Calls by Liberals to ‘open our hearts’ to immigrants from poor countries are about maintaining the status quo in the capitalist world. The solution is a radical change in the global economic system which encourages migration.
Pia Klemp, captain of the Luventa, the ship saving refugees in the Mediterranean, concluded her explanation of why she decided to refuse the Grand Vermeil medal, awarded to her by the city of Paris, with a crowd-pleasing slogan: “Documents and housing for all! Freedom of movement and residence!”
If she means that – to cut a long story short – every individual has the right to move to a country of his/her choice, and that this country has a duty to provide him/her with a residence, then we are dealing here with an abstract vision in the strict Hegelian sense: a vision which ignores the complex context of social totality.
The problem cannot be solved at this level; the only true solution is to change the system which produces immigrants. The task, then, is to take a step back from direct criticism to an analysis of the imminent antagonisms of the worldwide situation, with a focus on how our critical position itself participates in the phenomenon it criticizes.
In a recent TV debate, Gregor Gysi, a key figure in the German Die Linke (The Left) party, gave a good answer to an anti-immigrant who aggressively insisted that he feels no responsibility for the poverty and horrors in Third World countries and that, instead of spending money to help them, European states should only be responsible for the welfare of their own citizens.
The gist of Gysi’s answer was: if we don’t get responsible for the Third World poor (and act accordingly), they will come here, to us…(precisely what the anti-immigrant is so ferociously opposed to).
Cynical and unethical as this reply may appear, it is much more appropriate than abstract humanitarianism. The humanitarian approach appeals to our generosity and guilt (“we should open our hearts to them, also because the ultimate cause of their suffering is European racism and colonization.”) This appeal is often combined with a strange economic reasoning that Europe needs immigrants in order to continue to expand economically, that its birth rates are falling and it is losing vitality. (It is strange to hear the Leftists invoke the typical Rightist motif of vitality). The hidden stakes of this approach are clear: let’s open ourselves to immigrants as a desperate measure to avoid much-needed radical change and to maintain our liberal-capitalist order. The logic that sustains the quoted Gysi statement is the opposite one: only a radical socio-economic change can really protect our identity, our way of life.
Caught in a social limbo
A symptom of this type of ‘Global Leftist’ is how they simultaneously reject any talk of “our way of life” and of cultural differences as a reactionary, Huntington-like stance, masking the fundamental identity (or, rather, leveling) of all of us in global capitalism, and demand of us a respect for the immigrants’ specific cultural identity, ie, not to impose on them our standards.
The obvious counter-reproach, that our way and their way of life are not symmetrical since our ‘way’ is hegemonic, makes a valid point but avoids the core of the problem - the status of universality in the struggle for emancipation. It is true that, in some sense, the refugee is a ‘neighbor’ par excellence, the neighbor in the strict biblical sense, the Other, reduced to its naked presence. Without possessions, without a home, without a determined place in society, refugees are like a stain on the social edifice, always too close to us.
Since they lack a stable place in our society, they stand for the universality of being-human – how we relate to them indicates how we relate to humanity as such. They are not just different from us – we are all different from other groups - they are, in one sense, Difference itself, as such. But, in a properly Hegelian way, universality and particularity coincide here: refugees come naked only materially, and it’s for this reason that they cling all the more to their cultural identity. They are perceived as universal, rootless, but at the same time as stuck in their particular identity.
From this fact alone, it is clear why nomadic immigrants are not proletarians – in spite of attempts by Alain Badiou and others to promulgate the refugee as the exemplary figure of today’s proletarians, “nomadic proletarians.” What makes proletarians proletarian is the fact that they are exploited: they are the key moment of the valorization of capital, their labor creates surplus-value – in clear contrast to nomadic refugees, who are not just perceived as worthless but are literally value-less, worthless “trash”/leftovers of global capital.
Leftists and capitalists dream that the new wave of immigrants will be integrated into the capitalist machine as happened back in the 1960s in Germany and then France, because “Europe needs immigrants.” But this time it isn’t working; immigrants cannot be integrated and the bulk of them remain outsiders. This fact makes the situation with immigrants and refugees much more tragic – they are caught in a kind of social limbo, a deadlock from which fundamentalism offers a false exit.
As with the circulation of global capital, refugees are put in a position of being surplus-humanity, a mirror image of surplus-value, and no humanitarian help and openness can resolve this tension, only a restructuring of the entire international edifice will do.
The usual Left-liberal retort to this is: “What about the ‘let’s work to fix the countries from which immigrants are coming in order to abolish their reasons for leaving their countries’ approach? Is it not just a subtle excuse to prevent refugees coming to us?” The answer to this is clear: in a strictly symmetrical way, “opening our hearts” to refugees here is a (not-so-) subtle way of doing nothing to change the global situation that creates them… So the solution is, simply: look at what they are doing - are they really doing it?
About us, not them
The falsity of humanitarianism is the same as that of the rejection of anthropocentrism advocated by deep ecology - there is deep hypocrisy in it. What all the talk about how we, humanity, pose a threat to life on Earth and the life of the Earth really amounts to is our worry about our own fate. Earth in itself is indifferent: even if we destroy life on it, it will just be one of – not even the greatest of – many catastrophes that have befallen it.
When we worry about the environment, we worry about our own environment, we want our own good and safe life. The falsity of this position is the same as the falsity of white anti-Eurocentric liberals who, while ruthlessly rejecting their own cultural identity and soliciting others to assert this identity, reserve for themselves the position of universality. The proponents of deep ecology, of the rights of animals, plants, and living habitats, continue to act as universal beings, as representatives of all beings – animals, and plants have no awareness of others’ interests, they just live and struggle for survival.
The general lesson to be learned here is that one should avoid at any price cheap humanitarian sentimentalization of the world’s downtrodden. For this reason alone, Parasite (Korea 2019, Bong Joon-ho) is well-worth seeing. Here is the film’s succinct storyline:
“Jobless, penniless, and, above all, hopeless, the unmotivated patriarch, Ki-taek, and his equally unambitious family - his supportive wife, Chung-sook; his cynical twenty-something daughter, Ki-jung, and his college-age son, Ki-woo - occupy themselves by working for peanuts in their squalid basement-level apartment. Then, by sheer luck, a lucrative business proposition will pave the way for an insidiously subtle scheme, as Ki-woo summons up the courage to pose as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the affluent Park family. Now, the stage seems set for an unceasing winner-take-all class war. How does one get rid of a parasite?”The film avoids any moralizing idealization of the underdogs in Frank Capra style: they are the parasites, intruding, manipulating, exploitative. And we should oppose here both content and form: at the level of content, the upper-class Parks are without any doubt morally better, they are considerate, sympathetic, helping, while the underdogs effectively act like exploitative parasites. However, at the level of form, the Parks are the privileged ones who can afford to be caring and helpful, while the underdogs are real underdogs, pushed by their situation into not very gracious acts. So the solution is not to play humanitarian games but to change the situation that requires humanitarian games – or, as Oscar Wilde put it in the opening lines of his “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”:“[People] find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.”Exactly the same holds for one of the usual anti-feminist complaints: “I treat women in a kind, not-patronizing way, but they are often so aggressive towards me…”. Of course, they are, since, for them, this is often the only way to counteract their formal submission – as a rule, it is only those at the top who can afford kindness and sympathy.
"Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim,” he wrote.
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
Monday, December 30, 2019
Love Thy Parasites!
Thursday, December 26, 2019
On Greatness and Our Anti-Fragile President, Techne vs. Episteme
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Songs of Innocence
- William Blake, "A Cradle Song"
Sweet dreams form a shade,
O'er my lovely infants head.
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams,
By happy silent moony beams
Sweet sleep with soft down.
Weave thy brows an infant crown.
Sweet sleep Angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child.
Sweet smiles in the night,
Hover over my delight.
Sweet smiles Mothers smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.
Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes,
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.
Sleep sleep happy child,
All creation slept and smil'd.
Sleep sleep, happy sleep.
While o'er thee thy mother weep
Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee.
Thy maker lay and wept for me
Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,
Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.
Friday, December 20, 2019
Farooque Chowdhury, "Slavoj Zizek's Misunderstanding
The Labour Party’s election failure in the UK proves that, for the progressive left to succeed, it will have to become considerably more revolutionary. The ‘softly, softly’ approach isn’t working.
Since, in some sense, the election was about Brexit, the first thing that strikes the eye is the asymmetry in the position of the two big parties. The Tories constantly repeated their mantra of “Get Brexit done!”, while Labour’s stance was the worst possible.
Knowing well their supporters were almost symmetrically split between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers,’ the party leadership was afraid to choose one side and thus lose voters opposed to it – but, as the saying goes, if you try to sit on two stools simultaneously you may well fall into the gap that separates them. What made things worse was how the true stance of Corbyn was more or less known: he wanted a Brexit, just a different one.
The now-outgoing party leader wanted the UK to get rid of EU financial, and other, regulations in order to pursue more radical Leftist policies. Whatever we think of this choice – there are good reasons for and against Brexit – the Labour party avoided an open debate about it and masked its indecision with a catastrophic formula: “We’ll let the people decide!”
Why was it catastrophic? Simply because people don’t want politicians to impose hard decisions on them. Instead, they demand political leaders show them a clear path, to tell them what choice to make. The Tories made their stance clear.
Playing with fire
The second reason for Labour’s failure was the well-orchestrated campaign of character assassination against Corbyn, who was even rated the Top Anti-Semite of 2019 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (ahead of actual terrorists!). This was a case of foreign meddling into elections at least as strong as the alleged Russian meddling into the last US elections.
Gideon Levy correctly predicts that the precipitous conflation of critique of Israeli politics with anti-Semitism will give rise to a new wave of anti-Semitism, and one can clearly see where this path will eventually end. As Marxism taught us, anti-Semitism is a displaced anti-capitalism: it projects the cause of social antagonisms engendered by capitalism onto an external intruder (the ‘Jews’).
The temptation here is to make a fateful step further and to denounce any radical anti-capitalism as a form of anti-Semitism – signs of this are already multiplying all around the world. Can one imagine a more dangerous way of inciting hatred?
I find it especially worrying when this strong pro-capitalist stance is combined with the newly-discovered love among US Christian conservatives for Israel: how can the US Christian fundamentalists, who are by nature anti-Semitic, now passionately support the policy of the State of Israel?
There is only one solution to this enigma: it is not that the US fundamentalists changed, it is that Zionism itself, in its hatred of Jews who do not fully identify with the politics of the State of Israel, paradoxically became anti-Semitic. In other words, it constructed the figure of the Jew who doubts the Zionist project along anti-Semitic lines.
Trump did exactly the same when he used anti-Semitic stereotypes to characterize Jews as driven by money and insufficiently loyal to Israel. Israel is playing a dangerous game here: some time ago, Fox News, the main US voice of the radical Right and a staunch supporter of Israeli expansionism, had to demote Glen Beck, its most popular host, whose comments were becoming openly anti-Semitic.
When, at this year’s Hanukkah party, Trump signed his controversial executive order on anti-Semitism, John Hagee was there, the founder and chairman of the Christians United for Israel. On top of the standard Christian-conservative agenda (Hagee sees the Kyoto Protocol as a conspiracy aimed at manipulating the US economy; in his bestselling novel ‘Jerusalem Countdown,’ the antichrist is the head of the European Union), Hagee has made statements that definitely sound anti-Semitic.
He has blamed the Holocaust on Jews themselves; he has stated that Hitler’s persecution was a “divine plan” to lead Jews to form the modern state of Israel; he calls liberal Jews “poisoned” and “spiritually blind”; he admits that the preemptive nuclear attack on Iran that he favors will lead to the deaths of most Jews in Israel. (As a curiosity, he claims in ‘Jerusalem Countdown’ that Hitler was born from a lineage of “accursed, genocidally murderous half-breed Jews.”) With friends like these, Israel really doesn’t need enemies.
Last but not least, the third reason is what I call the Piketty trap. In his Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty proposes to radicalize the welfare state – not to nationalize all wealth like in Soviet-style Communism but to maintain capitalism and redistribute assets by giving every adult a lump sum at the age of 25. The progressive income taxes he proposes would allow governments to give everyone a basic income equivalent to 60% of the average wage in wealthy nations and cover the costs of decarbonizing the economy.
Furthermore, employees should have 50% of the seats on company boards; the voting power of even the largest shareholders should be capped at 10%, with an individualized carbon tax calculated by a personalized card that would track each person’s contribution to climate change.
Piketty is thus fully aware that the model he proposes would only work if enforced globally, beyond the confines of nation-states; such a global measure presupposes an already existing global power with the strength and authority to enforce it. However, such a global power is unimaginable within the confines of today’s global capitalism and the political mechanisms it implies – in short, if such a power were to exist, the basic problem would already have been resolved. Piketty’s proposal is utopian, although he presents it as pragmatic, looking for a solution within the frame of capitalism and democratic procedures.
Imagine that Corbyn had won (or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders becomes US president) – and just try to fathom the shattering counter-attack of Big Capital with all its dirty tricks. Maybe the voters were aware of these potential dangers inherent in a Labour victory and preferred the safe game.
The challenges that we face, from global warming to refugees, from digital control to biogenetic manipulations, require nothing less than a global reorganization of our societies. Whichever way this will happen, two things are sure: it will not be enacted by some new version of a Leninist Communist party, but it will also not happen as part of our parliamentary democracy. It will not be just a political party winning more votes and enacting Social Democratic measures.
This brings us to the fatal limitation of Democratic Socialists. Back in 1985, Felix Guattari and Toni Negri published a short book in French ‘Les nouveaux espaces de liberté’ whose title was changed for the English translation into ‘Communists Like Us’ – the implicit message of this change was the same as that of Democratic Socialists: “Don’t be afraid, we are ordinary guys like you, we don’t pose any threat, life will just go on when we will win...” This, unfortunately, is not the option. Radical changes are needed for our survival, and life will NOT go on, as usual; we will have to change even in our innermost feelings and stances.
So we should of course fully support Labour in the UK, Democratic Socialists in the US, and their peers in other states. But if we just wait for the right moment to enact radical change, this moment will never arrive. So, we have to begin with where we are. But we should do this without illusions, fully aware that our future will demand much more than electoral games and Social Democratic measures. We are at the beginning of a dangerous voyage on which our survival depends.
Mr. Slavoj Zizek has tried to interpret recent development of the UK Labour Party – its election debacle – but has only exhibited his misunderstanding of the entire capitalist scenario.
The heading, if the heading is by Mr. Zizek and not by the editor, of his article in RT on December 17, 2019 – “Big Capital will use every tool at its disposal to crush socialists like Corbyn” (https://www.rt.com/op-ed/476079-corbyn-socialists-labour-capital-zizek/) – is the first show of his misunderstanding. Whoever formulates the heading, Mr. Zizek writes: “The second reason for Labour’s failure was the well-orchestrated campaign of character assassination against Corbyn […]”.
Not only big capital, all capitals irrespective of size, origin and character, irrespective of the circuits these pass through, and in whatever way it metamorphoses use every tool at its disposal to crush socialists. And, it’s not only capital, but all economic and political forces use all tools at its disposal to crush opponents, not only socialists, if not compelled to make compromise. Slave owners and feudal lords followed the formula. Capitalists of all sizes always try it. Any rich landowner in any backward economy uses all the tools he can master to crush his opponents. It’s an old fact in economy, society and politics. In any socioeconomic reality, this is the formula the antagonistic class forces follow while the forces deal with each other. However, a section claiming to be “lefties” forgets this fact as they expect their political opponent would not behave hard, brutal or barbaric. They expect their political opponent would act like a lover. It’s a childish expectation. This expectation is based not on lower- or upper-middle class, but on middle-middle class idea about class-based politics, which is actually no-idea. They understand neither class nor class struggle. They expect that they will organize protest marches and their political opponent will shower them with rose water. It’s failure to understand politics and political struggle. They even deny looking at recent street protests in Sudan and Iraq – the number of people the state machines killed.
Crushing Corbyn is not a new development. It was tried in case of Lenin, Mao and Fidel. Lenin was depicted as a German agent; Mao as a red dacoit, Fidel the same. Long articles have been composed and “serious” analyses” have been made showing Lenin was “financed” by bankers to secure bankers’ interest. There were assassination attempts on Lenin and Fidel. Even, Arafat had the same experience. There are hundreds of similar instances in countries. Therefore, Mr. Zizek’s statement is nothing new.
The point Mr. Zizek misses is: Capital’s no attempt against Lenin, Mao and Fidel succeeded. Socialists’ one of the tasks is to foil capital’s all these attempts. It depends on socialists’ capacity, capability, efficiency and power. The incapable and inefficient is busted. The rest learn from the failure.
Mr. Zizek writes in the opinion piece: “The Labour Party’s election failure in the UK proves that, for the progressive left to succeed, it will have to become considerably more revolutionary. The ‘softly, softly’ approach isn’t working.”
“More revolutionary” means the party is already “revolutionary”. In no sense, the LabParty is revolutionary. The LabParty’s program is not also revolutionary. Illusions and unreal expectations should be thrown away if someone likes to survive in the turmoil of class struggle.
In a time of rightist onslaught, in a time of the rise of the rightist and ultra-rightist forces of different colors, in absence of forceful presence of revolutionary politics, the LabParty seems better, seems better than ultra-rightist. That’s the consolation. But, basic character of the LabParty’s politics shouldn’t be forgotten. Aspiration of supporters of a political party and character of politics of the party are not always the same. The two – aspiration and character – may be the same, and the two may be different, even completely opposite. A party leadership can play – exploit – with the aspiration of its supporters to advance the interest it’s tied to. This has been/is found in all sorts of countries – advanced bourgeois democracies, colonies/neo colonies, in the metropolis of the capitalist world system and in the periphery, in the case of aged political parties and in the case of political parties new in terms of age but old in terms of politics and ideology.
Mr. Zizek refers to “[t]he challenges that we face”, and writes about the requirement of “a global reorganization of our societies.”
Other than the forces of status quo, none will disagree with this claim – “a global reorganization of our societies.” Mr. Zizek deserves thanks for this reiteration of position.
But misunderstanding begins in the next sentence: “Whichever way this will happen, two things are sure: it will not be enacted by some new version of a Leninist Communist party, but it will also not happen as part of our parliamentary democracy. It will not be just a political party winning more votes and enacting Social Democratic measures.”
If the requirement is, as Mr. Zizek writes, not a Leninist Communist party or its “some new version”, then what type of political party should it be if it goes for a global reorganization of societies? Let’s assume “some other party” or “some other parties”. But which class interest shall/should it uphold? No political party is simply a gathering or an amalgamation of huge or small number of persons with humbug or sweet pronouncements. All political parties uphold or aspire to uphold interest of any of the classes or any faction of a class in the society the organization operates in or makes loud proclamations about its politics.
A global reorganization of societies requires radical change of the world capitalist order – the old order; and that requires snapping of ties with the order; and that requires a political force that finds no interest in the old order; and that requires a class force having no interest in the order. It’s a complete antagonistic relation between the world capitalist order and the class force aspiring for a radical change of the order. The political party Lenin proposes is nothing other than of a class that have no interest in the world capitalist order, which is based on private property; and the political party doesn’t aspire transfer of ownership of private property from one class to another, but complete abolition of private property. It was not Lenin, who told these for the first time. Marx and Engels told this long ago. Lenin reiterated their position. In any class-based society, can anyone show any political party that doesn’t go for any of the class interests prevailing in the society? Is it possible to escape class question other than in some sort of middle class dream devoid of any idea of reality?
Mr. Zizek writes, “it will also not happen as part of our parliamentary democracy. It will not be just a political party winning more votes and enacting Social Democratic measures.”
Most probably with the word “our”, he means the bourgeois democracy. It’s not known whether he considers the system as his. And, if it’s not limiting with “enacting Social Democratic measures”, he has to go either to bourgeois democracy with no compromise with labor, if situation permits, or take measures fully opposed to bourgeois democracy – people’s democracy, which is opposed to class exploitation. The task needs leadership of a class, a class capable of carrying out the task. No political move in any society in any phase of the society was/is possible without leadership of any of the capable classes in the society. Contemplating anything else is a reflection of a brain having no idea of political move and maneuver in class-based society.
Mr. Zizek claims: “Radical changes are needed for our survival”. Then, it seems that Mr. Zizek is for radical change. What does it mean by radical change? Isn’t it a change in property relations? Isn’t it a change in political power? Are these possible without a political party having no class-mooring, program for change of property relations and political power? Lenin’s claim is this: A political party of the class, which is capable of radically changing these relations. Activities of a certain political party at a certain stage of the party in a certain society are not the sole concept of Leninist party. Mistakes and errors are not the entire concept. The mistakes and errors are not the sole output of the party. And, mistakes and errors are not always the output of the party. Objective conditions, the concerned party’s capability and experience also play a role. A clean, clear claim: “Blame the party” or “the party is the problem” is not a scientific approach. Mistakes and errors don’t wipe out the question of political party’s class basis. The bourgeois or even the backward classes don’t even dream of, plan, or organize their political party not running along the path of their class interest, not carrying out tasks the class interest deserves. Is it possible to cite a single example from any of the class-based societies other than the claim made in the preceding sentence?
Therefore, where does Mr. Zizek lands? It’s nowhere, but a misunderstanding.
Mr. Zizek has another misunderstanding as he writes: “So we should of course fully support Labour in the UK”. Is it possible to support the LabParty fully if it goes to imperialist war in some other country? Has not this – joining imperialist war – happened? Then, how can the working people support the LabParty fully? Should support be extended in absolute term – fully – when the LabParty has a history of joining imperialist war even if aspects of its policies in the domestic issues are ignored? Should objective lessons of politics remain unlearned?
These issues should be discussed as there are efforts, since the debacle of the post-revolutionary states in the eastern and central Europe and in the USSR, to misinterpret questions of politics, political party, dictatorship of class in class-based society, errors in those societies, etc. The basic concepts of class-based politics are thrown away in the name of weeding out mistakes and errors although it has not been possible to throw away issues of politics in class-based societies.
Mr. Zizek is right as he writes: “[O]ur future will demand much more than electoral games and Social Democratic measures.”
Therefore, there comes the question of class-based politics, political party, making support conditional to political forces trying to stand apart from the existing political matrix of right and far-right.
Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Link to Talk
Not such a long time ago, in a galaxy that now appears far, far away, the public space was clearly distinguished from the obscenities of private exchanges. Today, however, not only we can read in the mass media about the intimate details of public personalities, populist politicians themselves often regress to shameless obscenity. It is the very PUBLIC domain in which “fake news” circulates, in which rumors and conspiracy theories abound. One should not lose sight of what is so surprising about this rise of shameless obscenity. Traditionally (or in our retroactive view of tradition, at least), shameless obscenity worked as subversive, as an undermining of traditional domination, as depriving the Master of his false dignity. In the 1960s protesting students liked to use obscene words or make obscene gestures to embarrass figures of power and, so they claimed, denounce their hypocrisy. However, what we are getting today, with the exploding public obscenity, is not the disappearance of authority, of Master figures, but its forceful reappearance – we are getting something unimaginable decades ago, obscene Masters.
Monday, December 16, 2019
Please Pardon my Cultural Capital...
Thursday, December 12, 2019
A Response to Recent Critics - Slavoj Zizek
My latest article for the Independent provoked a wide campaign against me all around the world, so I wrote a reply. The paper rejected the publication of it even as one of the readers’ responses to my text on their website.
My text on the Independent website is followed by over 50 responses, mostly brutal attacks on me.
I am grateful to RT for their readiness to make my reply available to the public.
I began my comment for Independent with a reference to Sartre’s claim that being attacked from both sides is a sign that maybe you are on the right path, and reactions to it seem to confirm Sartre’s lesson. Ferocious attacks on me go up to proclaiming me “a philosophical mastermind of European anti-Semitism” – nothing new in this, years ago I was already attacked as proposing a new holocaust.
The other side, the true anti-Semites, is attacking me with the same blind rage. Here is what Andres Joyce writes in his “Slavoj Žižek’s ‘Pervert’s Guide’ to Anti-Semitism”: “We must earnestly ask of Slavoj Žižek: Has Big Capital and the establishment ruling class not been, and does it not remain, significantly Jewish?”
In short, I deny the obvious fact that claims decried as “anti-Semitic” are factually true. The same journal claimed that my critique of Israeli politics is just a mask of my Zionist stance which prohibits any critique of Jews: Zizek “went ‘full Monty’ during his recent visit to Tel Aviv at the invitation of some sincerely dissident Israelis. They expected words of encouragement, but instead he informed them that fighting anti-Semitism is more important than defending Palestinians.” This, so it seems, is how “a philosophical mastermind of European anti-Semitism” speaks.
Do I then posit myself in the middle, opposing both of these extremes? No, both extremes are for me false, they belong to the same side. Which, then, is MY side?
Let me begin by addressing the truly problematic part of my comment: I was wrong, I committed an unpardonable mistake in using the phrase “the trouble with Jews” (the text has since been edited and now reads “the trouble with the settlement project”) which effectively can be understood as implying that some “trouble” pertains to the very identity of being a Jew. This understanding clearly runs against the basic premise of my text which is that the proponents of full annexation of the West Bank are betraying the emancipatory core of the Jewish tradition itself. Yes, in some sense, there is a “trouble with Jews”: they are the troubling element for every politics of organic national identity, and that’s what makes anti-Semitism a universal and reliable sign that something is wrong with such politics.
So to whom do I owe an unreserved apology? Not to those who are attacking me – they have their own “trouble with Palestinians” – but to those (like Gideon Levy) who remain faithful to the true Jewish legacy. Rabbi Mirvis wrote in his infamous letter: “a new poison – sanctioned from the top – has taken root in the Labour Party.” My answer to this is that a new poison – sanctioned from the top – has taken root in Israeli politics. In Haaretz on December 8, Levy begins his comment “From Now On, Every Palestinian Is an anti-Semite” with:“The plague is spreading. Under cover of the (just) war against anti-Semitism, Europe and the United States silence every voice daring to criticize Israel. Under cover of this war, they are undermining their freedom of speech. Incredibly, this new phenomenon is not triggering any protest, as one would expect. Laws labeling anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism and the anti-occupation movement as anti-Semitic, are passed with overwhelming majorities. Now they are playing into the hands of Israel and the Jewish establishment, but they are liable to ignite anti-Semitism when questions arise about the extent of their meddling.”THIS is the plague that threatens the soul of the Jewish nation. Why, then, did I commit my unpardonable mistake? The problematic words appear after my reference to Finkielkraut’s claim: “The Jews, they have today chosen the path of rooting.” I go on: “No wonder many conservative anti-Semites ferociously support the expansion of the State of Israel. However, the trouble with Jews today is that they are now trying to get roots in a place which was for thousands of years inhabited by other people.” “The Jews” I refer to here are clearly those who have “chosen the path of rooting” which implies curtailing the rights of those who already live in the land of their “roots.”
I don’t want to dwell on the details of the attacks on me which are a mixture of rather stupid misunderstanding and intentional malevolence. Let me briefly answer just a couple of them. (I am grateful to two of my good friends – a Palestinian, Jamil Khader, and a Jew, Udi Aloni, for providing me some data I refer to here.)
The attackers claim that no conservative anti-Semites are supporting the expansion of the State of Israel. Really? Let me mention just one extreme example: Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian Rightist “Marxist hunter” who in 2011 went on a killing spree with more than 70 dead. In his Manifesto, he declares himself anti-Semitic AND pro-Israel. The State of Israel is the first defence line against the Muslim expansion – he even wants to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt. But Jews in the West are OK only as long as there aren’t too many of them: “There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800,000 out of these 1 million live in France and the UK. The US on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews, actually has a considerable Jewish problem,” Breivik wrote in his ‘manifesto’.
And is an example of how supporting Israel unconditionally becomes a license to peddle anti-Semitic tropes not Trump himself? The title of a recent report in Newsweek tells it all: “Jewish Groups Blast Trump’s ‘Anti-Semitic’ Remarks, Warning They Could Have ‘Deadly Consequences’”.
Next reproach: I ignore history which gives Jews the right to the West Bank. Really? If history proves anything, it is that we are all strangers in a strange land, beginning with the Jews themselves. They were thrown out of their land by the Romans, not Arabs, and how did they obtain this land? According to the Old Testament, they were not its first inhabitants: after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, when they arrived on the edge of the Promised Land, God commanded them to destroy totally the people already settled there (the Canaanites), not leaving alive “anything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:16). The book of Joshua records the carrying out of this command: “they devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys”(6:21).
Does this mean that Jews are somehow guilty of an original act of ethnic cleansing? Absolutely not: in ancient (and not so ancient) times, more or less ALL religious and ethnic groups functioned like that, the Buddhist ones included. But what we should unambiguously reject is the reference to ancient sacred texts as a direct legitimization of contemporary land-grabbing politics – when others (Muslims, Hindus, etc) are doing this, it is called religious fundamentalism.
The third reproach: the two-state solution is still an accepted frame of solving the West Bank problem. Really? Is this solution not de facto gradually abandoned? What is replacing it is more and more openly signaled by our media – just look at Caroline B. Glick’s NYT column, ‘There Should Be No Palestinian State’ where she claims that those who propose to recognize Palestine as a state “are advancing Israel’s ruin. /…/ the phony two-state solution /.../ is merely doublespeak for seeking Israel’s destruction and its replacement with a terror state”.
Far from standing for an extremist minority view, this stance just renders explicit the strategic orientation of the State of Israel in the last decades: the disposition of new settlements (with a large number of them in the east, close to Jordanian border) makes it clear that a West Bank Palestinian state is out of the question.
In December 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu warned New Zealand that the UN resolution it co-sponsored was a “declaration of war” against Israel – but this resolution (which called for Israel to stop building settlements on occupied Palestinian land, declaring the settlements “illegal”) merely re-stated the accepted international position. So is the EU also declaring war on Israel?
On December 6, the US congress passed a resolution which declares that “only the outcome of a two-state solution… can both ensure the state of Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state and fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state of their own.” Are they also declaring war on Israel? But who cares – the life of occupation goes on, and its direction is clearly signaled by the maps in the Israeli school system which are not showing the West Bank territories as a separate entity, not even as a disputed territory, but as part of Israel.
Am I really obsessed by criticizing just Israel, ignoring other cases of criminal behaviour? A quick look at my work shows that I ferociously criticized Arab anti-Semitism, Turkish attack on Kurds, Iranian politics, China, Russia… I don’t call for the destruction of Israel, I don’t support any form of terror, in my comment I just insist that the West Bank is not simply and exclusively Jewish, that others also have a (perhaps even greater) right to it, and that the critique of Israeli politics of annexation is regularly read as an expression of anti-Semitism and abused for anti-Leftist purposes.
Do the attacks on me not confirm these fears of mine? The anti-Leftist campaign goes on and on – an Israeli-based group uses Facebook to spread disinformation to more than a million followers around the world, singling out Muslim US congresswomen, Jeremy Corbyn was just rated Top Anti-Semite of 2019 by Simon Wiesenthal Center (ahead of actual terrorists), and even Bernie Sanders is now added to the list of anti-Semites.
Against this ominous orientation, I remain faithful to the title of my comment: I am against anti-Semitism and FOR THIS REASON I express solidarity with Palestinians.
Sunday, December 8, 2019
Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
Capturing the Moral High Ground and Other Cyclopian 'Master' Fallacies
Today, the charge of antisemitism is addressed at anyone who critiques Israeli policy
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that, if you are attacked for the same text by both sides in a political conflict, this is one of the few reliable signs that you are on the right path. In the last decades, I have been attacked by a number of very different political actors (often on account of the same text!) for antisemitism, up to advocating a new Holocaust, and for perfidious Zionist propaganda (see the last issue of the antiemetic Occidental Observer). So I think I’ve earned the right to comment on the recent accusations against the Labour Party regarding its alleged tolerance of antisemitism.
I, of course, indisputably reject antisemitism in all its forms, including the idea that one can sometimes ”understand” it, as in: “considering what Israel is doing on the West Bank, one shouldn’t be surprised if this gives birth to antisemitic reactions”. More precisely, I reject the two symmetrical versions of this last argument: “we should understand occasional Palestinian antisemitism since they suffer a lot” as well as “we should understand aggressive Zionism in view of the Holocaust.” One should, of course, also reject the compromise version: “both sides have a point, so let’s find a middle way…”.
Along the same lines, we should supplement the standard Israeli point that the (permissible) critique of Israeli policy can serve as a cover for the (unacceptable) antisemitism with its no less pertinent reversal: the accusation of antisemitism is often invoked to discredit a totally justified critique of Israeli politics. Where, exactly, does legitimate critique of Israeli policy become antisemitism? More and more, mere sympathy for the Palestinian resistance is condemned as antisemitic. Take the two-state solution: while decades ago it was the standard international position, it is more and more proclaimed a threat to Israel's existence and thus antisemitic.
Things get really ominous when Zionism itself evokes the traditional antisemitic cliché of roots. Alain Finkielkraut wrote in 2015 in a letter to Le Monde: “The Jews, they have today chosen the path of rooting.” It is easy to discern in this claim an echo of Heidegger who said, in a Der Spiegel interview, that all essential and great things can only emerge from our having a homeland, from being rooted in a tradition. The irony is that we are dealing here with a weird attempt to mobilise antisemitic clichés in order to legitimize Zionism: antisemitism reproaches the Jews for being rootless; Zionism tries to correct this failure by belatedly providing Jews with roots. No wonder many conservative antisemites ferociously support the expansion of the State of Israel.
However, the trouble with Jews today is that they are now trying to get roots in a place which was for thousands of years inhabited by other people. That’s why I find obscene a recent claim by Ayelet Shaked, the former Israeli justice minister: “The Jewish People have the legal and moral right to live in their ancient homeland.” What about the rights of Palestinians?
For me, the only way out of this conundrum is the ethical one: there is ultimately no conflict between the struggle against antisemitism and the struggle against what the State of Israel is now doing on the West Bank. The two struggles are part of one and the same struggle for emancipation. Let’s mention a concrete case. Some weeks ago, Zarah Sultana, a Labour candidate, apologised for a Facebook post in which she backed the Palestinian right to “violent resistance”: “I do not support violence and I should not have articulated my anger in the manner I did, for which I apologize.” I fully support her apology, we should not play with violence, but I nonetheless feel obliged to add that what Israel is now doing on West Bank is also a form of violence. No doubts that Israel sincerely wants peace on the West Bank; occupiers by definition want peace in their occupied land, since it means no resistance. So if Jews are in any way threatened in the UK, I unconditionally and unequivocally condemn it and support all legal measures to combat it–but am I permitted to add that Palestinians in the West Bank are much more under threat than Jews in the UK?
Without mentioning Corbyn by name, the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis recently wrote in an article for the Times that “a new poison–sanctioned from the top–has taken root in the Labour Party.” He conceded: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote,” though went on to add: “When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.” I find this presentation of a political choice as a purely moral one ethically disgusting–it reminds me of how, decades ago, the Catholic Church in Italy did not explicitly order citizens to vote for Christian Democracy, but just said that they should vote for a party which is Christian and democratic.
Today, the charge of antisemitism is more and more addressed at anyone who deviates from the acceptable left-liberal establishment towards a more radical left–can one imagine a more repellent and cynical manipulation of the Holocaust? When protests against the Israel Defense Forces' activities in the West Bank are denounced as an expression of antisemitism, and (implicitly, at least) put in the same line as Holocaust deniers–that is to say, when the shadow of the Holocaust is permanently evoked in order to neutralise any criticism of Israeli military and political operations–it is not enough to insist on the difference between antisemitism and the critique of particular measures of the State of Israel. One should go a step further and claim that it is the State of Israel that, in this case, is desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims, ruthlessly using them as an instrument to legitimise present political measures.
As Mirvis wrote, the soul of our nation is indeed at stake here–but also, the soul of the Jewish nation. Will Jews follow Finkielkraut and “take roots”, using their sacred history as an ideological excuse, or will they remember that ultimately we are all strangers in a strange land? Will Jews allow Israel to turn into another fundamentalist nation-state, or remain faithful to the legacy that made them a key factor in the rise of modern civil society? (Remember that there is no Enlightenment without the Jews.) For me, to fully support Israeli politics in the West Bank is a betrayal not just of some abstract global ethics, but of the most precious part of Jewish ethical tradition itself.
Thursday, November 28, 2019
Society and Its' Discontents
Three decades after the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, there's now unease about liberal capitalism. It's benefitting the global Right more than leftists.
Today, it’s commonplace to emphasize the “miraculous” nature of the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago, this month. Back then, it was like a dream come true, something unimaginable even a couple of months earlier. Soon after, the Communist regimes collapsed like a house of cards.
Who, before then, in Poland could have imagined free elections with Lech Walesa as president? However, one should add that an even greater “miracle” happened only a couple of years later: the return of the ex-Communists to power through free democratic elections. Walesa was soon totally marginalized and much less popular than General Wojciech Jaruzelski who, a decade and a half earlier, crushed Solidarity with the military coup d’etat.
At this point, one usually mentions “capitalist realism”: East Europeans simply didn’t possess a realistic image of capitalism. They were full of immature utopian expectations. The morning after the enthusiasm of the drunken days of victory, people had to sober up and undergo a painful process of learning the rules of the new reality, i.e., the price one has to pay for political and economic freedom. It was, effectively, as if the European Left had to die twice: first as the “totalitarian” Communist Left, then as the moderate democratic Left which, since the 1990's, has been gradually losing ground.
However, things are a little bit more complex. When people protested against the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, what the large majority had in mind was not capitalism. They wanted social security, solidarity, and justice. They wanted the freedom to live their own lives outside state control and to come together and talk as they pleased. They wanted a life of simple honesty and sincerity, liberated from primitive ideological indoctrination and the prevailing cynical hypocrisy.
In short, the vague ideals that inspired the protesters were to a large extent taken from the socialist ideology itself. And, as we learned from Freud, what is repressed often returns in a distorted form – in our case, what was repressed from the dissident imaginary returned in the guise of rightist populism.
No wonder how, after a long time of preaching openness and globalization, developed countries are now into building new walls, because the new formula is free movement of commodities instead of free movement of people.
In his interpretation of the fall of East European Communism, Jurgen Habermas proved to be the ultimate Left Fukuyamaist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic order is the best possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, etc., we should not challenge its basic premises.
This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-Communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that these protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-Communist future – as he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just what he called “rectifying” or “catch-up” revolutions: their aim was to enable central and eastern European societies to gain what the western Europeans already possessed. In other words, to return to European “normality.”
However, the likes of the Yellow Vests, and other similar protests, are definitely NOT catch-up movements. They embody the weird reversal that characterizes today’s global situation. The old antagonism between “ordinary people” and the financial-capitalist elites is back with a vengeance, with “ordinary people” exploding in protest against elites accused of being blind to their suffering and demands.
Yet, what is new is that the populist Right proved to be much more adept in channeling these explosions in its direction than the Left. Alain Badiou was thus fully justified to say apropos the Yellow Vests: “Tout ce qui bouge n'est pas rouge” – “all that moves (creates unrest) is not red.”
Today’s populist Right participates in the long tradition of popular protests which were predominantly leftist. Some revolts today (Catalonia, Hong Kong) can even be considered a case of what is sometimes called the revolts of the rich – remember that Catalonia is, together with Basque country, the richest part of Spain and that Hong Kong is per capita much wealthier than China. There is no solidarity with the exploited and poor of China in Hong Kong, no demand for freedoms for all in China, just the demand to retain one’s privileged position.
Here, then, is the paradox we have to confront: the populist disappointment at liberal democracy is the proof that 1989 and 1990 was not just a catch-up revolution. Instead, it was about something more than achieving liberal-capitalist 'normality'. Freud spoke about Das Unbehagen in der Kultur ( the discontent/unease in culture); today, 30 years after the fall of the Wall, the ongoing new wave of protests bears witness of a kind of Unbehagen in liberal capitalism, and the key question is: who will articulate this discontent? Will it be left to nationalist populists to exploit it? Therein resides the big conundrum facing the Left.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
A Paradox of Capital?
In his recent re-reading of Marx's Capital, Fredric Jameson identifies the inherent contradiction of the world market: that it is the very success of capitalism (higher productivity, and so forth) which produces unemployment (renders more and more workers useless), and thus that what should be a blessing (less hard labour required) becomes a curse.
As Jameson puts it, the world market is thus "a space in which everyone has once been a productive laborer, and in which labor has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system." That is to say, in the ongoing process of capitalist globalization, the category of the unemployed acquires a new dimension beyond the classic notion of the "reserve army of labor," and should now include"those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, 'dropped out of history', who have been deliberately excluded from the modernizing projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases."We should thus include among the unemployed those so-called "failed states" (like Congo and Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disasters, those trapped in pseudo-archaic "ethnic hatreds," objects of philanthropy or (often the same people) of the "war on terror."
The category of the unemployed should thus be expanded to encompass a wide range of the global population, from the temporary unemployed, through the no-longer employable and permanently unemployed, up to people living in slums and other types of ghettos (that is, all those often dismissed by Marx himself as "lumpen-proletarians") and, finally, all those areas, populations or states excluded from the global capitalist process, like blank spaces in ancient maps.
Does not this extension of the circle of the "unemployed" point to the fact that what once lay in the inert background of History becomes a potential agent of emancipatory struggle? Just recall Marx's dismissive characterization of the French peasants in his Eighteenth Brumaire:"the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes ... Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented."In the great twentieth-century revolutionary mobilizations of peasants (from China to Bolivia), these "sacks of potatoes" excluded from the historical process began actively to represent themselves.
But Jameson then makes the crucial observation that this new category of the "unemployed" is itself a form of capitalist exploitation - the exploited are not only workers producing surplus-value appropriated by capital, they also include those structurally prevented from getting caught up in the capitalist vortex of exploited wage labour, including entire geographical zones and even nation states.
This demands, then, that we rethink the concept of exploitation. Today, the exploited are not only those who produce or "create," but also (and even more so) those who are condemned not to "create." Everything hinges here on the fact that the capitalist mechanism not only needs workers, but also generates a "reserve army" of those who cannot find work: the latter are not simply outside the circulation of capital, they are actively produced as not-working by this circulation.
The importance of this shift of accent onto exploitation becomes clear when we oppose it to domination, the favourite motif of different versions of the postmodern "micro-politics of power." To put it simply, the influential theories of Michel Foucault and Giorio Agamben are insufficient: all their detailed elaborations of the regulatory power mechanisms of domination, along with their conceptions of bare life, homo sacer, and so on, they all must be grounded in (or mediated by) the centrality of exploitation. As Jameson rightly insists, without this reference to the economic, the fight against domination remains:"an essentially moral or ethical one, which leads to punctual revolts and acts of resistance rather than to the transformation of the mode of production as such."In other words, the outcome of the emphasis on domination is a democratic program, while the outcome of the emphasis on exploitation is a communist program. There lies the limit of describing the horrors of the Third World in terms of the effects of domination: the goal becomes democracy and freedom.
What this notion of domination fails to register is that only in capitalism is exploitation "naturalized," inscribed into the functioning of the economy. Domination is not the result of extra-economic pressure and violence, and this is why, in capitalism, we have personal freedom and equality: there is no need for direct social domination, because domination is already inscribed in the structure of the production process.
This is also why the category of surplus-value is crucial: Marx always emphasized that the exchange between worker and capitalist is "just" in the sense that workers (as a rule) get paid the full value of their labour-power as a commodity. There is no direct "exploitation" here - that is, it is not that workers "are not paid the full value of the commodity they are selling to the capitalists." So while in a market economy I remain de facto dependent, this dependency is nonetheless "civilized," realized in the form of a "free" market exchange between me and other persons instead of in the form of direct servitude or even physical coercion.
It is easy to ridicule Ayn Rand, but there is a grain of truth in the famous "hymn to money" from her Atlas Shrugged:"Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice - there is no other."Did Marx not say something similar in his well-known formula of how, in the universe of commodities, "relations between people assume the guise of relations among things"? In the market economy, relations between people can appear as relations of mutually recognized freedom and equality: domination is no longer directly enacted and visible as such.
The liberal answer to domination is recognition - recognition, according to Jameson, thus "becomes a stake in a multicultural settlement by which the various groups peaceably and electorally divide up the spoils." The subjects of recognition are not classes (it is meaningless to demand the recognition of the proletariat as a collective subject - if anything, fascism does this, demanding the mutual recognition of classes). Subjects of recognition are those defined by race, gender and so on - the politics of recognition remains within the framework of bourgeois civil society, it is not yet class politics.
The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a "new world" (just think of Mandela in South Africa or Lula in Brazil) - but, then, sooner or later, they confront the key dilemma: whether to dare to mess with the capitalist mechanism, or to just "play the game"? If one disturbs the mechanism, one will be very swiftly "punished" by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest.
So although it is true that anti-capitalism cannot be the direct goal of political action - in politics, one opposes concrete political agents and their actions, not an anonymous "system" - we should apply here the Lacanian distinction between goal and aim: anti-capitalism, if not the immediate goal of emancipator politics, should be its ultimate aim, the horizon of all its activity.
Is this not the lesson of Marx's notion of the "critique of political economy"? Although the sphere of the economy appears "apolitical," it is the secret point of reference and structuring principle of political struggles.
Returning to Rand, what is problematic is her underlying premise: that the only choice is between direct and indirect relations of domination and exploitation, with any alternative dismissed as utopian. However, as I've already said, we should nonetheless recognize the moment of truth in Rand's otherwise ridiculously ideological claim: the great lesson of state socialism was indeed that an immediate abolition of private property and market-regulated exchange, in the absence of concrete forms of social regulation of the process of production, necessarily resuscitates direct relations of servitude and domination.
Fredric Jameson himself falls short with regard to this point. By focusing on how capitalist exploitation is compatible with democracy, how legal freedom can be the very form of exploitation, he ignores the sad lesson of the twentieth-century experience of the left: if we merely abolish the market (including market exploitation) without replacing it with an adequate form of communist organization of production and exchange, domination returns with a vengeance, and with it direct exploitation.
What further complicates the situation is that the rise of blank spaces in global capitalism is in itself also a proof that capitalism can no longer afford a universal civil order of freedom and democracy, that it increasingly requires exclusion and domination.
The case of Tien An Mien crackdown in China is exemplary here: what was quashed by the brutal military intervention was not the prospect of a quick entry into the liberal-democratic capitalist order, but the genuinely utopian possibility of a more democratic and more just society. The explosion of brutal capitalism after 1990 thus went hand in hand with the reassertion of non-democratic Party rule. 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 similar is happening today in China: it was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist Party.
This, of course, raises the immediate question of what to do after the Occupy movement, when the protests which started on the periphery (the Middle East and Greece), reached the centre (the United States and the UK) and then gained strength and multiplied around the world?
What should be resisted at this stage is precisely a quick translation of the energy of protest into a set of "concrete" practical demands. The protests did create a vacuum - a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, since it is pregnant, an opening for the truly New.
What we should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on the enemy's turf: time is needed to deploy the new content. All we say now can be coopted and reappropriated and recycled - everything except our silence. This silence, this rejection of dialogue, of all forms of clinching, is our "terror" - ominous and threatening as it should be.
Evoking Herman Melville's emblematic figure of Bartleby, the protesters of Occupy Wall Street were not saying only that they would prefer not to participate in the dance of capital and its circulation, they would also "prefer not to" cast a critical vote (for "our" candidates) or engage in any form of "constructive dialogue." This is the gesture of subtraction at its purest, the reduction of all qualitative differences to a purely formal minimal difference which opens up the space for the New.
The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is not an accident: it reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution. The situation is like that of psychoanalysis, where the patient knows the answer (his symptoms are such answers) but doesn't know the question. It is only through the patient work of analysis that the right questions emerge.
There is old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic. A German worker gets a job in Siberia. Aware that his mail will be intercepted and read by censors, he tells his friends:"Let's establish a code: if a letter you receive from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false."After a month, his friends receive the first letter, written in blue ink:"Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls eager to have affairs - the only thing unavailable is red ink."Does this not grasp our situation? In the West, we have all the freedoms we could want - the only thing missing is the "red ink." In other words, we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our un-freedom.
Perhaps this, then, is the role of intellectuals: not to listen to the demands of the protesters and provide clear answers - the protesters themselves are the answers - but rather to pose the right questions. In other words, to give the protesters red ink.
Generation from Opposites
Sunday, November 24, 2019
Saturday, November 23, 2019
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
The Return of the Criollos?
The country's citizens rose up having been forced into becoming the silent majority, officials in Bolivia are in danger of letting history repeat itself
Although I am for over a decade a staunch supporter of Evo Morales, I must admit that, after reading about the confusion after Morales’ disputed electoral victory, I was beset by doubts: did he also succumb to the authoritarian temptation, as it happened to so many radical Leftists in power? However, after a day or two, things became clear.
Brandishing a giant leather-bound bible and declaring herself Bolivia’s interim president, Jeanine Añez, the second-vice president of the country’s Senate, declared: “The Bible has returned to the government palace.” She added: “We want to be a democratic tool of inclusion and unity” – and the transitional cabinet sworn into office did not include a single indigenous person.
This tells it all: although the majority of the population of Bolivia are indigenous or mixed, they were till the rise of Morales de facto excluded from political life, reduced to the silent majority. What happened with Morales was the political awakening of this silent majority which did not fit in the network of capitalist relations.
They were not yet proletarian in the modern sense, they remained locked into their premodern tribal social identities – here is how Alvaro Garcia Linera, Morales’ vice-president, described their lot: “In Bolivia, food was produced by Indigenous farmers, buildings and houses were built by Indigenous workers, streets were cleaned by Indigenous people, and the elite and the middle classes entrusted the care of their children to them. Yet the traditional left seemed oblivious to this and occupied itself only with workers in large-scale industry, paying no attention to their ethnic identity.”
To understand them, we should bring into picture the entire historical weight of their predicament: they are the survivors of perhaps the greatest holocaust in the history of humanity, the obliteration of the indigenous communities by the Spanish and English colonisation of the Americas.
The religious expression of their premodern status is the unique combination of Catholicism and belief in the Pachamama or Mother Earth figure. This is why, although Morales stated that he is a Catholic, in the current Bolivian Constitution (enacted in 2009) the Roman Catholic church lost its official status – its article 4 states: “The State respects and guarantees the freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs, in accordance to every individual’s world view. The State is independent from religion.”
And it is against this affirmation of indigenous culture that Anez’s display of the bible is directed – the message is clear: an open assertion of white religious supremacism, and a no less open attempt to put the silent majority back to their proper subordinate place. From his Mexican exile, Morales already appealed to Pope to intervene, and the Pope’s reaction will tell us a lot. Will Francis react as a true Christian and unambiguously reject the enforced re-Catholisation of Bolivia as what it is, as a political power-play which betrays the emancipatory core of Christianity?
If we leave aside any possible role of lithium in the coup (Bolivia has big reserves of lithium which is needed for batteries in electric cars and it has featured in a number of theories about what brought down Morales), the big question is: why is for over a decade Bolivia such a thorn in the flesh of Western liberal establishment? The reason is a very peculiar one: the surprising fact that the political awakening of premodern tribalism in Bolivia did not result in a new version of the Sendero Luminoso or Khmer Rouge horror show. The reign of Morales was not the usual story of the radical Left in power which screws things up, economically and politically, generating poverty and trying to maintain its power through authoritarian measures. A proof of the non-authoritarian character of the Morales reign is that he didn’t purge army and police of his opponents (which is why they turned against him).
Morales and his followers were, of course, not perfect, they made mistakes, there were conflicts of interests in his movement. However, the overall balance is an outstanding one. Morales not Chavez, he did not have not oil money to quell problems, so his government has to engage in a hard and patient work of solving problems in the poorest country in Latin America. The result was nothing short of a miracle: economy thrived, poverty rate fell, healthcare improved, while all the democratic institutions so dear to liberals continued to function. The Morales government maintained a delicate balance between indigenous forms of communal activity and modern politics, fighting simultaneously for tradition and women rights,
To tell the entire story of the coup – and I am in no doubt it is a coup – in Bolivia, we need a new Assange who will bring out the relevant secret documents. What we can see now is that Morales, Linera and their followers were such a thorn in the flesh of the liberal establishment precisely because they succeeded: for over a decade radical Left was in power and Bolivia did not turn into Cuba or Venezuela. Democratic socialism is possible.
The Repartimiento (Spanish pronunciation: [repaɾtiˈmjento]) (Spanish, "distribution, partition, or division") was a colonial forced labor system imposed upon the indigenous population of Spanish America and the Philippines. In concept it was similar to other tribute-labor systems, such as the mita of the Inca Empire or the corvée of Ancien Régime France: the natives were forced to do low-paid or unpaid labor for a certain number of weeks or months each year on Spanish-owned farms, mines, workshops (obrajes), and public projects. With the New Laws of 1542, the repartimiento was instated to substitute the encomienda system that had come to be seen as abusive and promoting unethical behavior. The repartimiento was not slavery, in that the worker is not owned outright—being free in various respects other than in the dispensation of his or her labor—and the work was intermittent. However, it created slavery-like conditions in certain areas, most notoriously in silver mines of 16th century Peru. In the first decades of the colonization of the Caribbean the word was used for the institution that became the encomienda, which can cause confusion. It was a way for people to pay tribute by doing laborious jobs for the mother country.
The repartimiento, for the most part, replaced the encomienda throughout the Viceroyalty of New Spain by the beginning of the 17th century. In Peru encomiendas lasted longer, and the Quechua word mita frequently was used for repartimiento. There were instances when both systems (repartimiento and encomienda) coexisted.
In practice, a conquistador, or later a Spanish settler or official, would be given and supervised a number of indigenous workers, who would labor in farms or mines, or in the case of the Philippines might also be assigned to the ship yards constructing the Manila galleons. The one in charge of doing the reparto ("distribution") of workers was the Alcalde Mayor (local magistrate) of the city. Native communities that were close to Spanish populations were required to provide a percentage of their people (2-4%) to work in agriculture, construction of houses, streets, etc. The diminution of the number of natives in the Americas due to European diseases (smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus) to which the native populations had no resistance, as well as to desertion from the work fields, led to the substitution of the encomienda system and the creation of privately owned farms and haciendas. Many native people escaped the encomienda and repartimiento by leaving their communities. Some looked for wage labor; others signed contracts (asientos) for six months to a year, during which time the worker was required to be paid a salary (something the Spanish Crown did not enforce or support), and provided living quarters as well as religious services. There were many cases in which both wage and repartimiento laborers worked side-by-side on farms, mines, obrajes or haciendas.
Monday, November 18, 2019
What Todd Phillips’s film tells us about protest movements
Critics weren’t sure how to categorize Joker: is it just a piece of entertainment (like other Batman films), an in-depth study of the genesis of pathological violence, or an exercise in cultural theory? From his radical leftist standpoint, Michael Moore called it ‘a timely piece of social criticism and a perfect illustration of the consequences of America’s current social ills’, pointing out that it explores the protagonist’s origin story, examines the role of bankers, the collapse of healthcare and the divide between rich and poor. However, Joker does not only depict this America, it also raises a ‘discomfiting question’ in Moore’s mind: what if one day the dispossessed decide to fight back?
Before Joker was released, the media and the FBI warned us it may incite violence from incels, though in the event there were no such reports. Rather than feeling inspired to commit acts of violence, viewers ‘will thank this movie for connecting you to a new desire — not to run to the nearest exit to save your own ass but rather to stand and fight and focus your attention on the nonviolent power you hold in your hands every single day,’ as Moore puts it.
But does it really work like that? The ‘new desire’ he mentions is not Joker’s desire – at the film’s end, the anti-hero is powerless, and his violent outbursts are just impotent explosions of rage, expressions of his basic powerlessness. The paradox is that you become truly violent (in the sense of posing a threat to the existing system) only when you renounce physical violence. This does not mean that Joker’s actions are futile – the lesson of the film is that we have to go through this zero-point to liberate ourselves from the illusions that pertain to the existing order.
Among other things, our immersion into the dark world of Joker cures us of politically correct illusions and simplifications, like sexual consent for example. In this world, you cannot take seriously the idea that consent to sexual relations makes them truly consensual. The ‘consent discourse’ is itself a huge sham. It is a naive effort to overlay a neat-and-tidy intelligible egalitarian language of social justice over the dark, discomforting, relentlessly cruel, traumatic realm of sexuality. People do not know what they want, they are disturbed by what they desire, they desire things that they hate, they hate their mothers but want to fuck their mothers, and so on, for eternity. We can easily imagine Joker reacting with wild laughter to the claim that ‘it was consensual, so it was OK’, since that’s how his mother ruined his life.
To quote Arthur from the film: ‘I’ve got nothing left to lose. Nothing can hurt me anymore. My life is nothing but a comedy.’ This zero-point is today’s version of what was once called a proletarian position, the experience of those who have nothing to lose. This is where the idea that Trump is a kind of Joker in power finds its limit: Trump definitely did not go through this zero-point. He may be an obscene clown in his own way, but he is not a Joker figure – it’s an insult to Joker to compare him with Trump.
Trump is obscene in acting the way he acts, but in this way he merely brings out the obscenity that is the obverse of the law itself. There is nothing suicidal about Trump’s boasting of how he breaks the rules, it is simply part of his message that he is a tough guy beset by corrupt elites, and that his transgressions are necessary because only a rule breaker can crush the power of the Washington swamp. To read this well-planned and very rational strategy in terms of death-drive is yet another example of how it is the left-liberals who are really on a suicidal mission, giving rise to the impression that they are engaged in bureaucratic-legal nagging while the president is doing a good job for the country.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker is the only figure of truth: the goal of his terrorist attacks on Gotham City is made clear. They will stop when Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true identity. What, then, is Joker who wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this disclosure will destroy the social order? He is not a man without a mask, but, on the contrary, a man fully identified with his mask, a man who IS his mask – there is nothing, no ‘ordinary guy’, beneath it. Nolan’s Joker has no back-story and lacks any clear motivation: he tells different people different stories about his scars, mocking the idea that he should have some deep-rooted trauma that drives him.
Joker becomes Joker at a precise moment in the film, when he says: ‘You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it’s a fucking comedy.’ Because of this act, Joker may not be moral, but he is ethical. We should take note of the exact moment when Arthur says this: while, standing by the side of his mother’s bed, he takes her pillow and uses it to smother her to death. Who, then, is his mother? ‘She always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She says I was put here to spread joy and laughter.’ Is this not maternal superego at its purest? No wonder she calls him Happy, not Arthur. He gets rid of his mother’s hold on him (by killing her) through fully identifying with her command to laugh. His propensity to compulsive and uncontrollable outbursts of laughter is paradoxical: it is quite literally extimate (to use Lacan’s neologism), intimate and external. Arthur insists that it forms the very core of his subjectivity: ‘Remember you used to tell me that my laugh was a condition, that there was something wrong with me? It isn’t. That’s the real me.’ But it is external to him, to his personality, experienced by him as an automated partial object that he cannot control and that he ends up fully identifying with. The paradox here is that in the standard Oedipal scenario, it is the Name-of-the-Father which enables an individual to escape the clutches of maternal desire; with Joker, paternal function is nowhere to be seen, so that the subject can outdo mother only by over-identifying with her superego command.
At the film’s end, Joker is a new tribal leader with no political program, just an explosion of negativity – in his conversation with Murray, Arthur insists twice that his act is not political. Referring to his clown makeup, Murray asks him: ‘What’s with the face? I mean, are you part of the protest?’ Arthur replies: ‘No, I don’t believe any of that. I don’t believe in anything. I just thought it’d be good for my act.’ And, again, later: ‘I’m not political. I’m just trying to make people laugh.’
There is no militant left in the film’s universe, it’s just a flat world of globalized violence and corruption. Charity events are depicted as what they are: if a mother Theresa figure were there she would participate in the charity event organized by Wayne, a humanitarian amusement of the privileged rich. However, it’s difficult to imagine a more stupid critique of Joker than the reproach that it doesn’t portray a positive alternative to the Joker revolt. Just imagine a film shot along these lines: an edifying story about how the poor, unemployed, with no health coverage, the victims of street gangs and police brutality, etc, organize non-violent protests and strikes to mobilize public opinion – a new non-racial version of Martin Luther King. It would be an extremely boring film, lacking the crazy excesses that makes Joker such an attractive film for viewers.
Here we get to the crux of the matter: since it seems obvious to a leftist that such non-violent protests and strikes are the only way to proceed to exert efficient pressure on those in power, are we dealing here with a simple gap between political logic and narrative efficiency? To put it bluntly, brutal outbursts like those of Joker are as damaging as they are effective, but they make for an interesting story. My hypothesis is that you have to go through the self-destructive zero-level for which Joker stands – not actually, but you have to experience it as a threat, as a possibility. Only in this way can you break out of the coordinates of the existing system and envisage something truly new.
In his interpretation of the fall of East European Communism, Habermas proved to be the ultimate left Fukuyamaist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic is the best possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, et cetera, we should not challenge its basic premises. This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-Communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that this protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-Communist future – as he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just what he called ‘rectifying’ or ‘catch-up’ revolutions: their aim was to enable central and eastern European societies to gain what the western Europeans already possessed, i.e., to rejoin the Western normality. However, the ongoing wave of protests in different parts of the world tends to question this very frame – and this is why figures like ‘jokers’ accompany them.
When a movement questions the fundamentals of the existing order, its very foundations, it is almost impossible to get just peaceful protests without violent excesses. The elegance of Joker resides in how the move from self-destructive drive to a ‘new desire’ for an emancipatory political project is absent from the film’s storyline: we, the spectators, are solicited to fill in this absence.
Sunday, November 10, 2019
Tributes - Cornstalk
Cornstalk (Shawnee: Hokoleskwa or Hokolesqua) (ca. 1720 – November 10, 1777) was a prominent leader of the Shawnee nation just prior to the American Revolution (1775-1783). His name, Hokoleskwa, translates loosely into "stalk of corn" in English, and is spelled Colesqua in some accounts. He was also known as Keigh-tugh-qua and Wynepuechsika.
Cornstalk opposed European settlement west of the Ohio River in his youth, but he later became an advocate for peace after the Battle of Point Pleasant (1774). His murder by American militiamen at Fort Randolph during a diplomatic visit in November 1777 outraged both American Indians and Virginians.
Historians believe he may have been born in present-day Pennsylvania, and moved to the Ohio Country, near present-day Chillicothe, with his sister, Nonhelema, when the Shawnee fell back before expanding white settlement. Stories tell of Cornstalk's participation in the French and Indian War (1754–1763), though these are probably apocryphal. His alleged participation in Pontiac's Rebellion (1763–1766) is also unverified, though he did take part in the peace negotiations.
Cornstalk played a central role in Dunmore's War of 1774. After the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, settlers and land speculators moved into the lands south of the Ohio River in present-day West Virginia and Kentucky. Although the Iroquois had agreed to cede the land, the Shawnee and others had not been present at the Fort Stanwix negotiations. They still claimed this area as their hunting grounds. Clashes soon took place over this. Cornstalk tried unsuccessfully to prevent escalation of the hostilities.
Attempting to block a Virginian invasion of the Ohio country, Cornstalk led a force of Shawnee and Mingo warriors at the Battle of Point Pleasant. His attack, although ferociously made, was beaten back by the Virginians. Cornstalk retreated and would reluctantly accept the Ohio River as the boundary of Shawnee lands in the Treaty of Camp Charlotte.
Cornstalk's commanding presence often impressed American colonials. A Virginia officer, Col. Benjamin Wilson, wrote of Cornstalk's speech to Lord Dunmore at Camp Charlotte in 1774: "I have heard the first orators in Virginia, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, but never have I heard one whose powers of delivery surpassed those of Cornstalk on that occasion."
With the American Revolution begun, Cornstalk worked to keep his people neutral. He represented the Shawnee at treaty councils at Fort Pitt in 1775 and 1776, the first Indian treaties ever negotiated by the United States. Many Shawnees nevertheless hoped to use British aid to reclaim their lands lost to the settlers. By the winter of 1776, the Shawnee were effectively divided into a neutral faction led by Cornstalk, and militant bands led by men such as Blue Jacket.
In the fall of 1777, Cornstalk made a diplomatic visit to Fort Randolph, an American fort at present-day Point Pleasant, seeking as always to maintain his faction's neutrality. Cornstalk was detained by the fort commander, who had decided on his own initiative to take hostage any Shawnees who fell into his hands. When, on November 10, an American militiaman from the fort was killed nearby by unknown Indians, angry soldiers brutally executed Cornstalk, his son Elinipsico, and two other Shawnees. Private Jacob McNeil was one of the soldiers who participated in the capture of the Shawnee Chief Cornstalk, and tried to prevent his murder at Fort Randolph (West Virginia). McNeil testified: "That he was one of the guards over the celebrated Indian chief Corn Stalk [sic: Cornstalk or Hokoleskwa] – that when he was murdered [10 Nov 1777] he this affiant did all he could to prevent it – but that it was all in vain the American (soldier)'s exasperated at the depredations of the Indians."
American political and military leaders were alarmed by the murder of Cornstalk; they believed he was their only hope of securing Shawnee neutrality. At the insistence of Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, Cornstalk's killers — whom Henry called "vile assassins" — were eventually brought to trial, but since their fellow soldiers would not testify against them, all were acquitted.
Cornstalk was originally buried at Fort Randolph.
In 1840 Cornstalk's grave was rediscovered and his remains were moved to the Mason County Courthouse grounds. In 1954 the courthouse was torn down and he was reburied in Point Pleasant. A local legend claims that he took his revenge in the 1960s by sending the mysterious Mothman to terrorize Point Pleasant. Legends arose about his dying "curse" being the cause of misfortunes in the area (later supplanted by local "mothman" stories), though no contemporary historical source mentions any such utterance by Cornstalk.
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