Saturday, November 20, 2010

Plasticity of Brain Function

From The Parallax View, p. 209:

Our brain is a historical product, it develops in interaction with the environment, through human praxis. This development is not prescribed in advance by our genes; what genes do is precisely the opposite: they account for the structure of the brain, which is open to plasticity, so that some parts of it develop more if they are used more; if they are disabled, other parts can take over their function, and so on. What we are dealing with here is not only differentiation but trans-differentiation, “changing the difference.” Learning and memory play a key role in reinforcing or suspending synaptic links: neurons “remember” their stimulations, actively structure them, and so forth. Vulgar materialism and idealism join forces against this plasticity: idealism, to prove that the brain is just matter, a relay machine which has to be animated from the outside, not the site of activity; materialism, to sustain its mechanical determinist vision of reality. This explains the strange belief which, although it is now empirically refuted, persists: the brain, in contrast to other organs, does not grow and regenerate; its cells just gradually die out. This view ignores the fact that our mind does not only reflect the world, it is part of a transformative exchange with the world, it “reflects” the possibilities of transformation, it sees the world through possible “projects,” and this transformation is also self-transformation, this exchange also modifies the brain as the biological “site” of the mind.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Concrete Universality

Please see the full entry online at:

It is this logic of the "minimal difference," of the constitutive non-coincidence of a thing with itself, which provides the key to the central Hegelian category of “concrete universality." Let us take a “mute" abstract universality which encompasses a set of elements all of whom somehow subvert, do not fit, this universal frame - is, in this case, the “true" concrete universal not this distance itself, the universalized exception? And vice versa, is the element which directly fits the universal not the true exception? Not only is, as the commonplace goes, universality based in an exception; Lacan goes here a step further: universality IS its exception, it "appears as such" in its exception. This is what Badiou et al deployed as the logic of the "surnumerary" element: the exception (the element with no place in the structure) which immediately stands for the universal dimension. Christianity first introduced this notion: Christ, the miserable outcast, IS man as such (ecce homo). Democracy - in its true grandeur, not in its post-political logic of administration and compromise among multiple interests - partakes in the same tradition: the "part of no part," those with no proper place within the social edifice, ARE directly the universality of "people."

Universality is not the neutral container of particular formations, their common measure, the passive (back)ground on which the particulars fight their battles, but THIS BATTLE ITSELF, the struggle leading from one to another particular formation. Recall Krzysztof Kieslowski's passage from documentary to fiction cinema: we do not simply have two species of cinema, documentary and fiction; fiction emerges out of the inherent limitation of the documentary. Kieslowski's starting point was the same as the one of all cineasts in the Socialist countries: the conspicuous gap between the drab social reality and the optimistic, bright image which pervaded the heavily censored official media. The first reaction to the fact that, in Poland, social reality was "unrepresented," as Kieslowski put it, was, of course, the move towards a more adequate representation of the real life in all its drabness and ambiguity - in short, an authentic documentary approach:

There was a necessity, a need - which was very exciting for us - to describe the world. The Communist world had described how it should be and not how it really was. [...] If something hasn't been described, then it doesn't officially exist. So that if we start describing it, we bring it to life.1

Suffice it to mention Hospital, Kieslowski's documentary from 1976, in which the camera follows orthopaedic surgeons on a 32-hour shift. Instruments fall apart in their hands, the electrical current keeps breaking, there are shortages of the most basic materials, but the doctors persevere hour after hour, and with humor... Then, however, the obverse experience set in, best captured by the slogan used recently to publicize a Hollywood movie: "It's so real, it must be a fiction!"- at the most radical level, one can render the Real of subjective experience only in the guise of a fiction. Towards the end of the documentary First Love (1974), in which the camera follows a young unmarried couple during the girl's pregnancy, through their wedding, and the delivery of the baby, the father is shown holding the newly born baby in his hands and crying - Kieslowski reacted to the obscenity of such unwarranted probing into the other's intimacy with the "fright of real tears." His decision to pass from documentaries to fiction films was thus, at its most radical, an ethical one:

Not everything can be described. That's the documentary's great problem. It catches itself as if in its own trap. [...] If I'm making a film about love, I can't go into a bedroom if real people are making love there. [...] I noticed, when making documentaries, that the closer I wanted to get to an individual, the more objects which interested me shut themselves off.

That's probably why I changed to features. There's no problem there. I need a couple to make love in bed, that's fine. Of course, it might be difficult to find an actress who's willing to take off her bra, but then you just find one who is. [...] I can even buy some glycerine, put some drops in her eyes and the actress will cry. I managed to photograph some real tears several times. It's something completely different. But now I've got glycerine. I'm frightened of real tears. In fact, I don't even know whether I've got the right to photograph them. At such times I feel like somebody who's found himself in a realm which is, in fact, out of bounds. That's the main reason why I escaped from documentaries.2

The crucial intermediary in this passage from documentary to fiction is Camera Buff (1979), the portrait of a man who, because of his passion for the camera, loses his wife, child, and job - the fiction film about a documentary film-maker. So there is a domain of fantasmatic intimacy which is marked by a "No trespass!" sign and should be approached only via fiction, if one is to avoid pornographic obscenity. This is the reason why the French Veronique in The Double Life of Veronique rejects the puppeteer: he wants to penetrate her too much, which is why, towards the film's end, after he tells her the story of her double life, she is deeply hurt and escapes to her father.3 The »concrete universality« is a name for this process through which fiction explodes FROM WITHIN documentary, i.e., for the way the emergence of fiction cinema resolves the inherent deadlock of the documentary cinema. (Or, in philosophy, the point is not to conceive eternity as opposed to temporality, but eternity as it emerges from within our temporal experience - or, in an even more radical way, as Schelling did it, to conceive time itself as a subspecies of eternity, as the resolution of a deadlock of eternity.)4

This brings us to the very heart of the concept of concrete universality: concrete universality is not merely the universal core that animates a series of its particular forms of appearance; it persists in the very irreducible tension, non-coincidence, between these different levels. Hegel is usually perceived as an "essentialist historicist," positing the spiritual "essence" of an epoch as a universal principle which expresses itself in a specific way in each domain of social life; say, the modern principle of subjectivity expresses itself in religion as Protestantism, in ethics as the subject's moral autonomy, in politics as democratic equality, etc. What such a view misses is what one is tempted to call temporal parallax: in the complex dialectic of historical phenomena, we encounter events or processes which, although they are the actualization of the same underlying "principle" at different levels, for that very reason cannot occur at the same historical moment.

Recall the old topic of the relationship between Protestantism, Kantian philosophical revolution and the French political revolution. Rebecca Comay recently refuted the myth that Hegel's critique of the French Revolution can be reduced to a variation of the "German" idea of how the Catholic French had to perform the violent "real" political revolution because they missed the historical moment of Reformation which already accomplished in the spiritual sphere the reconciliation between the spiritual Substance and the infinite subjectivity sought after in social reality by the revolutionaries. In this standard view, the German ethico-aesthetic attitude "sublates" revolutionary violence in the inner ethical order, thus enabling the replacement of the abstract "terrorist" revolutionary freedom by the concrete freedom of the State as an aesthetic organic Whole. However, already the temporality of this relationship between the French political revolution and the German spiritual reformation is ambiguous: all three possible relations seem to overlap here. First, the idea of "sublation" points towards a succession: the French "immediate" unity of the Universal and the Subject is followed by its sublation, the German ethico-aesthetic mediation. Then, there is the idea of a simultaneous choice (or lack thereof) which made the two nations follow a different path: the Germans opted for Reformation, while the French remained within the Catholic universe and had thus to take the tortuous route of violent revolution. However, the empirical fact that Kant's philosophical revolution precedes the French Revolution is also not just an insignificant accident - in the spectacle of revolutionary Terror, the Kantian ethics itself encounters the ultimate consequence of its own "abstract" character, so that Kant's philosophy should be read retroactively, through the prism of the French Revolution which enables us to perceive its limitations:

If [the Kantian moral view] presents itself as the narrative successor to the revolution, this is not because it logically fulfils or supersedes it: Kant's critical venture phenomenologically succeeds the revolution that it chronologically, of course, anticipates only insofar as his text becomes legible only retroactively through the event that in institutionalizing the incessant short circuit of freedom and cruelty puts the project of modernity to its most extreme trial. [...] the revolution itself inflicts on Kant's own text a kind of retroactive trauma.5

What this means is that the revolutionary Terror is a kind of obscene double of Kant's ethical though: its destructive violence merely "exernalizes" the terrorist potential of Kant's thought. This is why - and therein resides Hegel's central insight - it is hypocritical to reject the "excesses" of the French Revolution from the standpoint of the "German" moral view: all its terrifying features found its counterpart in, are contained and REPEATED within, the Kantian spiritual edifice (and the term "repetition" has to be given here the entire weight of Freud's Wiederholungszwang):

[...] the purity of the moral will can be no antidote to the terrifying purity of revolutionary virtue. All the logical problems of absolute freedom are essentially carried over into Hegel's analysis of Kantian morality: the obsessionality, the paranoia, the suspicion, the evaporation of objectivity, within the violent hyperbole of a subjectivity bent on reproducing itself within a world it must disavow.6

So, insofar as we are dealing here with a historical choice (between the "French" way of remaining within Catholicism and thus being obliged to engage in the self-destructive revolutionary Terror, and the "German" way of Reformation), this choice involves exactly the same elementary dialectical paradox as the one, also from The Phenomenology of Spirit, between the two readings of "the Spirit is a bone" which Hegel illustrates by the phallic metaphor (phallus as the organ of insemination or phallus as the organ of urination): Hegel's point is NOT that, in contrast to the vulgar empiricist mind which sees only urination, the proper speculative attitude has to choose insemination. The paradox is that the direct choice of insemination is the infallible way to miss it: it is not possible to choose directly the "true meaning", i.e. one HAS to begin by making the "wrong" choice (of urination) - the true speculative meaning emerges only through the repeated reading, as the after-effect (or by-product) of the first, "wrong," reading.

And the same goes for social life in which the direct choice of the "concrete universality" of a particular ethical life-world can only end in a regression to pre-modern organic society that denies the infinite right of subjectivity as the fundamental feature of modernity. Since the subject-citizen of a modern state can no longer accept his immersion in some particular social role that confers on him a determinate place within the organic social Whole, the only way to the rational totality of the modern State leads through revolutionary Terror: one should ruthlessly tear up the constraints of the pre-modern organic "concrete universality," and fully assert the infinite right of subjectivity in its abstract negativity. In other words, the point of Hegel's analysis of the revolutionary Terror is not the rather obvious insight into how the revolutionary project involved the unilateral direct assertion of abstract Universal Reason, and was as such doomed to perish in self-destructive fury, since it was unable to organize the transposition of its revolutionary energy into a concrete stable and differentiated social order; Hegel's point is rather the enigma of why, in spite of the fact that revolutionary Terror was a historical deadlock, we have to pass through it in order to arrive at the modern rational State. So, back to the choice between the Protestant "inner revolution" and the French violent political revolution, this means that Hegel is far from endorsing the German self-complacent superiority ("we made the right choice and can thus avoid revolutionary madness"): precisely because Germans made the right choice at a wrong time (TOO EARLY: in the age of Reformation), they cannot gain access to the rational State that would be at the level of true political modernity.

One should make a step further here: it is not only that the universal Essence articulates itself in the discord between its particular forms of appearance; this discord is propelled by a gap that pertains to the very core of the universal Essence itself. In his book on modernity, Fredric Jameson refers to the Hegelian "concrete universality" is his concise critique of the recently fashionable theories of "alternate modernities":

How then can the ideologues of 'modernity' in its current sense manage to distinguish their product - the information revolution, and globalized, free-market modernity - from the detestable older kind, without getting themselves involved in asking the kinds of serious political and economic, systemic questions that the concept of a postmodernity makes unavoidable? The answer is simple: you talk about 'alternate' or 'alternative' modernities. Everyone knows the formula by now: this means that there can be a modernity for everybody which is different from the standard or hegemonic Anglo-Saxon model. Whatever you dislike about the latter, including the subaltern position it leaves you in, can be effaced by the reassuring and 'cultural' notion that you can fashion your own modernity differently, so that there can be a Latin-American kind, or an Indian kind or an African kind, and so on. [...] But this is to overlook the other fundamental meaning of modernity which is that of a worldwide capitalism itself.7

The significance of this critique reaches far beyond the case of modernity - it concerns the fundamental limitation of the nominalist historicizing. The recourse to multitude ("there is not one modernity with a fixed essence, there are multiple modernities, each of them irreducible to others...") is false not because it does not recognize a unique fixed "essence" of modernity, but because multiplication functions as the disavowal of the antagonism that inheres to the notion of modernity as such: the falsity of multiplication resides in the fact that it frees the universal notion of modernity of its antagonism, of the way it is embedded in the capitalist system, by relegating this aspect just to one of its historical subspecies. (One should not forget that the first half of the XXth century already was marked by two big projects which perfectly fit this notion of "alternate modernity": Fascism and Communism. Was not the basic idea of Fascism that of a modernity which provides an alternative to the standard Anglo-Saxon liberal-capitalist one, of saving the core of capitalist modernity by casting away its "contingent" Jewish-individualist-profiteering distortion? And was not the rapid industrialization of the USSR in the late 1920s and 1930s also not an attempt at modernization different from the Western-capitalist one?) And, insofar as this inherent antagonism could be designated as a "castrative" dimension, and, furthermore, insofar as, according to Freud, the disavowal of castration is represented as the multiplication of the phallus-representatives (a multitude of phalluses signals castration, the lack of the one), it is easy to conceive such a multiplication of modernities as a form of fetishist disavowal.

Jameson's critique of the notion of alternate modernities thus provides a model of the properly dialectical relationship between the Universal and the Particular: the difference is not on the side of particular content (as the traditional differentia specifica), but on the side of the Universal. The Universal is not the encompassing container of the particular content, the peaceful medium-background of the conflict of particularities; the Universal "as such" is the site of an unbearable antagonism, self-contradiction, and (the multitude of) its particular species are ultimately nothing but so many attempts to obfuscate/reconcile/master this antagonism. In other words, the Universal names the site of a Problem-Deadlock, of a burning Question, and the Particulars are the attempted but failed Answers to this Problem. Say, the concept of State names a certain problem: how to contain the class antagonism of a society? All particular forms of State are so many (failed) attempts to propose a solution for this problem.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Slavoj Žižek: Wake up and smell the apocalypse

Žižek Interview from Integral Options Cafe, online at:

Is touchy-feely environmentalism a new opiate of the people? Why are we paying rent to Bill Gates? Is reality incomplete? Marxist cultural commentator Slavoj Žižek, the most dangerous philosopher in the west, unravels it all for Liz Else.

Your new book, Living in the End Times, is about the demise of global capitalism. What is science's place in all this?

Science is completely entangled with capital and capitalism. It is simultaneously the source of some threats (such as the ecological consequences of our industries or the uncontrolled use of genetic engineering), and our best hope of understanding those threats and finding a way to cope with them.

Given the book's title, it's no surprise that it also features the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which you identify with four major threats you say we face.

For me, remember, apocalypse means revelation, not catastrophe. Take the threat to our ecology. Until recently, the main reaction to ominous news such as Arctic sea ice melting faster than predicted was, "We are approaching an unthinkable catastrophe, the time to act is running out." Lately, we're hearing more voices telling us to be positive about global warming. True, they say, climate change increases competition for resources, flooding, the stresses on animals and indigenous cultures, ethnic violence and civil disorder. But we must bear in mind that thanks to climate change the Arctic's treasures could be uncovered, resources become more accessible, land fit for habitation and so on.

So it's business as usual?

Yes. But whatever the truth of the predictions about how much oil and gas are locked up in the Arctic, for me an extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place in front of our eyes: the impossible is becoming possible. We know the ecological catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen. Once the catastrophe occurs, it will be perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always having been possible. the ecological catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not

Does that mean the way that we think about such threats is wrong?

Yes. One reason is to do with how certain environmentalists delight in proving that every catastrophe - even natural ones - is man-made, that we are all guilty, we exploited too much, we weren't feminine enough. All this bullshit. Why? Because it makes the situation "safer". If it is us who are the bad guys, all we have to do is change our behaviour. But in fact Mother Nature is not good - it's a crazy bitch.

So what should we do instead?

The fear is that this bad ecology will become a new opiate of the people. And I'm against the ecologists' anti-technology stance, the one that says, "we are alienated by manipulating nature, we should rediscover ourselves as natural beings". I think we should alienate ourselves more from nature so we become aware of the utter contingency, the fragility of our natural being.

Another of your "horsemen" is research into biogenetics. What's your problem with that?

Craig Venter may dream of creating the first "trillion-dollar organisms" - patented bugs excreting biofuels, generating clean energy or producing tailor-made food. There are, of course, more sinister possibilities: for example, synthesising new viruses or other pathogens.

But I think the problem runs deeper in many ways. For example, such extreme genetic engineering will create substantially different organisms: we'll find ourselves in a terrain full of unknowns. These dangers are made worse by the absence of public control, so profiteering industrialists can tinker with the building blocks of life without any democratic oversight.

You were in China recently and got a glimpse of what's happening in biogenetics there.

In the west, we have debates about whether we should intervene to prevent disease or use stem cells, while the Chinese just do it on a massive scale. When I was in China, some researchers showed me a document from their Academy of Sciences which says openly that the goal of their biogenetic research is to enable large-scale medical procedures which will "rectify" the physical and physiological weaknesses of the Chinese people.

Do these issues arise from problems about what humans are becoming, and the relationships between the public and the private?

Yes. These are problems of the commons, the resources we collectively own or share. Nature is commons, biogenetics is genetic commons, intellectual property is commons. So how did Bill Gates become the richest man on earth? We are paying him rent. He privatised part of the "general intellect", the social network of communication - it's a new enclosure of the commons. This has given a new boost to capitalism, but in the long term it will not work. It's out of control.

Take a bottle of water: I produce it, you buy it. If I drink it, you cannot. Knowledge is exactly the opposite. If it freely circulates, it doesn't lose value; if anything, it gains value. The problem for companies is how to prevent the free circulation of knowledge. Sometimes they spend more money and time trying to prevent free copying than on developing products.

Despite your critique, you are positive about science?

I have a very naive Enlightenment fascination with it. I have total admiration for science.

Should philosophers be helping scientists?

Yes. For the last few decades, at least in the humanities, big ontological questions - What is reality? What is the nature of the universe? - were considered too naive. It was meaningless to ask for objective truth. This prohibition on asking the big questions partly accounts for the explosion of popular science books. You read Stephen Hawking's books as a way to ask these fundamental, metaphysical questions. I think that era of relativism, where science was just another product of knowledge, is ending. We philosophers should join scientists asking those big metaphysical questions about quantum physics, about reality.

And what is your take on reality?

There is an old philosophical idea about God being stupid and crazy, not finishing his creation. The idea is that God (but the point is to think about this without invoking God), when he created the world, made a crucial mistake by saying, "Humans are too stupid to progress beyond the atom, so I will not specify both the position and the velocity of the atom." What if reality itself is rather like a computer game where what goes on inside houses has not been programmed because it was not needed in the game? What if it is, in some sense, incomplete?

All these complex ideas... how do we come up with them?

I like Stephen Jay Gould here: intelligence, language and so on are exaptations, by-products of something which failed. Say I am using my cellphone - I become fully aware of it only when something goes wrong. We ask the big metaphysical questions even though we cannot solve them, and as a by-product we come up with wonderful, solid knowledge.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Capitalism as Negation of Negation

Multiculturalism or the cultural logic of multinational capitalism
Slavoj Žižek

What relationship exists between the world of capital and the national state in this era of global capitalism? Maybe this relationship could be defined better as “auto-colonisation”: in the direct activity of multinational capital we no longer have anything to do with the opposing standards between metropolises and colonised countries, the global company in some way severs the umbilical cord with its nation of origin and treats its own country as a mere sphere of action, which it needs to colonise. This is where the motive for the bad feeling of nations orientated towards the populist left is, from le Pen to Buchanan: the fact is that the new multinationals behave with the French or American citizens in exactly the same way as they behave with Mexicans, Brazilians or the Taiwanese. However, doesn’t some kind of poetic justice exist in this self-referential shift? Today’s global capitalism is again a species of “the negation of negation”, after the period of national capitalism and its international/colonial phase. At the beginning (obviously in an ideal sense) a capitalism circumscribed by the national confines of the country are registered with an international market (the exchange between sovereign nations); after this phase follows the relationship of colonisation, in which the colonising country subordinates and (economically, politically and culturally) exploits the colonised country; however, the final act of this process is the paradox of colonisation, where the real colonies and colonising countries no longer exist – the power of colonising is no longer in the hands of the national states, but directly in the hands of the global businesses. In the long run, we’ll not only be wearing Banana Republic T-shirts, but we’ll also be living in the Banana Republic. Naturally, multiculturalism is the ideal form of global capitalism’s ideology, it is an attitude which from an empty global position any local culture is discussed, in the same way that a coloniser treats a colonised people as the “indigenous” whose nature must be studied attentively and with “respect”. In other words, the relationship between traditional imperialist colonialism and capitalist global auto-colonisation is the same as the relationship between Western cultural imperialism and multiculturalism: and just as global capitalism includes the paradox of colonisation without the colonised countries, so multiculturalism offers a protection of Euro-centric distance and/or the respect for local cultures without having any roots in its own particular culture. Multiculturalism is evidently an inverted and un-confessed form of “distant” racism: “respecting” the identity of the other, conceiving the other as an “authentic” closed community against which he, the multiculturalist, maintains a distance made possible by his privileged universal position. In other words, multiculturalism is a form of racism which empties the position of all positive content (the multiculturalist is not an open racist, he doesn’t oppose the other’s particular values of his own culture), but nevertheless preserves this position as an empty and privileged essence of universality, from which the other specific cultures can be adequately appreciated: multiculturalism’s respect for the specificity of the other is the most efficient means of reaffirming his own superiority.

Does what brings us to our conclusion that the neutrality of multiculturalism is a lie really derive from the fact that its position silently privileges Euro-centric contents? This is a right way of thinking, but it comes from the wrong reason. The background and roots of a particular culture, which sustains the universal position of multiculturalism, is not the “truth” of this position, concealed behind the mask of universality (“multiculturalism is in reality euro-centric…”), but on the contrary is the simple emblem of certain roots and a phantasmagorical cover, hiding the fact that the subject is already completely “without roots” and that its true position is in the emptiness of universality.

Today’s “diversities” (the homeless, people living in ghettos, the unemployed…) are symptoms of the universal late capitalist system, which admonishes us with increasing frequency on the immanent reasoning of late capitalism: the real utopia of capitalism consists of the possibility which with adequate measures (“the affirmative act” for the liberal progressives; the return to thinking about ourselves and family values for the conservatives) these “exceptions” will be eliminated in the long run, at least in principle. A utopia analogous to the concept “of the rainbow coalition”; in a utopian future will all the progressives’ longings (the fight for gay and lesbian rights; fight for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities; ecological battles; feminist struggles; etc.) be reunited by the communal “chain of equivalence”? Yet again, the essence fails for structural reasons; simply, due to the empirical complexity of their position, all the particular “progressive” battles will never be reunited, but will always demonstrate “wrong” chains of equivalence (for example, the continuous fights for ethnic Afro-American identity and the patriarchal homophobic ideologies). The manifestation of “wrong” persuasions is based on the sole principle structuring today’s “progressive” policy of re-establishing “chains of equivalency”: the only sphere of particular mass struggles, with their incessant movements and concentrations, maintains the “repression” of key roles of the economic battle – the policy of the left of the “chain of equivalency” between the various mass struggles is closely linked to the silent omission of an analysis of capitalism, both as a system of global economy and the acceptance of capitalist economic relations as an unquestionable framework.

(extracts from Slavoj Žižek: Multiculturalism or the cultural logic of multinational capitalism," in: Razpol 10 - glasilo Freudovskega polja, Ljubljana 1997.)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

You've Got to Accentuate the Negative

From WITH OR WITHOUT PASSION: What's Wrong with Fundamentalism? (Part I)
available online at:
When Badiou emphasizes that double negation is not the same as affirmation, he thereby merely confirms the old Hegelian motto les non-dupes errent. Let us take the affirmation "I believe." Its negation is: "I do not really believe, I just fake to believe." However, its properly Hegelian negation of negation is not the return to direct belief, but the self-relating fake: "I fake to fake to believe," which means: "I really believe without being aware of it." Is, then, irony not the ultimate form of the critique of ideology today - irony in the precise Mozartean sense of taking the statements more seriously than the subjects who utter them themselves?

In the case of so-called "fundamentalists," this "normal" functioning of ideology in which the ideological belief is transposed onto the Other is disturbed by the violent return of the immediate belief - they "really believe it." The first consequence of this is that the fundamentalist becomes the dupe of his fantasy (as Lacan put it apropos Marquis de Sade), immediately identifying himself with it. From my own youth, I remember a fantasy concerning the origin of children: after I learned how children are made, I still had no precise idea on insemination, so I thought one has to make love every day for the whole nine months: in woman's belly, the child is gradually formed through sperm - each ejaculation is like adding an additional brick... One plays with such fantasies, not "taking them seriously," it is in this way that they fulfill their function - and the fundamentalist lacks this minimal distance towards his fantasy.

Let us clarify this point apropos Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher, which can also be read as the story of a psychotic who lacks the coordinates of the fantasy which would allow her to organize her desire: when, in the middle of the film, she goes to a video cabin and watches a hardcore porn, she does it in order simply to learn what to do, how to engage in sex, and, in her letter to her prospective lover, she basically puts on paper what she saw there... (Her psychosis and lack of fantasmatic coordinates are clearly signalled in her strange relationship with her mother - when, in the middle of the night, she embraces her and starts to kiss her, this displays her total lack of the desiring coordinates that would direct her towards a determinate object - as well as her self-cutting of her vagina with a razor, an act destined to bring her to reality.) 2 At the very end of The Piano Teacher, the heroine, after stabbing herself, walks away (from the concert hall where she saw the last time her young lover) - what if this self-inflicted wound is to be conceived as "traversing the fantasy"? What if, through striking at herself, she got rid of the hold of the masochistic fantasy over herself? In short, what if the ending is "optimistic": after being raped by her lover, after she got her fantasy back at her in reality, this traumatic experience enables her to leave it behind? Furthermore, what if the fantasy she puts on the paper she gives to her lover is HIS OWN fantasy of what he really would really like to do to her, so that he is disgusted precisely because he gets from her DIRECTLY his own fantasy?

More generally, when one is passionately in love and, after not seeing the beloved for a long time, asks her for a photo to keep in mind her features, the true aim of this request is not to check if the properties of the beloved still fits the criteria of my live, but, on the contrary, to learn (again) what these criteria are. I am in love absolutely, and the photo a priori CANNOT be a disappointment - I need it just so that it will tell me WHAT I love... What this means is that true love is performative in the sense that it CHANGES its object - not in the sense of idealization, but in the sense of opening up a gap in it, a gap between the object's positive properties and the agalma, the mysterious core of the beloved (which is why I do not love you because of your properties which are worthy of love: on the contrary, it is only because of my love for you that your features appear to me as worthy of love). It is for this reason that finding oneself in the position of the beloved is so violent, traumatic even: being loved makes me feel directly the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which causes love. Everyone knows Lacan's definition of love ("Love is giving something one doesn't have..."); what one often forgets is to add the other half which completes the sentence: "... to someone who doesn't want it." And is this not confirmed by our most elementary experience when somebody unexpectedly declared passionate love to us - is not the first reaction, preceding the possible positive reply, that something obscene, intrusive, is being forced upon us?

In a kind of Hegelian twist, love does not simply open itself up for the unfathomable abyss in the beloved object; what is in the beloved "more than him/herself," the presupposed excess of/in the beloved, is reflexively posited by love itself. Which is why true love is far from the openness to the "transcendent mystery of the beloved Other": true love is well aware that, as Hegel would have put it, the excess of the beloved, what, in the beloved, eludes my grasp, is the very place of the inscription of my own desire into the beloved object - transcendence is the form of appearance of immanence. As the melodramatic wisdom puts it, it is love itself, the fact of being loved, that ultimately makes the beloved beautiful.

Let us return to our fundamentalist: the obverse of his turning into a dupe of his fantasy is that he loses his sensitivity for the enigma of the Other's desire. In a recent case of analytic treatment in UK, the patient, a woman who was a victim of rape, remained deeply disturbed by an unexpected gesture of the rapist: after already brutally enforcing her surrender, and just prior to penetrating her, he withdraw a little bit, politely said "Just a minute, lady!" and put on a condom. This weird intrusion of politeness into a brutal situation perplexed the victim: what was its meaning? Was it a strange care for her, or a simple egotistic protective measure from the part of the rapist (making it sure that he will not get AIDS from her, and not the other way round). This gesture, much more than explosions of raw passion, stands for the encounter of the "enigmatic signifier," of the desire of the Other in all its impenetrability. Does such an encounter of the Other's desire follow the logic of alienation or that of separation? It can be an experience of utter alienation (I am obsessed with the inaccessible obscure impenetrable divine Desire which plays games with me, as in the Jansenist dieu obscur); however, the key shift occurs when, in a Hegelian way, we gain insight into how "the secrets of the Egyptians were also secret for the Egyptians themselves," i.e., into how our alienation FROM the Other is already the alienation OF the Other (from) itself - it is this redoubled alienation that generates what Lacan called separation as the overlapping of the two lacks.

And the link between these two features of the fundamentalist's position is clear: since fantasy is a scenario the subject builds in order to answer the enigma of the Other's desire, i.e., since fantasy provides an answer to "What does the Other want from me?", the immediate identification with the fantasy as it were closes up the gap - the enigma is clarified, we fully know the answer...

When theologians try to reconcile the existence of God with the fact of shoah, their answers build a strange succession of Hegelian triads. First, those who want to leave divine sovereignty unimpaired and thus have to attribute to God full responsibility for shoah, first offer (1) the "legalistic" sin-and-punishment theory (shoah has to be a punishment for the past sins of humanity-or Jews themselves); then, they pass (2) to the "moralistic" character-education theory (shoah is to be understood along the lines of the story of Job, as the most radical test of our faith in God - if we survive this ordeal, our character will stand firm...); and, finally, they take refuge in a kind of "infinite judgement" which should save the day after all common measure between shoah and its meaning breaks down, and (3) the divine mystery theory (facts like shoah bear witness to the unfathomable abyss of divine will). In accordance with the Hegelian motto of a redoubled mystery (the mystery God is for us has to be also a mystery for God Himself), the truth of this "infinite judgement" can only be to deny God's full sovereignty and omnipotence.

The next triad is thus composed of those who, unable to combine shoah with God's omnipotence (how could He have allowed it to happen?), opt for some form of divine limitation: (1) first, God is directly posited as finite (not all-encompassing, overwhelmed by the dense inertia of his own creation); (2) then, this limitation is reflected back into God himself as his free act - God is self-limited (He voluntarily constrained his power in order to leave the space open for human freedom); (3) finally, the self-limitation is externalized, the two moments are posited as autonomous - God is embattled (the dualistic solution: there is a counter-force or principle of demoniac Evil active in the world). However, it is only here that we encounter the core of the problem of the origin of Evil.

The standard metaphysical-religious notion of Evil is that of doubling, gaining a distance, abandoning the reference to the big Other, our Origin and Goal, turning away from the original divine One, getting caught into the self-referential egotistic loop, thus introducing a gap into the global balance and harmony of the One-All. The easy, all too slick, postmodern solution to this is to retort that the way out of this self-incurred impasse consists in abandoning the very presupposition of the primordial One from which one turned away, i.e., to accept that our primordial situation is that of finding oneself in a complex situation, one within a multitude of foreign elements-only the theologico-metaphysical presupposition of the original One compels us to perceive the alien as the outcome of (our) alienation. From this perspective, the Evil is not the redoubling of the primordial One, turning away from it, but the very imposition of an all-encompassing One onto the primordial dispersal. However, what if the true task of thought is to think the self-division of the One, to think the One itself as split within itself, as involving an inherent gap?

The very gap between gnosticism and monotheism can thus be accounted for in the terms of the origin of evil: while gnosticism locates the primordial duality of Good and Evil into God himself (the material universe into which we are fallen is the creation of an evil and/or stupid divinity, and what gives us hope is the good divinity which keeps alive the promise of another reality, our true home), monotheism saves unity (one-ness) of a good God by locating the origin of evil into our freedom (evil is either finitude as such, the inertia of material reality, or the spiritual act of willfully turning away from God). It is easy to bring the two together by claiming that the Gnostic duality of God is merely a "reflexive determination" of our own changed attitude towards God: what we perceive as two Gods is effectively the split in our nature, in our relating to God. However, the true task is to locate the source of the split between good and evil into God himself while remaining within the field of monotheism - the task which tried to accomplish German mystics (Jakob Boehme) and later philosophers who took over their problematic (Schelling, Hegel). In other words, the task is to transpose the human "external reflection" which enacts the split between good and evil back into the One God himself.

Back to the topic of shoah, this brings us to the third position above and beyond the first two (the sovereign God, the finite God), that of a suffering God: not a triumphalist God who always wins at the end, although "his ways are mysterious," since he secretly pulls all the strings; not a God who exerts cold justice, since he is by definition always right; but a God who - like the suffering Christ on the Cross - is agonized, assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with the human misery. It was already Schelling who wrote: "God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. /.../ Without the concept of a humanly suffering God /.../ all of history remains incomprehensible." Why? Because God's suffering implies that He is involved in history, affected by it, not just a transcendent Master pulling the strings from above: God's suffering means that human history is not just a theater of shadows, but the place of the real struggle, the struggle in which the Absolute itself is involved and its fate is decided. This is the philosophical background of Dietrich Bonhoffer's deep insight that, after shoah, "only a suffering God can help us now" - a proper supplement to Heidegger's "Only a God can still save us!" from his last interview. One should therefore take the statement that "the unspeakable suffering of the six millions is also the voice of the suffering of God" quite literally: the very excess of this suffering over any "normal" human measure makes it divine. Recently, this paradox was succinctly formulated by Juergen Habermas: "Secular languages which only eliminate the substance once intended leave irritations. When sin was converted to culpability, and the breaking of divine commands to an offense against human laws, something was lost." Which is why the secular-humanist reactions to phenomena like shoah or gulag (AND others) is experienced as insufficient: in order to be at the level of such phenomena, something much stronger is needed, something akin to the old religious topic of a cosmic perversion or catastrophe in which the world itself is "out of joint." Therein resides the paradox of the theological significance of shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology which can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of this catastrophe - the fiasco of God is still the fiasco of GOD.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hegel's Century

From the website Objet Petit A

In what, then, resides Hegel’s uniqueness? Hegel’s thought stands for the moment of passage between philosophy as Master’s discourse, the philosophy of the One that totalizes the multiplicity, and anti-philosophy which asserts the Real that escapes the grasp of the One. On the one hand, he clearly breaks with the metaphysical logic of counting-for-One; on the other hand, he does not allow for any excess external to the field of notional representations. For Hegel, totalization-in-One always fails, the One is always-already in excess with regard to itself, it is itself the subversion of what it purports to achieve, and it is this tension internal to the One, this Two-ness which makes the One One and simultaneously dislocates it, it is this tension which is the movens of the “dialectical process.” In other words, Hegel effectively denies that there is no Real external to the network of notional representations (which is why he is regularly misread as “absolute idealist” in the sense of the self-enclosed circle of the totality of the Notion). However, the Real does not disappear here in the global self-relating play of symbolic representations; it returns with a vengeance as the immanent gap, obstacle, on account of which representations cannot ever totalize themselves, on account of which they are “non-all.”

Is there nonetheless not a grain of truth in the most elementary reproach to Hegel – does Hegel effectively not presuppose that, contingent and open as the history may be, a consistent story can be told afterwards? Or, to put it in Lacan’s terms, is the entire edifice of the Hegelian historiography not based on the premise that, no matter how confused the events, a subject supposed to know will emerge at the end, magically converting nonsense into sense, chaos into new order? Recall just his philosophy of history with its narrative of world history as the story of the progress of freedom? And is it not true that, if there is a lesson of the XXth century, it is that all the extreme phenomena that took place there cannot ever be unified in a single encompassing philosophical narrative? One simply cannot write a “phenomenology of the XXth century Spirit,” uniting technological progress, the rise of democracy, the failed Communist attempt with its Stalinist catastrophe, the horrors of Fascism, the gradual end of colonialism…

But why not? Is it REALLY so? What if, precisely, one can and should write a Hegelian history of the XXth century, this “age of extremes”(Eric Hobsbawm), as a global narrative delimited by two epochal constellation: the (relatively) long peaceful period of capitalist expansion from 1848 till 1914 as its substantial starting point whose subterranean antagonisms then exploded with the First World War, and the ongoing global-capitalist “New World Order” emerging after 1990 as its conclusion, the return to a new all-encompassing system signalling to some a Hegelian “end of history,” but whose antagonisms already announce new explosions? Are the great reversals and unexpected explosions of the topsy-turvy XXth century, its numerous “coincidences of the opposites” – the reversal of liberal capitalism into Fascism, the even more weird reversal of the October Revolution into the Stalinist nightmare – not the very privileged stuff which seems to call for a Hegelian reading? What would Hegel have made of today’s struggle of Liberalism against fundamentalist Faith? One thing is sure: he would not simply take side of liberalism, but would insisted on the “mediation” of the opposites. (And, let us not forget that, for Hegel himself, his philosophical reconstruction of history in no way pretends to “cover everything,” but consciously leaves blanks: the medieval time, for example, is for Hegel one big regression – no wonder that, in his lectures on the history of philosophy, he dismisses the entire medieval thought in a couple of pages, flatly denying any historical greatness to figures like Thomas Aquinas. Not even to mention the destructions of great civilizations like the Mongols’ wiping out so much of the Muslim world (the destruction of Baghdad, etc.) in the 13th century – there is no “meaning” in this destruction, the negativity unleashed here did not create the space for a new shape of historical life.)

This is why the time of Hegel still lies ahead – Hegel’s century will be the XXIst.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

From: "Can you give my son a job?"

Full article available online at:


There are, of course, many states, some even formally democratic, in which a half-secret coterie controls the government; in apartheid South Africa, for example, it was the Broederbond. What makes the Chinese case unique is that this doubling of power between public and hidden realms is itself institutionalised.

Nominations to key posts – in Party and state organs, but also in large companies – are made first by a Party body, the Central Organisation Department, whose headquarters in Beijing have no listed phone number and no sign outside. Their decisions, once made, are passed to legal organs – state assemblies, managerial boards – which then go through the ritual of confirming them by vote. The same double procedure – first the Party, then the state – obtains at every level, including fundamental economic policy, which is first debated by the Party, and its decisions then implemented by government bodies. The gap between Party and state is most obvious in the anti-corruption struggle: when there is suspicion that some high functionary is involved in corruption, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a Party organ, investigates the charges unrestricted by legal niceties: suspects are liable to be kidnapped, subjected to harsh interrogation and held for as long as six months. The verdict eventually reached will depend not only on the facts but also on complex behind the scenes negotiations between different Party cliques, and if the functionary is found guilty, only then is he handed over to the state legal bodies. But by this stage everything is already decided and the trial is a formality – only the sentence is (sometimes) negotiable.

The irony is that the Party itself, its complex workings hidden from public scrutiny, is the ultimate source of corruption. The inner circle, comprising top Party and state functionaries as well as chiefs of industry, communicate via an exclusive phone network, the ‘Red Machine’ – possessing one of its unlisted numbers is a clear sign of one’s status. A vice-minister tells McGregor that ‘more than half of the calls he received on his “red machine” were requests for favours from senior Party officials, along the lines of: “Can you give my son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin or good friend and so on, a job?”’

At the Party congress, which takes place every eight years or so, the new central executive – the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo – is presented as a fait accompli. The selection procedure involves complex behind the scenes negotiations; the assembled delegates, who are not told ahead of time who will be put forward, are formally invited to vote on the selection, but invariably give it their unanimous approval. The most powerful figure in the Party as a rule (but not always) takes three titles: president of the republic, general secretary of the Party, and chairman of the Central Military Commission (the head of the military). The latter two titles are much more important than the first. The People’s Liberation Army is a thoroughly politicised entity, following Mao’s motto that ‘the Party commands the gun.’ In bourgeois states, the army is supposed to be apolitical, a neutral force protecting the constitutional order; for the Chinese Communists, such a depoliticised army would be the greatest threat imaginable, since the army is their guarantee that the state will remain subordinated to the Party. If it is to function, such a structure has to rely on a delicate balance between force and protocol. Because the Party acts outside the law, a complex set of unwritten rules govern how one is expected to follow Party decisions.

The notion of the Party-state cannot do justice to the complexities of 20th-century Communism: there is always a gap between Party and state, and the Party functions as the state’s shadowy double. Dissenters call for a new politics of distance from the state, but they don’t recognise that the Party is this distance: it embodies a fundamental distrust of the state, its organs and mechanisms, as if they needed to be controlled, kept in check, at all times. A true 20th-century Communist never fully accepts the state: he accepts the need for an agency, immune to the law, which has the power to supervise the state’s activities.

This model will, of course, be criticised as being non-democratic. The ethico-political preference for a democratic model in which parties are – formally, at least – subordinate to state mechanisms falls into the trap of the ‘democratic fiction’. It ignores the fact that, in a ‘free’ society, domination and servitude are located in the ‘apolitical’ economic sphere of property and managerial power. The Party’s distance from state apparatuses and its ability to act without legal constraint afford a unique possibility: ‘illegal’ activity can be undertaken not only in the interest of the market but – sometimes – in the interest of the workers too. For example, when the 2008 financial crisis hit China, the instinctive reaction of the Chinese banks was to follow the cautious approach of Western banks, radically cutting back on lending to companies wishing to expand. Informally (no law legitimised this), the Party simply ordered the banks to release credit, and thus succeeded – for the time being – in sustaining the growth of the Chinese economy. To take another example, Western governments complain that their industries cannot compete with the Chinese in producing green technology, since Chinese companies get financial support from their government. But what’s wrong with that? Why doesn’t the West simply follow China and do the same?

But China is no Singapore (neither, for that matter, is Singapore): it is not a stable country with an authoritarian regime that guarantees harmony and keeps capitalism under control. Every year, thousands of rebellions by workers, farmers and minorities have to be put down by the police and the army. No wonder official propaganda insists obsessively on the notion of the harmonious society: this very excess bears witness to the opposite, to the threat of chaos and disorder. One should bear in mind the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since the official media do not openly report trouble, the most reliable way to detect it is to look out for compensatory excesses in state propaganda: the more ‘harmony’ is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism there is in reality. China is barely under control. It threatens to explode.

Liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face

Full article available at:


After the disintegration of the communist regimes in 1990, we entered a new era in which the predominant form of the exercise of state power became a depoliticised expert administration and the co-ordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this kind of politics, the only way to actively mobilise people, is through fear: the fear of immigrants, the fear of crime, the fear of godless sexual depravity, the fear of the excessive state (with its burden of high taxation and control), the fear of ecological catastrophe, as well as the fear of harassment (political correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear).

Such a politics always relies on the manipulation of a paranoid multitude – the frightening rallying of frightened men and women. This is why the big event of the first decade of the new millennium was when anti-immigration politics went mainstream and finally cut the umbilical cord that had connected it to far right fringe parties. From France to Germany, from Austria to Holland, in the new spirit of pride in one's cultural and historical identity, the main parties now find it acceptable to stress that immigrants are guests who have to accommodate themselves to the cultural values that define the host society – "it is our country, love it or leave it" is the message.

Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by such populist racism. However, a closer look reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect of differences share with those who oppose immigration the need to keep others at a proper distance. "The others are OK, I respect them," the liberals say, "but they must not intrude too much on my own space. The moment they do, they harass me – I fully support affirmative action, but I am in no way ready to listen to loud rap music." What is increasingly emerging as the central human right in late-capitalist societies is the right not to be harassed, which is the right to be kept at a safe distance from others. A terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented belongs in Guantánamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologist should be silenced because he spreads hatred. Such people are toxic subjects who disturb my peace.

On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex? The Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare? The contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics? This leads us to today's tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness – the decaffeinated Other.

The mechanism of such neutralisation was best formulated back in 1938 by Robert Brasillach, the French fascist intellectual, who saw himself as a "moderate" antisemite and invented the formula of reasonable antisemitism. "We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; … We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual antisemitism is to organise a reasonable antisemitism."

Is this same attitude not at work in the way our governments are dealing with the "immigrant threat"? After righteously rejecting direct populist racism as "unreasonable" and unacceptable for our democratic standards, they endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures or, as today's Brasillachs, some of them even Social Democrats, tell us: "We grant ourselves permission to applaud African and east European sportsmen, Asian doctors, Indian software programmers. We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organise any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable violent anti-immigrant defensive measures is to organise a reasonable anti-immigrant protection."

This vision of the detoxification of one's neighbour suggests a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. It reveals the regression from the Christian love of one's neighbour back to the pagan privileging of our tribe versus the barbarian Other. Even if it is cloaked as a defence of Christian values, it is itself the greatest threat to Christian legacy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Žižek on Haiti and Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Find the full article online at:


Denounced by Talleyrand as "a horrible spectacle for all white nations", the "mere existence of an independent Haiti" was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking the same path. The price - the literal price - for the "premature" independence was truly extortionate: after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master, established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as "compensation" for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti's payments to France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray). At a time when some US liberals ponder the possibility of reimbursing black Americans for slavery, Haiti's demand to be reimbursed for the tremendous sum the former slaves had to pay to have their freedom recognised has been largely ignored by liberal opinion, even if the extortion here was double: the slaves were first exploited, and then had to pay for the recognition of their hard-won freedom.

The story goes on today. The Lavalas movement has won every free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people's direct self-organisation. Although the "free press" dominated by its enemies was never obstructed, although violent protests that threatened the stability of the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti a "normal" democracy - a democracy which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.

It is interesting to note that this US-French co-operation took place soon after the public discord about the 2003 attack on Iraq, and was quite appropriately celebrated as the reaffirmation of their basic alliance that underpins the occasional conflicts. Even Brazil's Lula condoned the 2004 overthrow of Aristide. An unholy alliance was thus put together to discredit the Lavalas government as a form of mob rule that threatened human rights, and President Aristide as a power-mad fundamentalist dictator - an alliance ranging from ex-military death squads and US-sponsored "democratic fronts" to humanitarian NGOs and even some "radical left" organisations which, financed by the US, enthusiastically denounced Aristide's "capitulation" to the IMF. Aristide himself provided a perspicuous characterisation of this overlapping between radical left and liberal right: "Somewhere, somehow, there's a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious satisfaction, in saying things that powerful white people want you to say."

The Lavalas struggle is exemplary of a principled heroism that confronts the limitations of what can be done today. Lavalas activists didn't withdraw into the interstices of state power and "resist" from a safe distance, they heroically assumed state power, well aware that they were taking power in the most unfavourable circumstances, when all the trends of capitalist "modernisation" and "structural readjustment", but also of the postmodern left, were against them. Constrained by the measures imposed by the US and International Monetary Fund, which were destined to enact "necessary structural readjustments", Aristide pursued a politics of small and precise pragmatic measures (building schools and hospitals, creating infrastructure, raising minimum wages) while encouraging the active political mobilisation of the people in direct confrontation with their most immediate foes - the army and its paramilitary auxiliaries.

The single most controversial thing about Aristide, the thing that earned him comparisons with Sendero Luminoso and Pol Pot, was his pointed refusal to condemn measures taken by the people to defend themselves against military or paramilitary assault, an assault that had decimated the popular movement for decades. On a couple of occasions back in 1991, Aristide appeared to condone recourse to the most notorious of these measures, known locally as "Père Lebrun", a variant of the practice of "necklacing" adopted by anti-apartheid partisans in South Africa - killing a police assassin or an informer with a burning tyre. In a speech on 4 August 1991, he advised an enthusiastic crowd to remember "when to use [Père Lebrun], and where to use it", while reminding them that "you may never use it again in a state where law prevails".

Later, liberal critics sought to draw a parallel between the so-called chimères, ie, members of Lavalas self-defence groups, and the Tontons Macoutes, the notoriously murderous gangs of the Duvalier dictatorship. The fact that there is no numerical basis for comparison of levels of political violence under Aristide and under Duvalier is not allowed to get in the way of the essential political point. Asked about these chimères, Aristide points out that "the very word says it all.Chimères are people who are impoverished, who live in a state of profound insecurity and chronic unemployment. They are the victims of structural injustice, of systematic social violence [. . .] It's not surprising that they should confront those who have always benefited from this same social violence."

Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence committed by Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter Benjamin called "divine violence": they should be located "beyond good and evil", in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what can only appear as "immoral" acts of killing, one has no political right to condemn them, because they are a response to years, centuries even, of systematic state and economic violence and exploitation.

As Aristide himself puts it: "It is better to be wrong with the people than to be right against the people." Despite some all-too-obvious mistakes, the Lavalas regime was in effect one of the figures of how "dictatorship of the proletariat" might look today: while pragmatically engaging in some externally imposed compromises, it always remained faithful to its "base", to the crowd of ordinary dispossessed people, speaking on their behalf, not "representing" them but directly relying on their local self-organisations. Although respecting the democratic rules, Lavalas made it clear that the electoral struggle is not where things are decided: what is much more crucial is the effort to supplement democracy with the direct political self-organisation of the oppressed. Or, to put it in our "postmodern" terms: the struggle between Lavalas and the capitalist-military elite in Haiti is a case of genuine antagonism, an antagonism which cannot be contained within the frame of parliamentary-democratic "agonistic pluralism".


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Until Lambs Become Lions

World in Revolt: The Global Backlash Against Budget Cuts

by: Anthony DiMaggio, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed

Americans should take a page from activists throughout the rest of the world if they're seriously interested in resisting the massive budget cuts afflicting this country. Effective social change only comes about through mass action - a lesson that has emerged after years of grassroots uprisings in the U.S. and throughout the world. Consider some of the evidence from various cases below.

The French: Don't Call Them Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys

Over a million French workers turned out in the streets this month to protest proposed government budget cutbacks by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The rallies were part of a 24-hour strike that shut down flights and railway services, in addition to closing schools throughout the country. Government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 motivated these protests, even though France already has one of the lower retirement rates throughout Europe. The opposition is also driven by resistance to plans to fire 7,000 teachers, the proposed lengthening of pay periods for public employees, and plans to cut pension benefits.

The mass turnout of a million people in France is the functional equivalent (after controlling for population differences) of seeing more than 4.5 million organize throughout the United States to protest state budget cuts and mass layoffs. Such a movement has not been seen among public sector workers, despite the fact that this segment of the economy traditionally benefits from the strongest worker organization through its continued reliance on mass unionization.

This is not the first protest in France either in recent years. Last June, nearly 1 million turned out nationwide to protest proposed budget cuts - a sign of a sustained national activist campaign that will not relent until the government backs down on its austerity measures. The case of France demonstrates that necessity doesn't have to be the mother of invention. Well-off people can organize to protect hard fought wage gains and other benefits, and we don't need to wait until we're on the verge of destitution (as Americans are doing) to be engaged in activism and protest. Of course, France's strong history of labor unionism has helped spur sustained rounds of resistance to budget cuts, whereas the American public has become increasingly divorced from working class unionism in recent decades (unions represent less than 15 percent of all American workers today).

Sweatshops are NOT Inevitable: The Case of Bangladesh

The people of Bangladesh most strikingly put to shame the elitist apathy that is sapping the collective will of the American people. With radically less, the poor people of Bangladesh have achieved so much more than Americans (at least in the last two years) in the areas of popular activism and protesting economic injustice. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is leading a mass movement to protest the terrible working conditions and pay levels in sweatshops throughout the country. Demonstrations that took place this summer just outside of the country's capital of Dhaka protested the refusal of the national government to improve power and gas supplies, and the unwillingness to ease the suffering of those who are enduring increased food prices. 50,000 garment workers came together to demand the equivalent of $70 per month, a major increase from the estimated $14-23 per month they were receiving. The lower rates of pay they receive are below the national poverty line, and contribute to great unrest and instability among Bangladesh's workers.

The demand for increased pay represents a major challenge to the unimpeded profits of American companies (operating in country) such as Wal-Mart, Levi Strauss, and H&M, which have been happy to subjugate an entire nation to wage slavery. The protests were highly effective in drawing national and international attention to the plight of Bangladesh's working poor. At least 76 factories were forcibly shut down, in retaliation against the government's reneging on a promise to increase wages for the country's 2.5 million garment workers. The case of Bangladesh should be inspiring for all those throughout the world dealing with austerity measures, as it shows that even in the direst of circumstances, there is no such thing as "inevitability" of low pay. All workers retain the right to a living wage, and many are willing to fight for it. Of course, it also helps to have a political party (as those in Bangladesh do) which will fight for popular change.

Protests on the Forgotten Continent: Increasing Desperation in Mozambique and South Africa

Many Americans would be hard pressed to demonstrate any sort of knowledge of African politics. The continent is traditionally seen as outside of citizens' interests, as attention to global politics is a low priority for the American public (outside of following events in countries the U.S. is bombing). Still, increasing desperation throughout Africa has been accompanied by serious action on the part of the disadvantaged and desperate. Violent protests and riots in Mozambique this month were the result of increasing global food prices. Food costs increased dramatically in light of deteriorating global environmental conditions - most specifically the severe droughts in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Northern and Western Africa, which have exacted a terrible toll on global crop yields.

Prices for bread, electricity, and water have gone up by nearly a third in Mozambique, and were accompanied by looting throughout the nation's capital of Maputo. Public anger was further stoked by the government's refusal to intervene to help the poor deal with major increases in food and energy costs.

Strikes in South Africa are driven by public sector workers, who are demanding better benefits from the government. Strikes throughout the country this summer went on for weeks, and were accompanied by the forced closing of schools and the short-staffing of hospitals, as more than a million public servants refused to return to work until their demands for a 8.6 percent pay raise were met. Union activism succeeded in forcing the South African government to the negotiation table, in an effort to end the nation-paralyzing strikes.

Europe in Decline: Protesting the Decline of Living Standards in the U.K., Spain, and Greece

While Americans are overwhelmingly sitting back and accepting the "necessity" of massive budget cuts and mass layoffs that will inevitably make the economic crisis worse, union activists in Europe are taking the initiative in rejecting comparable efforts in their countries. This June saw the emergence of a national rebellion in Spain, where a day-long strike protested a 5 percent pay cut across the board directed against public sector teachers, firefighters, hospital workers, and other local government positions. The cuts were undertaken in the name of balancing budgets and protecting the prosperity of future children, ironically while assaulting the living standards of the parents and children of today. The rebellion in Spain was truly massive, with an estimated 75 to 80 percent of public workers - or more than 2.5 million people - taking part.

The Spanish government wants further cuts, with salaries frozen in 2011 and future pension funding that will not be adjusted for inflation. Spain's workers are sending the message that they won't go down without a fight. At a time when national unemployment is over 20 percent (with total unemployment at 4 million and underemployment reaching 40 percent of the population), Spain's workers are standing up and saying "no more!"

Summer protests in Greece were designed to draw attention to increasing national desperation. One in five now live below the poverty line, and the situation is certain to get worse as proposed austerity measures - including tax hikes, pay cuts, and pension freezes - are undertaken. By July 2010, Greece's public service workers had engaged in a half dozen strikes, forcing a shutdown of public transportation and closing down schools, courts, hospitals, and newspapers. The protests galvanized tens of thousands to turn out in cities across the country, prompting chants of "hands off our pensions" in opposition to draconian cuts directed against the country's working class.

In the United Kingdom, students, staff, and faculty across 100 universities came together to organize on-campus protests in June to resist planned government layoffs, salary cuts, and reductions in courses. The public was not fooled over the incremental nature of the cuts, which will be implemented over a number of years, but will affect three-quarters of the country's schools. The cuts are quite significant in scale - approximately 200 million pounds (or $300 million in U.S. dollars) across the country.

Protests in the U.S.: What are We Waiting For?

The United States is suffering under its own economic calamity over the last few years, too. Unemployment is consistently increasing, while massive state budget cuts are succeeding in throwing out countless public servants across the states in recent years. Underemployment is currently at over 20 percent, while unemployment benefits were barely extended in a bitter national debate between both parties this summer. To make matters worse, the economy is limping along, showing little sign of a real recovery, while the specter of future bank and financial failures loom in the background.

Many will wonder, why is there so much activism throughout the rest of the world, but comparatively much less in the United States in resisting neoliberalism and austerity-based budget cuts? Part of the explanation in the cases of resistance in Greece, Spain, Mozambique, South Africa, and Bangladesh is the fact that workers in those countries are comparatively much worse off than Americans when it comes to deteriorating pay, benefits, and other worker protections. Unemployment levels are often much higher than in the U.S., while pay levels have long been comparative lower. This explanation, however, is partial at best. The U.K. is characterized in many ways by a relatively stronger social welfare state (especially in relation to health care) than that seen in the U.S., and less extreme conditions for workers, with 7.8 percent unemployment compared to the United States' 9.6 percent official unemployment. Yet, British public sector workers are far more organized and intolerant of the gutting of public education. France has a similar level of unemployment to the U.S. at 10 percent and a far more advanced social welfare state, yet its workers have responded with a coordinated national campaign to protest budget cuts. In contrast, American protests against far larger austerity measures (in the form of mass layoffs and talk of serious pension cuts) are being met by scattered local protests at best. No salient national campaign is emerging across localities in this country, nor does it appear that one is on the horizon in the near future.

The relatively stronger position of labor unions throughout Western Europe also doesn't fully explain the weak level of protests in the U.S. Most of the strikes and protests discussed above were led by public sector workers, an area of the U.S. economy that has traditionally been characterized by strong unionization and organization. While only 7.2 percent of U.S. private sector workers are part of a union, the figure is at nearly 40 percent of public workers, and that figure actually grew from 2008 to 2009.

A major cause of U.S. apathy is likely the depoliticization of the American electorate and the lack of a collective working class consciousness. A majority of Americans distrust their political officials, while a growing number feel that they cannot rely upon the national government to improve their living standards. This latter trend should be particularly disturbing for those on the left who see the national government as the primary medium for promoting the improvement of living standards for the masses and for establishing and promoting collective goods. Establishing universal health care and universal funding for higher education, in addition to the strengthening of food stamps, head start, job training, Social Security, and a slew of other welfare programs will only be accomplished by increasing our support for, and reliance on the national government. These progressive victories will not emerge by "getting government out of our lives," or by turning our back on national politics.

Americans are incessantly bombarded by conservative propaganda stressing the theme that government is the problem, rather than part of the solution in terms of promoting American prosperity. Diversionary mass media direct public attention toward fashionable consumption and meaningless celebrity news, rather than toward important political and economic issues, such as whether Americans will have a job tomorrow as a result of massive budget cuts and a weakening economy. American educational institutions do a pitiful job in informing the young about the importance of social movements in bringing about positive social change. Finally, structural changes in the economy force Americans to work longer hours for less pay, leaving less time for political education and activism.

All of these forces come together to wreak havoc on the prospects for renewed progressive activism among the American public. Progressive change is further hindered by the emergence of faux "social movements" like the Tea Party, supplemented by "grassroots uprisings" in the form of birtherism and anti-Muslim racism. These "movements" are largely media-induced, fueled by right-wing Republican and punditry-based hatred, which seeks to take advantage of the very real economic grievances of Middle America. There is more than a bit of Nazi-esque race-baiting and scapegoating involved in this process, especially when looking at the equation of Muslims with Nazism (seen among many protesting the Manhattan Muslim Community Center).

Until we begin to address the structural problems that plague American society, we will see little progress in organizing the masses to oppose the reactionary assault on the populace. Without action, there will be little support for a progressive agenda for real change. Americans must realize that the only way forward is through a direct confrontation with political and economic elites. Positive progressive change is never willingly given up by elites - it must be forcibly taken from below. This is the most important lesson to take from the global backlash against neoliberalism.