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.
Thursday, November 28, 2019
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
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.
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
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
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.
Saturday, November 9, 2019
Thursday, November 7, 2019
Slavoj Zizek, "For-show female empowerment & gender fluidity are simply the latest instruments of corporate capitalism"
Should women unashamedly wear mustaches? Should men abandon their masculinity because it’s ‘toxic’? This is all just a smoke screen capitalist overlords use to hide real issues and stay in power, philosopher Slavoj Zizek believes.
In one of the latest anti-objectification messages, women’s razor brand Billie ran an ad timed to Movember (the annual ‘mustache month’ event), proclaiming that “women have mustaches too” and should not be ashamed to grow them out. It looks like a step in the right direction of gender (identity) equality – but is in fact a drive fueled by the big corporations that do not want people to challenge the existing status quo in more substantial ways, world-renowned philosopher Zizek believes.
Here are his further thoughts on the issue:
Step towards de-sexualization?
I think this is a part of a larger phenomenon, which follows this logic: if women try to be beautiful or to obey the models of beauty in a traditional sense they objectify themselves for men. So women should re-appropriate their bodies in the sense of admitting them in their everyday ugliness – hair, fat, whatever – to de-mystify their bodies, to show that a woman’s body, especially sex organs, is not what they are for the gaze of men but has its own positive function that should be appropriated by women because women cannot be reduced to being objects for men.
One the one hand, I agree with the women’s feeling of oppression but I see a problem with this logic. Let’s face it: sexuality as such involves a certain degree of self-objectification. For example, when I engaged in sexual activity, when I embrace a naked person that I love, I abstract (and that is the imminent logic of sexuality) from all the nasty things that are part of the human body – bad odors, remains of dirt etc. I minimally idealize, in a way, the other’s body. Without this, we approach de-sexualization.
In spite of all the talk about free sexuality liberated from binary heterosexual restraints, what we are basically dealing with here is an attack on sexuality as such.
Push for imaginary sexual freedom will only lead to worse oppression
We all know that human sexuality is not just something biologically predetermined – as the traumatic experiences of transgender people prove. In your psychological identity, you can be a woman trapped in a masculine body, and you are ready to suffer quite a lot to change your body so that it fits your inner psychological identity. All this happens. There is no direct biological determination here.
Yet, to make a big jump from here to a claim that sexual difference is just one among the oppressive constructs of those in power and that we should playfully engage in multiple sexual identities, that it is just a game, and that everything is open and that if we just get rid of the binary heterosexual oppression we will enjoy full free sexuality, is a great mistake. It obliterates the basic lesson of Freudian psychoanalysis, which is that sexuality in itself is something pretty dark.
It is not a happy domain. It is a domain of deep traumas, masochist reversals and so on. That is why it is not enough to claim that if we get rid of this big masculine-feminine gender duality and, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, who said that thousands of flowers should blossom in us, to say that thousands of identities should blossom and all will be happy and live a satisfied sexual life. No, human sexuality, again, is inherently traumatic. It is a big mess, there is no simple formula here.
As experience with political correctness demonstrates, if you try to liberate sexuality in this simplistic sense and get rid of this heterosexual normativity and let all the different forms proliferate, you end up in an even worse oppression.
Everyone should be free to objectify themselves
What many people do not accept is that the problem is not objectification as such – it is not the whole game of sexual seduction, flirting of men and women - it’s that, in some sense, you precisely objectify yourself as you want to present yourself as seductive. The problem is not that there should be no objectification – the problem is that each sexual agent should have the right to control his/her/their objectification.
Let’s not forget that with all the feminist protests against objectifying women what bothers fundamentalists, for example, in Muslim countries is precisely when a woman plays with her own objectification... For example, imitating fellatio, playing with a banana in their mouth. What bothers men is that a woman, in this situation, is not objectified by men, but objectifies herself playfully enacting her objectification for her own pleasure.
Instrument of capitalism
As it is usual with such events, we should not underestimate the degree to which this is a relatively marginal phenomenon. Be sure, most women will not want to grow a mustache and if they want to – let them do what they want. I often detect in these transgender new identities something that I do not like. It is that as once heterosexual standards were imposed oppressing other identities, now, if you read all these texts, in some of them you find the idea that if you are still within the traditional heterosexual sexuality you are somehow retarded. To be truly free, you have to play with your identity and blur all the lines.
I do not agree with this. This idea of freely rearranging, changing your body and playing with identities is something that perfectly fits today’s consumerist capitalism with its infinite dynamics. There is a chance that big companies are already playing these games. Probably some of our readers remember a Gillette ad from about a half a year ago, where a father helps his ex-daughter, who is now a boy, to shave herself for the first time with Gillette. There is absolutely nothing subversive in this ‘play with different identities, experiment with yourself’ attitude. It is simply a perfect form of sexuality for the late consumerist capitalism.
A lesson that we should take from all of this, not just from commercials, which are then sold to us with a progressive twist, but also the fact that – remember two or three years ago transgender movement exploded in the US with this big campaign for toilets that should be open to all sexual identities, not just masculine/feminine – how the entire big corporate US – all the big names like Tim Cook or Zuckerberg – all passionately followed this path and supported it. Unfortunately, this type of struggle for free sexual identities is something that can easily be used as a part of capitalist machinery to oppress more dangerous popular demands, even and especially the authentic feminist protests.
Elites seek to divert female emancipation drive away from changing political status quo
On the one hand, (and I wholeheartedly celebrate and support this) there is some kind of awakening of women. There are forms of feminine subordination, which are part of our tradition from even before class societies, from tribal societies – like woman is passive, subordinated to men. As it is always the case, the establishment tries to redirect this awakening in such a direction that it will not really change power relations. We will get a quota for women, women will be presented in the media more respectfully. But the same power relations will persist in our society. That is what all these fighters against patriarchy do not often get.
In the developed West, the ruling ideology is no longer a patriarchy. It is a kind of false openness which also functions as a way to avoid radical mobilization and radical solutions. When we are focused on whether a woman can wear a beard or a man can put on lipstick, no one wants to talk about the continuing terrifying oppression of women, of the exploding rape culture in Mexico and South Africa. Let’s focus on the struggles in which the real freedom of people will be decided.
Monday, November 4, 2019
The much acclaimed Todd Phillips movie starring Joaquin Phoenix has received its fair share of criticism from almost everyone, from the woke community to the US Army, who all believed it could prompt some "evil" people to commit acts of violence.
Yet, the film's critics have apparently overlooked the underlying message of the movie, world-renowned philosopher Zizek told RT, adding that it is not about some mentally-challenged person, but about the "hopelessness" of our "best ever" political order itself, which many still simply refuse to accept.
Slavoj Zizek, "'System deadlock': Joker artistically diagnoses modern world's ills"
Daily life has become a horror movie
We should congratulate Hollywood and the viewers on two things: that such a film that, let's face it, gives a very dark image of highly developed capitalism, a nightmarish image which led some critics to designate it a 'social horror film', came out. Usually, we have social films, which depict social problems, and then we have horror films. To bring these two genres together, it is only possible when many phenomena in our ordinary social life become phenomena which belong to horror films.
It is even more interesting to see how reactions to the film provide a whole specter of political cohesions in the US. On the one hand, conservatives were afraid that this film would incite violence. It was an absurd claim. No violence was triggered by this film. On the contrary, the film depicts violence and awakens you to the danger of violence.
As it is always the case, some politically correct people feared that the film used racist clichés and celebrates violence. It is also unfair. One of the most interesting positions was that of Michael Moore, a leftist documentarist, who celebrated the film as an honest depiction of reality of those poor, excluded and not covered by healthcare in the US.
His idea is that the film explains how figures like Joker can arise. It is a critical portrayal of reality in the US, which can give birth to people like Joker. I agree with him but I would also like to go a bit further.
'Deadlock of nihilism'
I think what is important is that the figure of Joker in the end, when he identifies with his mask, is a figure of extreme nihilism, self-destructive violence and a crazy laughter at others' despair. There is not positive political project.
The way we should read 'Joker' is that it very wisely abstains from providing a positive image. A leftist critique of 'Joker' could have been: "Yes, it is a good portrayal of reality in the poor slums of the US but where is the positive force? Where are democratic socialists, where are ordinary people organizing themselves?" In this case, it would have been a totally different and a pretty boring film.
The logic of this film is that it leaves it to the spectators to do this. The movie shows sad social reality and a deadlock of the nihilist reaction. In the end, Joker is not free. He is only free in a sense of arriving at a point of total nihilism.It is up to us to decide what we should do.I designated the figure of Joker in a kind of Kazimir Malevich, the Russian avangardist, position when he did this famous painting of the Black Square. It is a kind of minimal protest – a reduction to nothing. Joker simply mocks every authority. It is destructive but lacks a positive project. We have to go through this path of despair.
It is not enough to play the game of those in power. That is the message of 'Joker'. The fact that they could be charitable like Bruce Wayne's father in this latest movie is just a part of the game. You have to get rid of all these liberal stupidities that obfuscate the despair of the situation.
Yet, it is not the final step but a zero level of clearing the table to open up the space for something new. This is how I read the film. It is not a final decadent vision. We have to go through this hell. Now, it is up to us to go further.
Social alarm clock
The danger of explaining just the backstory is to give a kind of a rational explanation that we should understand the figure of Joker. But Joker does not need this. Joker is a creative person in some sense. The crucial moment in the film for his subjective change is when he says: "I used to think my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it's a comedy."
Comedy means for me that at that point he accepts himself in all his despair as a comical figure and gets rid of the last constraints of the old world. That is what he does for us. He is not a figure to imitate. It is wrong to think that what we see towards the end of the film – Joker celebrated by others – is the beginning of some new emancipatory movement. No, it is an ultimate deadlock of the existing system; a society bent on its self-destruction.
The elegance of the film is that it leaves the next step of building a positive alternative to it to us. It is a dark nihilist image meant to awaken us.
Are we ready to face reality?
The leftists who are disturbed by 'Joker' are 'Fukuyama leftists'; those who think that the liberal democratic order is the best possible order and we should just make it more tolerant. In this sense, everyone is a socialist today. Bill Gates says he is for socialism, Mark Zuckerberg says he is for socialism.
The lesson of 'Joker' is that a more radical change is needed; that this is not enough. And that is what all those democratic leftists are not aware of. This dissatisfaction that grows up today is a serious one. The system cannot deal with it with gradual reforms, more tolerance or better healthcare.
These are signs of the need for more radical change.
The true problem is whether we are ready to really experience the hopelessness of our situation. As Joker himself said at a certain moment in the film: "I laugh because I have nothing to lose, I am nobody."
There is also a clever name game here. Joker's real family name is Fleck. In German, fleck is a stain, a meaningless stain. It is like anamorphosis. We need to take a different look to see a new perspective.
I do not trust all those leftist critics who are afraid of its potential. As Moore put it very nicely, you are afraid of violence here, not of real violence in our daily life. To be shocked by violence depicted in the film is just an escape from real violence.
Sunday, November 3, 2019
Consider the strange paradox of Donald Trump’s political stance towards Israel: even while he has been a vocal advocate of Binyamin Netanyahu and his government has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, many of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic. But is this really an inconsistent stance?
A cartoon published back in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse depicted two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sit at a table, and one of them holding a newspaper and commenting to his friend: “Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!” This caricature thereby inverts the standard argument against the critics of the policies of the State of Israel. But when today’s Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli politics reject leftist critiques of Israeli policies, is their implicit line of argumentation not uncannily close to its reasoning?
Remember Anders Breivik, the Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer: he was anti-Semitic, but pro-Israel, since he saw in the State of Israel the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion. He even wanted to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, but he wrote in his “Manifesto”: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 (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem.His figures thus realise the ultimate paradox of the Zionist anti-Semite — and we find the traces of this strange stance more often than one would expect. Reinhard Heydrich himself, the mastermind of the Holocaust, wrote in 1935:We must separate the Jews into two categories, the Zionists and the partisans of assimilation. The Zionists profess a strictly racial concept and, through emigration to Palestine, they help to build their own Jewish State ... our good wishes and our official goodwill go with them.As Frank Ruda has pointed out, today we are witnessing a new version of this Zionist anti-Semitism: Islamophobic respect for Islam. So the same politicians who warn of the danger of the Islamisation of the Christian West — from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin — respectfully congratulate Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for his ever-tightening grip on power. The authoritarian reign of Islam is fine for Turkey, it would seem, but not for the West. We can thus easily imagine a new version of the cartoon from Die Presse, with two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sitting at a table, one of them holding a newspaper and commenting: “Here you can see again how a totally justified Islamophobia is being misused for a cheap critique of Turkey!”
(Samuel) Huntington’s disease
How are we to understand this weird logic? It is a reaction, a false cure, to the great social disease of our time. Typically, the first symptoms of Huntington’s disease are jerky, random and uncontrollable movements called chorea. Chorea may initially manifest as general restlessness, small unintentional or uncompleted motions, lack of coordination.
Does an explosion of brutal populism not look quite similar? It begins with what appear to be random acts of excessive violence against immigrants, outbursts which lack coordination and merely express a general unease and restlessness apropos of “foreign intruders,” but then it gradually grows into a well-coordinated and ideologically grounded movement: what the other Huntington — that is, Samuel — called “the clash of civilizations.” This fortuitous coincidence is telling: what is usually referred to under this term is effectively the Huntington’s disease of today’s global capitalism.
According to Samuel Huntington, after the end of the Cold War, the “iron curtain of ideology” had been replaced by the “velvet curtain of culture.” Huntington’s dark vision of the “clash of civilizations” may appear to be the very opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s bright prospect of the “end of history” in the guise of a world-wide liberal democracy. What could be more different from Fukuyama’s pseudo-Hegelian idea that the final formula of the best possible social order was found in capitalist liberal democracy, than a “clash of civilizations” as the fundamental political struggle in the twenty-first century? How, then, do the two fit together?
From today’s experience, the answer is clear: the “clash of civilizations” is politics at “the end of history.” The ethnic-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which fits global capitalism: in our age of post-politics, when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (ethnic, religious) tensions. Today’s rise of “irrational” violence is thus to be conceived of as strictly correlative to the depoliticization of our societies — that is, to the disappearance of the political dimension proper, and its translation into different levels of “administration” of social affairs.
If we accept this thesis concerning the “clash of civilizations,” the only alternative to it remains the peaceful coexistence of civilizations (or of “ways of life” — a more popular term today): so forced marriages, misogynistic violence and homophobia are fine, just as long as they are confined to another country which is otherwise fully included in the world market.
The New World Order (NWO) that is emerging is thus no longer the Fukuyamaist NWO of global liberal democracy, but the NWO of the peaceful coexistence of different politico-theological ways of life — coexistence, of course, against the background of the smooth functioning of global capitalism. The obscenity of this process is that it can present itself as progress in the anti-colonial struggle: the liberal West will no longer be allowed to impose its standards on others; all ways of life will be treated as equal.
It is little wonder, then, that Robert Mugabe exhibited such enthusiasm for Trump’s slogan “America first!”: “America first!” for you, “Zimbabwe first!” for me, “India first!” or “North Korea first!” for them. This is already how the British Empire, the first global capitalist empire, functioned: each ethnic-religious community was allowed to pursue its own way of life (for instance, honour killings or the burning of widows by Hindus in India were permitted). While these local “customs” were either criticised as barbaric or praised for their premodern wisdom, they were tolerated because what mattered was that they remained economically part of the Empire.
There is thus something deeply hypocritical about those liberals who criticise the slogan “America first!” — as if this is not more or less what every country is doing; as if America did not play a global role precisely because it suited its own interests. The underlying message of “America first!” is nonetheless a sad one: the American century is over; American exceptionalism is no more; America has resigned itself to being just one among the nations. The supreme irony is that the leftists, who for a long time criticised the US pretension to be the global policeman, may begin to long for the good old days when, hypocrisy notwithstanding, the United States imposed democratic standards onto the world.
We can see what “America first!” means in the outrage that followed reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. Of course, I agree that Putin’s regime should be relentlessly criticised — but, in this case, has not the United States regularly done the same thing? Did a US team not help Boris Yeltsin win a key election in Russia? And what about the United States’ active support for the Maidan uprising in Ukraine? This is “America first!” in practice: when they are doing it, it’s a dangerous plot; when we are doing it, it’s supporting democracy.
In this NWO, universality will more and more be reduced to tolerance — tolerance for different “ways of life.” Following the formula of Zionist anti-Semitism, there will be no contradiction between imposing in our own countries the strictest “politically correct” pro-feminist rules and simultaneously rejecting any critique of the dark side of Islam as neocolonialist arrogance.
From private capital to state power
In this New World Order, there will be less and less place for figures like Julian Assange, who, in spite of all his problematic gestures, remains today’s most powerful symbol of what Kant called “the public use of reason” — a space for public knowledge and debate outside of state control. Following his arrest, it is clear what lies ahead: Wikileaks will be declared a terrorist organization, and rather than genuine advocates of public space like Assange, public figures who exemplify the privatization of our commons will predominate. The figure of Elon Musk is emblematic here: he belongs to the same series with Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg — all “socially conscious” billionaires. They stand for global capital at its most seductive and “progressive” — which is to say, at its most dangerous.
Musk likes to warn about the threats that new technologies pose to human dignity and freedom — which, of course, doesn’t prevent him from investing in a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, a company which is focussed on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interface with computing devices: “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”
Every technological innovation is always first presented like this, emphasising its health or humanitarian benefits, which function to blind us to the more ominous implications and consequences: can we even imagine what new forms of control this so-called “neural lace” contains? This is why it is absolutely imperative to keep it out of the control of private capital and state power — that is, to render it totally open to public debate. Assange was right in his strangely ignored book on Google: to understand how our lives are regulated today, and how this regulation is experienced as our freedom, we have to focus on the shadowy collusion between private corporations which control our commons and secret state agencies.
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. The only solution is a new universalism — it is demanded by the problems humanity is confronting today, from ecological threats to refugee crises.
Protecting the new commons
In his book What Happened in the Twentieth Century?, Peter Sloterdijk provides his own outline of what is to be done in twenty-first century, best encapsulated in the title of the first two essays in the book, “The Anthropocene” and “From the Domestication of the Human Being to the Civilizing of Cultures.”
“Anthropocene” designates a new epoch in the life of our planet in which we, humans, cannot any longer rely on the Earth as a reservoir ready to absorb the consequences of our productive activity: we cannot any longer afford to ignore the side effects (the collateral damage) of our productivity, which cannot any longer be reduced to the background of the figure of humanity. We have to accept that we live on a “Spaceship Earth,” and are thus accountable for its conditions. Earth is no longer the impenetrable background/horizon of our productive activity, it emerges as an(other) finite object which we can inadvertently destroy or transform it to make it unliveable.
This means that, at the very moment when we become powerful enough to affect the most basic conditions of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet. A new way to relate to our environs is necessary once we realise this: no longer a heroic worker expressing his/her creative potentials and drawing from the inexhaustible resources from his/her environs, but a much more modest agent collaborating with his/her environs, permanently negotiating a tolerable level of safety and stability. So in order to establish this new mode of relating to our environs, a radical politico-economic change is necessary, what Sloterdijk calls “the domestication of the wild animal culture.”
Until now, each culture disciplined or educated its own members and guaranteed civic peace among them in the guise of state power, but the relationship between different cultures and states was permanently under the shadow of potential war, with each state of peace nothing more than a temporary armistice. As Hegel conceptualised it, the entire ethic of a state culminates in the highest act of heroism — namely, the readiness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s nation-state, which means that the wild barbarian relations between states serve as the foundation of the ethical life within a state. Today, is North Korea with its ruthless pursuit of nuclear weapons and rockets advanced enough to reach distant targets not the ultimate example of this logic of unconditional nation-state sovereignty?
However, the moment we fully accept the fact that we live on a “Spaceship Earth,” the task that urgently imposes itself is that of civilizing civilizations themselves, of imposing universal solidarity and cooperation among all human communities — a task rendered all the more difficult by the ongoing rise of sectarian religious and ethnic “heroic” violence and readiness to sacrifice oneself (and the world) for one’s specific Cause.
The measures Sloterdijk proposes as necessary for the survival of humanity — the overcoming of capitalist expansionism, achieving broad international solidarity capable to forming an executive power ready to violate state sovereignty, and so on — are they not all measures destined to protect our natural and cultural commons? If they do not point towards some kind of reinvented Communism, if they do not imply a Communist horizon, then the term “Communism” has no meaning at all.
This is why the idea of the European Union is worth fighting for, despite of the misery of its actual existence: in today’s global capitalist world, it offers the only model of a trans-national organisation with the authority to limit national sovereignty and the capacity to guarantee a minimum of ecological and social welfare standards. Something that directly descends from the best traditions of European Enlightenment survives in it. Our — that is, Europeans’ — duty is not to humiliate ourselves as the ultimate culprits of colonialist exploitation but to fight for this part of our legacy as vital for the survival of humanity.
Europe is more and more alone in the New World Order, dismissed as an old, exhausted, irrelevant, contingent, reduced to playing a secondary role in today’s big geopolitical conflicts. As Bruno Latour recently put it: “L’Europe est seule, oui, mais seule l’Europe peut nous sauver.” Europe is alone, yes, but Europe alone can save us.
Let us begin with Antigone who, according to Lacan, irradiates a sublime beauty from the very moment she enters the domain between two deaths, between her symbolic and her actual death. What characterizes her innermost posture is precisely her insistence on a certain unconditional demand on which she is not prepared to give way: a proper burial for her brother. It is the same with the ghost of Hamlet's father, who returns from his grave with the demand that Hamlet revenge his infamous death. This connection between drive as an unconditional demand and the domain between the two deaths is also visible in popular culture.
In the film The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg who returns to contemporary Los Angeles from the future, with the intention of killing the mother of a future leader. The horror of this figure consists precisely in the fact that it functions as a programmed automaton who, even when all that remains of him is a metallic, legless skeleton, persists in his demand and pursues his victim with no trace of compromise or hesitation. The terminator is the embodiment of the drive, devoid of desire. In two other films, we encounter two versions of the same motive, one comical, the other pathetic-tragic.
In George Romero's omnibus Creepshow (screenplay by Stephen King), a family is gathered around the dinner table to celebrate the anniversary of their father's death. Years earlier, his sister had killed him at his birthday party by hitting him on the head in response to his endlessly repeated demand, "Daddy wants his cake!" Suddenly, a strange noise is heard from the family cemetery behind the house; the dead father climbs from his grave, kills his murderous sister, cuts off the head of his wife, puts it on the tray, smears it with cream, decorates it with candles and mumbles contentedly: "Daddy got his cake!"—a demand that has persisted beyond the grave until satisfied. The cult film Robocop, a futuristic story about a policeman shot to death and then revived after all parts of his body have been replaced by artificial substitutes, introduces a more tragic note: the hero who finds himself literally "between two deaths"—clinically dead and at the same time provided with a new, mechanical body—starts to remember fragments of his previous, "human" life and thus undergoes a process of resubjectivation, changing gradually back from pure incarnated drive to a being of desire.
The ease with which examples from popular culture can be found should come as no surprise: if there is a phenomenon that fully deserves to be called the "fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture," it is this fantasy of the return of the living dead: the fantasy of a person who does not want to stay dead but returns again and again to pose a threat to the living. The unattained archetype of a long series—from the psychotic killer in Halloween to Jason in Friday the Thirteenth—is still George Romero's The Night of the Living Dead, where the "undead" are not portrayed as embodiments of pure evil, of a simple drive to kill or revenge, but as sufferers, pursuing their victims with an awkward persistence, colored by a kind of infinite sadness (as in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu, in which the vampire is not a simple machinery of evil with a cynical smile on his lips, but a melancholic sufferer longing for salvation).
Apropos of this phenomenon, let us then ask a naive and elementary question: why do the dead return? The answer offered by Lacan is the same as that found in popular culture: because they were not properly, buried, i.e., because something went wrong with their obsequies. The return of the dead is sign of a disturbance in the symbolic rite, in the process of symbolization; the dead return as collectors of some unpaid symbolic debt. This is the basic lesson drawn by Lacan from Antigone and Hamlet. The plots of both plays involve improper funeral rites, and the "living dead"—Antigone and the ghost of Hamlet's father—return to settle symbolic accounts. The return of the living dead, then, materializes a certain symbolic debt persisting beyond physical expiration.
It is commonplace to state that symbolization as such equates to symbolic murder: when we speak about a thing, we suspend, place in parentheses, its reality. It is precisely for this reason that the funeral rite exemplifies symbolization at its purest: through it, the dead are inscribed in the text of symbolic tradition, they are assured that, in spite of their death, they will "continue to live" in the memory of the community. The "return of the living dead" is, on the other hand, the reverse of the proper funeral rite. While the latter implies a certain reconciliation, an acceptance of loss, the return of the dead signifies that they cannot find their proper place in the text of tradition.
The two great traumatic events of the holocaust and the gulag are, of course, exemplary cases of the return of the dead in the twentieth century. The shadows of their victims will continue to chase us as "living dead" until we give them a decent burial, until we integrate the trauma of their death into our historical memory. The same may be said of the "primordial crime" that founded history itself, the murder of the ''primal father" (re)constructed by Freud in Totem and Taboo: the murder of the father is integrated into the symbolic universe insofar as the dead father begins to reign as the symbolic agency of the Name-of-the-Father. This transformation, this integration, however, is never brought about without remainder; there is always a certainleftover that returns in the form of the obscene and revengeful figure of the Father-of-Enjoyment, of this figure split between cruel revenge and crazy laughter, as, for example, the famous Freddie from Nightmare on Elm Street.This article is an extract from Slavoj Žižek's book 'Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan hrough Popular Culture' published by MIT Press (1991) and reproduced here with kind permission from the author. and publisher.
Friday, November 1, 2019
Progress versus Liberty (“The 1971 Essay”) by Ted Kaczynski
In these pages it is argued that continued scientific and technical progress will inevitably result in the extinction of individual liberty. I use the word “inevitably” in the following sense: One might—possibly—imagine certain conditions of society in which freedom could coexist with unfettered technology, but these conditions do not actually exist, and we know of no way to bring them about, so that, in practice, scientific progress will result in the extinction of individual liberty. Toward the end of this essay we propose what appears to be the only thing that bears any resemblance to a practical remedy for this situation.
I hope that the reader will bear with me when I recite arguments and facts with which he may already be familiar. I make no claim to originality. I simply think that the case for the thesis stated above is convincing, and I am attempting to set forth the arguments, new and old, in as clear a manner as possible, in the hope that the reader will be persuaded to support the solution here suggested—which certainly is a very obvious solution, but rather hard for many people to swallow.
The power of society to control the individual person has recently been expanding very rapidly, and is expected to expand even more rapidly in the near future. Let us list a few of the more ominous developments as a reminder.
1.Propaganda and image-making techniques. In this context we must not neglect the role of movies, television, and literature, which commonly are regarded either as art or as entertainment, but which often consciously adopt certain points of view and thus serve as propaganda. Even when they do not consciously adopt an explicit point of view they still serve to indoctrinate the viewer or reader with certain values. We venerate the great writers of the past, but one who considers the matter objectively must admit that modern artistic techniques have developed to the point where the more skillfully constructed movies, novels, etc. of today are far more psychologically potent than, say, Shakespeare ever was. The best of them are capable of gripping and involving the reader very powerfully and thus are presumably quite effective in influencing his values. Also note the increasing extent to which the average person today is “living in the movies” as the saying is. People spend a large and increasing amount of time submitting to canned entertainment rather than participating in spontaneous activities. As overcrowding and rules and regulations curtail opportunities for spontaneous activity, and as the developing techniques of entertainment make the canned product ever more attractive, we can assume that people will live more and more in the world of mass entertainment.These are some of the more strikingly ominous facets of scientific progress, but it is perhaps more important to look at the effect of technology as a whole on our society. Technological progress is the basic cause of the continual increase in the number of rules and regulations. This is because many of our technological devices are more powerful and therefore more potentially destructive than the more primitive devices they replace (e.g., compare autos and horses) and also because the increasing complexity of the system makes necessary a more delicate coordination of its parts. Moreover, many devices of functional importance (e.g., electronic computers, television broadcasting equipment, jet planes) cannot be owned by the average person because of their size and costliness. These devices are controlled by large organizations such as corporations and governments and are used to further the purposes of the establishment. A larger and larger proportion of the individual’s environment—not only his physical environment, but such factors as the kind of work he does, the nature of his entertainment, etc.–comes to be created and controlled by large organizations rather than by the individual himself. And this is a necessary consequence of technological progress, because to allow technology to be exploited in an unregulated, unorganized way would result in disaster.
2.A growing emphasis among educators on “guiding” the child’s emotional development, coupled with an increasingly scientific attitude toward education. Of course, educators have always in some degree attempted to mold the attitudes of their pupils, but formerly they achieved only a limited degree of success, simply because their methods were unscientific. Educational psychology is changing this.
3.Operant conditioning, after the manner of B.F. Skinner and friends. (Of course, this cannot be entirely separated from item (2)).
4.Direct physical control of the emotions via electrodes and “chemitrodes” inserted in the brain. (See Jose M.R. Delgado’s book “Physical Control of the Mind.”)
5.Biofeedback training, after the manner of Joseph Kamiya and others.
6.Predicted “memory pills” or other drugs designed to improve memory or increase intelligence. (The reader possibly assumes that items (5) and (6) present no danger to freedom because their use is supposed to be voluntary, but I will argue that point later. See page 8.)
7.Predicted genetic engineering, eugenics, related techniques.
8.Marvin Minsky of MIT (one of the foremost computer experts in the country) and other computer scientists predict that within fifteen years or possibly much less there will be superhuman computers with intellectual capacities far beyond anything of which humans are capable. It is to be emphasized that these computers will not merely perform so-called “mechanical” operations; they will be capable of creative thought. Many people are incredulous at the idea of a creative computer, but let it be remembered that (unless one resorts to supernatural explanations of human thought) the human brain itself is an electro-chemical computer, operating according to the laws of physics and chemistry. Furthermore, the men who have predicted these computers are not crackpots but first-class scientists. It is difficult to say in advance just how much power these computers will put into the hands of what is vulgarly termed the establishment, but this power will probably be very great. Bear in mind that these computers will be wholly under the control of the scientific, bureaucratic, and business elite. The average person will have no access to them. Unlike the human brain, computers are more or less unrestricted as to size (and, more important, there is no restriction on the number of computers that can be linked together over a long distance to form a single brain), so that there is no restriction on their memories or on the amount of information they can assimilate and correlate. Computers are not subject to fatigue, daydreaming, or emotional problems. They work at fantastic speed. Given that a computer can duplicate the functions of the human brain, it seems clear in view of the advantages listed above that no human brain could possibly compete with such a computer in any field of endeavor.
9.Various electronic devices for surveillance. These are being used. For example, according to newspaper reports, the police of New York City have recently instituted a system of 24-hour television surveillance over certain problem areas of the city.
Note that the problem here is not simply to make sure that technology is used only for good purposes. In fact, we can be reasonably certain that the powers which technology is putting into the hands of the establishment will be used to promote good and eliminate evil. These powers will be so great that within a few decades virtually all evil will have been eliminated. But, of course, “good” and “evil” here mean good and evil as interpreted by the social mainstream. In other words, technology will enable the social mainstream to impose its values universally. This will not come about through the machinations of power-hungry scoundrels, but through the efforts of socially responsible people who sincerely want to do good and who sincerely believe in freedom—but whose concept of freedom will be shaped by their own values, which will not necessarily be the same as your values or my values.
The most important aspect of this process will perhaps be the education of children, so let us use education as an example to illustrate the way the process works. Children will be taught—by methods which will become increasingly effective as educational psychology develops—to be creative, inquiring, appreciative of the arts and sciences, interested in their studies—perhaps they will even be taught nonconformity. But of course this will not be merely random nonconformity but “creative” nonconformity. Creative nonconformity simply means nonconformity that is directed toward socially desirable ends. For example, children may be taught (in the name of freedom) to liberate themselves from irrational prejudices of their elders, “irrational prejudices” being those values which are not conducive to the kind of society that most educators choose to regard as healthy. Children will be educated to be racially unbiased, to abhor violence, to fit into society without excessive conflict. By a series of small steps—each of which will be regarded not as a step toward behavioral engineering but as an improvement in educational technique—this system will become so effective that hardly any child will turn out to be other than what the educators desire. The educational system will then have become a form of psychological compulsion. The means employed in this “education” will be expanded to include methods which we currently would consider disgusting, but since these methods will be introduced in a series of small steps, most people will not object—especially since children trained to take a “scientific” or “rational” attitude toward education will be growing up to replace their elders as they die off.
For instance, chemical and electrical manipulation of the brain will at first be used only on children considered to be insane, or at least severely disturbed. As people become accustomed to such practices, they will come to be used on children who are only moderately disturbed. Now, whatever is on the furthest fringes of the abnormal generally comes to be regarded with abhorrence. As the more severe forms of disturbances are eliminated, the less severe forms will come to constitute the outer fringe; they will thus be regarded as abhorrent and hence as fair game for chemical and electrical manipulation. Eventually, all forms of disturbance will be eliminated—and anything that brings an individual into conflict with his society will make him unhappy and therefore will be a disturbance. Note that this whole process does not presuppose any antilibertarian philosophy on the part of educators or psychologists, but only a desire to do their jobs more effectively.
Consider: Today, how can one argue against sex education? Sex education is designed not simply to present children with the bald facts of sex; it is designed to guide children to a healthy attitude toward sex. And who can argue against that? Think of all the misery suffered as a result of Victorian repressions, sexual perversions, frigidity, unwanted pregnancies, and venerial [sic.] disease. If much of this can be eliminated by instilling “healthy” (as the social mainstream interprets that word) sexual attitudes in children, who can deny it to them? But it will be equally impossible to argue against any of the other steps that will eventually lead to the complete engineering of the human personality. Each step will be equally humanitarian in its goals.
There is no distinct line between “guidance” or “influence” and manipulation. When a technique of influence becomes so effective that it achieves its desired effect in nearly every case, then it is no longer influence but compulsion. Thus influence evolves into compulsion as science improves technique.
Research has shown that exposure to television violence makes the viewer more prone to violence himself. The very existence of this knowledge makes it a foregone conclusion that restrictions will eventually be placed on televized violence, either by the government or by the TV industry itself, in order to make children less prone to develop violent personalities. This is an element of manipulation. It may be that you feel an end to television violence is desirable and that the degree of manipulation involved is insignificant. But science will reveal, one at a time, a hundred other factors in entertainment that have a “desirable” or “undesirable” effect on personality. In the case of each one of these factors, knowledge will make manipulation inevitable. When the whole array of factors has become known, we will have drifted into large-scale manipulation. In this way, research leads automatically to calculated indoctrination.
By way of a further example, let us consider genetic engineering. This will not come into use as a result of a conscious decision by the majority of people to introduce genetic engineering. It will begin with certain “progressive” parents who will voluntarily avail themselves of genetic engineering opportunities in order to eliminate the risk of certain gross physical defects in their offspring. Later, this engineering will be extended to include elimination of mental defects and treatment which will predispose the child to somewhat higher intelligence. (Note that the question of what constitutes a mental “defect” is a value-judgement. Is homosexuality, for example, a defect? Some homosexuals would say “no.” But there is no objectively true or false answer to such a question.) As methods are improved to the point where the minority of parents who use genetic engineering are producing noticeably healthier, smarter offspring, more and more parents will want genetic engineering. When the majority of children are genetically engineered, even those parents who might otherwise be antagonistic toward genetic engineering will feel obliged to use it so that their children will be able to compete in a world of superior people—superior, at least relative to the social milieu in which they live. In the end, genetic engineering will be made compulsory because it will be regarded as cruel and irresponsible for a few eccentric parents to produce inferior offspring by refusing to use it. Bear in mind that this engineering will involve mental as well as physical characteristics; indeed, as scientists explain mental traits on the basis of physiology, neurology, and biochemistry, it will become more and more difficult to distinguish between “mental” and “physical” traits.
Observe that once a society based on psychological, genetic, and other forms of human engineering has come into being, it will presumably last forever, because people will all be engineered to favor human engineering and the totally collective society, so that they will never become dissatisfied with this kind of society. Furthermore, once human engineering, the linking of human minds with computers, and other things of that nature have come into extensive use, people will probably be altered so much that it will no longer be possible for them to exist as independent beings, either physically or psychologically. Indeed, technology has already made it impossible for us to live as physically independent beings, for the skills which enabled primitive man to live off the country have been lost. We can survive only by acting as components of a huge machine which provides for our physical needs; and as technology invades the domain of mind, it is safe to assume that human beings will become as dependent psychologically on technology as they now are physically. We can see the beginning of this already in the inability of some people to avoid boredom without television and in the need of others to use tranquilizers in order to cope with the tensions of modern society.
The foregoing predictions are supported by the opinions of at least some responsible writers. See especially Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and the section titled “Social Controls” in Kahn and Wiener’s “The Year 2,000.”
Now we come to the question: What can be done to prevent all this? Let us first consider the solution sketched by Perry London in his book “Behavior Control.” This solution makes a convenient example because its defects are typical of other proposed solutions. London’s idea is, briefly, this: Let us not attempt to interfere with the development of behavioral technology, but let us all try to be as aware of and as knowledgeable about this technology as we can; let us not keep this technology in the hands of a scientific elite, but disseminate it among the population at large; people can then use this technology to manipulate themselves and protect themselves from manipulation by others. However, on the grounds that “there must be some limits” London advocates that behavior control should be imposed by society in certain areas. For example, he suggests that people should be made to abhor violence and that psychological means should be used to make businessmen stop destroying the forests. (NOTE: I do not currently have access to a copy of London’s book, and so I have had to rely on memory in describing his views. My memory is probably correct here, but in order to be honest I should admit the possibility of error.)
My first objection to London’s scheme is a personal one. I simply find the sphere of freedom that he favors too narrow for me to accept. But his solution suffers from other flaws.
He proposes to use psychological controls where they are not necessary, and more for the purpose of gratifying the liberal intellectual’s esthetic sensibilities than because of a practical need. It is true that “there must be some limits”–on violence, for example—but the threat of imprisonment seems to be an adequate limitation. To read about violence is frightening, but violent crime is not a significant cause of mortality in comparison to other causes. Far more people are killed in automobile accidents than through violent crime. Would London also advocate psychological elimination of those personalities that are inclined to careless driving? The fact that liberal intellectuals and many others get far more excited over violence than they do over careless driving would seem to indicate that their antagonism toward violence arises not primarily from a concern for human life but from a strong emotional antipathy toward violence itself. Thus it appears that London’s proposal to eliminate violence through psychological control results not from practical necessity but from a desire on London’s part to engineer some of his own values into the public at large.
This becomes even clearer when we consider London’s willingness to use psychological engineering to stop businessmen from destroying forests. Obviously, psychological engineering cannot accomplish this until the establishment can be persuaded to carry out the appropriate program of engineering. But if the establishment can be persuaded to do this, then they can equally well be persuaded to pass conservation laws strict enough to accomplish the same purpose. And if such laws are passed, the psychological engineering is superfluous. It seems clear that here, again, London is attracted to psychological engineering simply because he would like to see the general public share certain of his values.
When London proposes to us systematic psychological controls over certain aspects of the personality, with the intention that these controls shall not be extended to others areas, he is assuming that the generation following his own will agree with his judgment as to how far the psychological controls should reach. This assumption is almost certainly false. The introduction of psychological controls in some areas (which London approves) will set the stage for the later introduction of controls in other areas (which London would not approve), because it will change the culture in such a way as to make people more receptive to the concept of psychological controls. As long as any behavior is permitted which is not in the best interests of the collective social organization, there will always be the temptation to eliminate the worst of this behavior through human engineering. People will introduce new controls to eliminate only the worst of this behavior, without intending that any further extension of the controls should take place afterward; but in fact they will be indirectly causing further extensions of the controls because whenever new controls are introduced, the public, as it becomes used to the controls, will change its conception of what constitutes an appropriate degree of control. In other words, whatever the amount of control to which people have become accustomed, they will regard that amount as right and good and they will regard a little further extension of control as negligible price to pay for the elimination of some form of behavior that they find shocking.
London regards the wide dissemination of behavioral technology among the public as a means by which the people can protect themselves against psychological manipulation by the established powers. But if it is really true that people can use this knowledge to avoid manipulation in most areas, why won’t they also be able to use it to avoid being made to abhor violence, or to avoid control in other areas where London thinks they should be controlled? London seems to assume that people will be unable to avoid control in just those areas where he thinks they should be controlled, but that they will be able to avoid control in just those areas where he thinks they should not be controlled.
London refers to “awareness” (of sciences relating to the mind) as the individual’s “sword and buckler” against manipulation by the establishment. In Roman times a man might have a real sword and buckler just as good as those of the emperor’s legionaries, but that did not enable him to escape oppression. Similarly, if a man of the future has a complete knowledge of behavioral psychology it will not enable him to escape psychological control any more than the possession of a machine-gun or a tank would enable him to escape physical control. The resources of an organized society are just too great for any individual to resist no matter how much he knows.
With the vast expansion of knowledge in the behavioral sciences, biochemistry, cybernetics, physiology, genetics, and other disciplines which have the potential to affect human behavior, it is probably already impossible (and, if not, it will soon become impossible) for any individual to keep abreast of it all. In any case, we would all have to become, to some degree, specialists in behavior control in order to maintain London’s “awareness.” What about those people who just don’t happen to be attracted to that kind of science, or to any science? It would be agony for them to have to spend long hours studying behavioral technology in order to maintain their freedom.
Even if London’s scheme of freedom through “awareness” were feasible, it could, or at least would, be carried out only by an elite of intellectuals, businessmen, etc. Can you imagine the members of uneducated minority groups, or, for that matter, the average middle-class person, having the will and the ability to learn enough to compete in a world of psychological manipulation? It will be a case of the smart and the powerful getting more powerful while the stupid and the weak get (relatively) stupider and weaker; for it is the smart and the powerful who will have the readiest access to behavioral technology and the greatest ability to use it effectively.
This is one reason why devices for improving one’s mental or psychological capabilities (e.g., biofeedback training, memory pills, linking of human minds with computers) are dangerous to freedom even though their use is voluntary. For example, it will not be physically possible for everyone to have his own full-scale computer in his basement to which he can link his brain. The best computer facilities will be reserved for those whom society judges most worthy: government officials, scientists, etc. Thus the already powerful will be made more powerful.
Also, the use of such mind-augmentation devices will not remain voluntary. All our modern conveniences were originally introduced as optional benefits which one could take or leave as one chose. However, as a result of the introduction of these benefits, society changed its structure in such a way that the use of modern conveniences is now compulsory: for it would be physically impossible to live in modern society without extensively using devices provided by technology. Similarly, the use of mind-augmenting devices, though nominally voluntary, will become in practice compulsory. When these devices have reached a high development and have come into wide use, a person refusing to use them would be putting himself in the position of a dumb animal in a world of supermen. He would simply be unable to function in a society structured around the assumption that most people have vastly augmented mental abilities.
By virtue of their very power, the devices for augmenting or modifying the human mind and personality will have to be governed by extensive rules and regulations. As the human mind comes to be more and more an artifact created by means of such devices, these rules and regulations will come to be rules and regulations governing the structure of the human mind.
An important point: London does not even consider the question of human engineering in infancy (let alone genetic engineering before conception). A two-year-old obviously would not be able to apply London’s philosophy of “awareness”; yet it will be possible in the future to engineer a young child so that he will grow up to have the type of personality that is desired by whoever has charge of him. What is the meaning of freedom for a person whose entire personality has been planned and created by someone else?
London’s solution suffers from another flaw that is of particular importance because it is shared by all libertarian solutions to the technology problem that have ever come to my attention. The problem is supposed to be solved by propounding and popularizing a certain libertarian philosophy. This approach is unlikely to achieve anything. Our liberty is not deteriorating as a result of any antilibertarian philosophy. Most people in this country profess to believe in freedom. Our liberty is deteriorating as a result of the way people do their jobs and behave in relation to technology on a day-to-day basis. The system has come to be set up in such a way that it is usually comfortable to do that which strengthens the organization. When a person in a position of responsibility sets to eliminate that which is contrary to established values, he is rewarded with the esteem of his fellows and in other ways. Police officials who introduce new surveillance devices, educators who introduce more advanced techniques for molding children, do not do so through disrespect for freedom; they do so because they are rewarded with the approval of other police officials or educators and also because they get an inward satisfaction from having accomplished their assigned tasks not only competently, but creatively. A hands-off approach toward the child’s personality would be best from the point of view of freedom, but this approach will not be taken because the most intelligent and capable educators crave the satisfaction of doing their work creatively. They want to do more with the child, not less. The greatest reward that a person gets from furthering the ends of the organization may well be simply the opportunity for purposeful, challenging, important activity—an opportunity that is otherwise hard to come by in society. For example, Marvin Minsky does not work on computers because he is antagonistic to freedom, but because he loves the intellectual challenge. Probably he believes in freedom, but since he is a computer specialist he manages to persuade himself that computers will tend to liberate man.
The main point here is that the danger to freedom is caused by the way people work and behave on a day-to-day basis in relation to technology; and the way people behave in relation to technology is determined by powerful social and psychological forces. To oppose these forces a comparatively weak force like a body of philosophy is simply hopeless. You may persuade the public to accept your philosophy, but most people will not significantly change their behavior as a result. They will invent rationalizations to reconcile their behavior with the philosophy, or they will say that what they do as individuals is too insignificant to change the course of events, or they will simply confess themselves too weak to live up to the philosophy. Conceivably a school of philosophy might change a culture over a long period of time if the social forces tending in the opposite direction were weak. But the social forces guiding the present development of our society are obviously strong, and we have very little time left—another three decades likely will take us past the point of no return.
Thus a philosophy will be ineffective unless that philosophy is accompanied by a program of concrete action of a type which does not ask people to voluntarily change the way they live and work—a program which demands little effort or willpower on the part of most people. Such a program would probably have to be a political or legislative one. A philosophy is not likely to make people change their daily behavior, but it might (with luck) induce them to vote for politicians who support a certain program. Casting a vote requires only a casual commitment, not a strenuous application of willpower. So we are left with the question: What kind of legislative program would have a chance of saving freedom?
I can think of only two possibilities that are halfway plausible. The discussion of one of these I will leave until later. The other, and the one that I advocate, is this: In simple terms, stop scientific progress by withdrawing all major sources of research funds. In more detail, begin by withdrawing all or most federal aid to research. If an abrupt withdrawal would cause economic problems, then phase it out as rapidly as is practical. Next, pass legislation to limit or phase out research support by educational institutions which accept public funds. Finally, one would hope to pass legislation prohibiting all large corporations and other large organizations from supporting scientific research. Of course, it would be necessary to eventually bring about similar changes throughout the world, but, being Americans, we must start with the United States; which is just as well, since the United States is the world’s most technologically advanced country. As for economic or other disruption that might be caused by the elimination of scientific progress—this disruption is likely to be much less than that which would be caused by the extremely rapid changes brought on by science itself.
I admit that, in view of the firmly entrenched position of Big Science, it is unlikely that such a legislative program could be enacted. However, I think there is at least some chance that such a program could be put through in stages over a period of years, if one or more active organizations were formed to make the public aware of the probable consequences of continued scientific progress and to push for the appropriate legislation. Even if there is only a small chance of success, I think that chance is worth working for, since the alternative appears to be the loss of all human freedom.
This solution is bound to be attacked as “simplistic.” But this ignores the fundamental question, namely: Is there any better solution or indeed any other solution at all? My personal opinion is that there is no other solution. However, let us not be dogmatic. Maybe there is a better solution. But the point is this: If there is such a solution, no one at present seems to know just what it is. Matters have progressed to the point where we can no longer afford to sit around just waiting for something to turn up. By stopping scientific progress now, or at any rate slowing it drastically, we could at least give ourselves breathing space during which we could attempt to work out another solution, if one is possible.
There is one putative solution the discussion of which I have reserved until now. One might consider enacting some kind of bill of rights designed to protect freedom from technological encroachment. For the following reasons I do not believe that such a solution would be effective.
In the first place, a document which attempted to define our sphere of freedom in a few simple principles would either be too weak to afford real protection, or too strong to be compatible with the functioning of the present society. Thus, a suitable bill of rights would have to be excessively complex, and full of exceptions, qualifications, and delicate compromises. Such a bill would be subject to repeated amendments for the sake of social expedience; and where formal amendment is inconvenient, the document would simply be reinterpreted. Recent decisions of the Supreme Court, whether one approves of them or not, show how much the import of a document can be altered through reinterpretations. Our present Bill of Rights would have been ineffective if there had been in America strong social forces acting against freedom of speech, freedom of worship, etc. Compare what is happening to the right to bear arms, which currently runs counter to basic social trends. Whether you approve or disapprove of that “right” is beside the point—the point is that the constitutional guarantee cannot stand indefinitely against powerful social forces.
If you are an advocate of the bill-of-rights approach to the technology problem, test yourself by attempting to write a sample section on, say, genetic engineering. Just how will you define the term “genetic engineering” and how will you draw the line, in words, between that engineering which is to be permitted and that which is to be prohibited? Your law will either have to be too strong to pass; or so vague that it can be readily reinterpreted as social standards evolve; or excessively complex and detailed. In this last case, the law will not pass as a constitutional amendment, because for practical reasons a law that attempts to deal with such a problem in great detail will have to be relatively easy to change as needs and circumstances change. But then, of course, the law will be changed continually for the sake of social expedience and so will not serve as a barrier to the erosion of freedom.
And who would actually work out the details of such a bill of rights? Undoubtedly, a committee of congressmen, or a commission appointed by the president, or some other group of organization men. They would give us some fine libertarian rhetoric, but they would be unwilling to pay the price of real, substantial freedom—they would not write a bill that would sacrifice any significant amount of the organization’s power.
I have said that a bill of rights would not be able to stand for long against the pressures for science, progress, and improvement. But laws that bring a halt to scientific research would be quite different in this respect. The prestige of science would be broken. With the financial basis gone, few young people would find it practical to enter scientific careers. After, say three decades or so, our society would have ceased to be progress-oriented and the most dangerous of the pressures that currently threaten our freedom would have relaxed. A bill of rights would not bring about this relaxation.
This, by the way, is one reason why the elimination of research merely in a few sensitive areas would be inadequate. As long as science is a large and going concern, there will be the persistent temptation to apply it in new areas; but this pressure would be broken if science were reduced to a minor role.
Let us try to summarize the role of technology in relation to freedom. The principal effect of technology is to increase the power of society collectively. Now, there is a more or less unlimited number of value-judgments that lie before us: for example: whether an individual should or should not have puritanical attitudes toward sex; whether it is better to have rain fall at night or during the day. When society acquires power over such a situation, generally a preponderance of the social forces look upon one or the other of the alternatives as Right. These social forces are then able to use the machinery of society to impose their choice universally; for example, they may mold children so successfully that none ever grows up to have puritanical attitudes toward sex, or they may use weather engineering to guarantee that the rain falls only at night. In this way there is a continual narrowing of the possibilities that exist in the world. The eventual result will be a world in which there is only one system of values. The only way out seems to be to halt the ceaseless extension of society’s power.
I propose that you join me and a few other people to whom I am writing in an attempt to found an organization dedicated to stopping federal aid to scientific research. It would be a mistake, I think, to reject this suggestion out of hand on the basis of some vague dogma such as “knowledge is good” or “science is the hope of man.” Sure, knowledge is good, but how high a price, in terms of freedom, are we going to pay for knowledge? You may be understandably reluctant to join an organization about which you know nothing, but you know as much about it as I do. It hasn’t been started yet. You would be one of the founding members. I claim to have no particular qualifications for trying to start such an organization, and I have no idea how to go about it, I am only making an attempt because no better qualified person has yet done so. I am simply trying to bring together a few highly intelligent and thoughtful people who would be willing to take over the task.