Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Žižek at Birkbeck Masterclass 2017: Reality as Constricted Ideology


Bernie Sanders Responds to Trump's Immoral Budget May 23 2017


MAY 2017 - Julian Assange


Hidden Prohibitions and the Pleasure Principle

Slavoj Žižek with Josefina Ayerza

The following interview was first published in Flash Art March/April 1992 - a publication of Lacanian Ink.

Josefina Ayerza: Twenty million Eastern Europeans are going to arrive in Western Europe and the USA in no time. What do you think may happen to local regional cultures?

Slavoj Žižek: I don't believe in local regional cultures.

JA: Will immigration's effect on language and its structural behavior confirm Lacan's emphasis of Kant over Spinoza? In reducing the field of God to the universality of the signifier, Spinozism produces detachment from human desire. Kant's practical reason, sustained by moral law, brings out desire at its utmost: we know nevertheless how pure desire culminates in the sacrifice of the object of love.

SZ: Lacan says that Kant was right historically about the Spinozian universality of the signifier. It was a kind of false leap, but if your question implies that today's world is paradoxically closer to the neo-Spinozist universality of the signifier, I agree. The ultimate Spinozist idea is that you have a field of knowledge in the Lacanian sense, as the binary signifier without the Master signifier — in speech-act theory we would call it the "order of the performative." I think this was the ultimate Spinozist dream, what he called "love of God'' or "perfect rational knowledge," which is a kind of knowledge that is not obliged to have recourse to a Master signifier, to a point of order, which is performative.(1)

JA: So this knowledge would involve only the field of the signifier; in Lacan's terms the S2?

SZ: Only the field without the S1 functions precisely as an element of order. It is very interesting to read from this perspective how Spinoza reinterpreted the Bible, you know, God's command, "Thou shalt not eat from the tree of knowledge," and so forth. Spinoza said that because the Jews were primitive at that time it was necessary for God to formulate his will as a command, as a performative command, "Thou shalt not..." For a reasonable person, the way to grasp this is not through the performative, but through the constructive.

The constructive is simply like a kind of scientific, objective statement, "Because that tree's fruits of knowledge are dangerous, you should not eat them," etc. Then it is not a command but a simple scientific statement about a certain causality, "If you eat that, you will be in danger because..." This was Spinoza's idea. My point is that today, not only computers but social order, publicity, and the so-called universal, late capitalist consumer are among the fundamental results.

We don't get orders any more, orders are now hidden in this universal form. For example, nobody tells us directly, "You must eat this, you must not eat this." It is like with tobacco, the Spinozist doesn't say, "Don't smoke," he/she says "Smoke, but... ." You have this warning, "Nicotine can be dangerous to your health"; "Eat whatever you want, but beware of cholesterol," etc. You don't have direct prohibitions, you have just a kind of...

SZ: Yes, but my point is that prohibition is masked as this kind of universal, objective, knowledge statement. This is for me today's Spinozist world, especially in the United States. For example, every can, every package, is full of information. Of course this information is about what it contains and what it does not contain: no cholesterol, no fat. This for me is the practical side of Spinoza today. The inherent dimension is that there are hidden prohibitions. Low fat or low cholesterol means you can easily enjoy it, but the form of a command is absent. You can do whatever you want, but...

JA: So the word "but" comes instead of "thou shalt not," implying we are not primitive anymore?

SZ: Yes, but what you get after "but" is not the Master signifier, it's not an order. It's a kind of masked, objective, scientific knowledge, just information. I think this is perhaps one of the things that fundamentally characterizes late capitalist, consumer society. As we all know, psychoanalysis enables us to discern that behind this explicit commandment lies a hidden, superego commandment to enjoy, to enjoy properly, to succeed. Lacan says the same thing.

JA: So it's actually "Don't smoke because you won't achieve what you want."

SZ: Yes, although the paradox I like here is that this kind of consumer society ideology illustrates nicely what Freud already knew were the paradoxes of the pleasure principle. You have a society which is ostensibly oriented toward pure pleasure, but you pay for it through a whole series of "you can't." The hidden prohibitions: eat whatever you want, but beware of fat and cholesterol; smoke, but beware of nicotine; sex, but safe sex. Yet the ultimate consequence of this pleasure principle is that everything is prohibited in a way; you can't smoke: there's nicotine; you can't eat: there's fat; you can't have sex: you'll get sick. So this is a kind of everyday confirmation of the Lacanian paradox.
We all know how Lacan reversed Dostoyevsky by saying "If God does not exist, everything is prohibited," not ''everything is permitted." I think this is perfectly epitomized by today's society of consumption. If God in the traditional sense as a universal model does not exist, then everything is allowed. You can get whatever you want but with the substance removed: coffee without caffeine, cigarettes without nicotine.

I like the dirty story that was in all the magazines about Richard Gere. This widely known scandal, for me, is the ultimate example of all this. This is the story: Gere was hospitalized because he realized — with one of the latest practices in Hollywood, the latest in sexual perversion — the fantasy of Freud's Rat Man. You take a gerbil — not a rat but a gerbil — and a vet cuts off its teeth and nails. You put it in a bag, you attach a piece of string to its tail, and you put it in your anus. The animal suffocates of course and this is "it": the pleasure. Finally it is up to you to pull the dead animal out. The problem with Richard Gere, allegedly, was that he pulled it out too quickly and was left only with the tail; the dead animal remained inside.

It's the same paradox: the Rat Man fantasy, you get it, but without claws, without teeth, it is all cut off by a veterinarian. For me this is the ultimate of this same logic. Nothing is prohibited you can even realize the Rat Man fantasy but in a reduced version: the vet takes care of it, cuts off the claws, etc.

Again what is crucial here is the contemporary computer with its universal dimension — a kind of a Spinozist machine. We all know Lacan defines the lady in courtly love as a non-human partner. This is computers today.

JA: Is the computer a lady?

SZ: Yes, it takes the place of the lady. Thinking the innermost of your being is in a way externalized. The machine thinks for you: just by observing it you can enjoy how the other does it for you — again this is the ultimate Spinozist vision, passive immersion. Lacan falsely attributes this experience to Hegel, to Hegelian absolute knowledge, but I think it is far more Spinozist: the reduction to a pure bare observer. This kind of universal symbolic machine functioning by itself totally relieves you of your responsibility.

JA: The pure passivity of an observer or of a voyeur?

SZ: An amusing tendency of late capitalism is that the observer is gradually reduced to a purely passive role. We have nowadays home delivery of food, TV channels where you can shop, sex you can buy, and you can be connected to your work place through a modem.

There is a nice capitalist logic behind it. We return literally to Spinoza, why? Because capitalism in Spinoza's time — before factories — was such that workers worked at home. Spinoza was well before Adam Smith and the division of labor and so forth came a little bit later, in the late 18th century. In Spinoza's time, the typical form of capitalism was that workers worked at home in small villages. The capitalists came once a week, provided you with materials, took what you did and paid you. This functioned very well, why? Firstly, because you were pressured to work all the time, you didn't have any difference between your life and your work. Secondly, it prevented what we would call in Marxist terms class consciousness. It was perfect, you never confronted the capitalist, the owner, because you only encountered him or her individually — he or his representative came to your home. In a factory, workers are all there, physically together, thus they can organize strikes, etc. Nowadays they are totally dispersed, each of them staying at home; the paradox is with computerization.

JA: So there is no chance for a conspiracy?

SZ: Yes, and even at the level of the organization of production we are returning to this Spinozist form of capitalism. Now let's take the ultimate point: sexuality. There again we return to Spinoza, the same paradox of how we can survive alone. In France they have what is called "minitel." You have a choice when you get a phone: either a phone book or minitel, a small computer with a screen, and everybody takes the minitel. You can do all kinds of business through it, read the news, order things, make reservations, but the crucial point is sex. Now it is already a bit "out," but a couple of years ago, when it was fashionable, everybody in France was having sex on the minitel. It is not the same as what you call adult phone sex, this is simply a refined form of semi-prostitution. No, the idea of minitel is "sex is an Other." You type in your password but you do not communicate with a paid prostitute, you communicate with hundreds of people doing the same thing you are doing. So you pick up one of the messages and you do it: you send in your own message to him or to her — you don't know to whom, that is the charm. You only have the family name: it may be a man or a woman. You send your message to someone you don't know, you exchange dirty messages: "I will do this to you, you will do that to me." The point is that people became obsessed by this. Lacan says — he even uses vulgar terms — that if I'm speaking now about fucking it's the same as if I'm fucking. This is literally realized now in France; sex can be purely the matter of a signifier of exchanging dirt.

JA: So the signifier seems to be more than enough to provide jouissance?

SZ: Yes. I think the crucial point in this sense is the substitution of actual contact with an imagined community. This experience of exchanging dirty messages does not function as foreplay. The idea is not that in the end it will work out with the dirty messages, that you will exchange addresses and meet, no. The entire satisfaction, the jouissance is that you do not know and will never know who the other is. The point isn't even to masturbate, the entire satisfaction is in this purely symbolic exchange and this is an interesting late capitalist tendency.

JA: Would this involve Lacan's Theory of drive?

SZ: From this we can learn a lot about the Lacanian notion of drive and satisfaction. In quantum physics for example you have the idea of possibility. If you take all the possible movements of an electron, for example, that already describes a certain actuality. To deduce what the actual movement will be, you must consider all possibilities. Possibility is not just a mere possibility but already functions as actuality in itself. Dreaming about possible satisfaction is already a satisfaction in itself. You don't need to experience a lot, you don't really need to do it, this is already "it.'' I was always fascinated with game shows with the kind of imagined community constituted around them. When you watch people there, it is obvious that the point is not even to win money, it's the basic identification: to be one of them, to be one of the community, one of those who might win. Again, possibility in itself.

JA: Let's say that all this possibility is related to the field. Does the impossible stay with the S1?

SZ: Yes, and this is again the late capitalist dream. But what interests me is where we have Kant's revenge, where we have this late capitalist fantasy, strange and disturbing. When you read today's media, how is the enemy depicted? Fundamentalist, irrationalist, and so on. Let's return to Kant. I think that Kant was revolutionary because he was anti-universalist. Usually Immanuel Kant is identified as a universalist, his criteria for an ethical act is universality, that is to say to follow the maxim, for the good of the collectivity, etc. But I think this is already a secondary movement, and the real Kantian revolution is precisely the idea that there is already a crack in universality.

JA: Because there is some morality emerging here?

SZ: Yes. Precisely apropos of morality, Kantian ethics, universality of your maxim, this is the whole point of Lacan in Kant avec Sade. According to Kant the sadist is evil, but evil is intended as an ethical attitude. You are evil out of principle, not for pathological reasons or for profit, but because there is an ethics of evil. This is the most uncanny, in the Freudian sense, the most unheimlich moment in Kantian ethics. I think that in his last major writings, religion was within the limits of reason alone. In this last writing he formulated the possibility of what he calls "original radical evil," which is precisely evil as an ethical attitude. What was so horrible for Kant in this discovery? You can no longer discern it from good you can universalize it. It's the same.

JA: Will massive immigration affect Western points of view, or will they be incorporated?

SZ: People ask me what will happen now in this new universal field with new authentic Central European cultures, but I am very skeptical about it. This idea that there are uncontaminated central European cultures fighting against this Americanized, Japanized, universal horror is false on many levels. Furthermore I have a deep mistrust of this kind of "original ", "ethical" culture. We must recall that from the very beginning these cultures are usually false. In the case of my own country, Slovenia, our national costumes were copied from Austrian costumes, they were invented towards the end of the last century. The ultimate example is the Soviet Union. You may think that these nationalist revivals emerged in resistance to communism, but I think it was literally through antagonism toward communist rule itself that these national entities were created.

Let's take the extreme case, India, which is very instructive. People often forget that in India the anticommunist Congress party was not only founded by Indians educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Oxford, but it was even instigated by some progressive liberal Englishmen. So this is a nice paradox how the very idea of "let's get rid of English colonialism, let's return to our autonomous India" was strictly a product of English colonialism.

I'm radically Eurocentric. It is fashionable today to be anti-Eurocentric to stress African, Asian, all other cultures, but what people usually do not grasp is that every idea of anti-Eurocentricism is only possible against an Eurocentric, Cartesian background. That is against the idea that the tradition into which we were born, Protestant, Catholic, Indian, whatever is something ultimately contingent. Basically we are this kind of abstract anti-subject, not pinned down to the particular tradition into which we were born. It is only against this background that you consider it as something not really binding you, that you can reason against Eurocentricism. One can say "We must be open to different cultures," but this kind of pluralism is only possible against the notion that tradition is ultimately something contingent, against the background of an abstract empty Cartesian subject. My ultimate theoretical point is that Lacan is absolutely 100 per cent Cartesian, absolutely, he says it, people don't listen. Lacan says the subject of psychoanalysis is the Cartesian subject.

JA: Well, the subject relating to the signifier and metaphor is Cartesian...

SZ: Yes, and the subject of science. The whole point of Lacan is that the subject of psychoanalysis is a hysterical subject, a hysterical subject in reaction to the scientific discourse which was founded through Cartesian Science. I put it this way: here we have the difference between the Jungian and the Freudian attitude. If there is something absolutely foreign to Lacan it is this idea, very fashionable today, against this alienated, Western, Protestant model we must return to more original ethnic wisdoms of old and so forth. This is not psychoanalysis, this is Jung. Psychoanalysis is strictly on the side of this abstract Cartesian alienated subject. This is why I'm very distrustful of this myth of Central Europe, which has strictly been made by the Other and staged for the Other as a nostalgic object for the observer. For Western Europe Central Europe means this lost paradise of small countries this kind of lost paradise of the Austrian empire. I am not nostalgic about it. The ultimate kitsch movie of all times, The Sound of Music, is part of this myth of Central Europe. It existed from the very beginning as a lost object to be seen by foreigners. Central Europe actually, was precisely where anti-Semitism was born. I mean fascism is a Central European invention.

JA: Are they after the sublime object, or are they simply going for money?

SZ: People in Eastern Europe are after something more than money. This more is what I'm afraid of because more is the idea of not just this kind of alienated capitalist society, organic unity, and so on, it's more.

JA: Is this the mode of jouissance?

SZ: Yes, this is the answer to the elementary question, what is the sublime object of ideology? The idea behind it is simply "it is the mode of jouissance, the way ideology functions." The idea is to go against the so-called discourse, the analysis of ideology. You must deconstruct it, reduce it to certain discourse practices and symbolizations. My idea is that this is not enough. Let's take for example the image of the Jew. Of course it is easy to show how the Jew is a product of a certain discourse, but there is something more to it which is again a question of jouissance. And my point is that without this core of jouissance, ideology does not function. So now we are again at the problem of the death of jouissance. In today's so-called cynical society nobody believes in ideology anymore. Lacan says somewhere that the cynic believes in jouissance, and this is precisely what complicates things.

(1) S1=Master S2=slave, in the sense of Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit. Lacan applies it to the signifier, the acoustic language of the word (S1 representing law, what intervenes, the master signifier; S2 representing knowledge, the chain, the field of the Other).

Talk at Toronto City Hall, September 29, 2012


Talk at Pomona, February 28, 2017


Is there a post-human god?


How China Is Hunting for Food Across the Globe


Bernie Joins Rob Quist in Montana


Democrats “Furious” Bernie Sanders Might Run Again in 2020


Assange is Cleared of Rape Charges, but Far From Free


Monday, May 22, 2017

Only a New Universalism Can Save Us from the New World Order

By Slavoj Žižek

The lesson of the recent referendum in Turkey is a very sad one.

After Recep Tayyip Erdogan's dubious victory, Western liberal media were full of critical analyses: the century of the Kemalist endeavour to secularize Turkey is over; the Turkish voters were offered not so much a democratic choice as a referendum to limit democracy and voluntarily endorse an authoritarian regime.

However, more important and less noticed was the subtle ambiguity of many Western reactions - an ambiguity which recalls the ambiguity of Trump's politics towards Israel: even while he stated that the United States should recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, many of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic.

But is this really an inconsistent stance?

A cartoon published back in July 2008 in the Viennese daily Die Presse depicted two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sit at a table, and one of them holding a newspaper and commenting to his friend: "Here you can see again how a totally justified anti-Semitism is being misused for a cheap critique of Israel!"

This caricature thereby inverts the standard argument against the critics of the policies of the State of Israel. But when today's Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israeli politics reject Leftist critiques of Israeli policies, is their implicit line of argumentation not uncannily close to its reasoning?

Remember Anders Breivik, the Norwegian anti-immigrant mass murderer: he was anti-Semitic, but pro-Israel, since he saw in the State of Israel the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion; he even wanted to see the Jerusalem Temple rebuilt, but he wrote in his "Manifesto":

"There is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France) as we only have 1 million in Western Europe, whereas 800,000 out of these 1 million live in France and the UK. The US on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem."

His figures thus realize the ultimate paradox of the Zionist anti-Semite - and we find the traces of this strange stance more often than one would expect. Reinhard Heydrich himself, the mastermind of the Holocaust, wrote in 1935:

"We must separate the Jews into two categories, the Zionists and the partisans of assimilation. The Zionists profess a strictly racial concept and, through emigration to Palestine, they help to build their own Jewish State ... our good wishes and our official goodwill go with them."

As Frank Ruda has pointed out, today we are getting a new version of this Zionist anti-Semitism: Islamophobic respect for Islam. The same politicians who warn of the danger of the Islamisation of the Christian West - from Trump to Putin - respectfully congratulated Erdogan for his victory. The authoritarian reign of Islam is fine for Turkey, it would seem, but not for us.

We can thus easily imagine a new version of the cartoon from Die Presse, with two stocky Nazi-looking Austrians sitting at a table, one of them holding a newspaper and commenting: "Here you can see again how a totally justified Islamophobia is being misused for a cheap critique of Turkey!"

(Samuel) Huntington's Disease

How are we to understand this weird logic? It is a reaction, a false cure, to the great social disease of our time: Huntington's. Typically, the first symptoms of Huntington's disease are jerky, random and uncontrollable movements called chorea. Chorea may initially manifest as general restlessness, small unintentional or uncompleted motions, lack of coordination.

Does an explosion of brutal populism not look quite similar? It begins with what appear to be random acts of excessive violence against immigrants, outbursts which lack coordination and merely express a general unease and restlessness apropos of "foreign intruders," but then it gradually grows into a well-coordinated and ideologically grounded movement: what the other Huntington (that is, Samuel) called "the clash of civilizations." This lucky coincidence is telling: what is usually referred to under this term is effectively the Huntington's disease of today's global capitalism.

According to Samuel Huntington, after the end of the Cold War, the "iron curtain of ideology" had been replaced by the "velvet curtain of culture." Huntington's dark vision of the "clash of civilizations" may appear to be the very opposite of Francis Fukuyama's bright prospect of the "End of History" in the guise of a world-wide liberal democracy. What could be more different from Fukuyama's pseudo-Hegelian idea that the final formula of the best possible social order was found in capitalist liberal democracy, than a "clash of civilizations" as the fundamental political struggle in the twenty-first century? How, then, do the two fit together?

From today's experience, the answer is clear: the "clash of civilizations" is politics at "the end of history." The ethnic-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which fits global capitalism: in our age of post-politics, when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (ethnic, religious) tensions. Today's rise of "irrational" violence is thus to be conceived as strictly correlative to the depoliticization of our societies - that is, to the disappearance of the political dimension proper, its translation into different levels of "administration" of social affairs.

"America First!"

If we accept this thesis concerning the "clash of civilizations," the only alternative to it remains the peaceful coexistence of civilizations (or of "ways of life" - a more popular term today): so forced marriages, misogynistic violence and homophobia are fine, just as long as they are confined to another country which is otherwise fully included in the world market.

The New World Order (NWO) that is emerging is thus no longer the Fukuyamaist NWO of global liberal democracy, but a NWO of the peaceful coexistence of different politico-theological ways of life - coexistence, of course, against the background of the smooth functioning of global capitalism. The obscenity of this process is that it can present itself as progress in the anti-colonial struggle: the liberal West will no longer be allowed to impose its standards on others; all ways of life will be treated as equal.

It is little wonder, then, that Robert Mugabe exhibited such sympathy for Trump's slogan "America first!": "America first!" for you, "Zimbabwe first!" for me, "India first!" or "North Korea first!" for them. This is already how the British Empire, the first global capitalist empire, functioned: each ethnic-religious community was allowed to pursue its own way of life (for instance, honour killings or the burning of widows by Hindus in India were permitted). While these local "customs" were either criticized as barbaric or praised for their premodern wisdom, they were tolerated because what mattered was that they remained economically part of the Empire.

There is thus something deeply hypocritical about those liberals who criticize the slogan "America first!" - as if this is not more or less what every country is doing, as if America did not play a global role precisely because it suited its own interests. The underlying message of "America first!" is nonetheless a sad one: the American century is over; American exceptionalism is no more; America has resigned itself to being just one among the nations. The supreme irony is that the Leftists, who for a long time criticized the U.S. pretension to be the global policeman, may begin to long for the good old days when, hypocrisy notwithstanding, the United States imposed democratic standards onto the world.

There are already signs that this is happening. In the reactions to Trump's retaliatory missile strike on a Syrian army military base (as a punishment for the use of chemical weapons), the contradictions between those who oppose (and support) Trump exploded: the strike was applauded of some "human rights" liberals and rejected by some Republican conservative isolationists. In short, the paradox is that Trump is at his most dangerous when he acts most like Hillary Clinton.

We can see what "America first!" means in action from the following Reuters news report: "A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters' faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters." Yes, Putin's regime should be relentlessly criticized - but, in this case, has not the United States regularly done the same thing? Did a U.S. team not help Boris Yeltsin win a key election in Russia? And what about the United States' active support for the Maidan uprising in Ukraine?

This is "America first!" in practice: when they are doing it, it's a dangerous plot; when we are doing it, it's supporting democracy.

In this NWO, universality will more and more be reduced to tolerance - tolerance for different "ways of life." Following the formula of Zionist anti-Semitism, there will be no contradiction between imposing in our own countries the strictest "politically correct" pro-feminist rules and simultaneously rejecting any critique of the dark side of Islam as neocolonialist arrogance.

Between Private Capital and State Power

In this New World Order, there will be less and less place for figures like Julian Assange, who, in spite of all his problematic gestures, remains today's most powerful symbol of what Kant called "the public use of reason" - a space for public knowledge and debate outside of state control. No wonder that, against the expectations that Trump will show more leniency towards Assange, the new U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recently stated that the arrest of the Wikileaks founder was now a "priority."

It is well-known what lies ahead: Wikileaks will be proclaimed a terrorist organization, and rather than genuine advocates of public space like Assange, public figures which exemplify the privatization of our commons will predominate. The figure of Elon Musk is emblematic here: he belongs to the same series with Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, all "socially conscious" billionaires. They stand for global capital at its most seductive and "progressive" - which is to say, at its most dangerous.

Musk likes to warn about the threats that new technologies pose to human dignity and freedom - which, of course, doesn't prevent him from investing in a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink, a company which is focussed on creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain, with the eventual purpose of helping human beings merge with software and keep pace with advancements in artificial intelligence. These enhancements could improve memory or allow for more direct interface with computing devices: "Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence."

Every technological innovation is always first presented like this, emphasizing its health or humanitarian benefits, which function to blind us to the more ominous implications and consequences: can we even imagine what new forms of control this so-called "neural lace" contains? This is why it is absolutely imperative to keep it out of the control of private capital and state power - that is, to render it totally accessible to public debate. Assange was right in his strangely ignored book on Google: to understand how our lives are regulated today, and how this regulation is experienced as our freedom, we have to focus on the shadowy collusion between private corporations which control our commons and secret state agencies.

Today's global capitalism can no longer afford a positive vision of emancipated humanity, even as an ideological dream. Fukuyamaist liberal-democratic universalism failed because of its own immanent limitations and inconsistencies, and populism is the symptom of this failure - its Huntington's disease. But the solution is not populist nationalism, Rightist or Leftist. The only solution is a new universalism - it is demanded by the problems humanity is confronting today, from ecological threats to refugee crises.

Protecting the New Commons

In his book What Happened in the Twentieth Century?, Peter Sloterdijk provides his own outline of what is to be done in twenty-first century, best encapsulated in the title of the first two essays in the book, "The Anthropocene" and "From the Domestication of Man to the Civilizing of Cultures."

"Anthropocene" designates a new epoch in the life of our planet in which we, humans, cannot any longer rely on the Earth as a reservoir ready to absorb the consequences of our productive activity: we cannot any longer afford to ignore the side effects (the collateral damage) of our productivity, which cannot any longer be reduced to the background of the figure of humanity. We have to accept that we live on a "Spaceship Earth," and are thus accountable for its conditions. Earth is no longer the impenetrable background/horizon of our productive activity, it emerges as an(other) finite object which we can inadvertently destroy or transform it to make it unliveable.

This means that, at the very moment when we become powerful enough to affect the most basic conditions of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet. A new way to relate to our environs is necessary once we realize this: no longer a heroic worker expressing his/her creative potentials and drawing from the inexhaustible resources from his/her environs, but a much more modest agent collaborating with his/her environs, permanently negotiating a tolerable level of safety and stability.

So in order to establish this new mode of relating to our environs, a radical politico-economic change is necessary, what Sloterdijk calls "the domestication of the wild animal Culture."

Until now, each culture disciplined or educated its own members and guaranteed civic peace among them in the guise of state power, but the relationship between different cultures and states was permanently under the shadow of potential war, with each state of peace nothing more than a temporary armistice. As Hegel conceptualized it, the entire ethic of a state culminates in the highest act of heroism - namely, the readiness to sacrifice one's life for one's nation-state, which means that the wild barbarian relations between states serve as the foundation of the ethical life within a state. Today, is North Korea with it ruthless pursuit of nuclear weapons and rockets advanced enough to reach distant targets not the ultimate example of this logic of unconditional nation-state sovereignty?

However, the moment we fully accept the fact that we live on a Spaceship Earth, the task that urgently imposes itself is that of civilizing civilizations themselves, of imposing universal solidarity and cooperation among all human communities, a task rendered all the more difficult by the ongoing rise of sectarian religious and ethnic "heroic" violence and readiness to sacrifice oneself (and the world) for one's specific Cause.

The measures Sloterdijk proposes as necessary for the survival of humanity - the overcoming of capitalist expansionism, achieving broad international solidarity capable to forming an executive power ready to violate state sovereignty, and so on - are they not all measures destined to protect our natural and cultural commons? If they do not point towards some kind of reinvented Communism, if they do not imply a Communist horizon, then the term "Communism" has no meaning at all.

This is why the idea of the European Union is worth fighting for, despite of the misery of its actual existence: in today's global capitalist world, it offers the only model of a trans-national organization with the authority to limit national sovereignty and the capacity to guarantee a minimum of ecological and social welfare standards. Something that directly descends from the best traditions of European Enlightenment survives in it. Our - Europeans - duty is not to humiliate ourselves as the ultimate culprits of colonialist exploitation but to fight for this part of our legacy as vital for the survival of humanity.

Europe is more and more alone in the New World Order, dismissed as an old, exhausted, irrelevant, contingent, reduced to playing a secondary role in today's bit geo-political conflicts. As Bruno Latour recently put it: "L'Europe est seule, oui, mais seule l'Europe peut nous sauver." Europe is alone, yes, but Europe alone can save us.

Today's populism, which is once again nationalist and secular, presents conservative Christians with opportunities to gain political advantage over the secular progressivism they see as a threat. That rhymes with the interwar years. Do Christians therefore need to speak, yet again, about human dignity in ways that put limits on populism, too?

Flannel about empowerment and the increase of purchasing liberty conceals a barbarous indifference to the notion that learning changes you, that this takes time, and that the point of the intellectual life is not productivity but comprehension, and the liberty to ask awkward questions. The proposal that the quality of teaching should be measured by levels of graduate salary is simply one of the more egregious versions of this indifference ...

Culture - like religion and nation and race - provides a source of identity for contemporary human beings. And, like all three, it can become a form of confinement, conceptual mistakes underwriting moral ones. Yet all of them can also give contours to our freedom. Social identities connect the small scale where we live our lives alongside our kith and kin with larger movements, causes, and concerns. They can make a wider world intelligible, alive, and urgent. They can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit. But our lives must make sense, too, at the largest of all scales.