Wednesday, October 28, 2020
The threat of violence erupting over the US election result next week is exposing the limits of liberal democracy, and both candidates’ rejection of left-wing ‘extremists’ is liberal opportunism at its worst.
In the run up to the US presidential elections, different forms of populist resistance are gradually forming a unified field: “Armed militia groups are forging alliances in the final stages of the US presidential election with conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers who claim the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, intensifying concerns that trouble could be brewing ahead of the election day. Leading advocates of anti-government and anti-science propaganda came together at the weekend, joined by the founder of one of the largest militia groups.”
Three dimensions are at work here: conspiracy-theories (like QAnon), Covid-deniers, and violent militias. These are often inconsistent and relatively independent: there are conspiracy theorists who don’t deny the reality of the epidemic, but see in it a (Chinese) plot to destroy the US; there can be Covid-deniers who don’t see a conspiracy behind the epidemic, but just deny the seriousness of the threat (such as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben), etc.
But the three dimensions are now moving together: violent militias legitimize themselves as the defenders of freedom, which they see as threatened by a deep state conspiracy against the reelection of Trump, with the pandemic as a key element of this plot; if Trump loses reelection, it will be the result of this intrigue, which means that violent resistance to Trump’s loss is legitimate.
In October 2020, the FBI revealed that a right-wing militia group planned to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and take her to a secure location in Wisconsin. There, she would undergo a kind of people’s “trial” for her “treason” for imposing tough restrictions to curb Covid infections and thereby, according to the militia group, violating the freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution.
Does this plan not recall the most famous political kidnapping in Europe? In 1978, Aldo Moro, a key figure of the Italian political establishment who evoked the possibility of the big coalition between Christian Democrats and Communists, was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, put to a trial by a people’s court and shot dead.
Angela Nagle, the academic and writer, was right here also: the new populist Right is adopting methods that were decades ago clearly identified as belonging to extreme Left “terrorist” groups. This, of course, in no way implies that the two “extremes” somehow coincide: we don’t have a stable center symmetrically flanked by two extremes.
The basic antagonism is the one between the establishment and the Left, and the rightist violent “extremism” is a panicky reaction triggered when the center is threatened. This became clear in the last presidential debate when Trump accused Biden of backing “Medicare for all,” saying “Biden agreed with Sanders”; Biden replied: “I beat Bernie Sanders.” The message of this reply was clear: Biden is Trump with a human face, in spite of their opposition they share the same enemy. This is liberal opportunism at its worst: renounce the Left “extremists” out of the fear of not scaring the center.
Trump plays an ambiguous game here – when he is asked about radical rightist groups which propagate violence or conspiracy theories, he seeks to formally distantiate himself from these problematic aspects while praising the group’s general patriotic attitude. This distancing is empty, of course, a purely rhetorical device: the group is silently expected to act upon the implicit calls to violence Trump’s speeches are full of. When Trump attacks alleged leftist violence, he does it in terms that are divisive and a call to violence. Exemplary is Trump’s answer when he was asked about the violence propagated and practiced by the Proud Boys group:
“Within minutes after US President Donald Trump told the Proud Boys, a far-right group with members who espouse white supremacism, to ‘stand back and stand by’, on national television on Sept. 29, 2020, members of the men-only group took to fringe social media sites to celebrate what they considered a ‘historic’ moment for their ideological push against leftists.”
This is (if I can be pardoned for using this problematic expression) Trump at his best: he does tell them to stand back, i.e., to restrain from violence, but he adds “and stand by,” i.e., get ready – to do what? The implication is clear and unambiguous: be ready to practice violence if Trump loses the election. Even if the danger of an actual civil war exploding in the US is probably vacuous, the very fact that this possibility is widely talked about is significant.
And it’s not just the US that is moving in this direction: take a look at the stories in Europe’s media; in Poland, liberal public figures complain that they are becoming spectators at the dismantling of democracy; the same is happening in Hungary.
At an even more general level, a certain tension which is immanent to the very notion of parliamentary democracy is gaining visibility today. Democracy means two things: the “power of the people” (the substantial will of the majority should express itself in the state), and trust in the electoral mechanism: no matter how many manipulations and lies there are, once the numbers are counted the result is to be accepted by all sides.
This is what happened when Al Gore conceded defeat to Bush in the 2000 US election, although more people voted for him and the counting in Florida was very problematic – the public’s trust in the formal procedure is what gives parliamentary democracy its stability. Problems arise when these two dimensions get out of sync, and both the Left and the Right demand that the people’s substantial will should prevail over electoral formalities. And in some sense they are right: the mechanism of democratic representation is not really neutral, as the eminent French philosopher Alain Badiou has written:
“If democracy is a representation, it first of all represents the general system which sustains its form. In other words, the electoral democracy is only representative insofar as it is first the consensual representation of capitalism, which is today renamed ‘market economy.’”
One should take these lines in the strictest formal sense: at the empirical level, of course, the multi-party liberal democracy “represents” – mirrors, registers, measures – the quantitative dispersal of different opinions of the people, what they think about the proposed programs of the parties and about their candidates, etc.. However, prior to this empirical level and in a much more radical sense, the very form of multi-party liberal democracy “represents” – instantiates – a certain vision of society, politics, and the role of the individuals in it – politics is organized in parties which compete through elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus, etc. One should always be aware that this frame is never neutral, it privileges certain values and practices.
This non-neutrality becomes palpable in moments of crisis or indifference, when we experience the inability of the democratic system to register what people effectively want or think – this inability is signaled by anomalous phenomena like the UK elections of 2005: in spite of the growing unpopularity of Tony Blair (he was regularly voted the most unpopular person in the country), there was no way for this discontent with Blair to find a politically effective expression. Something was obviously very wrong here – it was not that people “did not know what they wanted,” but, rather, that cynical resignation prevented them from acting upon it, so that the result was the weird gap between what people thought and how they acted (voted).
A year or so ago, a similar gap exploded more brutally with the rise of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, in France: they clearly articulated an anger that it was impossible to translate or transpose into the terms of the politics of institutional representation. Which is why the moment Macron invited their representatives to a dialogue and challenged them to formulate their complaints in a clear political program, their protest evaporated. Exactly the same thing happened with Podemos in Spain: the moment they agreed to play party politics and enter the government, they became almost indistinguishable from the Socialists – yet another sign that representative democracy doesn’t fully work.
In short, the crisis of liberal democracy has lasted for more than a decade, and the Covid epidemic has only made it worse. The solution to this is certainly not to be found in some kind of more “true” democracy that will be more inclusive of all minorities – the very frame of liberal democracy will have to be left behind, which is exactly what liberals fear most. The path to true change opens only when we lose hope of change within the system. If this appears to be too “radical,” recall that today, our capitalist system is already changing, although in the opposite sense.
Direct violence is as a rule not revolutionary, but conservative, a reaction to the threat of a more basic change: when a system is in a crisis, it begins to break its own rules. Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, said, violent outbreaks are, in general, not the cause that change a society, but rather the birth pains of a new society in a society that has already expired due to its own contradictions.
Let’s remember that Arendt said this in her polemic against Mao, who himself believed that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun” – Arendt qualifies this like an “entirely non-Marxist” conviction and claims that, for Marx, violent outbursts are like “the labor pangs that precede, but of course do not cause, the event of organic birth.” Basically, I agree with her, but I would add that there never will be a fully peaceful “democratic” transfer of power without the “birth pangs” of violence: there will always be moments of tension when the rules of democratic dialogue and changes are suspended.
Today, however, the agent of this tension is the Right, which is why, paradoxically, the task of the Left is now, as the US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pointed out, to save our “bourgeois” democracy when the liberal center is too weak and indecisive to do it. Is this in contradiction with the fact that the Left today should move beyond parliamentary democracy?
No: as Trump demonstrates, the contradiction is in this democratic form itself, so that the only way to save what is worth saving in liberal democracy is to move beyond it – and vice versa, when rightist violence is on the rise, the only way to move beyond liberal democracy is to be more faithful to it than the liberal democrats themselves. This is what the successful democratic return to power of the Morales’s party in Bolivia, one of the few bright spots in our devastated landscape, clearly signals.
Sunday, October 25, 2020
The bureaucracy is a circle from which one cannot escape. Its hierarchy is a hierarchy of knowledge. The top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, whilst the lower levels credit the top with understanding of the general, and so all are mutually deceived.
The bureaucracy takes itself to be the ultimate purpose of the State
In the bureaucracy, the identity of State interest and particular private aim is established in such a way that the State interest becomes a particular private aim over against other private aims.
Taxes are the source of life for the bureaucracy, the army and the court, in short, for the whole apparatus of the executive power. Strong government and heavy taxes are identical.
- Karl Marx
Excerpts from: " Marxist Approach to Bureaucracy: Introductory, Origin and Other Details"
In the Manifesto of Communist Party (hereafter only Manifesto) Marx and Engels wrote: “The executive of the modern state is a committee for making the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” Marx and Engels here did not directly refer to bureaucracy. Needless to say that in all capitalist states the executive power is vested in the hands of a group of administrators who are called bureaucrats and these persons represent the interests of the capitalists.
Marx observed that in France and several other states of Europe the entire state administration was run by the bureaucrats and these state officers were dictated by the king or any type of dictator. The bureaucracy was so common in his time that he very frequently used the phrase bureaucratic phenomenon. This implies that the entire administration was under the full control of few officers known as bureaucrats.
In the materialist conception of history Marx has endeavoured to show that the idea of bureaucracy has not fallen from heaven. In primitive and slave societies there was no existence of state and no bureaucracy. So one can say that the system of bureaucracy was deliberately created by a group of men who controlled the state. Their sole aim was to ensure the good management of state so that the capitalists can exploit the working class without any problem. In the German Ideology Marx and Engels have thrown light on this aspect. In the German Ideology they have said: “the state is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests”.
We thus find that, according to Marx and Engels, the emergence of state and rise of bureaucracy are, in fact, inseparable from each other. Marx has said that during feudal period there was a clear existence of state but it had no separate and powerful existence of bureaucracy. The state was more or less controlled by various forces and feudal lords were the most prominent. Marx and Engels have said that, in capitalism, state came to establish its separate existence and capitalists encouraged this phenomenon.
But subsequently the capitalists came to realise that in its attempt to safeguard its objective of profit motive the help of state was necessary. It also thought that the state must be brought under proper administration. Bureaucracy was the consequence of this plan. An unholy nexus was created, under the aegis of the bourgeoisie, between the state and the capitalists. In Marx’s view the rise and growth of bureaucracy must be viewed in the light of capitalism.
Marx observed that Louis Bonaparte was gradually accumulating more and more power and dictatorial power was exercised by him. In this attempt (or we may call it a process) he was assisted by bureaucracy and military. Particularly the former helped to make and execute laws and to strengthen the base of despotism. The bureaucracy became rather an indispensable part of Bonaparte’s administration and despotism.
There were legislature and other organs of government but in the face of Bonaparte’s growing power which may be called dictatorship they were simply puppets. Marx has said: “Bureaucracy must, therefore, make it its job to render life as material as possible”. In the German Ideology Marx and Engels saw that in most of the states in Germany bureaucracy was acquiring more and more power and independence.
Bureaucracy in Advanced Capitalism:
Ralph Miliband, a noted Marxist thinker, in his The State in Capitalist Society. The Analysis of Western System of Power (1973) has analysed bureaucracy and its role in advanced capitalism. The Servants of the State—he has analysed the important aspects of bureaucracy that prevails in capitalist states. He has said that the political leaders of advanced capitalism have clear party colour, the bureaucrats have no such colour—they are neutral or are supposed to be neutral.
Even the top leaders of the party, after coming to power, bring their men and give important posts to them. But they do not work for party —they are politically neutral. “The claim insistently made, not least by civil servants themselves, that they are politically neutral, in the sense that, their overriding, indeed their exclusive concern, is to advance the business of the state under the direction of their political masters”. The so-called fact is that civil servants or bureaucrats in capitalist states such as USA are, in their administrative functions, neutral.
But Miliband does not accept this general view about bureaucracy in capitalist countries. The neutrality of bureaucrats in capitalist countries is a myth. Miliband says. …these men do play an important part in the process of governmental decision—making, and therefore constituting a considerable force in the configuration of political power in their societies” We therefore, find that the bureaucrats of capitalist countries are indispensable parts of administration and they also carry political colour with them. In other words, they are part of politics.
Another aspect of bureaucrats of capitalist countries is that while making policy and implementing it they claim that they are neutral. We thus find that politically they claim to be neutral and in policy implementing affairs they are neutral. Political consideration never influences them while executing the adopted policies. We find Miliband to make the following observation: “As for the manner in which this power is exercised, the notion of neutrality which is often attached to it is surely in the highest degree misleading; indeed a moment’s reflection must suggest that it is absurd”. In every advanced capitalist country individual civil servants (bureaucrats are also called in this name) have occasionally played a notable part in social, administrative and military functions.
It is not expected that the top civil servants come from the power elite groups or policy making organisations. They have obtained their education from the most important and top academic institutions. These persons have built up their own political ideas and inclination and when they become top administrators their policies will be influenced by their political inclinations and family background. The consequence is whenever a government decides to introduce “reforms” for the general benefit of public these civil servants are not supposed to be neutral, rather they oppose the reforms of the government.
Conservatism is another feature of bureaucrats. These officers do not want any change-a change for the better-“top civil servants in these countries are not simply conservative in general, they are conservative in the sense that they are the conscious or unconscious allies of existing economic and social elites. They favour existing social and economic structures of society.”
The civil servants are very often protectors and propagators of private capitalism and this role has expanded from the eighties of the last century due to the advancement of globalisation. Ralph Miliband has said that after the World War II a close nexus has developed between top civil servants and corporate capitalism; and bureaucracy helps the corporate capitalism in the attainment of objectives. Miliband says that bureaucracy is a great supporter of corporate capitalism and help in various ways. In recent years the state, being pressurised by public opinion, intervenes with the functioning of economic sector and in this affair the civil servants play a crucial role. Miliband has studied the American system and then concludes.
Both bureaucrats and politicians claim that they are the well-wishers and partners of national economic interests. But politicians do not always find scope or time to discuss policy matters with the magnates of private capitalism. This job is done by the top bureaucrats. Miliband’s observation is worth noting: “The world of administration and the world of large scale enterprise are now increasingly linked in terms of an almost interchanging personnel. More and more businessmen find their way into one part or the other of the state system at both political and administrative levels”. This type of interchangeability between top civil servants and important leaders of corporate or private capitalism in US or other mature capitalism is not new or uncommon: Nobody criticises it. The moot point is in advanced capitalist state bureaucracy is not busy with public administration alone but with other functions.
Lenin on Bureaucracy:
Lenin in his The State and Revolution (1918) has elaborately discussed bureaucracy. Like Marx and Engels, Lenin believed that bureaucracy was a machine used by the bourgeoisie to exploit the common people-particularly the working class. But to him in this affair the bureaucracy is not alone, it performs this job in collaboration with the military. Lenin quotes few lines from Marx’s letter to Kugelman written on April 12, 1871. Marx wrote “the next attempt of the French Revolution will no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic military machine from one hand to another but to smash it” Lenin accepted this view of Marx that both bureaucracy and military are the two arms of capitalist government and the chief aim of the revolutionaries would be to smash it.
Lenin in his The State and Revolution has said that the real aim of all revolutionaries would be to smash or destroy the military and bureaucratic alliance so that it cannot get any scope to exploit the working class. Earlier I have specifically noted that, to Marx, bureaucracy was nothing but a machine used by the bourgeois class. Lenin does not depart from this fundamental premise, he has simply elaborated and emphasised Marx’s contention.
Lenin fully realised that there was immense utility of bureaucracy and other forms of bourgeois administration. Naturally, it is quite Utopian to think of abolishing all forms of older administration but to utilise them for the furtherance of proletarian interests. For example, Lenin has said “The way out of parliamentarism is not the abolition of representative institution and the electoral principles, but the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops to working bodies.
Similarly, Lenin did not want to destroy the bureaucratic system of bourgeois administration but to keep it for the use and benefit of proletarian rule. That’s why we find him saying: There can be no thought of abolishing the bureaucracy at once everywhere and completely. That is Utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to began immediately to construct a new one that will permit us to abolish gradually all bureaucracy—this is not Utopia” Lenin further observes — “We are not Utopians. We do not include in “dreams” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination”.
From the above observations made by Lenin it is crystal clear that he fully realised the importance of state administration in general and bureaucracy in particular and for that reason he did not suggest the abolition of bourgeois administrative system of which the bureaucracy constitutes the chief part. He realised the importance of bureaucracy in administration. From his analysis it is also clear that Lenin did not dispense with the importance of bureaucracy.
But the kernel of his thought is that this type of bureaucracy is to be used for the interest of the proletarians. Lenin in his analysis made endeavour to assert that he was neither a Utopian nor an anarchist thinker. He thought that the abolition of the bureaucracy of capitalist regime will lead to great anarchy or turmoil and this he did not prefer. The function and character of bureaucracy must be changed for the benefit of the working class.
It’s time to be brave enough to acknowledge that we are in a hopeless situation, and Covid has changed the way our world will work forever. But we can thrive again if we accept there will be more state control in our lives.
Europe is now paying the price for its summer complacency, when we hoped that coronavirus would be ‘burned’ by the heat. While the epidemic diminished, it did not disappear. Life opened up somewhat, though, and there was a relief that the worst seemed to be over.
Now, in the autumn, when the virus is returning with a vengeance, we can see that the summer heat did all that it was expected to: it stalled the epidemic. Our summer was a brief moment of hope, when we all somehow believed things were returning to ‘normal’.
Everywhere, one could hear warnings about how we should prepare for the second wave, but these warnings were mostly not acted upon. The logic of fetishist disavowal – ‘I know very well, but I don’t really believe it’ – again asserted itself with full force, and now we are surprised that what we expected to happen effectively happened.
And another excuse is falling apart: the claim that, although infections are sharply rising, the death numbers remain low, so we are dealing with a much milder mutation of the virus. Covid deaths are now clearly on the rise in Europe.
t least two smaller European countries – the Czech Republic and my own, Slovenia – are approaching a collapse of the entire health system. In Slovenia, the practice until recently was that, if a doctor or nurse came into close contact with an infected person, they had to quarantine. Now this measure has been canceled; medical workers are obliged to go on working until they show visible signs of illness. Although this is justified by the lack of medical personnel, it opens up the way for the virus to spread freely in hospitals that are already hotbeds of infection.
Also, those who experience Covid symptoms have been told not to even call their doctor, but just to stay at home and wait to see if their situation worsens significantly. Worse still, the state has abandoned the tracing of cases. Individuals who experience symptoms are told they should try to remember who they have been with and inform them to behave carefully. In short, the state is capitulating to the virus.
Throughout the summer, there was a popular argument that lockdowns and quarantines are a medicine worse than the illness itself, that they cause more damage, not only economically, but also with regard to health, thanks to the neglect of cancer and other illnesses.
The basic axiom was to avoid lockdown at any price. The economy cannot afford another extended period of life being put on hold, we were repeatedly told. But this led to a Third Way, to half-baked measures that only partially saved the economy and simply postponed the new outbreak.
Caught between three differing viewpoints – those of medical experts, the business world, and the populist Covid deniers – governments adopted the politics of compromise. They introduced often inconsistent and ridiculously complex half-measures and now we are paying the price for these, which is not only an explosion of new Covid infections, but also the clear prospect of catastrophic economic hardship.
Finally, reality broke through and, now, European governments are openly considering lockdowns if the upward trend of contagion is not reversed. The problem is that, within the socioeconomic coordinates of today’s global capitalism, they cannot afford another lockdown – it would bring unheard-of economic depression and chaos, social unrest, and mental crises. One lockdown is all the global system can take.
So, here we are: the long, hot summer of compromises with the global capitalist order is over, and we are brutally confronted with the reality of what we can try to do to contain the epidemic without disturbing this order too much.
The options of finding a solution within the existing system are exhausted. The situation is hopeless, so there is no hope of a solution within it. One has to summon the courage to openly accept this hopelessness and to envisage radical socioeconomic change: a direct ‘politicization’ (or socialization) of the economy, with a much stronger role for the state, and, simultaneously, a much greater transparency of the state apparatuses themselves for the benefit of civil society.
To provide a general sense of the change that is required, let us look at the four components of the idea of revolutionary justice as it was elaborated by philosopher Alain Badiou: voluntarism (the belief that we can “move mountains,” ignoring “objective” laws and obstacles), terror, egalitarian justice (with no understanding for the “complex circumstances” that allegedly compel us to proceed gradually), and, last but not least, trust in the people.
The mere mention that this idea can have some relevance for our pandemic predicament can’t do anything but trigger horror or laughter: we live in a complex postmodern society, where such procedures are not only ethically unacceptable but have also proven to be inefficient. Really?
My point is not that this vicious spread of the pandemic requires us to invent a new version of these four features, but, rather, a much stronger one: we are already doing it! When crisis hit Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, the authorities called this new period ‘the Special Period in Time of Peace’: an era of military discipline, even though there was no war. We laughed at this name, but are we not now all in a ‘Special Period in Time of Peace’? Let’s examine things step by step.
Voluntarism: Even in countries where conservative forces are in power, more and more decisions are taken that clearly violate the ‘objective’ laws of the market: states directly intervene in industry and agriculture, distributing billions to prevent hunger or for healthcare measures. At least a partial socialization of the economy will become even more urgent with the ongoing rise in infections. It’s as in a war: healthcare will have to be expanded and reorganized without regard for the laws of the market.
Terror: Liberals are correct in their fears – although it is not the old ‘totalitarian’ police terror, serious limitations of our freedoms are now a fact of life. Not only are states forced to enact new modes of social control and regulation, but people are even solicited to report to the authorities any family member or neighbor who hides their infection or meets in a large group. In some countries, a night curfew is imposed. In the pandemic, the whistleblower is fully established as the new hero figure. The resistance of those who see informing the authorities about violations of the pandemic rules as something similar to denouncing friends to the police should be treated as a criminal act.
Egalitarian justice. It is commonly accepted that the eventual vaccine should be accessible to everybody, and that no part of the world population should be sacrificed to the virus – the cure is either global or inefficient. Can it be done? As Immanuel Kant wrote apropos duty: “Du kannst denn du sollst” – ‘you can because you ought to.’ Of course there will be a lot of cheating going on, but this cheating should be treated as what it is: a crime that is to be severely punished. States who try to control the eventual vaccine at the expense of others should be treated as rogue states.
Trust in the people: We all know that most of the measures against the pandemic work only if people follow the recommendations, and no state control can do all the work. The appeal to compassion is not enough here; people should be informed about the dangers and also be sufficiently scared to follow the regulations. And, of course, they should not fully trust their state institutions; these institutions themselves should feel the ‘terrorist’ pressure of the people.
Resistance to these measures will persist from all sides, but that is all it is – resistance against what science is telling us. No wonder most of the resistance comes from the populist new right. There is no space for compromise here. We already threw away the precious summer interlude in the search for compromises, and we clearly lost that battle. Now it’s time to act ruthlessly.
Where Zizek Goes Wrong from Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons":
ASSUMPTIONS NECESSARY TO AVOID THE TRAGEDY
"In passing the technically insoluble problems over to the political and social realm for solution, Hardin (Zixek) made three critical assumptions:
(1) that there exists, or can be developed, a 'criterion of judgment and system of weighting . . .' that will 'render the incommensurables . . . commensurable . . . ' in real life;
(2) that, possessing this criterion of judgment, 'coercion can be mutually agreed upon,' and that the application of coercion to effect a solution to problems will be effective in modern society; and
(3) that the administrative system, supported by the criterion of judgment and access to coercion, can and will protect the commons from further desecration." [p. 55]
ERODING MYTH OF THE COMMON VALUE SYSTEM
"In America there existed, until very recently, a set of conditions which perhaps made the solution to Hardin's subset possible; we lived with the myth that we were 'one people, indivisible. . . .' This myth postulated that we were the great 'melting pot' of the world wherein the diverse cultural ores of Europe were poured into the crucible of the frontier experience to produce a new alloy -- an American civilization. This new civilization was presumably united by a common value system that was democratic, equalitarian, and existing under universally enforceable rules contained in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
"In the United States today, however, there is emerging a new set of behavior patterns which suggest that the myth is either dead or dying. Instead of believing and behaving in accordance with the myth, large sectors of the population are developing life-styles and value hierarchies that give contemporary Americans an appearance more closely analogous to the particularistic, primitive forms of 'tribal' organizations in geographic proximity than to that shining new alloy, the American civilization." [p. 56]
"Looking at a more recent analysis of the sickness of the core city, Wallace F. Smith has argued that the productive model of the city is no longer viable for the purposes of economic analysis. Instead, he develops a model of the city as a site for leisure consumption, and then seems to suggest that the nature of this model is such is such that the city cannot regain its health because the leisure demands are value-based and, hence do not admit to compromise and accommodation; consequently there is no way of deciding among these value- oriented demands that are being made on the core city.
"In looking for the cause of the erosion of the myth of a common value system, it seems to me that so long as our perceptions and knowledge of other groups were formed largely through the written media of communication, the American myth that we were a giant melting pot of equalitarians could be sustained. In such a perceptual field it is tenable, if not obvious, that men are motivated by interests. Interests can always be compromised and accommodated without undermining our very being by sacrificing values. Under the impact of electronic media, however, this psychological distance has broken down and now we discover that these people with whom we could formerly compromise on interests are not, after all, really motivated by interests but by values. Their behavior in our very living room betrays a set of values, moreover, that are incompatible with our own, and consequently the compromises that we make are not those of contract but of culture. While the former are acceptable, any form of compromise on the latter is not a form of rational behavior but is rather a clear case of either apostasy or heresy. Thus we have arrived not at an age of accommodation but one of confrontation. In such an age 'incommensurables' remain 'incommensurable' in real life." [p. 59]
EROSION OF THE MYTH OF THE MONOPOLY OF COERCIVE FORCE
"In the past, those who no longer subscribed to the values of the dominant culture were held in check by the myth that the state possessed a monopoly on coercive force. This myth has undergone continual erosion since the end of World War II owing to the success of the strategy of guerrilla warfare, as first revealed to the French in Indochina, and later conclusively demonstrated in Algeria. Suffering as we do from what Senator Fulbright has called 'the arrogance of power,' we have been extremely slow to learn the lesson in Vietnam, although we now realize that war is political and cannot be won by military means. It is apparent that the myth of the monopoly of coercive force as it was first qualified in the civil rights conflict in the South, then in our urban ghettos, next on the streets of Chicago, and now on our college campuses has lost its hold over the minds of Americans. The technology of guerrilla warfare has made it evident that, while the state can win battles, it cannot win wars of values. Coercive force which is centered in the modern state cannot be sustained in the face of the active resistance of some 10 percent of the population unless the state is willing to embark on a deliberate policy of genocide directed against the value dissident groups. The factor that sustained the myth of coercive force in the past was the acceptance of a common value system. Whether the latter exists is questionable in the modern nation-state." [p.p. 59-60]
EROSION OF THE MYTH OF ADMINISTRATORS OF THE COMMONS
"Indeed, the process has been so widely commented upon that one writer postulated a common life cycle for all of the attempts to develop regulatory policies. The life cycle is launched by an outcry so widespread and demanding that it generates enough political force to bring about establishment of a regulatory agency to insure the equitable, just, and rational distribution of the advantages among all holders of interest in the commons. This phase is followed by the symbolic reassurance of the offended as the agency goes into operation, developing a period of political quiescence among the great majority of those who hold a general but unorganized interest in the commons. Once this political quiescence has developed, the highly organized and specifically interested groups who wish to make incursions into the commons bring sufficient pressure to bear through other political processes to convert the agency to the protection and furthering of their interests. In the last phase even staffing of the regulating agency is accomplished by drawing the agency administrators from the ranks of the regulated." [p.p. 60-61]
Saturday, October 24, 2020
Monday, October 12, 2020
Across the world, the establishment is aware of the radical social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why we’re seeing leaders introduce strategies and thinking that could be interpreted as fascist in principle.
A story picked up by the UK media at the end of September passed almost unnoticed. As The Guardian reported, “The government has ordered schools in England not to use resources from organizations which have expressed a desire to end capitalism. Department for Education guidance issued on Thursday for school leaders and teachers involved in setting the relationship, sex and health curriculum categorized anti-capitalism as an ‘extreme political stance’ and equated it with opposition to freedom of speech, anti-Semitism and endorsement of illegal activity.”
As far as I know, this was the first time such an explicit order had been given; nothing like this happened even in the darkest periods of the Cold War. One should also note the words used: “a desire to end capitalism.” Not an intention, a plan, a program, but simply a desire – a term which can be applied to almost any statement (“True, you didn’t say it, but it’s what you desire…").
Plus, of course, there was the (now usual) addition of “anti-Semitism,” as if a desire to end capitalism is in itself anti-Semitic. Are the authors aware that their prohibition is in itself anti-Semitic: it implies that Jews are in their essence capitalist?
Why this sudden panic reaction to communism? Is it fear that the pandemic, global warming and other social crises may provide an opportunity for China to assert itself as the only remaining superpower? No, China is not today’s Soviet Union; the best way to prevent communism is to follow China. While the Soviet Union was the external enemy, the threat to liberal democracies today is internal, from the explosive mixture of crises that beset our societies.
Let’s take an extreme but clear example of how the ongoing pandemic pushed our societies in the direction of what we associate with communism, and for some even the worst part of it.
In his Logiques des mondes, Alain Badiou elaborated on the idea of the politics of revolutionary justice at work from the ancient Chinese ‘legists’ through Jacobins to Lenin and Mao. It consists of four moments: voluntarism (the belief that one can “move mountains,” ignoring “objective” laws and obstacles), terror (a ruthless will to crush the enemy), egalitarian justice (its immediate brutal imposition, with no understanding for the “complex circumstances” which allegedly compel us to proceed gradually), and, last but not least, trust in the people.
Does the ongoing pandemic not require us to invent a new version of these four features?
Voluntarism: Even in countries where conservative forces are in power, decisions are taken which clearly violate “objective” laws of the market, like the state directly intervening in industry, distributing billions to prevent hunger or for healthcare measures.
Terror: Liberals are correct in their fears. Not only are states forced to enact new modes of social control and regulation, but people are even solicited to report family members and neighbors who hide their infection to the authorities.
Egalitarian justice: It is commonly accepted that the eventual vaccine should be accessible to everybody, and that no part of the world population should be sacrificed to the virus – the cure is either global or inefficient.
Trust in the people: We all know that most of the measures against the pandemic only work if people follow the recommendations. No state control can do the work here.
But much more important than this is the partial socialization of economy imposed by the pandemic. Such a socialization will become even more urgent with the ongoing rise in infections. This is how one should also interpret the ‘fascist’ tendencies of Trump and other populists. As Walter Benjamin said long ago: “Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.”
These ‘fascist’ tendencies signal that the establishment is silently aware of the radical social consequences of the pandemic. The establishment acts preventively by trying to quash them before they acquire full political form.
Although it is too simple to dismiss Trump as a fascist, the danger he embodies is even worse than outright fascism. From my youth, I remember a classic East German joke: Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker confront God, asking him about the future of their countries. To Nixon, he answers: “In 2050, the US will be communist.” Nixon turns around and starts to cry. To Brezhnev, he says: “In 2050, the Soviet Union will be a Chinese province.” After Brezhnev also turns around and starts to cry, Honecker finally asks: “And how will it be in my beloved GDR?” And God turns around, and starts to cry…
We can easily imagine a version of the same joke if Trump and those similar to him prevail in our world. Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump confront God with the same question. To Putin, God answers: “Russia will be controlled by China,” so Putin turns around and starts to cry. To Xi, God answers: “Mainland China will be dominated by Taiwan,” so Xi does the same. When Trump finally asks the same question, God turns around and starts to cry…
What we are getting today – not only in China – is the combination of strong authoritarian states with wild capitalist dynamics. The most efficient form of capitalism today is what Henry Farrell called “networked authoritarianism”: if a state spies on people enough and allows machine-learning systems to incorporate their behavior and respond to it, it is possible to provide for everyone’s needs better than a democracy could. Here, Xi, Putin and Trump are joining hands.
Two conclusions impose themselves here, a short-term one and a long-term one. The short-term one is that the task of (whatever remains of) the radical left is now, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, to save our “bourgeois” democracy when the liberal center is too weak and indecisive to do it. ‘Shame on them; we have now even to fight their battles!’
Obsessed by Trump’s provocative eccentricities, liberals miss the key point, developed by Michael Sandel: Trump is not a dictator, he only plays one on television, and we should not play along as his supporting cast. This is what we do when we criticize him as some kind of fascist, instead of focusing on his failures which he obfuscates by his dictatorial excesses and provocations. His typical strategy is to provoke the liberal ire which attracts wide attention and then, out of sight of the public at large, enforce measures which limit workers’ rights, etc.
And the second conclusion? During the protests that erupted in Chile in October 2019, there was graffiti on a wall which read, “Another end of the world is possible.”. This should be our answer to an establishment obsessed by apocalyptic scenarios. Yes, your old world is coming to an end, but the options envisaged by you are not the only ones: another end of the world is possible.
Saturday, October 10, 2020
In December 1936, George Orwell was on his way to Spain to join the Republican side in the fight against fascism. On the way, he stopped in Paris where he met with Henry Miller in his Montparnasse studio. As D. J. Taylor notes in Orwell: The Life, Miller’s friend Alfred Perlès was present for the meeting, and he recalled an encounter that perfectly captured the seemingly antithetical worldviews of the two men.
Miller thought Orwell’s decision to fight in Spain was absurd—as Taylor puts it (summarizing Perlès’s account of Miller’s attitude): “Wasn’t he more use to the world alive than dead? Orwell replied ‘earnestly and humbly’ that in extraordinary times there could be no thought of avoiding self-sacrifice.” Miller then offered his corduroy jacket as a “contribution to the Republican war effort,” but he “tactfully refrained from adding that Orwell would have been welcome to the jacket even if he had been fighting for Franco.”
“Watching the two of them together,” Taylor writes, “Perlès was struck by the sharp contrast in personality and temperament, Miller with his ‘semi-oriental detachment,’ Orwell ‘tough, resilient and politically-minded, ever striving in his bid to improve the world.’” While Perlès’s recollection of the meeting makes it sound as if their disagreement about the Spanish Civil War wasn’t particularly disagreeable, Orwell remembered it differently. As he explained in his famous 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”:I first met Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain. What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot… my ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all boloney.
“Inside the Whale” is one of Orwell’s best-known essays. While it offers an extended analysis of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, it’s much more than a review—it’s a study of how writers are influenced by the periods in which they live, as well as the role of literature in times of war and political upheaval. Orwell’s characteristic pessimism is on full display—he may have been “ever striving in his bid to improve the world,” but he didn’t have much confidence in the power of writing to make a difference in the early days of World War II.
“Another European war has broken out,” Orwell wrote near the end of the essay. “It will either last several years and tear Western civilization to pieces, or it will end inconclusively and prepare the way for yet another war which will do the job once and for all.” It’s clear that the ideas of 1984 were already taking root in his mind at this point—he argued that “almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships—an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction.” He also observed that the “autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence,” which prefigured the famous line from 1984: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
What did the emerging era of war and totalitarianism mean for writers? “This is not a writer’s world,” Orwell wrote. “That does not mean that he cannot help to bring the new society into being, but he can take no part in the process as a writer. For as a writer he is a liberal, and what is happening is the destruction of liberalism.” While this was an eccentric view, Orwell arrived at it by assessing the dangers and difficulties of wartime writing. He was preoccupied with the idea that “no book is ever truly neutral,” as he put it in “Inside the Whale”—a point he also made in his essay about Charles Dickens when he famously observed that “All art is propaganda.” However, some works are more propagandistic than others.
To demonstrate this point, Orwell compared books written about World War I with books written about the Spanish Civil War: “The immediately striking thing about the Spanish war books… is their shocking dullness and badness. But what is more significant is that almost all of them, right-wing or left-wing, are written from a political angle, by cocksure partisans telling you what to think, whereas the books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about.”
The latter was “nearer to Miller’s attitude than the omniscience which is now fashionable.” Although he wasn’t writing about war, Miller didn’t try to tell his readers what to think. In Orwell’s view, with Tropic of Cancer, Miller produced a book that was as free of propaganda as any book could be.
Tropic of Cancer was published by Obelisk Press in 1934, but it was banned in the United States until a 1964 Supreme Court decision ruled that it could legally be sold in the country (Grove Press started publishing it illegally in 1961). The book is an autobiographical account of Miller’s experiences in 1930s Paris—a chronicle of aimless sex- and booze-fueled expatriate life in the squalid undercarriage of the city.
Orwell describes Tropic of Cancer as a “story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs.” It immediately calls to mind the Paris-from-the-gutter perspective of Down and Out in Paris and London, in which Orwell recounts scrounging for his next meal or drink with a Russian émigré named Boris, the unsanitary horrors of a kitchen in an unidentified luxury hotel, and long hours of grinding work punctuated by periods of starvation and homelessness.
There are two major themes in Orwell’s analysis of Tropic of Cancer: first, that Miller makes the reader feel personally addressed because he’s willing to write honestly about universal human impulses and feelings that are rarely expressed: “It is as though you could hear a voice speaking to you, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike.” And second, that the book has no agenda beyond the transmutation of raw experience into prose—something Orwell regards as particularly strange in an “epoch of fear, tyranny and regimentation.”
After mentioning the end of Tropic of Cancer, in which Miller “simply sits down and watches the Seine flowing past, in a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is,” Orwell asks, “Only, what is he accepting?” His response again demonstrates the stark difference in outlook between the two men:To say “I accept” in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine-guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas-masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders.
Miller accepted the “ancient bone-heap of Europe, where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies,” and his response to Orwell’s decision to fight in Spain demonstrated that he was prepared to accept the bloodshed and destruction still to come. Orwell took a fascist bullet in the throat in Spain and knew people who had been tortured and imprisoned by Soviet agents, so it isn’t surprising that he didn’t share Miller’s indifference to Hitler, Stalin, and rubber truncheons. But it’s this very indifference that, according to Orwell, made Miller’s work more essentially true than any other novel written at the time.
Like the men in the trenches during World War I, Miller captured the visceral reality of life by dropping the “lies and simplifications” and “stylized, marionnette-like quality of ordinary fiction.” Instead, he filled his pages with the “recognizable experiences of human beings.” Orwell argued that Miller’s quietism was what allowed him to produce work that made the reader feel that he “knows all about me… he wrote this specially for me.” Orwell continued:Precisely because, in one sense, he is passive to experience, Miller is able to get nearer to the ordinary man than is possible to more purposive writers. For the ordinary man is also passive. Within a narrow circle (home life, and perhaps the trade union or local politics) he feels himself master of his fate, but against major events he is as helpless as against the elements. So far from endeavoring to influence the future, he simply lies down and lets things happen to him.
While Orwell didn’t classify Miller as a “great author” in the same way as James Joyce (who he mentions by way of comparison several times), he was as unreserved in his praise for Tropic of Cancer as he was capable of being. He described Miller’s prose as “astonishing,” argued that some of the figures in the book were “handled with a feeling for character and a mastery of technique… unapproached in any at all recent novel,” and observed that “here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past.”
In one of the most arresting sequences in Tropic of Cancer, Miller watches an acquaintance “dancing with a naked wench, a huge blonde with creases in her jowls” when “for a fraction of a second perhaps I experienced that utter clarity which the epileptic, it is said, is given to know… In this sort of hair-trigger eternity I felt that everything was justified, supremely justified; I felt the wars inside me that had left behind this pulp and wrack; I felt the crimes that were seething here to emerge tomorrow in blatant screamers; I felt the misery that was grinding itself out with pestle and mortar; the long dull misery that dribbles away in dirty handkerchiefs.”
Orwell emphasized Miller’s “preoccupation with indecency and with the dirty-handkerchief side of life… the truth is that life, ordinary everyday life, consists far more largely of horrors than writers of fiction usually care to admit.” It isn’t just the grimy and sordid realism of Tropic of Cancer that makes it such a revealing book—it’s Miller’s candor about his own nihilism, brutality, and selfishness.
“On the meridian of time,” Miller wrote, “there is no injustice: there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama.” Instead of truth, drama, and justice, we generate “only ideas, pale, attenuated ideas which have to be fattened by slaughter; ideas which come forth like bile, like the guts of a pig when the carcass is ripped open.” These bleak and cynical convictions led Miller to an idea of his own: “I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer. Even if war were declared, and it were my lot to go, I would grab the bayonet and plunge it, plunge it up to the hilt.”
By comparison, consider a few lines from Orwell’s 1936 essay “Shooting an Elephant”: “With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” This is more than an emphasis on the “dirty-handkerchief side of life”—it’s an unblinking confrontation of the cruelty and ruthless indifference that are so clearly part of human nature.
The effect of Joyce’s Ulysses, according to Orwell, was to “break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives.” He saw this quality in Miller as well: “Read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood.” Recall Orwell’s observation that Miller spoke to his readers with “no humbug… no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike.” These two features of Miller’s writing—the lack of the distorting, humbug-generating influence of moral purpose and the refusal to lie about his own instincts and feelings, however despicable—accounted for Orwell’s argument that Tropic of Cancer was one of the most important novels written in years.
It may seem odd that Orwell—a man, of whom his friend Cyril Connolly once said, “could not blow his nose without moralizing on the state of the handkerchief industry”—would be so attracted to the work of a “non-political, non-moral, passive man.” But this isn’t as surprising as it seems—one of the main themes of Orwell’s work was how easily orthodoxy could corrupt thought. As Orwell put it in “The Prevention of Literature”: “To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.” According to Orwell, Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring (a novel Miller published in 1936) gave readers “an idea of what can still be done, even at this late date, with English prose. In them, English is treated as a spoken language, but spoken without fear…”
Later in the essay, Orwell argued that “Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.” He added the emphasis in both of those sentences for good reason—he was writing not just at a time of rampaging orthodoxies, but of pervasive fear of falling afoul of those orthodoxies.
“Literature as we know it,” Orwell wrote in “Inside the Whale,” “is an individual thing, demanding mental honesty and a minimum of censorship.” It’s the “product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.” This is why Orwell argued that “a writer does well to keep out of politics. For any writer who accepts or partially accepts the discipline of a political party is sooner or later faced with the alternative: toe the line, or shut up.”
According to Orwell, “As early as 1934 or 1935 it was considered eccentric in literary circles not to be more or less ‘left,’ and in another year or two there had grown up a left-wing orthodoxy that made a certain set of opinions absolutely de rigueur on certain subjects.” In other words, many writers became communists, which meant they constantly had to decide whether to toe the line or shut up, depending on the circumstances: “Every time Stalin swaps partners,” Orwell wrote, “‘Marxism’ has to be hammered into a new shape… Every Communist is in fact liable at any moment to have to alter his most fundamental convictions, or leave the party. The unquestionable dogma of Monday may become the damnable heresy of Tuesday, and so on.”
Orwell also explained how communism replaced the patriotic and religious feelings that members of the English intelligentsia believed they had transcended: “All the loyalties and superstitions that the intellect had seemingly banished could come rushing back under the thinnest of disguises. Patriotism, religion, empire, military glory—all in one word, Russia. Father, king, leader, hero, savior—all in one word, Stalin.” Is it any wonder that Orwell, witnessing these endless intellectual and moral contortions, the shameless propaganda, and the constant stream of wartime lies and distortions, was drawn to a writer who didn’t regurgitate any orthodoxies or toe any lines? Miller gave his readers “no sermons, merely the subjective truth.”
Recall Orwell’s comment about the “destruction of liberalism” and what this meant for writers: “The literature of liberalism is coming to an end and the literature of totalitarianism has not yet appeared and is barely imaginable.” This led him to argue that it “seems likely, therefore, that in the remaining years of free speech any novel worth reading will follow more or less along the lines that Miller has followed—I do not mean in technique or subject-matter, but in implied outlook.” The best argument against this declaration, however, was Orwell’s own work.
Animal Farm was published just four years after “Inside the Whale,” and it demonstrated that the liberal writer still had a powerful voice in the age of totalitarianism. Novels could be written with moral and political purpose without becoming propagandistic—a point made even more clearly by 1984, which challenged totalitarianism in all its forms. While Orwell was right that Tropic of Cancer would be remembered (and not just due to the controversy that surrounded it), Animal Farm and 1984 didn’t just prove what could still be done with English prose in an era of war, tyranny, and orthodoxy—they permanently reshaped the language and continue to frame our thinking about totalitarianism three-quarters of a century later.
Orwell argued that the influence of Tropic of Cancer was “symptomatic… It is a demonstration of the impossibility of any major literature until the world has shaken itself into a new shape.” He was wrong that Miller—a “completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer”—represented the future of literature in the middle of the 20th century. But he couldn’t have anticipated that his own work would be the strongest refutation of this view.
Orwell explained that the title “Inside the Whale” came from an essay by Miller “in which he compares Anaïs Nin—evidently a completely subjective, introverted writer—to Jonah in the whale’s belly.” In the essay, Miller noted that Aldous Huxley once observed that figures in El Greco’s pictures look like they’re stuck inside the bellies of whales. Huxley expressed his horror at what a “visceral prison” would be like, but Miller disagreed—he thought being trapped in a whale’s belly didn’t sound so bad. Orwell explained why it was no surprise that Miller would have this attitude: “There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens… short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility.”
Although Orwell regarded Miller as a “mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses,” he also recognized that Miller was a fearless writer who was honest enough to explore his own amorality. And though Miller was amoral and apolitical, this allowed him to produce work that was unencumbered by the dead weight of ideology and orthodoxy. These are the reasons his writing has endured for so long.
How would Miller be received if he was writing today? He would likely be condemned. Tropic of Cancer gives readers a glimpse of the world through a filter of pure degeneracy—it’s full of misogyny, blasphemy, hedonism, nihilism, and savagery. In fact, it’s about these things. But it has become far less acceptable for writers to give voice to their prejudices and ugly impulses—today’s writers are more often celebrated for exposing those prejudices and impulses in other people. There are roving bands of heresy hunters who will comb through every word controversial writers and thinkers have written or said in search of some damnable statement that proves once and for all that their targets should be permanently ostracized, with big red asterisks placed over their existing work.
Like Miller, Orwell didn’t just focus on the “dirty-handkerchief side of life”—he repeatedly confessed to the dirty-handkerchief side of his own personality. Essays like “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging” (as well as novels like Burmese Days) were deeply personal accounts not only of the machinery of imperialism, but Orwell’s own part in keeping that machinery running. The same dynamic was at work with hyper-class conscious novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying—though Orwell said his family was part of the “lower-upper-middle class,” he was educated at Eton and was endlessly trying to expiate what he regarded as his own snobbishness by dressing like a tramp, spending time among coal miners and beggars, and revealing how the lower classes lived in books like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.
When Orwell admitted to something reprehensible, such as his fantasy about stabbing a Buddhist priest, he did so to expose the psychological effects of oppressive systems like British imperialism. Miller had no such agenda—he merely wanted to tell the truth about human experience for its own sake. But these separate projects had more than just honesty and courage in common—they required both men to think and write freely. There’s a reason Orwell spent a large portion of “Inside the Whale” discussing the groupthink that emerged around communism among writers and intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. As he put it: “The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature.”
The atmosphere of orthodoxy in our own time is becoming thicker and more suffocating every day. As polarization continues to surge, so too does tribalism—writers tailor their messages for ferociously partisan outlets, social media allows people to construct vast echo chambers in which a dissenting whisper is nowhere to be heard, and those who wish to silence unpopular opinions can now form a mob of thousands of people at the push of a button. But just as Orwell and Miller defied the censors and orthodoxy-sniffers of their time, writers can do the same today if they’re willing to think freely and write honestly.
In “Inside the Whale,” Orwell explained that he understood why Miller was happy to be a contemporary Jonah: “A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo.” He also observed just how big the waves were at the time: “When Tropic of Cancer was published the Italians were marching into Abyssinia and Hitler’s concentration camps were already bulging… It did not seem to be a moment at which a novel of outstanding value was likely to be written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter.”
And yet that’s exactly what Miller produced with Tropic of Cancer—a novel that dispenses with all pretense and propaganda and presents subjective human experience in its purest form. Although Miller was inside the whale and Orwell was on the surface, they both told their readers exactly what they saw. A writer can do no more.Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Bulwark, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Splice Today, Forbes, and the Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjj89.
FreeThinke/ Franco Aragosta... you leave the world a less civilized place. I'll sincerely miss your sharp wit and keen intellect. I hope that you're with your family and loved ones now, wrapped in their eternal embrace of love and devotion to one another. Perhaps now, inside the whale, you can finally find the peace best suited to people with your unique talents.
Monday, October 5, 2020
The aim of the protests in cities like Minsk is to align the country with Western liberal-capitalist values. But the problems will come after they have won and the first wave of enthusiasm is over
Although one of the criticisms of Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko is that his government handled the Covid-19 pandemic badly, the topic has been notably absent from public debates. It’s this dismissive stance towards the coronavirus that the authoritarian leader and the protesters calling for an end to his time in office have in common.
During the recent demonstrations following the presidential election, the crowds in Minsk didn’t seem to care about social distancing, very few masks were seen, and Lukashenko himself regularly displayed his defiance of Covid dangers – remember that he even ordered a big victory parade on 8 May. Although one should nonetheless note that Belarus is dealing with outbreaks of the virus better than the neighbouring countries.
For a brief moment, at least, the pandemic was relegated into the background, and we were back to the well-known scene of freedom-loving masses toppling “the last dictator in Europe” – Minsk as a new Kyiv.
However, this joyful enthusiasm for democracy implies its own blind spot. We should, of course, support the protests: Lukashenko is an eccentric authoritarian leader, a slightly ridiculous figure who runs his state with an iron fist, arresting opponents, allowing very little freedom of the press, etc. However, he cannot be dismissed as simply a failure. What he achieved was economic stability, safety and order, with a per capita income much higher than that in the “free” Ukraine, and distributed in a much more egalitarian way. But one of his most important profitable enterprises – getting cheap oil from Russia and reselling it to the West – is now over because of low oil prices. So his time has run out.
The ongoing protests in Belarus are catch-up protests, the aim of which is to align the country with Western liberal-capitalist values. But the problems will come after the protesters claim victory for democracy and the first wave of enthusiasm is over. The final outcome might well be a new, more national-conservative figure – something like a Belarussian version of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban or Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski. That is to say, one should bear in mind the reason for Lukashenko’s relative popularity until recently: he was tolerated, accepted even by some circles, precisely because he offered a safe haven against the ravages of wild liberal capitalism (corruption, economic and social uncertainty).
The protests which have been shaking the world the last couple of years clearly oscillate between two types. On the one side, we have the catch-up protests which enjoy the support of Western liberal media: Hong Kong, Minsk etc. On the other side, we have much more troubling protests which are a reaction to the limits of the liberal-democratic project itself: The yellow vests movement in France, Black Lives Matter, and Extinction Rebellion. The relationship between the two resembles the well-known paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. The upshot of which is that in a race between the two, the fleet-footed Achilles cannot ever overtake the tortoise. No matter how quickly Achilles closes each gap, the slow-but-steady tortoise will always open new, smaller ones and remain just ahead of the Greek hero.
Now let’s replace Achilles by “forces of democratic uprising”, and the tortoise by the ideal of “liberal-democratic capitalism”: we soon realise that the majority of countries cannot come too close to this ideal, and that their failure to reach it expresses weaknesses of the global capitalist system itself. All these countries can do is the risky move of reaching beyond this system, which, of course, brings its own dangers.
Plus we are forced to realise that, while pro-democracy protesters strive to catch-up with the liberal-capitalist West, there are clear signs that, in economy and politics, the developed West itself is entering a post-capitalist and post-liberal era – an era that is dystopian in nature, of course.
Greece’s former minister of finance, Yanis Varoufakis, recently pointed out a key sign of things to come: when news of historic recessions in the UK and US broke, the stock market experienced a record high. Although part of this can be explained by simple facts (most stock market highs belong to just a few companies which thrive now, from Google to Tesla), the general tendency is of the decoupling of financial circulation and speculation from production and profit. Netflix is exemplary here: while it loses money, it continues to expand. The true choice is thus: what kind of post-capitalism will we find ourselves in?
As for democracy, let’s just take a look at the cover stories in our media. In Poland, liberal public figures complain that they are becoming spectators at the dismantling of democracy. In the US, Barack Obama warned that Donald Trump presents a grave threat to democracy itself, while Trump is giving signs that he will not recognise the result of presidential elections if it is not in his favour – does this not sound like Lukashenko?
So let’s wish all the luck to protesters in Belarus: if they win, Covid-19 concerns will return with a vengeance, with all other pressing issues from ecology to new poverty. They will need luck – and courage.
Thursday, October 1, 2020
-Slavoj Zizek, " Kurc te Gleda - Through Lubitsch's Looking Glass"
The title is printable only in (what is for me) a foreign language (English, in this case), making sure that readers would not understand it. In Slovene, it is an extremely vulgar common expression, an outburst of rage, which can be roughly translated as “let a prick take a look at you,” or something like “up yours”. But what if we read this expression more literally? In what sense can a penis look at you?