERIE ASSAWLTS.' in bottom cartouche; 'COVETVSNES' on the miser's arrow, lower left; 'GLOTONY', 'SLOWTH' and 'LECHERY' on the lady's three arrows, centre left; 'GRATIA ME SVFICIT TIBIE, 2 COR[.] 12.' on scroll by Christ, top; 'BE SOBER THEREFORE & WATCH FOR THOW KNOWEST NEITHER THE DAY NOR THE HOWRE.' on scroll, centre right, above Death the skeleton; 'BEHIND THEE Y STEALE ¦ LIKE A THEIF THE TEMPORAL LIFE TO DEVOWER' on shield (oval target) of Death; 'PRYDE', 'WRATH' and 'ENVYE' on three arrows of devil, bottom right; 'TEMPORANS', 'GOOD REISINES', 'CHASTITY', 'ALMES DEEDS', 'AND COMPASSION', 'MEEKENES', 'CHARITY', 'PACIENS' on scroll encircling central figure of Man.
The original purpose of this panel is not known. It could have been for personal devotional use. The trompe l'oeil framing of the cartouche at the bottom is incomplete, suggesting that it might have formed part of a larger structure, such as a funerary monument. The main inscription warns the viewer of the human soul's vulnerability to the vanities and dangers of the world. The central figure - Man - wears classical military attire, and much of the imagery is martial, suggesting that the panel could have been painted for a soldier. The figure is being invested with a shield of Christian Virtues (whose names are inscribed on the white scroll that spirals protectively about his figure) by an angel.
The painting is full of meticulous detail, such as the office from which a male figure aims the broad arrow of covetousness from a sporting crossbow. On the desk lie piles of coins, open books and purses, one of which has a projecting handle. From nails in the panelled settle back (echoing the nails on Christ's cross above) hang a string of papers, and a pencase and inkwell on a cord. The richly dressed lady above wears a jewel with an hourglass device suspended from her waist, presumably alluding to the time wasted by slothfulness. The figure immersed in a pit of flames, bottom right, has the visual attributes of a devil: horns, pointed ears, a tail emerging from the naked flesh of his back, a fringe of hair along his arms, and wings. Above him is a skeleton, representing Death aiming his dart - a long spear - at the figure of Man.
Among thick clouds, above this earthly group, small winged child angels turn their heads to the figure of the resurrected Christ, who stands grasping a large wooden cross. The features of Christ and of the man below appear to be identical. It is extremely unusual to find a representation of Christ in a British painting of this period because, following the Reformation in the late 1540s, it was not permitted to display religious images, at least in public.
The dating of this work presents a puzzle. It had long been thought to date from about 1570, as the lady wears a fashion of c.1567-9. Moreover, it bears similarities of handling with another rare English religious painting on panel, the Allegory of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, reproduced Dynasties, p.74, fig.35, and Jones, p.142, fig.136) signed and dated 1570 by the Antwerp-trained Hans Eworth (active 1540-c.1574). Indeed, the present work had sometimes been tentatively attributed to Eworth himself. Dendrochronological analysis carried out by Dr Peter Klein in 1997 seems to show conclusively, however, that the earliest possible dating for its creation is about 1596.
K. Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, Tate exhibition catalogue, London 1995, cat. no. 30, reproduced in colour
K. Hearn, 'Rewriting History on the Walls', Country Life, vol. 191, May 22 1997, p.53, fig.2, reproduced in colour
Rica Jones, 'British School: An Allegory of Man 1596 or after', in S. Hackney, R. Jones, J. Townsend (eds), Paint and Purpose, London 1999, pp.140-5, reproduced in colour
Thursday, November 1, 2018
In East European Jewish folklore, the city of Chelm (Pol., Chełm; Yid., Khelem) functions as an imaginary city of fools, similar to that of the Greek Abdera, the English Gotham, and the German Schilda, among numerous others. The legendary “town of fools,” often presented ironically as “The Wise Men of . . . ,” is a feature common to most European folklores. Chelm, as was the case with its counterparts in other cultures, spawned hundreds of tales describing outlandish naiveté and stupidity that have been printed in dozens of editions in a variety of languages. Many of these are titled The Wise Men of Chelm. Chelm, located approximately 65 kilometers southeast of Lublin, had a Jewish population from at least the fourteenth century, and was a real town whose residents bore no connection to the stories. If anything, the town was known for Torah scholarship.
There are many similarities between the stories of Khelemer khakhomim (Yiddish for “wise men of Chelm”) and those of other cultures, particularly those found in the Germanic variants. The stories became part of an oral folklore and, once placed within the cultural framework of East European Jewry, were Judaized. The first publication of Chelm-like stories appeared in Yiddish in 1597, and were tales of the town of Schildburg, translated from a German edition. Hence these stories first entered Jewish culture as Schildburger stories, and it is unclear when they became connected to the town of Chelm. During the nineteenth century, a number of other Jewish towns figured as fools’ towns, including Poyzn. Over time, however, Chelm became the central hub of such stories, the first specific publication of which occurred in an 1867 book of humorous anecdotes, allegedly written by Ayzik Meyer Dik. Later, particularly in the early twentieth century, dozens of collections of Khelemer mayses (Chelm stories) were published in Yiddish as well as in English and Hebrew translations.
It is thought that the use of Chelm as a locale for such folk stories began during the eighteenth or nineteenth century, became stabilized, and then remained a constant feature in Jewish folklore. It is unclear why Chelm was the locus for these stories. Some have speculated that it was a result of a rivalry with another town. Others claim that Chelm earned its reputation purely by chance. With no documentary evidence denoting the history of the use of Chelm as a center for Jewish morons, the city’s folkloric status is based solely on conjecture.
Repeated orally and printed frequently in book form, stories of Chelm became a significant popular phenomenon in East European Jewish folklore. A number of Yiddish writers, among them Y. L. Peretz, Leyb Kvitko, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, either used the folkloric themes of the wise men of Chelm as a source for humorous or satiric stories or published their own versions of them. Others, such as Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh and Sholem Aleichem, were influenced by the stories to construct their own fictional towns that included inhabitants with similar characteristics to those of Chelm—Kabtsansk (Poorville) and Glubsk (Idiotville) by the former and Kasrilevke by the latter.
Examples of Chelm stories are:
“Which is more important, the sun or the moon?” a citizen of Chelm asked the rabbi.The melamed of Chelm was speaking with his wife.
“What a silly question!” snapped the cleric. “The moon, of course! It shines at night when we really need it. But who needs the sun to shine when it is already broad daylight?”
“If I were Rothschild, I’d be richer than he.”
“How can that be?” asked the wife. “You would both have the same amount of money.”
“True,” he agreed, “but I’d do a little teaching on the side.”
Wednesday, October 31, 2018
Tuesday, October 30, 2018
What the Left Should Learn from Donald Trump?
Today’s left is in advance terrified of any radical acts – even when it is in power, it worries all the time. But it needs to fight to build a new consensus around the social democratic welfare state
A series of things took place in the US recently: the mess with Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, suspicious packages sent to outstanding liberal Democrats, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the sharpening of Trump’s rhetoric – from characterising the main public media in the US as the enemies of the people, to the hints that if Republicans will lose the midterm electoral results, he will not recognise them since they will be based on fraud.
Since all these phenomena occurred on the Republican side of the US political space, and since the colour of the Republican Party is red, one can see how the old anti-Communist motto from the days of the Cold War – “Better dead than red” – acquires an unexpected new meaning today. But one should be more precise here: what really goes on in this eruption of vulgarity in our political space?
As Yuval Noah Harari noted in his Homo Deus, people feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don't understand my feelings and don't care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bind, such as shared religious beliefs and national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics. When this agreement on basics falters, the only procedure at our disposal (outside outright war, of course) are negotiations. That's why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations.
However, the growing lack of the agreement on the basics in the US and elsewhere does not concern primarily ethnic or religious diversity, it cuts across the entire body politic: it confronts two visions of social and political life, populist-nationalist and liberal-democratic. This confrontation mirrors class struggle, but in a displaced way: the rightist populists present themselves as the voice of the oppressed working class, while the left liberals are the voice of the new elites.
There is ultimately no resolve of the tensions through negotiation possible: one side has to win or the entire field has to be transformed.
A rupture is thus taking place in what philosophers call the “ethical substance” of our life. This rupture is getting too strong for normal democracy, and it is gradually drifting towards a kind of civil cold war. Trump’s perverted “greatness” is that he effectively acts – he is not afraid to break the unwritten (and written) rules to impose his decisions. Our public life is regulate by a thick web of unwritten customs, rules which teach us how to practice the explicit (written) rules. While Trump (more or less) sticks to explicit legal regulations, he tends to ignore the unwritten silent pacts which determine how we should practice these rules. The way he dealt with Kavanaugh was just the latest example.
Instead of just blaming Trump, the left should learn from him and do the same. When a situation demands it, we should shamelessly do the impossible and break the unwritten rules. Unfortunately, today’s left is in advance terrified of any radical acts – even when it is in power, it worries all the time: “If we do this, how will the world react? Will our act cause panic?” Ultimately, this fear means: “Will our enemies be mad and react?” In order to act in politics, one has to overcome this fear and assume the risk, make a step into the unknown.
Politicians such as Andrew Cuomo are making desperate appeals for return to civility, but this is not enough: it doesn’t take into account the fact that the rise of brutal populism filled in the lack opened up by the failure of the liberal consensus.
So what are we to do? We should quote Samuel Beckett here. In Malone Dies, he wrote: “Everything divides into itself, I suppose.” The basic division is not, as Mao Zedong claimed, that of the one which divides into two; it’s the division of a nondescript thing into one and its rest. Til the recent populist explosion, the “one” into which our societies divided was the liberal consensus with respect for established unwritten customs of democratic struggle shared by all; the excluded “rest” were the so-called extremists on both sides – they were tolerated, but precluded from participating in political power. With the rise of alt-right populism, the hegemony of liberal centre was undermined; a different political logic (not so much with regard to its content but primarily with regard to its style) asserted itself as part of the mainstream.
Such a situation cannot last indefinitely, there is a need for new consensus, the political life of our societies should divide itself into a new "one", and it is not determined in advance which this one will be. The situation comes with real dangers – who can guess the consequences if the victory of Borsonaro in Brazil not only for Brazil but for all of us? – but instead of losing nerves and resigning ourselves panic, we should gather the courage and use this dangerous moment as an opportunity.
To quote Mao again: “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.”
The one, the new common space, that the left should offer is simply the modern Europe's greatest economic-political achievement: the social democratic welfare state. According to Peter Sloterdijk, our reality is - in Europe, at least - “objective Social Democracy” as opposed to the “subjective” Social Democracy: one should distinguish between social democracy as the panoply of political parties and Social Democracy as the “formula of a system” which “precisely describes the political-economic order of things, which is defined by the modern state as the state of taxes, as infrastructure-state, as the state of the rule of law and, not last, as the social state and the therapy state”: “We encounter everywhere a phenomenal and a structural Social Democracy, a manifest and a latent one, one which appears as a party and another one which is more or less irreversibly built into in the very definitions, functions, and procedures of the modern statehood as such.”
Are we thereby just returning to the old? No: the paradox is that, in today’s new situation, to insist on the old social-democratic welfare state is an almost revolutionary act. The proposals of Sanders and Corbyn are often less radical than those of a moderate Social Democracy half a century ago, but they are nonetheless decried as socialist radicals.
Although the populist right is nationalist, it is much better than left in organising itself as an international network. So the new leftist project can only come alive if it will match the populist internationalism and organise itself as a global movement. The emerging pact between Sanders, Corbyn, and Varoufakis is a first step in this direction. The reaction of the liberal establishment will be violent. The campaign against Corbyn’s alleged anti-Semitism is just a first indication of how the entire movement will be the victim of a campaign to discredit it. But there is no other way – risks will have to be taken.
In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative TS Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. This is what has to be done today: the only way to really defeat Trump and to redeem what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to perform a sectarian split from liberal democracy’s main corpse.
Monday, October 29, 2018
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Clinton is the Problem, not Trump
Slavoj Žižek tells Owen Jones: ‘Clinton is the problem, not Trump’
Slavoj Žižek tells Owen Jones the collapse of the centre-left welfare state consensus has led to the global rise of the new right. He argues the left “ceased to question the fundamentals of the system” and says that the crucial political battleground in the US is not against Donald Trump but what happens within the Democratic party.
The "rich" world urgently needs to address the reasons behind mass migration, rather than its symptoms. And understand we live in one world.
Migration is, once again, headline news. Columns of migrants from Honduras are approaching the US border through Mexico; African migrants broke through barriers and entered the small Spanish exclave on the northern tip of Africa; Middle East migrants are trying to enter Croatia.
Although the numbers are comparatively small, they do signal a basic geopolitical fact.
In his World Interior of Capital, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk demonstrates how, thanks to globalization, the capitalist system came to determine all conditions of life.
The first sign of this development was the Crystal Palace in London, the site of the first world exhibition in 1851. Its structure rendered palpable the exclusivity of globalization as the construction and expansion of a world interior whose boundaries are invisible, yet virtually insurmountable from without, and which is now inhabited the by one and a half billion winners of globalization.
However, three times this number are left standing outside the door. Consequently, "the world interior of capital is not an agora or a trade fair beneath the open sky, but rather a hothouse that has drawn inwards everything that was once on the outside."
This interior, built on capitalist excesses, determines everything: "The primary fact of the Modern Age was not that the earth goes around the sun, but that money goes around the earth." After the process that transformed the world into the globe, "social life could only take place in an expanded interior, a domestically and artificially climatized inner space."
What Sloterdijk correctly pointed out is that capitalist globalization does not stand only for openness & conquest, but also for a self-enclosed globe separating the inside from its outside.
The two aspects are inseparable: capitalism's global reach is grounded in the way it introduces a radical class division across the entire globe, separating those protected by the sphere from those outside its cover. The flow of refugees is a momentary reminder of the violent world outside our Cupola, a world which, for us, insiders, appears mostly on TV reports about distant violent countries, not as part of our reality but encroaching on it.
Thus, our ethical-political duty is not just to become aware of the reality outside our Cupola, but to fully assume our co-responsibility for the horrors outside our Cupola. The hypocrisy of the reactions to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi provides a nice example of how this Cupola works. In a broader sense, he was one of us, well located within the Cupola, so we are shocked and outraged.
But our care is ridiculously displaced care: the true scandal that the Istanbul murder caused a much greater scandal than Yemen where Saudi Arabia is destroying an entire country. In (probably) ordering the murder, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) forgot the lesson of Stalin: if you kill one person, you are a criminal; if you kill thousands, you are a hero. So MBS should have gone on killing thousands in Yemen.
So, back to our Leninist question: what is to be done? The first and (sadly) predominant reaction is the one of protective self-enclosure: the world out there is in a mess, let's protect ourselves by all kinds of walls.
A New World Order is emerging in which the only alternative to the "clash of civilizations" remains the peaceful coexistence of civilizations (or of "ways of life," a more popular term today): forced marriages and homophobia (or the idea that a woman going alone to a public place calls for rape) are OK, just that they are limited to another country which is otherwise fully included in the world market.
The sad truth that sustains this new "tolerance" is that today's global capitalism can no longer afford a positive vision of emancipated humanity, even as an ideological dream.
Fukuyamaist liberal-democratic universalism failed because of its own immanent limitations and inconsistencies, and populism is the symptom of this failure, its Huntington's disease. But the solution is not populist nationalism, Rightist or Leftist. Instead, the only cure is a new universalism – it is demanded by the problems humanity is confronting today, from ecological threats to refugee crises.
The second reaction is global capitalism with a human face personified in socially-responsible corporate figures like Bill Gates and George Soros. Even in its extreme form – "open up our borders to the refugees, treat them like one of us."
Yet, the problem with this solution is that it only provides what in medicine is called a symptomatic treatment – a therapy of a disease leaves the basic global situation intact; it only affects its symptoms, not its cause.
Such a treatment is aimed at reducing the signs and symptoms for the comfort and well-being of the patient – but, in our case, this is obviously not enough since the solution is obviously not that all wretched of the world will move into the safety of the Cupola. We need to move from the humanitarian focus on the wretched of the Earth to the wretched Earth itself.
The third reaction is therefore to gather the courage and envisage a radical change which imposes itself when we fully assume the consequences of the fact that we live in ONE world. Is such a change a utopia? No, the true utopia is that we can survive without such a revolution.
The Future of Europe?
Despite occasional exceptions, it was once considered almost gospel that democracy and capitalism went hand in hand. China's successful rise knocks the notion on the head.
Official Chinese social theorists paint a picture of today's world which basically remains the same as that of the Cold War.
Thus, the worldwide struggle between capitalism and Socialism goes on unabated, the fiasco of 1990 was just a temporary setback and, today, the big opponents are no longer the US and USSR but America and China, which remains a Socialist country.
Here, the explosion of capitalism in China is read as a gigantic case of what in the early Soviet Union they called New Economic Policy, so that what we have in China is a new "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" but still Socialism. The Communist party remains in power and tightly controls and direct market forces.
Indeed, Domenico Losurdo, the Italian Marxist who died in June this year, elaborated this point in detail, arguing against the "pure" Marxism which wants to establish a new Communist society directly after the revolution, and for a more "realist" view which advocates a gradual approach with turnarounds and failures.
Roland Boer, a Beijing-based professor, evokes the memorable image of Losurdo drinking a cup of tea on a busy Shanghai street in September 2016: "In the midst of the bustle, traffic, advertising, shops, and clear economic drive of the place, Domenico said, 'I am happy with this. This is what socialism can do!' To my quizzical look, he replied with a smile, 'I am strongly in favour of the reform and opening up'."
Boer then goes on to resume the argument for this "opening up": "Most efforts had been directed at the relations of production, focusing on socialist equality and collective endeavour. This is all very well, but if everyone is equal simply because they are poor, few would see the benefit. So Deng and those working with him began to emphasise another dimension of Marxism: the need to unleash the forces of production."
For Marxism, however, "unleashing the forces of production" is not "another dimension" but the very goal of transforming relations of production.
And here is Marx's classic formulation: "At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution."
The irony is that, while, for Marx, Communism arises when capitalist aspects of production became an obstacle to the further development of the means of production. Which means this development can be secured only by (sudden or gradual) progress from a capitalist market economy to a socialized economy.
But Deng Xiaoping's "reforms" turn Marx around. At a certain point, one has to return to capitalism to enable the economic development of Socialism.
Of course, there is a further irony here that is difficult to surpass. The 20th century Left was defined by its opposition to two fundamental tendencies of modernity: the reign of capital with its aggressive individualism and alienating dynamics and authoritarian-bureaucratic state power.
What we get in today's China is exactly the combination of these two features in its extreme form: a strong authoritarian state and wild capitalist dynamics.
Orthodox Marxists liked to use the term "dialectical synthesis of the opposites": suggesting true progress takes place when we bring together the best of both opposing tendencies. But it looks like China succeeded by way of bringing together what we considered the worst in both opposing tendencies (liberal capitalism and Communist authoritarianism).
Years ago, a Chinese social theorist, with links to Deng Xiaoping's daughter, told me an interesting anecdote. When Deng was dying, an acolyte who visited him asked him what he thought his greatest act was, expecting the usual answer that he will mention his economic opening that brought such development to China.
To their surprise, he answered: "No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy." (According to some sources, this tendency to go all the way was pretty strong in some Party circles and the decision to maintain party control was in no way preordained.)
We should resist here the liberal temptation to dream about how, in the case China were to open up also to political democracy, its economic progress would have been even faster: what if political democracy would have generated new instabilities and tensions that would have hampered economic progress? Such as were witnessed in most of the old USSR?
What if this (capitalist) progress was feasible only in a society dominated by a strong authoritarian power? Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England: it was in the bourgeoisie's own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. Maybe something homologous is going on in today's China: it was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist Party.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk remarked how if there is a person to whom they will build monuments a hundred years from now, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who invented and implemented so-called "capitalism with Asian values." (Which, of course, have nothing to do with Asia and all to do with authoritarian capitalism.)
Nevertheless, the virus of this authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Before setting in motion his reforms, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and expressly praised it as a model all of China should follow.
This change has a world-historical meaning. Because, until now, capitalism seemed inextricably linked with democracy. There were, of course, from time to time, recourses to direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (recall just the cases of South Korea and Chile).
Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism is broken. So it is quite possible that our future will be modelled upon a Chinese "capitalist socialism" – definitely not the socialism we were dreaming about.
Saturday, October 27, 2018
Public Service Broadcasting
Friday, October 26, 2018
On "Art" Trends...
And while Christie's expected the A.I.-created portrait to fetch $7,000 to $10,000, on Thursday it sold for $432,500 — over 40 times the initial estimate — to an anonymous bidder.
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
On the Uncanny
Marion Crane is a lead character in Psycho (1960) and was played by actress Janet Leigh.
The character of Mary Crane was originally created by author Robert Bloch for his 1959 novel, Psycho. During the early stages of the film's production, the studio's research department found there were two people with that name in the Phoenix area and Hitchcock was asked to select from a list of alternative first names from which he chose "Marion".
Sunday, October 21, 2018
Friday, October 19, 2018
Thursday, October 18, 2018
Can American Democracy Survive the Bad Faith of Democrats?
The latest trend in the vagaries of Leftist politics is the weird movement of MeToo. The Left, however, should learn from the rise of Rightist populism, because WeToo can play the populist game…
We are repeatedly told that Left populism is de facto winning and it works. But where and how does it work? Everywhere where it became a serious force, from Latin America to Spain’s Podemos, it stumbled upon a fatal limit. As for Corbyn’s Labour Party, its politics cannot be called populist in any meaningful way. (Plus, it hasn’t yet come to power; only once this happens will the real test come). Against Rightist populist passions (from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson), today’s Labour politics is precisely a triumph of rational pragmatic argumentation, where one can disagree with some proposed measures, but the line of argumentation is always clear. Can one imagine a politician less prone to outbursts of passion than Corbyn, which, to avoid a misunderstanding, is for me what makes Corbyn great?
This fact alone renders problematic Left populist reliance on the opposition between cold pragmatic-rational argumentation and passionate confrontation. Although Left populists insist that there are limits to this confrontation, they remain within the democratic frame: according to them, antagonisms should be transposed into agonistic competition in which all sides obey basic democratic rules. But what if these rules are no longer accepted by all agents?
When, two years ago, I was answering questions posed by the readers of Sueddeutsche Zeitung about the refugee crisis, the question which attracted by far the most attention concerned precisely democracy, if with a rightist-populist twist. After Angela Merkel made her famous public appeal inviting hundreds of thousands of immigrants into Germany, what was her democratic legitimization? What gave her the right to bring such a radical change to German life without democratic consultation? My point here, of course, is not to support anti-immigrant populists, but to clearly show the limits of democratic legitimization. The same goes for those who advocate a radical opening of the borders to refugees: are they aware that, since our democracies are nation-state democracies, their demand equals the suspension of democracy, since they encourage a gigantic change, which should be allowed to affect a country without democratic consultation of its population?
I remember watching George Soros some time ago on TV where he advocated the idea that Europe should accept another million refugees. Despite his best humanitarian motifs, one aspect did trouble me: what right does he, a billionaire, have to promote such a large displacement of people without even raising the question of what the local population in Europe may think of it? Yuval Harari points out how the ongoing troubles with immigrants in Germany confront us with the limits of democracy: how are we to counter anti-immigrant populists who demand a referendum on immigrants, assured that the majority of Germans will vote against them? Is the solution, then, to give the voting rights also to immigrants? To whom among them? To those who are already in Germany, to those who want to go there…? At the end of this line of thought, we get the idea of world-wide elections which is self-defeating for a simple and precise reason:»People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don’t understand my feelings and don’t care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one, I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bind, such as shared religious beliefs and national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements between people who already agree on the basics.«1Where this “agreement on the basics” is missing, the only procedure at our disposal (outside an outright war, of course) are negotiations. That’s, incidentally why the Middle East conflict cannot be solved by elections but only by war or negotiations. And negotiations by definition imply the overcoming of the antagonistic logic of Us against Them. According to Left populists, the main reason for the defeat of the Left is the non-combative stance of rational argumentation and lifeless universalism in theory epitomized by the names of Giddens, Beck, and Habermas. This post-political Third Way cannot combat in an efficient way the agonistic logic of Us against Them, successfully mobilized by anti-immigrant Rightist populists. Consequently, to combat this Rightist populism effectively is to have recourse to Left populism which, while retaining the basic populist coordinates (agonistic logic of Us against Them, of the “people” against a corrupted elite), fills them in with a Leftist content: Them are not poor refugees or immigrants but financial capital, technocratic state bureaucracy, etc. This populism moves beyond the old working-class anti-capitalism, as it tries to bring together a multiplicity of struggles from ecology to feminism, from the right to employment to free education and healthcare, etc., as Podemos is doing in Spain…
With regard to a pragmatic and dispassionate politics of rational compromise, one should first note that the ideology of neoliberalism (also in its liberal-Left version) is anything but “rational.” Quite the contrary, it is EXTREMELY confrontational, inasmuch as it brutally excludes those who do not accept it under the pretext that they are dangerous anti-democratic utopians. Its expert knowledge is ideology at its purest. The problems with the Third Way Left, which endorsed neoliberal economics, was not that it was too pragmatic-rational, but that it was precisely not truly rational, seeing that it was permeated by unprincipled pragmatism which in advance endorsed the opponent’s premises. Leftist politics today does not need (just) confrontational passion; much more than that it needs a true cold rationality. Cold analysis and passionate struggle not only do not exclude each other, they need each other.
The formula of agonistic politicization, of a passionate confrontation directed against lifeless universalism, is precisely all too formal, ignoring as it does the big question that lurks in the background: why did the Left abandon the agonistic logic of Us against Them decades ago? Was it not because of the deep structural changes in capitalism, changes which cannot be confronted by means of a simple populist mobilization? The Left abandoned antagonistic confrontation because it failed in its struggle with capitalism, because it accepted the global triumph of capitalism. As Peter Mandelson said, in economy, we are all Thatcherites, so all that remains to the Left is the multiplicity of particular struggles: human rights, feminism, anti-racism, and especially multiculturalism. (It is interesting to note that Ernesto Laclau, the theoretical father of Left populism, first enthusiastically greeted Blair’s Third Way politics – as a liberation from class essentialism, etc. -, and only later targeted it as the mode of non-antagonist politics.)
Podemos undoubtedly stands for populism at its best: against the arrogant Politically Correct intellectual elites which despise the “narrowness” of the ordinary people who are considered “stupid” for “voting against their interests,” its organizing principle is to listen to and organize those “from below” against those “from above,” beyond all traditional Left and Right models. The idea is that the starting point of emancipatory politics should be the concrete experience of the suffering and injustices of ordinary people in their local life-world (home quarters, the workplace, etc.), not abstract visions of a future Communist, or whatever, society. Although the new digital media seem to open up the space for new communities, the difference between these new communities and the old life-world communities is crucial. The old communities are not chosen, I am born into them, and they form the very space of my socialization, while the new (digital) communities include me into a specific domain defined by my interests and thus depending on my choice. Far from making the old communities deficient, the fact that they do not rely on my free choice makes them superior with regard to the new digital communities since they compel me to find my way into a pre-existing not-chosen life-world in which I encounter (and have to learn to deal with) real differences, while the new digital communities depending on my choice sustain the ideological myth of the individual who somehow pre-exists a communal life and is free to choose it.
Even if this approach undoubtedly contains a (very big) grain of truth, its problem is that, to put it bluntly, not only, as Laclau liked to emphasize, society doesn’t exist, but “people” also doesn’t exist. This thesis is not to be taken as an abstract theoretical statement about the inconsistence that traverses the social body. Rather, it refers to a quite concrete, even experiential, fact. “People” is a false name for the social totality. In our global capitalism, totality is “abstract,” invisible; there is no way to ground it in concrete life-worlds. In other words, in today global capitalist universe, a “concrete experience” of being a member of a particular life-world with its customs, living links, forms of solidarity, etc., is already something “abstract” in the strict sense of a particular experience which obliterates the thick network of financial, social, etc., processes that rule and regulate this concrete particular world. Here Podemos will encounter problems if it at some point takes power: what specific economic measures (beyond the standard Keynesian bag of tricks) will it enact to limit the power of capital?
Therein resided the difference between Syriza and Podemos. Syriza touched the Real of our global order. It threatened the reign of Capital, which is why it had to be humiliated without mercy. The heroism of Syriza was that, after winning the democratic political battle, they risked a step further into disturbing the smooth flow of the reproduction of Capital. The lesson of the Greek crisis is that Capital, though ultimately a symbolic fiction, is our Real. That is to say, today’s protests and revolts are sustained by a combination (overlapping) of different levels, and this combination accounts for their strength: they fight for (“normal” parliamentary) democracy against authoritarian regimes; against racism and sexism, especially the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees; for welfare-state against neoliberalism; against corruption in politics and economy (companies polluting environment, etc.); for new forms of democracy that reach beyond multi-party rituals (participation, etc.); and, finally, questioning the global capitalist system as such and trying to keep alive the idea of a non-capitalist society.
Two traps are to be avoided here: false radicalism, proclaiming that what really matters is the abolition of liberal-parliamentary capitalism, while all other fights are secondary, as well as false gradualism, asking us to fight against military dictatorship and for simple democracy, to forget Socialist dreams, which will come later – maybe… When we have to deal with a specific struggle, the key question is: how will our engagement in it or disengagement from it affect other struggles? The general rule is that, when a revolt begins against an oppressive half-democratic regime, as was the case in the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilize large crowds with slogans that one cannot but characterize as crowd-pleasers – For Democracy! Against Corruption!, and so forth. But then we gradually approach more difficult choices: when our revolt succeeds in its direct goal, we come to realize that what really bothered us (our un-freedom, humiliation, social corruption, lack of prospects for a decent life) persists in a new guise.
In Egypt, protesters succeeded in getting rid of the oppressive Mubarak regime, but corruption remained, and the prospects of a decent life moved even further away. After the overthrow of an authoritarian regime, the last vestiges of patriarchal care for the poor can fall away, so that the newly gained freedom is de facto reduced to the freedom to choose the preferred form of one’s misery. The majority not only remain poor, but, to add insult to injury, are also being told that, since they are now free, poverty is their own responsibility. In such a predicament, we have to admit that there was a flaw in our goal itself, that this goal was not specific enough – say, that standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom. Political freedom can easily provide the legal frame for economic slavery, with the underprivileged “freely” selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy: we have to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realize a noble principle (of democratic freedom) is a failure inherent to this principle itself. Understanding this is a big step of political pedagogy.
The double U-turn that the Greek crisis took in July 2015 cannot but appear as a leap not just from tragedy to comedy but, as Stathis Kouvelakis noted, from tragedy full of comic reversals directly into a theatre of the absurd. Is there any other way to characterize the extraordinary reversal of one extreme into its opposite that would bedazzle even the most speculative Hegelian philosopher? Tired of the endless negotiations with the EU executives in which one humiliation followed another, Syriza called for a referendum on Sunday July 5 asking the Greek people if they supported or rejected the EU proposal of new austerity measures. Although the government itself clearly stated that it supported the NO, the result was a surprise for the government itself: the overwhelming majority of over 61% voted NO to European blackmail. Rumors began to circulate that the result – victory for the government – was a bad surprise for Tsipras himself, who secretly hoped that the government would lose, so that a defeat would allow him to save face in surrendering to the EU demands (“we have to respect the voters’ voice”). However, literally the morning after, Tsipras announced that Greece is ready to resume negotiations, and days later Greece agreed to a EU proposal which was basically the same as what the voters rejected (in some details even harsher). In short, he acted as if the government had lost, not won, the referendum. Here we encounter the truth of populism: its failure to confront the real of the capital. The supreme populist moment (referendum victory) immediately reverted into capitulation, into confession of impotence with regard to the capitalist order. There is no simple betrayal in this reversal, but the expression of a deep necessity.
Laclau insisted on the need to construct some figure of the Enemy as immanent to populism, not as its weakness, but as the resource of its strength. Left populism should construct a different figure of the Enemy, not the threatening racial Other (immigrant, Jew, Muslim…) but the financial elites, fundamentalists, and other “usual suspects” of the progressives. This urge to construct the Enemy is another fatal limitation of populism. Today, the ultimate “enemy” is not a concrete social agent but in some sense the system itself, a certain functioning of the system, which cannot be easily located into agents. Years ago, Alain Badiou wrote that one doesn’t fight capitalism but its concrete agents: therein resides the problem, since the true target IS capitalism. Today, it seems easy to say that the Enemy is neo-Fascist anti-immigrant nationalism or, in the US, Trump. Still, the fact remains that the rise of Trump is ultimately the effect of the failure of liberal-democratic consensus, and so, although one should, of course, not exclude new forms of “anti-Fascist” alliances with the latter, this consensus remains THE thing to be changed.
It is because of their focus on concrete enemies that Left populists seem to privilege national sovereignty, the strong nation state, as a defense against global capital (even Auferstehen in Germany basically follows this path). In this way, most of them not only (by definition) endorse populism but even nationalism, presenting their struggle as a defense against international financial capital. Some Left populists in the US already used the term “national socialism.”2 While, of course, it would be stupid and unfair to claim that they are closet Nazis, one should nonetheless insist that internationalism is a key component in any project of radical emancipation. Whatever critical remarks one makes against Varoufakis’s DIEM, the movement at least sees clearly that resistance against global capital has to be itself global, a new form of universalism.
There definitely are enemies and the topic of conspiracies is not to be simply dismissed. Years ago, Fred Jameson perspicuously noted that in today’s global capitalism, things happen which cannot be explained with a reference to some anonymous “logic of the capital.” For example, now we know that the financial meltdown of 2008 was the result of a well-planned “conspiracy” of some financial circles. However, the true task of social analysis still remains to explain how contemporary capitalism opened up the space for such “conspiratorial” interventions. This is also why references to “greed” and the appeal to capitalists to show social solidarity and responsibility are misplaced: “greed” (search for profit) IS what motivates capitalist expansion; the wager of capitalism IS that acting out of individual greed will contribute to the common good. So, again, instead of focusing on individual greed and approach the problem of growing inequality in moralist terms, the task is to change the system so that it will no longer allow or even solicit “greedy” acting.
The problem we are facing is best exemplified by what took place a couple of years ago in Croatia. Two public protest gatherings were announced: trade unions called for a protest against the exploding unemployment and poverty, felt very much by ordinary people; Rightist nationalists announced a gathering in order to protest the re-introduction of the official status of Cyrillic writing in Vukovar (because of the Serb minority there). To the first gathering, a couple of hundred people came, and to the second gathering, over one hundred thousand people showed up. Poverty was experienced as a daily-life problem much more than the Cyrillic threat by ordinary people, and the rhetoric of trade unions didn’t lack passion and confrontational spirit, but…
One has to accept that some kind of especially strong economy of jouissance is at work in the identification with one’s own “way of life,” some core of the Real which is very difficult to rearticulate symbolically. Recall Lenin’s shock at the patriotic reaction of Social-Democrats to the outburst of World War I. People are willing to suffer for their way of life, up to today’s refugees who are not ready to “integrate.” In short, there are two Reals (the real of capital; the real of ethnic identification) that cannot be dissolved into the fluid elements of a symbolic hegemony.
Let’s take an (artificially) clear-cut case. Imagine a democracy, in which a large majority of voters succumb to the anti-immigrant populist propaganda and decide in a referendum to close borders to the refugees and make life more difficult for those who already are within a country. Imagine, next, a country, where, despite such propaganda, voters assert in a referendum their commitment to solidarity and their will to help the refugees.
The difference is not just objective, i.e., it is not just that, in one case, voters made a reactionary racist decision and, in the other case, they made the right choice of solidarity. The difference is also “subjective” in the precise sense that a different type of political passion is at work in each of the two cases. One should not, however, be afraid to posit that, in the first case, no matter how sincerely convinced they appeared to be, they somehow know “in their heart of hearts” that what they are doing is a shameful act, while all their agitated reasoning just covers up their bad feelings. And, in the second act, people are always somehow aware of the liberating effect of their act: even if what they are doing is risky and crazy, they do achieve a true breakthrough.
Both acts in a sense achieve the impossible, but in an entirely different way. In the first case, the public space is spoiled, the ethical standards are lowered. What has been up to that moment a matter of private dirty rumors, inacceptable in the public space, becomes something one can talk about publicly: one can be openly racist, sexist, preach hatred and spread paranoia… Today’s model of such “liberation” is, of course, Donald Trump who, as they say, “says publicly what others are only thinking about.” In the second case, most of us are ashamed that we didn’t trust people more: before the referendum, we were silently expecting a defeat, and the ethical composure of the voters surprises us. Such “miracles” are worth living for.
But how are we to prepare the ground for such “miracles”? How are we to mobilize “our” people to fight for the rights of the refugees and immigrants? In principle, the answer is easy: we should strive to articulate a new ideological space in which the struggle for refugees would be combined with the feminist struggle, ecological struggle, etc. However, such an easy way out is purely rhetorical and runs against the (ideologically determined, of course) “experience” which is very difficult to undo. More profoundly, the catch is that today’s constellation doesn’t allow for a direct link between a program and the direct experience of “real people.”
The basic premise of classic Marxism is that, with the central role of the proletariat, humanity found itself in a unique situation in which the deepest theoretical insight was echoed in the most concrete experience of exploitation and alienation. It is, nonetheless, questionable if, in today’s complex situation, a similar strategy is feasible. Left populists would, of course, insist that this is precisely why we should abandon the Marxist reliance on the proletariat as the privileged emancipatory subject and engage in a long and difficult work of constructing new hegemonic “chains of equivalences” without any guarantee of success. (There is no assurance that the feminist struggle, the struggle for freedom, and the struggle for the rights of immigrants will coalesce in one big Struggle). But my point is that even this solution is too abstract and formal. Left populists remind me of a doctor who, when asked by a worried patient what to do, tells him: “Go and see a doctor!” The true problem is not one of formal procedure – a pragmatic search for unity versus antagonist confrontation – but a substantial one: how to strike back at global capital? Do we have an alternative to the global capitalist system? Can we even imagine today an authentic Communist power? What we get is disaster (Venezuela), capitulation (Greece), or a controlled return to capitalism (China, Vietnam).
Official attempts at Marxist social theory in China try to paint a picture of today’s world which, to put it simply, basically remains the same as that of the Cold War: the worldwide struggle between capitalism and Socialism goes on unabated, the fiasco of 1990 was just a temporary setback, so that today, the big opponents are no longer USA and USSR but USA and China, which remains a Socialist country. The rise of capitalism in China is read as a gigantic case of what in the early Soviet Union they called NEP politics, so that what we have in China is a new “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” but still a Socialism (the Communist party remains in power and tightly controls and directs market forces).
Domenico Losurdo elaborated this point in detail, arguing against “pure” Marxism, which wants to establish a new Communist society directly after the revolution, and for a more “realist” view which advocates a gradual approach with turnarounds and failures. Roland Boer evokes a memorable image of Losurdo drinking a cup of tea on a busy Shanghai street in September 2016:“In the midst of the bustle, traffic, advertising, shops, and clear economic drive of the place, Domenico said, ‘I am happy with this. This is what socialism can do!’ To my quizzical look, he replied with a smile, ‘I am strongly in favor of the reform and opening up’.”1Boer then goes on to resume the argument for this “opening up”:“Most efforts had been directed at the relations of production, focusing on socialist equality and collective endeavour. This is all very well, but if everyone is equal simply because they are poor, few would see the benefit. So Deng and those working with him began to emphasize another dimension of Marxism: the need to unleash the forces of production.”2For Marxism, in turn, “unleashing the forces of production” is not “another dimension” but the very goal of transforming the relations of production. Here is Marx’s classic formulation:“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”3The irony is that, while, for Marx, Communism arises when capitalist relations of production become an obstacle to the further development of the means of production, so that this development can be secured only by a (sudden or gradual) progress from capitalist market economy to a socialized economy, Deng Hsiao-Ping’s “reforms” turn Marx around: at a certain point, one has to return to capitalism to enable the economic development of Socialism… There is a further irony here that is difficult to surpass. The Left in the twentieth century was defined by its opposition to two fundamental tendencies of modernity:1) the reign of capital with its aggressive individualism and alienating dynamics; and 2) authoritarian-bureaucratic state power.What we get in today’s China is exactly the combination of these two features in their extreme form: a strong authoritarian state, coupled with wild capitalist dynamics. And this should be the most efficient form of Socialism today…
From this standpoint, the economic success of China in the last decades is not interpreted as a proof of the productive potential of capitalism but as a proof of the superiority of Socialism over capitalism. To sustain this view which also counts Vietnam, Venezuela, Cuba, and even Russia as socialist countries, one has to give this new Socialism a strong socially conservative twist, and this is not the only reason why such a rehabilitation of Socialism is blatantly non-Marxist, totally ignoring the basic Marxist point that capitalism is defined by capitalist relations of production, not by the type of state power.4
One must, nonetheless, concede a partial truth in this Chinese position: even in the wildest capitalism, it matters who controls the state apparatuses. Classical Marxism and the ideology of neo-Liberalism both tend to reduce the state to a secondary mechanism which obeys the needs of the reproduction of the capital; they both thereby underestimate the active role played by state apparatuses in economic processes. Today, perhaps more than ever, one should not fetishize capitalism as the Big Bad Wolf which is controlling states. State apparatuses are active in the very heart of economic processes, doing much more than just guaranteeing legal and other (educational, ecological…) conditions for the reproduction of capital.
In many different forms, the state is active as a direct economic agent, for instance, when it helps failing banks, supports certain industries, orders defense and other equipment, and so on. In the US today, around 50% of production is mediated by the state, while a century ago, the figure was between 5% and 10%. Marxists should have learned this lesson already from state Socialism where the state was a direct economic agent and regulator, so that whatever it was, it was a state without a capitalist class (Marxist analysts often used a suspicious term “state capitalism” to account for it). But if we can get a capitalist state without capitalists as a class, to what extent can we imagine a non-capitalist state with capitalist playing a strong role in the economy? While the Chinese model cannot serve as a model for emancipatory struggle – it combines exploding social inequalities with a strong authoritarian state -, one should not exclude a priori the possibility of a strong non-capitalist state that resorts to elements of capitalism in some of the domains of social life. It is, therefore, possible to tolerate limited elements and domains of capitalism without allowing the logic of capital become the over-determining principle of a social totality.
So what happens with populist passion here? It disappears, and it has to disappear. When populism takes power, the choice is, to designate it with names, Maduro (a passage from genuine populism into its authoritarian version with social decay) or Deng Hsiao-Ping (authoritarian-capitalist normalization and an ideological return to Confucius). Populism thrives in a state of emergency, which is why, by definition, it cannot last. It absolutely needs the figure of an external enemy.
Let us take Laclau’s own precise analysis of why one should count Chartism as populism:“Its dominant leitmotiv is to situate the evils of society not in something that is inherent in the economic system, but quite the opposite: in the abuse of power by parasitic and speculative groups which have control of political power – ‘old corruption,’ in Cobbett’s words. /…/ It was for this reason that the feature most strongly picked out in the ruling class was its idleness and parasitism.”5In other words, for a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such, but the intruder who has corrupted it (financial manipulators, not capitalists as such, etc.); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such, but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary (like for a Freudian), the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with “pathological” outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the “normal” functioning of capitalism; for Freud, pathological phenomena like hysterical outbursts provide the key to the constitution (and hidden antagonisms that sustain the functioning) of a “normal” subject. That’s why populism tends to be nationalist in calling for people’ unity against the (external) enemy, while Marxism focuses on the inner split that cuts across each community and calls for international solidarity because we are all traversed by this split.
The hard fact to accept is that “ordinary people” do NOT “know.” They possess no authentic insight or experience; they are no less confused and disoriented than all others are. I remember, in the debate after a talk of mine, a brief exchange with a supporter of Podemos who reacted to my claim that the demands of Podemos (getting rid of corrupt power structures, authentic democracy, which is rooted in people’s actual interests and worries) are without any precise ideas on how to reorganize society. He replied: “But this is not a reproach, since Podemos wants just this: not another system but a democratic system that would actually be what it claims to be!” In short, Podemos wanted the existing system without its symptoms, to which one should retort that it’s OK to begin with this, but then, sooner or later, comes the moment when we are forced to realize that symptoms (corruption, failure, etc.) are part of the system, so that in order to get rid of the symptoms we have to change the system itself.
The third version of radical politics today is waiting for a catastrophe. Many of my radical friends are telling me privately that only a big ecological catastrophe, economic meltdown, or war can mobilize the people to work for radical change. But is this very stance of waiting for a catastrophe not already a catastrophe, an admission of utter defeat? In order to find a proper orientation in this conundrum, one should become aware of a fateful limitation inherent to the politics of interests.
Parties like die Linke in Germany effectively represent the interests of their working class constituency, demanding better healthcare and retirement conditions, higher wages, etc. This puts them automatically within the confines of the existing system, and is therefore not enough for authentic emancipation. Interests are not to be just followed; they have to be redefined with regard to ideas which cannot be reduced to interests. This is why we witness again and again the paradox of how Rightist populists, when they get to power, sometimes impose measures which are effectively in the workers’ interests, as is the case in Poland where PiS (Law and Justice, the ruling Rightist-populist party) has managed to enact the largest social transfers in Poland’s contemporary history. PiS did what Marine le Pen also promises to do in France: a combination of anti-austerity measures (social investments no Leftist party dares to consider) plus the promise of order and security that asserts national identity and deals with the immigrant threat. Who can beat this combination, which directly addresses the two big worries of ordinary people?
We can discern on our political horizon a weirdly perverted situation in which the official “Left” is enforcing the austerity politics (while advocating multicultural etc. rights), while the populist Right is pursuing anti-austerity measures to help the poor (while pursuing the xenophobic nationalist agenda). That is the latest figure of what Hegel described as die verkehrte Welt, the topsy-turvy world. The obvious (not only) populist reaction to this is: should we not reestablish the “normal” state, i.e., should the Left not enact the anti-austerity measures that the populist Right is enacting, just without the accompanying racist-nationalist baggage? “Logical” as it may sound, this, precisely, is what cannot be done by the Left: the Right can do it, precisely, BECAUSE its anti-austerity measures are accompanied by racist-nationalist ideology, and this ideological coating is what makes anti-austerity acceptable.
This logic is vaguely similar to the fact that, as a rule, it is only a great Rightist leader who can make a historical agreement with Leftist forces. Only Nixon could establish links with China or achieve peace in Vietnam; only de Gaulle could recognize the independence of Algeria. For a Leftist leader, such a step would have been self-destructive. Today, we also have the opposite example: only the Leftist Syriza was able to implement austerity measures in Greece. If a Rightist government were to do it, it would have triggered an explosion of protests. What this means at a more general level is that, in a hegemonic chain of equivalences, the position of elements is overdetermined by the composition of other elements: the recognition of a radical anti-colonialist struggle by the colonial power is more easily compatible with a general conservative orientation than as an element of a much more “natural” chain where it is coupled with Leftist politics.
Populism ultimately NEVER works. In its Rightist version, it cheats by definition: it constructs a false figure of the enemy – false in the sense that it obfuscates the basic social antagonism (“Jew” instead of “capital,” etc.) – and, in this way, its populist rhetoric serves the very financial elites it pretends to oppose. In its Left version, it’s false in a more complex Kantian sense. In a vague but pertinent homology, we can say that the construction of the Enemy in an antagonistic relation plays the role of Kant’s schematism: it allows us to translate theoretical insight (awareness of abstract social contradictions) into practico-political engagement. This is how we should read Badiou’s statement that “one cannot fight capitalism”: we should “schematize” our fight into activity against concrete actors who work like the exposed agents of capitalism. However, the basic wager of Marxism is precisely that such a personalization into an actual enemy is wrong. If it is necessary, it is a kind of necessary structural illusion. So does this mean that Marxist politics should permanently manipulate its followers (and itself), acting in a way it knows is misleading? Marxist engagement is condemned to this immanent tension, which cannot be resolved by claiming that now we are fighting the Enemy and later we will move to the more fundamental overhaul of the system itself. Left populism stumbles upon the limit of fighting the Enemy the moment it takes power.
The obvious Left-populist counter-argument is, of course: but is not the fact that Left populism does not provide a detailed vision of an alternative society its very advantage? Such an openness is what characterizes a radical-democratic struggle. There are no prescriptions decided in advanced; re-arrangements are going on all the time with short-term goals shifting… Again, this smooth reply is all too easy, in that it obfuscates the fact that the “openness” of the Left-populist struggle is based on a retreat, on avoiding the key problem of capitalism.
So why persist in a radical struggle, if today radical change is unimaginable? Because our global predicament demands it: only a radical change can enable us to cope with the prospect of ecological catastrophe, with the threats of biogenetics and digital control of our lives, etc. The task is impossible, but all the more necessary.
Decades ago, in a debate in the Irish parliament, Gerald Fitzgerald, the PM at that time, rejected a proposal with a nice Hegelian reversal of the commonplace wisdom “This may be good in theory, but it is not good in practice.” His counter-argument was: “This may be good in practice, but it is not good enough in theory.” This is how things stand with Left populism: without fully endorsing it, we should treat it as part of a short-term pragmatic compromise. We should support it (when it is at its best, at least, as is the case of Podemos), but without any illusions, knowing that it will ultimately fail and hoping that through this failure something new may emerge.Footnotes
3. Quoted from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm.
4. For this view, see, among others, Vol. 7 / No 1 (March 2017) of International Critical Thought (Routledge), especially the texts by Domenico Losurdo, William Jefferies, Peggy Raphaelle, and Cantave Fuyet.
5. Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, London: Verso 2005, p. 90.
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