Nigel Gibson, Seminar Presentation at the Centre for Sociological Research, University of Johannesburg, 25 May 2011
The Problem of Humanism
What is Fanon’s humanism, or better to say his new humanism? Simply put it is about putting invention into existence, or life into being. His is a living humanism. In Black Skin, Fanon speaks of this abstractly, he says, “yes to freedom no to exploitation”; but we have to also think of humanism as something that hasn’t happened. That is to say, critical of European humanism, which he says is an anti-humanism in practice, which kills and murders in the name of humanism (and still does). Fanon argues that a new humanism must include disalienation. There is a resonance with Marx here. After speaking about the abolition of alienated labor and the private property, which it creates, Marx posits a “positive humanism beginning from itself.”
So when Fanon calls on us, at the conclusion of The Wretched, to humanize the world what does this mean in the context of post-apartheid South Africa? We can intimate some transitional elements. At the very least it would mean redistributing wealth and land, abolishing the dividing lines, the security and policing of exclusion, the bio-ordering of citadels, the walls, razor wires of the gated communities, and creating space for human interaction, it would mean the right to the city in Lefevbrean terms, in terms of encouraging buildings and architecture that expresses social life. But at its basis, such reforms could not be instituted by decree. They would require every attempt to practice a fundamental decentralized democratization from the bottom up that would include everyone in decision making about what to do. It means, in short, living a life consciously in the world, creating if you will a human world, humanizing the world. It is not a grand scheme that needs to be realized in one feel swoop, it begins here and there, and is intimated often only for a moment, in struggles. But that struggle has not been realized--and so there is something out of wack with post-apartheid South Africa that has simply incorporated a Black elite into what used to be considered the racial capitalist system reformed by neoliberalism.
You know the rest. By necessity the poor, the damned of the earth, have to struggle to survive and in the neoliberal world, the gulf between poor and rich, so clear in South Africa, is ever widening. So South African capitalism has morphed into a highly securitized system, alongside alienation, commodification and destruction of the human (both in mind and body and environment (which is not really a third term). We need a shift in thinking.
The Problem of Method
I have just come from a conference on Reading Fanon 50 years Later in Naples Italy. What was not surprising, I suppose, since it was an academic conference, was that it was an academic conference, that is to say it was limited by at times highly intellectualized discussions—often marred by disciplinary squabbles-- which seemed by their nature to objectify as “other” and make absent the politics of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth that the conference was named.
In Naples someone called me a Fanon fundamentalist; I don’t really take umbrage from this. I am a Fanon loyalist, but I am not interested in checking affiliation cards. I am only interested in an organization in an eminent historical sense that is to say I take Fanon seriously as a thinker and practitioner.
But I do not come empty headed to Fanon, of course, nobody does. I come with specific concerns and my readings are influenced by my thinking for over thirty years, but I still regard him as an original thinker who is very much part of his time but give us something to think about.
While The Wretched does reflect on the Algerian and African situation, it provides no blueprints and there are no a prioris to a long and reflective and engaged dialectic. Fanon is a source, a guide, a way of thinking that requires, if you will, a shift in the geography of reason. That being said my reading is infused with Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-humanism. I can’t really say where one things starts and another ends. I was a student of Dunayevskaya in the 1980s and have been thinking of Fanon and Marxist-Humanism for 30 years (of course there are other thinkers and theoreticians who have been influential) but Dunayevskaya’s Marx is my Marx and central to that Marx is Dunayevskaya’s conception of the movement from practice as a form of theory. In Marxism and Freedom, published in 1958, she describes how Marx completely redeveloped Capital based on movements from practice, the civil war in the US, the struggle for the 8 hour day, and the Paris Commune and so on. The latter being central to his development of the fetish character of the commodity as well as his consideration of the possibility of non-capitalist roads to socialism, which is absolutely essential to understand Marx and the contemporary world. I make this point not as a caveat, nor to say that I claim Fanon as a Marxist.
The problem with the movement from practice as a form of theory is that one has to know when it is and when it isn’t. And one can’t know that before hand, so one has to be continually open to the world and its breaths as Césaire puts it; and at the same time always self-critical, always questioning and always listening and thinking.
In an almost counter-intuitive way, then, at least from the point of view of power politics but not from Fanon’s last writings, it is not surprising that new articulations of humanism, are being articulated in South Africa, even 16 years after the end of apartheid; perhaps because capitalism--namely neo-apartheid plus BEE has won—that it does seem abundantly clear to many that struggle is not over and that in such CRISIS ideas of liberation can be generated from the bottom up.
Paradoxically or not (not for me) the shift in thinking can be aided by social struggles and those thinking about these struggles. Fanon makes the point that the intellectual is always out of step with the people who are struggling to be free. They have changed, but the university-trained intellectual keeps repeating the old mantras. We need to catch up, and to catch up necessitates opening our minds and ears not only to history from below, but as its notional self-comprehension, how that thought is challenging thinking.
The Call to the Barricades?
This is not a call to the barricades even if it is a call to ideological combat not to confine new developments in a priori categories.
The struggle is a school, as Richard Pithouse puts it. And let’s be clear sometimes that school comes into contradiction with the academic system and can have dire costs both in terms of employment and in terms of threats of violence. Fanon talks about “snatching” knowledge from the colonial universities; he is also aware of the great sacrifices that this can entail. In The Wretched he makes a point to distinguish between the hobnobbing postcolonial intelligentsia and the honest intellectual who distrusts the race for positions; who is still committed to fundamental change even if presently does not see its possibility. I am not saying that the university should be given up on. It is a contested terrain, mired in assumptions about what constitutes academic research, and thus for those of us who work in the academy, one has to be very wary. The spaces of autonomy, the spaces for genuine, collaborative and political work with poor, excluded, the so-called illegal or marginal people, the wretched and damned is always compromised. As Fanon, the existential puts it, everyone’s hands are dirty.
In quite another time—namely in the anti-colonial epoch of the 1950s Fanon had a great job at Blida Psychiatric Hospital. It was what he wanted and he put enormous energy into fighting to reform how psychiatry was practiced in the hospital. He created space—both practical and intellectuals (reading groups) for himself and his colleagues.
Indeed the Algerian war politicized him, radicalized him. He began to see its effects; he began to treat the tortured and the torturer. The situation became untenable, he simply couldn’t continue there. The authorities were closing in on Blida, suspected as a hotbed of support for the FLN. It was dangerous. He resigned before he was picked up. He began to work full time for the revolution.
Fanon made contact with the FLN in 1955 and left the country around the new year of 1957. His identification with and commitment to the Algerian revolution was swift and absolute. Living the double life while at Blida, he prepared a paper for the First Conference of Black Writers held in Paris in September. Racism and Culture was written in the context of a state of emergency and emergence: the endless strikes, a curfew on Blida, and summary executions of FLN sympathizers (Cherki: 86). The paper had no direct reference to the Algerian struggle but Fanon’s commitment was obvious in its conclusions:
The logical end of this will to struggle is the total liberation of the national territory. In order to achieve this liberation the inferiorized man brings all his resources into play, all his acquisitions, the old and the new, his own and those of the occupant. The struggle is at once total, absolute (1967b: 43).
During the 1956/7 “Battle of Algiers” all these resources were brought into play. And Fanon was among them. Doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies were secretly tending to the wounded; other sympathizers were helping to distribute materials and information or provide safe houses; and so on. Fanon was contacted to help counsel militants. It was a very practical and concrete request, using his training to aid the defeat of the French, while being educated in what he called the “school of the people” (1968:150).
Fanon had never thought of psychiatry apart from society and thus it had become absolutely clear that sociotherapy could not be practiced in Algeria because the social structure was against it. At least, this is what he maintained in his resignation letter. Lawlessness, torture and inequality were the “logical consequence” of an “attempt to decerebralize a people” (1967b: 53), which he claimed had “put an end to my mission in Algeria” (1967b: 54). In reality, he had already begun another mission to put an end to one Algeria and help bring into being another one. From full time director of psychiatry he became a full-time revolutionary, working for the FLN.
So in early 1957 Fanon arrived in France. The Parisian left was full of discussions of the Hungarian revolution that had raised the question of a socialist humanism before being crushed by Russian tanks in October 1956. Yet the heralding of the Hungarian resistance and the mass resignations from the French Communist Party (which continued to support French colonialism in Algeria) did not translate into a shift in attitudes toward the Algerian question and the liberation struggle. On the contrary, even with the emergence of “new left” non-vanguard communist organizations like Castoriadis’ Socialism or Barbarism, which was loudly praising the self-activity and self-organization of the Budapest resistance, the French remained mostly quiet about Algeria. Fanon, on the other hand, who made clear in The Wretched that his sympathies lay with the Budapest revolutionaries (noting that it signified “a decisive moment” [1968:79] in the global anti-colonial movement), rejected the Parisian left talk and committed himself to decolonizing Algeria.
If Lenin had believed that his was the epoch of imperialism, for Fanon, decolonization was not simply the “bacillus” (CW 22:357) for the proletarian revolution, as Lenin put it, but a beginning of something quite new. Colonialism was dying, and from inside the Algerian revolution the problem was the emergence of a democratic, inclusive, and accountable society that could be the basis for a new internationalism (1968:247). This was the problem that Fanon found Lenin grappling with as he read the documents of the early Communist International at Jean Ayme’s apartment in early 1957. Namely the Communist International’s theses that national and peasant revolts are not only essential to the social struggle but as Lenin put it questioned the inevitability of “the capitalist stage of economic development” (Lenin: CW 31:244). Indeed, Lenin insisted that Bukharin’s idea of skipping the capitalist stage was “impossible” and could only be demonstrated “practically.” It was a remark echoed by Fanon in The Wretched when he argued that “whether or not the bourgeois phase can be skipped ought to answered in the field of revolutionary action not logic” (1968:175).
Practice Enlivens Theoretical Issues
To understand how practice resolves or enlivens theoretical issues, one must return to Fanon’s commitment to the Algerian revolution and the brilliance of its moment, while at the same time not freezing that moment but catching its dialectic, saturated by his experiences of 1956/7, the battle of Algiers and discussions with the FLN leader Ramdane Abane.
Central to Fanon’s conception of the new society is the politics of space. The reordering of colonial geography is a central marker to decolonial reorganization (1968:38) and Fanon’s famous description of the zoned cities of colonialism—the dark, cramped, poor, hungry, native town, and the light, spacious, rich, satiated colonial town—is based on his own observations especially Algiers. If in Black Skin he notes that the elites in Fort de France lived high above the shantytown below; in Algiers the European city is built around the port and its gaze is turned away from the Casbah toward the Mediterranean. Though there was not a formal organizational separation between the “European city and the Muslim one” there was, (Cherki notes (42)) a “keen awareness of boundaries felt by everyone.” In the interstices of the Casbah what Alice Cherki calls “the vast slums, groaning with misery, that cropped up ... places without public works or services of any kind [where] the rural poor came to settle” (Cherki 2006:41-42).
In reality, the poor urban populations living in the bidonville or “informal settlements” on the edges or in the interstices of the Casbah are the same displaced rural populations seen as an unruly, threatening mass by the colonial regime. For Fanon this subterranean and uncounted mass of people became the crucial actors in the liberation struggle. By the 1950s, the growth of shack settlements added what Zenep Çelik (1997:110) calls “a third element” to the dualistic colonial city that Fanon described. This third element formed the core of Fanon’s lumpenproletariat, which by 1954, on the eve of the Algerian revolution, had become over 40% of Algiers’ native population. During the Battle of Algiers, Fanon observed how the bidonvilles began to take on a more practical-critical role, not only as manifestations of the material/spatial divide between Europeans and Algerian zones, but as a center for the resistance. Algiers’ marginals, poor and unemployed, irrupted into history. The bidonville became part of the frontline of the struggle and in retaliation, “and as part of the war strategy,” Çelik remarks (1997:112), colonial “military forces bulldozed many squatter settlements, and army trucks transported the residents to dispersed locations to be rehoused.”
Traveling through the Blidean maquis on their way to the Soummam Valley in summer 1956, Abane and his colleague Ben M'hidi were impressed by “the courage of the young women ... mainly from bourgeois Muslim families ... who sacrificed their studies and their opulent lives ... [for] the hard life of the maquis” (Abane 2011) and Hocine Ait-Ahmed, one of nine “historic leaders” who founded the FLN and the only one of the external leadership around Ben Bella who approved Ramdane’s Soummam platform, argued, in what would become a Fanonian vein, that “the revolutionary must … descend from the pedestal of theory to root himself in concrete life, in order to draw upon it and verify there his principles of action” (quoted in Gillespie 1961:80). The idea of rooting oneself in concrete life, of practice and action trumping theory, was methodologically exactly what was at stake in Year 5 of the Algerian Revolution, where concrete life was one of radical mutation which had to be recorded by the revolutionary theoretician.
Fanon began working on what would become Year 5 quite soon after he arrived in Tunis. It reflected his Algerian experiences, his ongoing discussions with Abane and his commitment to the Soummam platform as well as according to Alice Cherki a polemic with Bourdieu’s writings on Kabylia. Year 5 was addressed to the French left but it also had a strictly Abanean thesis associating the power of the Algerian revolution not with guns but with the “radical mutation that the Algerian has undergone” (1967c: 32) and thus was clearly directed to the internal political struggle. Abane’s emphasis at Soummam that the mass movement dominated military strategy was echoed by Fanon, who in The Wretched argued that the subservience of politics to the military was a symptom of the revolution’s degeneration.
The dialectics of organization are not solely about the forms of organization—whether centralized or decentralized, military or political. For Fanon in Year 5, revolutionary organization also mutates and is implicitly connected with the idea of the whole nation undergoing change (see for example his essay on the radio). Yet it is also not surprising—since practice and commitment to the struggle for liberation do not end questions about how to create the new society—that the suffocation of the “oxygen” of revolution (Fanon 1967c: 181), and the suppression and indeed criminalization of the mass movements by the nationalist parties which had gained power after independence, meant that Fanon’s dialectic of liberation had to be further internalized. The Wretched—a book that he knew would have to be his last—would be a balance sheet seriously addressing the internal contradictions and misadventures that undermined the possibility of liberation.
The New society (and its Misadventures) and Organization
In contrast to the opening up of space detailed in Year 5, the dialectic of The Wretched which begins with the suffocation of space under colonialism ends with its suffocation in neocolonialism. The time needed to rethink everything, to include all in decision-making, is quickly consumed in the rotten deals spun by the nationalist elite and withdrawing colonists. Time is eaten up by insider political deals: the already senile bourgeoisie (1968:153), aged before their time, the rotten huckstering petit-bourgeoisie, rotten on the vine, are consumed by the speed of the world market, the gleam of its shiny goods and get rich quick schemes (1968:166-176). The masses, Fanon adds, either mark time or go backwards (1968:147). These are all well-known parts of Fanon’s analysis. Yet a crucial divide between Year 5 and The Wretched is the assassination of Ramdane Abane. Fanon knew about it; but he remained silent. In a minority position, perhaps he felt that he could be disappeared. But it clearly indicated the degeneration of the revolution within the revolution, and as he told Sartre and de Beauvoir, Ramdane’s assassination remained on his conscience.
Thus if practice does solve contradictions in Year 5, clearly The Wretched complicates the issue. Beginning with “violence” and ending with “torture,” The Wretched reflects on subversion of the radical social actions of men and women detailed in Year 5. It is no accident, in the context of Abane’s politics, that the chapter the pitfalls of national consciousness was first presented as a series of lectures to ALN militants on the Algeria/Tunisia border as an ideological intervention against narrow nationalism. It remains powerful because it traced the speed of degeneration of the anti-colonial revolution from inside the revolution. But Fanon’s is not an a priori schematic critique of a bourgeois revolution that can be mapped onto the postcolonial Africa. The Wretched isn’t a neo-Marxist appraisal of the class character of nationalist leaderships.
Indeed, Fanon is quick to point out that after independence the “masses” become “frustrated” because for them there is no immediate change, no redistribution of land, no social and economic reforms. The “enlightened observer takes note of this masked discontent”. The feeling of injustice is real, but it often goes unheard or is violently suppressed. And thus we return to the brutal manicheanism that had characterized colonialism.
The discontent can be manifest in local acts of violence which appear spontaneous but are often micro-managed by ethnic entrepreneurs, local businessmen and local party leaders, or discontent can burst out regionally and even nationally, often organized through the politicization of indigeneity. The sources of injustice (the lack of land, jobs, and bread) are often articulated against “outsiders,” framed as “natives” against “settlers” or foreigners or religions (see 1968:160-161). And thus nationalism and ultra-nationalism, as Fanon predicted in 1961, and as we have witnessed for 50 years, leads to chauvinism and racism (1968:156).
But the problem with the anti-colonial movements cannot simply be answered by applying the logic of Marx’s slogan in light of the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, “never again with the bourgeoisie.” Fanon’s critique of the timidity and incapacity of the national bourgeoisie to act in a decisive way against colonialism echoes Marx’s critique, and Marx’s advice that the workers’ own organizations encourage and give direction to revolutionary excitement and “popular vengeance” (Marx 1975:325) is echoed in Fanon’s advice in The Wretched, that violence should be channelled toward its “real” cause. For Fanon the comprador character of the national bourgeoisie is expressed by its paucity of ideas. Thus, ironically, the end of colonialism offers an opportunity for revolutionary will because the nascent bourgeoisie in the colonies is so structurally weak. But for Fanon, it is a tricky position to navigate. It is almost idealistic because alongside an organized and principle resistance, Fanon posits a unifying liberatory ideology as what is lacking in the African revolutions. But this raises the issue of circulatory thinking. The lumpen-intelligentsia needs to be educated in the school of the people and the people need to be liberated from reactive thinking. This answer wasn’t a vanguard-type nationalist organization which he saw as a form for the one-party state preferred by the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” (1968:165) but he noted in 1960, the problem was the absence of ideology (1967b: 189), namely an idea of the future—what he calls a new humanism—practically spelled out in a way that is profoundly concrete. While Year 5 and The Wretched both concern the unfinished character of Fanon’s engagement with the dialectics of organization as prefiguring the new society, an important shift is seen in the conclusion to The Wretched. Rather than a “return” to Lenin’s aphorism that there can be no revolution without revolutionary theory, Fanon’s humanism begins from the rationality of the rebellion.
Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Nigel Gibson, Seminar Presentation at the Centre for Sociological Research, University of Johannesburg, 25 May 2011
Saturday, 07 May 2011
by Slavoj Žižek, Guernica
The Left today faces the difficult task of emphasizing that we are dealing with political economy—that there is nothing “natural” in the present crisis, that the existing global economic system relies on a series of political decisions—while simultaneously acknowledging that, insofar as we remain within the capitalist system, violating its rules will indeed cause economic breakdown, since the system obeys a pseudo-natural logic of its own. So, although we are clearly entering a new phase of enhanced exploitation, facilitated by global market conditions (outsourcing, etc.), we should also bear in mind that this is not the result of an evil plot by capitalists, but an urgency imposed by the functioning of the system itself, always on the brink of financial collapse. For this reason, what is now required is not a moralizing critique of capitalism, but the full re-affirmation of the Idea of communism.
The idea of communism, as elaborated by Alain Badiou, remains a Kantian regulative idea lacking any mediation with historical reality. Badiou emphatically rejects any such mediation as a regression to an historicist evolutionism which betrays the purity of the Idea, reducing it to a positive order of Being (the Revolution conceived as a moment of the positive historical process). This Kantian mode of reference effectively allows us to characterize Badiou’s deployment of the “communist hypothesis” as a Kritik der reinen Kommunismus. As such, it invites us to repeat the passage from Kant to Hegel—to re-conceive the Idea of communism as an Idea in the Hegelian sense, that is, as an Idea which is in the process of its own actualization. The Idea that “makes itself what it is” is thus no longer a concept opposed to reality as its lifeless shadow, but one which gives reality and existence to itself. Recall Hegel’s infamous “idealist” formula according to which Spirit is its own result, the product of itself. Such statements usually provoke sarcastic “materialist” comments (“so it is not actual people who think and realize ideas, but Spirit itself, which, like Baron Munchausen, pulls itself up by its own hair”). But consider, for example, a religious Idea which catches the spirit of the masses and becomes a major historical force? In a way, is this not a case of an Idea actualizing itself, becoming a “product of itself”? Does it not, in a kind of closed loop, motivate people to fight for it and to realize it? What the notion of the Idea as a product of itself makes visible is thus not a process of idealist self-engendering, but the materialist fact that an Idea exists only in and through the activity of the individuals engaged with it and motivated by it. What we have here is emphatically not the kind of historicist/evolutionist position that Badiou rejects, but something much more radical: an insight into how historical reality itself is not a positive order, but a “not-all” which points towards its own future. It is this inclusion of the future as the gap in the present order that renders the latter “not-all,” ontologically incomplete, and thus explodes the self-enclosure of the historicist/ evolutionary process. In short, it is this gap which enables us to distinguish historicity proper from historicism.
Why, then, the Idea of communism? For three reasons, which echo the Lacanian triad of the I-S-R: at the Imaginary level, because it is necessary to maintain continuity with the long tradition of radical millenarian and egalitarian rebellions; at the Symbolic level, because we need to determine the precise conditions under which, in each historical epoch, the space for communism may be opened up; finally, at the level of the Real, because we must assume the harshness of what Badiou calls the eternal communist invariants (egalitarian justice, voluntarism, terror, “trust in the people”). Such an Idea of communism is clearly opposed to socialism, which is precisely not an Idea, but a vague communitarian notion applicable to all kinds of organic social bonds, from spiritualized ideas of solidarity (“we are all part of the same body”) right up to fascist corporatism. The Really Existing Socialist states were precisely that: positively existing states, whereas communism is in its very notion anti-statist.
The problem is how to avoid radical social uprisings which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, or retreat into an ideal displaced to a domain outside social reality (for Buddhism we are all equal—in nirvana).
Where does this eternal communist Idea come from? Is it part of human nature, or, as Habermasians propose, an ethical premise (of equality or reciprocal recognition) inscribed into the universal symbolic order? Its eternal character cannot, after all, be accounted for by specific historical conditions. The key to resolving this problem is to focus on that against which the communist Idea rebels: namely, the hierarchical social body whose ideology was first formulated in great sacred texts such as The Book of Manu. As was demonstrated by Louis Dumont in his Homo hierarchicus, social hierarchy is always inconsistent; that is, its very structure relies on a paradoxical reversal (the higher sphere is, of course, higher than the lower, but, within the lower order, the lower is higher than the higher) on account of which the social hierarchy can never fully encompass all its elements. It is this constitutive inconsistency that gives birth to what Rancière calls “the part of no-part,” that singular element which remains out of place in the hierarchical order, and, as such, functions as a singular universal, giving body to the universality of the society in question. The communist Idea, then, is the eternal demand co-substantial with this element that lacks its proper place in the social hierarchy (“we are nothing, and we want to be all”).
Our task is thus to remain faithful to this eternal Idea of communism: to the egalitarian spirit kept alive over thousands of years in revolts and utopian dreams, in radical movements from Spartacus to Thomas Müntzer, including within the great religions (Buddhism versus Hinduism, Daoism or Legalism versus Confucianism, etc.). The problem is how to avoid the choice between radical social uprisings which end in defeat, unable to stabilize themselves in a new order, and the retreat into an ideal displaced to a domain outside social reality (for Buddhism we are all equal—in nirvana). It is here that the originality of Western thought becomes clear, particularly in its three great historical ruptures: Greek philosophy’s break with the mythical universe; Christianity’s break with the pagan universe; and modern democracy’s break with traditional authority. In each case, the egalitarian spirit is transposed into a new positive order (limited, but nonetheless actual).
The democratic axiom is that the place of power is empty, that there is no one directly qualified for the vacancy, either by tradition, charisma, or leadership qualities.
In short, the wager of Western thought is that radical negativity (whose first and immediate expression is egalitarian terror) is not condemned to being expressed in short ecstatic outbursts after which things are returned to normal. On the contrary, radical negativity, as the undermining of every traditional hierarchy, has the potential to articulate itself in a positive order within which it acquires the stability of a new form of life. Such is the meaning of the Holy Spirit in Christianity: faith can not only be expressed in, but also exists as, the collective of believers. And this faith is itself based on “terror,” as indicated by Christ’s insistence that he brings a sword, not peace, that whoever does not hate his father and mother is not a true follower, and so on. The content of this terror thus involves the rejection of all traditional hierarchical and community ties, with the wager that a different collective link is possible—an egalitarian bond between believers connected by agape as political love.
Democracy itself provides another example of such an egalitarian link based on terror. As Claude Lefort notes, the democratic axiom is that the place of power is empty, that there is no one directly qualified for the vacancy, either by tradition, charisma, or leadership qualities. This is why, before democracy can enter the stage, terror has to do its work, forever dissociating the place of power from any natural or directly qualified pretender: the gap between this place and those who temporarily occupy it must be maintained at all costs. This is also why Hegel’s deduction of the monarchy can be given a democratic supplement: Hegel insists on the monarch as the “irrational” (i.e., contingent) head of state precisely in order to keep the summit of state power apart from the expertise embodied in the state bureaucracy. While the bureaucrats are chosen on account of their abilities and qualifications, the king is the king by birth—that is, ultimately, he is chosen by lot, on account of natural contingency. The danger Hegel was trying to avoid here exploded a century later in Stalinist bureaucracy, which was precisely the rule of (Communist) experts: Stalin is not a figure of a master, but the one who “really knows,” an expert in all imaginable fields, from economy to linguistics, from biology to philosophy.
We can well imagine a democratic procedure maintaining the same gap on account of the irreducible moment of contingency in every electoral result: far from being a limitation, the fact that elections do not pretend to select the most qualified person is what protects them from the totalitarian temptation (which is why, as was already clear to the Ancient Greeks, choosing rulers by lot is the most democratic form of selection). That is to say, as Lefort has again demonstrated, the achievement of democracy is to turn what for traditional authoritarian power is the moment of greatest crisis—the moment of transition from one master to another, the panic-inducing instant at which “the throne is empty”—into the very source of its strength: democratic elections thus represent the passage through that zero-point at which the complex network of social links is dissolved into a purely quantitative multiplicity of individuals whose votes are mechanically counted. The moment of terror, of the dissolution of all hierarchical links, is thereby re-enacted and transformed into the foundation of a new and stable political order.
Measured by his own standards of what a rational state should be, Hegel was thus perhaps wrong to fear universal democratic suffrage (see his nervous rejection of the English Reform Bill in 1832). It is precisely democracy (universal suffrage) which, much more appropriately than Hegel’s own State of estates, performs the “magic” trick of converting radical negativity into a new political order: in democracy, the negativity of terror (the destruction of everyone who pretends to identify with the place of power) is aufgehoben and turned into the positive form of the democratic procedure.
The question today, now that we know the limitations of that formal procedure, is whether we can imagine a step further in this process whereby egalitarian negativity reverts into a new positive order. We should look for traces of such an order in different domains, including in scientific communities. The way the CERN [acronym for what is now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research] community functions is indicative here: in an almost utopian manner, individual efforts are undertaken in a collective non-hierarchical spirit, and dedication to the scientific cause (to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang) far outweighs any material considerations. But are such traces, no matter how sublime, merely that—marginal traces?
In his intervention at the 2010 Marxism conference in London (organized by the Socialist Workers’s Party), Alex Callinicos evoked his dream of a future communist society in which there would be museums of capitalism, displaying to the public the artifacts of this irrational and inhuman social formation. The unintended irony of this dream is that today, the only museums of this kind are museums of Communism, displaying its horrors. So, again, what to do in such a situation? Two years before his death, when it became clear that there would be no immediate European revolution, and that the idea of building socialism in one country was nonsense, Lenin wrote: “What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilization in a different way from that of the West European countries?”
Is this not the predicament of the Morales government in Bolivia, of the (former) Aristide government in Haiti, of the Maoist government in Nepal? They came to power through “fair” democratic elections, rather than insurrection, but having gained power, they exerted it in a way which was (partially, at least) “non-statist”: directly mobilizing their grassroots supporters, bypassing the Party-State network. Their situation is “objectively” hopeless: the whole drift of history is against them, they cannot rely on any “objective tendencies” pushing in their direction, all they can do is to improvise, do what they can in a desperate situation. Nevertheless, does this not give them a unique freedom? (And are we—the contemporary Left—not in exactly the same situation?) It is tempting to apply here the old distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom for”: does their freedom from History (with its laws and objective tendencies) not sustain their freedom for creative experimenting? In their activity, they can rely only on the collective will of their supporters.
Wherever an opening for taking power does arise, the Left should seize the opportunity and confront the problems head-on, making the best of a bad situation.
According to Badiou, “The model of the centralized party made possible a new form of power that was nothing less than the power of the party itself. We are now at what I call a ‘distance from the State.’ This is first of all because the question of power is no longer ‘immediate’: nowhere does a ‘taking power’ in the insurrectional sense seem possible today.” But does this not rely on an all too simple alternative? What about heroically assuming whatever power may be available—in the full awareness that the “objective conditions” are not “mature” enough for radical change—and, against the grain, do what one can?
Let us return to the situation in Greece in the summer of 2010, when popular discontent brought about the delegitimization of the entire political class and the country approached a power vacuum. Had there been any chance for the Left to take over state power, what could it have done in such a situation of “complete hopelessness”? Of course (if we may permit ourselves this personification), the capitalist system would have gleefully allowed the Left to take over, if only to ensure that Greece ended up in a state of economic chaos, which would then serve as a severe lesson to others. Nevertheless, despite such dangers, wherever an opening for taking power does arise, the Left should seize the opportunity and confront the problems head-on, making the best of a bad situation (in the case of Greece: renegotiating the debt, mobilizing European solidarity and popular support for its predicament). The tragedy of politics is that there will never be a “good” moment to seize power: the opportunity will always offer itself at the worst possible moment (characterized by economic fiasco, ecological catastrophe, civil unrest, etc.), when the ruling political class has lost its legitimacy and the fascist-populist threat lurks in the background. For example, the Scandinavian countries, while continuing to maintain high levels of social equality and a powerful Welfare State, also score very well on global competitiveness: proof that “generous, relatively egalitarian welfare states should not be seen as utopias or protected enclaves,” writes Göran Therborn in “The Killing Fields of Inequality,” “but can also be highly competitive participants in the world market. In other words, even within the parameters of global capitalism there are many degrees of freedom for radical social alternatives.”
Perhaps the most succinct characterization of the epoch which began with the First World War is the well-known phrase attributed to Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.” Were Fascism and Stalinism not the twin monsters of the twentieth century, the one emerging out of the old world’s desperate attempts to survive, the other out of a misbegotten endeavor to build a new one? And what about the monsters we are engendering now, propelled by techno-gnostic dreams of a biogenetically controlled society? All the consequences should be drawn from this paradox: perhaps there is no direct passage to the New, at least not in the way we imagined it, and monsters necessarily emerge in any attempt to force that passage.
One sign of a new rise of this monstrosity is that the ruling classes seem less and less able to rule, even in their own interests. Take the fate of Christians in the Middle East. Over the last two millennia, they have survived a series of calamities, from the end of the Roman Empire through defeat in crusades, the decolonization of the Arab countries, the Khomeini revolution in Iran, etc.—with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, the main U.S. ally in this region, where there are no autochthonous Christians. In Iraq, there were approximately one million of them under Saddam, leading exactly the same lives as other Iraqi subjects, with one of them, Tariq Aziz, even occupying the high post of foreign minister and becoming Saddam’s confidante. But then, something weird happened to Iraqi Christians, a true catastrophe—a Christian army occupied (or liberated, if you want) Iraq.
The Christian occupation army dissolved the secular Iraqi army and thus left the streets open to Muslim fundamentalist militias to terrorize both each other and the Christians. No wonder roughly half of Iraq’s Christians soon left the country, preferring even the terrorist-supporting Syria to a liberated Iraq under Christian military control. In 2010, things took a turn for the worse. Tariq Aziz, who had survived the previous trials, was condemned by a Shia court to death by hanging for his “persecution of Muslim parties” (i.e., his fight against Muslim fundamentalism) under Saddam. Bomb attacks on Christians and their churches followed one after the other, leaving dozens dead, so that finally, in early November 2010, the Baghdad archbishop Athanasios Dawood appealed to his flock to leave Iraq: “Christians have to leave the beloved country of our ancestors and escape the intended ethnic cleansing. This is still better than getting killed one after the other.” And to dot the “i,” as it were, that same month it was reported that al Maliki had been confirmed as Iraqi prime minister thanks to Iranian support. So the result of the U.S. intervention is that Iran, the prime agent of the axis of Evil, is edging closer to dominating Iraq politically.
In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.
U.S. policy is thus definitively approaching a stage of madness, and not only in terms of domestic policy (as the Tea Party proposes to fight the national debt by lowering taxes, i.e., by raising the debt—one cannot but recall here Stalin’s well-known thesis that, in the Soviet Union, the state was withering away through the strengthening of its organs, especially its organs of police repression). In foreign policy also, the spread of Western Judeo-Christian values is organized by creating conditions which lead to the expulsion of Christians (who, maybe, could move to Iran…). This is definitely not a clash of civilizations, but a true dialogue and cooperation between the U.S. and the Muslim fundamentalists.
Our situation is thus the very opposite of the classical twentieth-century predicament in which the Left knew what it had to do (establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, etc.), but simply had to wait patiently for the opportunity to offer itself. Today, we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss of the New in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the New just in order to maintain what was good in the Old (education, healthcare, etc.). The journal in which Gramsci published his writings in the early 1920s was called L’Ordine nuovo (The New Order)—a title which was later appropriated by the extreme Right. Rather than seeing this later appropriation as revealing the “truth” of Gramsci’s use of the title—abandoning it as running counter to the rebellious freedom of an authentic Left—we should return to it as an index of the hard problem of defining the new order any revolution will have to establish after its success. In short, our times can be characterized as none other than Stalin characterized the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.
Communism is today not the name of a solution but the name of a problem: the problem of the commons in all its dimensions—the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problem of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons (“intellectual property”), and, last but not least, the problem of the commons as that universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. Whatever the solution might be, it will have to solve this problem. continue reading