Sunshine Recorder

Link: A Scanner Darkly

Short of participating in a genocide, how can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless on the level of Adolf Eichmann? Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes the attempt by immersing its reader in a dense, intensely readable marsh of information.

There are a lot of shocking things about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a novel about the destruction of the European Jews that is narrated by a matricidal SS officer named Max Aue, whose greatest joy is having anal sex with his twin sister; but the one that shocks deepest, and longest, is how easily the novel draws you in. I read the book in French (Littell was born in America in 1967, but grew up in France; he wrote The Kindly Ones in French) a couple of years ago and again this winter in Charlotte Mandell’s adroit English translation. Both times, I found myself looking forward to the moment when I was done with other business and could get back to reading about Max Aue and his grisly travels.

I am not the only one: the book has sold well over a million copies in Europe, and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize. As I write this essay, it’s too soon to say if The Kindly Ones will be a big seller in the United States, but some omens are good. When the English translation was published in March of this year, Michael Korda wrote in the Daily Beast, “I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!” Yes, by all means, if you can keep them down. Reading The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers. The question I want to ask is, why?

Maybe the place to begin is near the end of The Kindly Ones, when Aue finds himself in a marsh:

We made our way through a little meadow covered with tall, thick grass, sodden and bent; beyond stretched out more sheets of water; there was a little padlocked hunter’s cabin, also standing in water. The snow had completely disappeared. There was no use sticking to the trees, our boots sank into the water and the mud, the wet ground was covered with rotten leaves that hid quagmires. Here and there a little island of firm land gave us courage. But farther on it became completely impossible again; the trees grew on isolated clumps or in the water itself, the strips of earth between the puddles were also flooded, wading was difficult, we had to give up and go back to the dyke.

This isn’t by any means the toughest terrain Aue has crossed. In the fall of 1941 he slogged through “black, thick mud” from Kiev to Kharkov, following the Wehrmacht’s advance into the U.S.S.R.; in the winter of 1943 he was skulking in the rubble of Stalingrad; he has seen the death camps at Auschwitz and survived the Allied bombing of Berlin. Max Aue witnesses every phase of the Final Solution; in fact, this witnessing is the reason for his existence. Littell, in an interview withLe Monde des Livres, describes Aue as a “roving X-ray, a scanner.” He exists so Littell can attempt a human answer to the questions that still loom over the history of the Holocaust: why? And how?

I want to set those questions, and Aue’s answers, aside for a moment, to talk about this relatively unimportant moment in which Aue, along with his friend Thomas and their driver, Piontek, are trying to rejoin the German lines. What can we say about it? Well, for one thing, the little cabin is remarkable. By the time Aue gets to the marsh, the book is almost over, and we know, in gross, anyway, how the story will end: the Germans are going to lose. And yet Aue takes the time to see the cabin, to remember it, and to describe it. This is a literary strategy known, I believe, as “realism,” but there’s something hallucinatory about Aue’s refusal to sort important from unimportant information, as though he really were a “scanner” and not a person. (Littell has refused to sell the film rights to The Kindly Ones, on the grounds that it would be impossible to make the book into a film, but the effect is distinctly cinematic.) In this scene, the beneficiary of Aue’s X-ray vision is the landscape, which rolls past as if in real time; Aue is trudging, and you, the reader, have to trudge along with him.

[…] The preternatural quality of Max Aue’s memory has been remarked on before; it’s the basis for one of the most telling and often-cited criticisms of The Kindly Ones.Claude Lanzmann, who directed the film Shoah, wrote that

Littell’s “hero” speaks torrentially for 900 pages, this man who doesn’t know what a memory is remembers absolutely everything. One has the right to ask, is Aue flesh and blood? Is Aue a man? Does Aue exist? He speaks like a book, like all the history books Littell has read. At the moment when the last witnesses of the Shoah are disappearing, and the Jews are anxious because memory is becoming History, Jonathan Littell flips the terms of the opposition, and gives his memoryless SS “hero” History as memory.

The danger of this procedure is that it will undermine the value of witnessing, precisely because it’s more complete than any eyewitness account. No one could have seen as much as Max Aue, but there’s something impossibly seductive about the idea that someone could have seen it all, that we could have both the totality of History and the authority of presence. Lanzmann fears that people will stop watching Shoah, stop reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, and pick up The Kindly Ones instead, that the fiction will in time replace the fact.[2] It’s a possibility worth fearing; but let’s assume for a moment that Jonathan Littell is not an idiot—pace the opinion of at least one German critic[3]—and that he knows what risk he runs by this procedure of turning History into memory. Why would he do it?

Here we come back to the question of how. How could the Final Solution have taken place? As Lanzmann observes, the SS don’t speak; it’s impossible to get them to tell their side of the story. Max Aue does speak, but the answer he gives is as predictable as it is unsatisfying: he is “just like you,” and people like you are capable of carrying out even the most horrific acts when the circumstances demand it. “[I]f you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure,” he writes,

which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost fifty thousand troops there in ten years: that’s the equivalent of a little less than three days and two hours’ worth of dead on the Eastern Front, or of some thirteen days, twenty-one hours, and twenty-five minutes’ worth of dead Jews. I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs, they must not count for much to you. Yet you killed forty of them for every single one of your own dead, a fine effort even compared to our own, and one that certainly speaks for the value of technical progress.

Never mind that the Vietnam war was conducted under an idea, however absurd, of strategic gains and losses, whereas the Final Solution had the distressing and unfathomable quality of being an end in itself; in a total war there can be no civilians (this is Aue’s reasoning), only the fight of one mass against another. In such a fight every participant is equally guilty: the killers with blood on their hands and the supply officers who fuel the trucks. You might have died rather than shoot, but would you have died rather than pump gasoline?

This is an argument that got tested at Nuremberg without a lot of success; it does not compel belief. That’s what Aue’s prodigious memory is for. In the middle of the novel, and the war, Max Aue is sent to inspect the concentration camps of Poland, to see what he can do about getting the inmates better rations, a quixotic errand. When he gets to the Lublin camp, things turn out to be complicated, not only because Aue’s mission is incompatible with the purpose of the camp, but also, and above all, because it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge. “Out of about four hundred and fifty men, not counting the Hiwis [local recruits],” a deputy explains,

almost a hundred were assigned to us by the Führer’s Chancellery. Almost all our camp commanders are from there. Tactically, they’re under control of the Einsatz, but administratively, they depend on the Chancellery. They supervise everything having to do with salaries, leaves, promotions, and so on. Apparently it’s a special agreement between the Reichsführer and Reichsleiter Bouhler. Some of those men aren’t even members of theAllgemeine-SS or of the Party. But they’re all veterans of the Reich’s euthanasia centers; when most of those centers were closed, some of the personnel, with Wirth at their head, were transferred here so the Einsatz could profit from their experience.

Get it? Not quite? Good. The enormous quantity of information contained in The Kindly Ones (you could call the novel “encyclopedic,” but, given its narrator’s subjective bias, “wikipedic” might be a better way of putting it) serves not only to enchant, but also to distract. With so many administrative structures in play, so many names and ranks and acronyms and badges and bosses to keep track of, how can you think about what KL Lublin[4] was for? The more immediate, and more satisfying because more achievable, task consists in doing what Aue does: sussing hierarchies, admiring or deploring moves made in the game of Nazi power.

It’s thinking like this that got Eichmann in trouble. Hannah Arendt, reporting on the SS officers’ 1961 trial for the New Yorker, observed that “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all.” Max Aue, who meets Eichmann again and again over the course of The Kindly Ones, puts it more bluntly: “He had a very harsh attitude but at bottom it was the same to him whether or not the Jews were killed, the only thing that counted, for him, was to show what he could do, to prove his worth, and also to use the abilities he had developed, for the rest of it, he didn’t give a fuck, either about industry or about the gas chambers for that matter, the only thing he did give a fuck about was that no one fucked with him.…” Eichmann was guilty of mass murder, but he is infamous for thoughtlessness, for not giving a fuck. As Arendt says, “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Call it the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away, polluting the air with the smell of burning flesh? Especially when the gulf between the one kind of awareness and the other is so vast: the first belongs to the world of information, whereas the second belongs to the order of knowledge. You can have all the information in the world about the camps—Eichmann had much of it—butknowing them is something else entirely.

Now think for a moment about the complicated, perverse thing which The Kindly Ones does to you, the reader. Anyone could tell you that information and knowledge are two different things, that it’s possible to be ignorant even in the thick of the facts. Arendt could tell you that; her remark that Eichmann’s self-important ignorance illustrates the banality of evil has itself become a banality. But how, short of participating in a genocide, can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless? This is the door to which Max Aue holds (or rather is) the key. The book abounds with markers of lived experience: the icy waters of the marsh, the “insomniac dead” who lie scattered by the side of the road to Kiev, the diarrhea and vomiting fits that plague Aue all through the war, and afterward. These signs draw you in; they give you the feeling of knowing, but all you’re getting is information. The effect is weirdly stupefying—which is, perhaps, how Eichmann felt, after a while.

Link: The Danger for Mankind is Me and You

"The Kindly Ones" by Jonathan Littell. Harper Perennial, 2009. 992pp.

Written in French by a bilingual Jewish-American, featuring a philosophical SS officer who exterminates Jews in Russia, Poland and Kiev while believing he inhabits a Greek tragedy, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones seeks to approach the Holocaust through the medium of a European novel of ideas. So it’s easy to see why it has caused such a fuss. Awarded the Prix Goncourt and the Academie Française prize in France when it appeared in 2006; condemned by a battery of German historians; decried as “grotesque” in the US; and already dividing the critics in Britain, this novel gleefully squares up to the questions we pose of all creative work that draws on the Holocaust for material.

Can our capacity for empathetic understanding be usefully excited to remind us of the horrors suffered by the Jews in Europe? Or should we agree, with Adorno, that “through aesthetic principles or stylisation… the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose”, and so, is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror”?

The Kindly Ones is the memoir of Maximilien Aue, first encountered as the proprietor of a contemporary lace-making factory in France, who loses no time in letting the reader know what not to expect from his war stories. “I probably did go a little far towards the end, but by that point I was no longer entirely myself,” he muses, before embarking on a sequence of blood-chilling aperçus on the principles of Nazi extermination. “In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit.

“Total war means there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between a Jewish child gassed or shot and a German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method.” He saves his trump card for the peroration: “You should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did… The real danger for mankind is me, is you.”

And so begins a sort of whistle-stop tour of Nazi atrocity, which sees Aue posted, with suspicious fortuity, to the pivotal areas and events in the wartime European theatre. He stands and reports as the Einsatzgruppen embark on their bungled and vicious campaign of extermination during the German invasion of Russia. He assists at the massacre of Babi Yar in Ukraine, in which nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered in two days. In the Caucasus he attempts to establish the ethnicity of various mountain tribes, before being wounded in the siege of Stalingrad. Later he ends up at Auschwitz, tasked with increasing “efficiency of production”, then he returns to besieged Berlin to witness first-hand the fall of the Reich.

The novel relies on jarring contrasts and improbable juxtapositions for its best effects. The passages of violence have a cold-burning, accretive barbarity that reminds less of Tolstoy (to whom Littell has been compared) than the sexualised battlescapes of the French writer Pierre Guyotat, as amid the gore and excrements, moments of ghastly banal clarity surface. “The attitude of the Jews didn’t make things any easier,” reports Aue. “The men got blood and brains in their faces, they were complaining.” Elsewhere, though, the style becomes arresting and coolly beautiful as it annotates the tiniest of details: a duck stooping in flight to land on water, or the snow piling on a roof.

But The Kindly Ones is not simply a product of that vexed genre, docu-fiction. In addition to Aue’s role as detached observer of human catastrophe, Littell furnishes him with a complex erotic back story that in some respects mirrors the Oresteia: his life is dominated by an incestuous relationship with his twin sister in childhood, after which he forswears women and takes to sodomy in an attempt to “feel almost everything she felt”. In a moment of amnesiac possession he murders his mother and her lover, subsequently finding himself pursued by a pair of sinister avenging detectives (The Kindly Ones of the title are the Eumenides, the propitiatory term for the Greek Furies). Combined with his obsessive interest in bodily functions and his tendency to speechify, this all makes for a confusing, hallucinated mix.

Whether it all works or not will depend on the reader. Much criticism has focused on the character of Aue, whose sexual interests and dedicated classicism threaten to draw the clichéd parallel between Nazism and perversity, refuting his claims to be “just like us”. But The Kindly Onesnever sets out to be the tale of a Nazi Everyman, a story of the banality of evil: it leaves that to the wealth of documentary testimony and factual commentary on the war. Instead, it is a magnificently artificial project in character construction, a highly literary and provocative attempt to create a character various enough to match the many discontinuous realities of the apocalyptic Nazi world-view. The result is a sprawling, daring, loose-ended monster of a book, one that justifies its towering subject matter by its persistent and troubling refusal to offer easy answers and to make satisfying sense. It feels very important indeed.

Link: Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine

The students were the first to protest against the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, last November. These were the Ukrainians with the most to lose, the young people who unreflectively thought of themselves as Europeans and who wished for themselves a life, and a Ukrainian homeland, that were European. Many of them were politically on the left, some of them radically so. After years of negotiation and months of promises, their government, under President Yanukovych, had at the last moment failed to sign a major trade agreement with the European Union.

When the riot police came and beat the students in late November, a new group, the Afghan veterans, came to the Maidan. These men of middle age, former soldiers and officers of the Red Army, many of them bearing the scars of battlefield wounds, came to protect “their children,” as they put it. They didn’t mean their own sons and daughters: they meant the best of the youth, the pride and future of the country. After the Afghan veterans came many others, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, now not so much in favor of Europe but in defense of decency.

What does it mean to come to the Maidan? The square is located close to some of the major buildings of government, and is now a traditional site of protest. Interestingly, the word maidan exists in Ukrainian but not in Russian, but even people speaking Russian use it because of its special implications. In origin it is just the Arabic word for “square,” a public place. But a maidan now means in Ukrainian what the Greek wordagora means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society. During the protests the word maidan has come to mean the act of public politics itself, so that for example people who use their cars to organize public actions and protect other protestors are called the automaidan.

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.

After weeks of responding peacefully to arrests and beatings by the riot police, many Ukrainians had had enough. A fraction of the protesters, some but by no means all representatives of the political right and far right, decided to take the fight to the police. Among them were members of the far-right party Svoboda and a new conglomeration of nationalists who call themselves the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor). Young men, some of them from right-wing groups and others not, tried to take by force the public spaces claimed by the riot police. Young Jewish men formed their own combat group, orsotnia, to take the fight to the authorities.

Although Yanukovych rescinded most of the dictatorship laws, lawless violence by the regime, which started in November, continued into February. Members of the opposition were shot and killed, or hosed down in freezing temperatures to die of hypothermia. Others were tortured and left in the woods to die.

During the first two weeks of February, the Yanukovych regime sought to restore some of the dictatorship laws through decrees, bureaucratic shortcuts, and new legislation. On February 18, an announced parliamentary debate on constitutional reform was abruptly canceled. Instead, the government sent thousands of riot police against the protesters of Kiev. Hundreds of people were wounded by rubber bullets, tear gas, and truncheons. Dozens were killed.

The future of this protest movement will be decided by Ukrainians. And yet it began with the hope that Ukraine could one day join the European Union, an aspiration that for many Ukrainians means something like the rule of law, the absence of fear, the end of corruption, the social welfare state, and free markets without intimidation from syndicates controlled by the president.

The course of the protest has very much been influenced by the presence of a rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union. This is an international commercial and political union that does not yet exist but that is to come into being in January 2015. The Eurasian Union, unlike the European Union, is not based on the principles of the equality and democracy of member states, the rule of law, or human rights.

On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin’s rule in Russia. Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian, which means that the Maidan must be crushed.

The dictatorship laws of January 16 were obviously based on Russian models, and were proposed by Ukrainian legislators with close ties to Moscow. They seem to have been Russia’s condition for financial support of the Yanukovych regime. Before they were announced, Putin offered Ukraine a large loan and promised reductions in the price of Russian natural gas. But in January the result was not a capitulation to Russia. The people of the Maidan defended themselves, and the protests continue. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess; only the Kremlin expresses certainty about what it all means.

The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe. The Russian foreign minister, in Munich, lectured the Germans about their support of people who salute Hitler. The Russian media continually make the claim that the Ukrainians who protest are Nazis. Naturally, it is important to be attentive to the far right in Ukrainian politics and history. It is still a serious presence today, although less important than the far right in France, Austria, or the Netherlands. Yet it is the Ukrainian regime rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews. In other words, the Ukrainian government is telling itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis.

The strange thing about the claim from Moscow is the political ideology of those who make it. The Eurasian Union is the enemy of the European Union, not just in strategy but in ideology. The European Union is based on a historical lesson: that the wars of the twentieth century were based on false and dangerous ideas, National Socialism and Stalinism, which must be rejected and indeed overcome in a system guaranteeing free markets, free movement of people, and the welfare state. Eurasianism, by contrast, is presented by its advocates as the opposite of liberal democracy.

The Eurasian ideology draws an entirely different lesson from the twentieth century. Founded around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, it proposes the realization of National Bolshevism. Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist. Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union, it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration, and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement. For years Dugin has openly supported the division and colonization of Ukraine.

The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland. In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia.

Later that year Motherland was banned from taking part in further elections after complaints that its advertisements incited racial hatred. The most notorious showed dark-skinned people eating watermelon and throwing the rinds to the ground, then called for Russians to clean up their cities. Glazyev’s book Genocide: Russia and the New World Order claims that the sinister forces of the “new world order” conspired against Russia in the 1990s to bring about economic policies that amounted to “genocide.” This book was published in English by Lyndon LaRouche’s magazineExecutive Intelligence Review with a preface by LaRouche. Today Executive Intelligence Review echoes Kremlin propaganda, spreading the word in English that Ukrainian protesters have carried out a Nazi coup and started a civil war.

The populist media campaign for the Eurasian Union is now in the hands of Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the most important talk show in Russia, and since December also the director of the state-run Russian media conglomerate designed to form national public opinion. Best known for saying that gays who die in car accidents should have their hearts cut from their bodies and incinerated, Kiselyov has taken Putin’s campaign against gay rights and transformed it into a weapon against European integration. Thus when the then German foreign minister, who is gay, visited Kiev in December and met with Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight champion and opposition politician, Kiselyov dismissed Klitschko as a gay icon. According to the Russian foreign minister, the exploitation of sexual politics is now to be an open weapon in the struggle against the “decadence” of the European Union.

Following the same strategy, Yanukovych’s government claimed, entirely falsely, that the price of closer relations with the European Union was the recognition of gay marriage in Ukraine. Kiselyov is quite open about the Russian media strategy toward the Maidan: to “apply the correct political technology,” then “bring it to the point of overheating” and bring to bear “the magnifying glass of TV and the Internet.”

Why exactly do people with such views think they can call other people fascists? And why does anyone on the Western left take them seriously? One line of reasoning seems to run like this: the Russians won World War II, and therefore can be trusted to spot Nazis. Much is wrong with this. World War II on the eastern front was fought chiefly in what was then Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus, not in Soviet Russia. Five percent of Russia was occupied by the Germans; all of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. Apart from the Jews, whose suffering was by far the worst, the main victims of Nazi policies were not Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians. There was no Russian army fighting in World War II, but rather a Soviet Red Army. Its soldiers were disproportionately Ukrainian, since it took so many losses in Ukraine and recruited from the local population. The army group that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front.

The other source of purported Eurasian moral legitimacy seems to be this: since the representatives of the Putin regime only very selectively distanced themselves from Stalinism, they are therefore reliable inheritors of Soviet history, and should be seen as the automatic opposite of Nazis, and therefore to be trusted to oppose the far right.

Again, much is wrong about this. World War II began with an alliance between Hitler and Stalin in 1939. It ended with the Soviet Union expelling surviving Jews across its own border into Poland. After the founding of the State of Israel, Stalin began associating Soviet Jews with a world capitalist conspiracy, and undertook a campaign of arrests, deportations, and murders of leading Jewish writers. When he died in 1953 he was preparing a larger campaign against Jews.

After Stalin’s death communism took on a more and more ethnic coloration, with people who wished to revive its glories claiming that its problem was that it had been spoiled by Jews. The ethnic purification of the communist legacy is precisely the logic of National Bolshevism, which is the foundational ideology of Eurasianism today. Putin himself is an admirer of the philosopher Ivan Ilin, who wanted Russia to be a nationalist dictatorship.

What does it mean when the wolf cries wolf? Most obviously, propagandists in Moscow and Kiev take us for fools—which by many indications is quite justified.

More subtly, what this campaign does is attempt to reduce the social tensions in a complex country to a battle of symbols about the past. Ukraine is not a theater for the historical propaganda of others or a puzzle from which pieces can be removed. It is a major European country whose citizens have important cultural and economic ties with both the European Union and Russia. To set its own course, Ukraine needs normal public debate, the restoration of parliamentary democracy, and workable relations with all of its neighbors. Ukraine is full of sophisticated and ambitious people. If people in the West become caught up in the question of whether they are largely Nazis or not, then they may miss the central issues in the present crisis.

In fact, Ukrainians are in a struggle against both the concentration of wealth and the concentration of armed force in the hands of Viktor Yanukovych and his close allies. The protesters might be seen as setting an example of courage for Americans of both the left and the right. Ukrainians make real sacrifices for the hope of joining the European Union. Might there be something to be learned from that among Euroskeptics in London or elsewhere? This is a dialogue that is not taking place.

The history of the Holocaust is part of our own public discourse, our agora, or maidan. The current Russian attempt to manipulate the memory of the Holocaust is so blatant and cynical that those who are so foolish to fall for it will one day have to ask themselves just how, and in the service of what, they have been taken in. If fascists take over the mantle of antifascism, the memory of the Holocaust will itself be altered. It will be more difficult in the future to refer to the Holocaust in the service of any good cause, be it the particular one of Jewish history or the general one of human rights.

Link: Competing Constructions of Masculinity in Ancient Greece

Abstract: Scholars often speak of ancient Greek masculinity and manhood as if there was a single, monolithic, simple conception. I will show that the ancient Greeks, like us today, had competing models or constructions of gender and that what it meant to be a man was different in different contexts. I will focus on three constructions of the masculine gender in ancient (classical and post-classical) Greece: the Athenian civic model, the Spartan martial model, and the Stoic philosophical model. I will focus on how these share certain commonalities, how they differ in significant ways, how each makes sense in terms of larger ideological contexts and needs, and, finally how constructions of masculinities today draw from all three. 

What did it mean to be manly or masculine in ancient Greece? There is, of course, a difference between being male and being manly or masculine. The former indicates biological sex; the latter refers to performative gender roles.The contrast between sex and gender is visible when we say that some men act more manly and others more effeminately. The same applies to women. But what constitutes manliness or masculinity seems to vary, at least in some degree, from culture to culture. The aim of this paper is to understand how the Greeks understood masculinity given the variation of cultural and ideological identity evident in the ancient Greek world of the classical and Hellenistic eras. Scholars often speak of Greek masculinity as if there was a universal ideal of masculinity shared by all Greeks. However, I will show that individual cities, cultures, and philosophies often define masculinity differently and emphasize different aspects of masculine behavior. I argue that masculinity was not a fixed, uniform, monolithic, or homogenous normative concept; manliness was a more fluid concept, full of tensions and inconsistencies. In short, there were different ways for a man to express his maleness in late Classical and early Hellenistic Greece and hence it is better to speak of ‘masculinities’ and not ‘masculinity’ when discussing gender in ancient Greece.

There have been numerous studies over the last half-century on the topic of women in Greek antiquity and these studies have significantly advanced our understanding of Hellenic culture and society. Much less work has been done, until very recently, on Greek masculinity.This seems to be because scholars thought that there was not much to say on the topic. Masculinity did not seem to be problematic. However, feminist readings of classical literature and history and recent work in gender studies have taught scholars to ask new questions while re-examining familiar ground. This paper, therefore, is influenced and informed by research in ancient women’s studies.

When studying the lives of ancient women, the greatest challenge comes from the scarcity of genuine female voices. Nearly all of the literary remains that have come down from antiquity were written by men. Ancient masculinity scholarship faces the opposite problem: there are too many male voices and the message of masculinity is diffused in the sources. Moreover, we can understand male attitudes to ancient Greek femininity because the male authors and critics saw the feminine gender as problematic and in many cases dangerous. Masculinity, however, was not seen to be problematic; instead it seemed to be intuitive and obvious. Therefore, there is not much direct analysis of the concept in our sources, and consequently, we are frequently forced to read between the lines. When masculinity is discussed, it usually arises when an individual fails to perform masculinity to the standards of the community. In such cases of failed masculinity as well as in exhortations for men to be more manly or less effeminate, we get glimpses of the normative paradigm behind the ideal of masculinity.

Perhaps the most direct and efficient way to demonstrate that masculinity was not a rigid and monolithic normative standard in ancient Greece is to compare different or contrasting ways of life that are moderately well documented from Classical and Hellenistic Greece. I have selected three constructions of ideal manhood from cultures and ideologies in ancient (classical and post-classical) Greece that were recognized as having competing ideals: Athenian, Spartan, and Stoic. The first two are political and cultural identities, while Stoicism represents a philosophical perspective.

During the 5th century, the Athenians and Spartans were the two most powerful political and cultural powers in Greece. They were also seen as contrasting or competing ways of being Greek. Thucydides described Athens as an urban, metropolitan center that maintained its power by its navy and allies and was ruled by a direct and radical democracy. The Athenians were presented as individualistic, capitalistic, pragmatic, greedy, and perhaps ambitious. Athens was the place to go for comfort, progressive ideas, luxury, and wealth. In contrast Sparta was more rural — a collection of small villages with little interest in civic infrastructure or material culture. Sparta was primarily a land based, military society with little interest in commercial development. Its value system prioritized the collective over the individual, and discipline and tradition over innovation and self-expression. They lacked coinage making acquisition of wealth more difficult and developed a highly intrusive constitution that became the model for several early utopian political theories.

Politically and socially, Sparta was conservative: slow to act, slow to speak. They feared outsiders and innovation. The state power rested primarily in a counsel of elders (the Gerousia), two hereditary kings, and five annually elected Ephors who represented the assembly of elite warrior-citizens and checked the power of the kings.

Athens, on the other hand, was a radical democracy. Every adult male citizen was expected to vote, serve on juries, and participate directly in the running of the state. Individualism and freethinking were, if not always encouraged, at least tolerated in most instances. In contrast to Sparta, which was wary of tourists and strangers, Athens claimed to be an open society and an exemplar (paradeigma) for all Greece.

The final perspective that we will examine is the ancient Stoics. The Stoa was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the 4th century BCE and remained centered in Athens until the 2nd century BCE. The Stoics bring in a non-statist, philosophical perspective that internalizes masculinity. They serve as a further ideological contrast to both the Athenians and Spartans. The inclusion of Stoic philosophy is also useful since in the early phase of the school Stoicism was primarily an Athenian philosophy. Therefore, if Stoic masculinity varies in a significant way from the standard Athenian construction, which I argue it does, it would imply that the self-fashioning of gender norms was a real option in the 4th and 5th centuries and beyond.

In order to identify the different constructions of masculinity present in Sparta, Athens, and Stoicism, I shall examine four basic topics or central themes associated with the performance of masculinity in order to highlight points of difference. These topics are courage, patriarchy, politics, and sexuality.I hope to demonstrate that there existed significant differences between expectations and ideals of manhood among Athenians, Spartans, and Stoics to justify speaking of ancient Greek masculinities. 

Link: Now is Not Forever: The Ancient Recent Past

Sometimes the Internet surprises us with the past or, to be more precise, its own past. The other day my social media feed started to show the same clip over and over. It was one I had seen years before and forgotten about, back from the bottom of that overwhelming ocean of content available to us at any given moment. Why was it reappearing now, I wondered?

That’s a hard question to answer under any circumstances. My teenage daughter regularly shows me Internet discoveries that date from the mid-2000s. To her, they are fresh; to me, a reminder of just how difficult it is to predict what the storms of the information age will turn up. In the case of the clip I started seeing again the other day, however, the reemergence seemed less than random.

It’s a two-minute feature from a San Francisco television station about the electronic future of journalism, but from way back in 1981, long before the Internet as we know it came into focus. While there is a wide range of film and television from that era readily accessible to us, much of which can be consumed without being struck dumb by its datedness — Scarface or the first Star Wars trilogy, to name two obvious examples — its surviving news broadcasts seem uncanny. Factor in the subject matter of this one, predicting a future that already feels past to us, and the effect is greatly enhanced.

The more I kept seeing this clip in my feed, though, the more clear it became that its uncanniness didn’t just derive from the original feature’s depiction of primitive modems and computer monitors — and a Lady Di hairsyle — but also the fact that it had returned from the depths of the Internet to remind us, once more, that we did see this world coming.

The information age is doing strange things to our sense of history. If you drive in the United States, particularly in warm-weather places like California or Florida, you won’t have to look too hard to see cars from the 1980s still on the road. But a computer from that era seems truly ancient, as out of sync with our own times as a horse and buggy.

Stranger still is the feeling of datedness that pervades the Internet’s own history. For someone my daughter’s age, imagining life before YouTube is as unsettling a prospect as imagining life before indoor plumbing. And yet, even though she was only seven when the site debuted, she was already familiar with the Internet before then.

But it isn’t just young people who feel cut off from the Internet that existed prior to contemporary social media. Even though I can go on the Wayback Machine to check out sites I was visiting in the 1990s; even though I contributed to one of the first Internet publications, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, and can still access its content with ease; even though I know firsthand what it was like before broadband, when I would wait minutes for a single news story to load, my memories still seem to fail me. I remember, but dimly. I can recall experiences from pre-school in vivid detail, yet struggle to flesh out my Internet past from a decade ago, before I started using Gmail.

What the clip that resurfaced the other day makes clear is that history is more subjective than ever. Some parts seem to be moving at more or less the same pace that they did decades or even centuries ago. But others, particularly those that focus on computer technology, appear ten or even a hundred times as fast. If you don’t believe me, try picking up the mobile phone you used in 2008.

When he was working on the Passagenwerk, his sprawling project centered on nineteenth-century Parisian shopping arcades, Walter Benjamin made special note of how outdated those proto-malls seemed, less than a century after they had first appeared. These days, the depths of the Internet are full of such places, dormant pages that unnerve us with their “ancient” character, even though they are less than a decade old.

As Mark Fisher brilliant explains in his book Capitalist Realism, we live at a time when it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But there are plenty of people who have just as much difficulty imagining the end of Facebook, even though some of them were on MySpace and Friendster before it. That’s what makes evidence like the clip I’ve been discussing here so important. We need to be reminded that we are capable of living different lives, that we have, in fact, already lived them, so that we can turn our attention to living the lives we actually want to lead.

Link: Culture War: How the Nazi Party Recast Nietzsche

"Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of the ‘Völkischer Beobachter’’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism."

High culture played an important political role in Hitler’s Germany. References to music, history, philosophy, and art formed a key part of the Nazi strategy to reverse the symptoms of decline perceived after World War I. Allusions to great creators and their works were used as propaganda to remind the Volk to love and worship their nation. In the words of the French scholar Eric Michaud, author of The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany, the Nazis used culture “to make the genius of the race visible to that race.” And to cap off these images of a great national culture, the Nazis heralded Adolf Hitler, the Führer, as an artistic leader.

As Michaud put it: “Hitler presented himself not only as a ‘man of the people’ and a soldier with frontline experience (Fronterlebnis), but also and above all as a man whose artistic experience constituted the best guarantee of his ability to mediate the Volksgeist and turn it into the ‘perfect Third Reich.’”

The revival of a culturally rich Germany as the so-called Third Reich, however, would be achieved only once those whom the Nazis considered its enemies were all destroyed. So war and culture went together in the National Socialist agenda. Art, said Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, “is no mere peacetime amusement, but a sharp spiritual weapon for war.”

To understand how Nazis employed culture to define and promote their broadest ambitions, I looked to German mass media, in particular the main Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, whose cultural pages I examined for the years 1920 to 1945. While the Nazi co-optation of many great figures in the Western intellectual tradition during these eventful years proves revealing, one need look no further than the party’s claim on Friedrich Nietzsche to see how culture became entwined in the discourse of politics and war in the pages of Hitler’s foremost propaganda outlet.

Fitting Nietzsche’s ideas into a single worldview was no simple matter, but this was precisely the mission of theVölkischer Beobachter’s editors and writers: to make even complex ideas such as Nietzsche’s appear to coordinate with the main tenets of Nazism. Looking into the shifting terms with which the daily newspaper presented Nietzsche helps us toward understanding how the Nazi party attempted to place his biography and writings—along with the tradition of Kultur as a whole—at the service of the Nazi outlook.

In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.

As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”

But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.

This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”

Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”

Nietzsche was, however, rather ambivalent about politics, having called himself the “last anti-political German of them all.” But Nazi propaganda rigorously promoted the view that the primary creative impulse was as much political as it was artistic. The picture of Nietzsche thus had to be corrected to bring out his political side.

The Völkischer Beobachter admitted that “we find here at first view a sharp contrast with today’s [National Socialist] thinking”—but only at first glance. According to the paper, what Nietzsche understood by the term “state” was completely different from “our idea of the state today.” For him, politicization meant democratization, i.e., the greatest good for the greatest number. This Nietzsche hated, the paper said, because “general prosperity would make mankind too lazy to invest powerful energy in a great individual— in a genius.” That is why Nietzsche wanted “as little state as possible.” A volkish state, directed according to Nazi ideology, however, would revive the genius of the nation, and therefore earn Nietzsche’s support.

The paper acknowledged that Nietzsche had other views that seemed “the complete opposite of our views today.” For instance, he viewed culture and the state as antagonists. This, perhaps, should have made him the oddest of conscripts to the Nazi campaign to subordinate culture to politics and war, but that was not the party line. Such ideas of Nietzsche’s, the Völkischer Beobachter insisted, were likewise conditioned by his own times:

The German Reich had had the misfortune to achieve its external form when there was no longer any inner content. The classical heights of German education had sunk, the song of German Romanticism sounded only from afar. On the other hand, Realism was on the rise, leading more and more toward materialism. Money and business had become the gods of the age.

A state as the “guardian and defender of culture; a state as the means of achieving the true goal of existence, not as a goal in itself; a state that is built on the Volk—that, Nietzsche would have accepted,” the newspaper claimed. Therefore, the philosopher “would have agreed with today’s [National Socialist] German idea of the state with all of his heart.”

Under the Weimar Republic, the Völkischer Beobachter complained, Nietzsche had been invoked far too frequently by “international-democratic literati” as a “star-witness” for their worldview. But, the paper countered, Nietzsche “hated and fought every form of democracy, both political and spiritual,” and he said so in the sharpest possible terms. The notions that “all are the same” and that at base we are all just selfish brutes and riffraff—were symbolic of the democratic age that believed in the equality of men and that established “the weak, fat, and cowardly as standards for this equality.”

In Nietzsche’s opinion, said the Völkischer Beobachter, this rule of the humble amounted to a blow against life itself. Against the democratic and supposedly feeble outlook of the Weimar era, the newspaper argued, Nietzsche set forth a way of thinking that sets laws for the future—an outlook which “handled contemporary things harshly and tyrannically” in the interest of the future.

Thus did the cultural-historical material that appeared in the Völkischer Beobachter resound with the Führer/Artist–Artist/Führer theme that typified Nazi cultural politics. Hitler was the primary manifestation of this creative leadership, but he came, according to this view, after a long line of notable predecessors, including Luther, Beethoven, Wagner, and, yes, Nietzsche.

Cultural renewal in accordance with such perceptions of intellectual history was a central premise of the larger project of the Third Reich, fundamental to Hitler’s aims. But this agenda also contributed to the most destructive impulses of the movement. Indeed, German cultural identity as shaped by the Nazi regime did not merely justify anti-Semitism or policies of extermination, it led to them. Hitler’s racist standards of judgment were grounded in cultural terms, as he stated in Mein Kampf: “If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group.” According to the Völkischer Beobachter, Jewish creators such as Heine, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schoenberg—among many others—supposedly belonged in the latter, so they and their kind had to be eradicated.

Demonstrating that great cultural figures of the past would have agreed with these premises was a priority in the Nazi newspaper. One contributor put it in these stark terms: “to win over to our movement spiritual leaders who think they see something distasteful in anti-Semitism, it is extremely important to present more and more evidence that great, recognized spirits shared our hatred of Jewry.”

In the case of Nietzsche, however, this process required a little more “spin” than the “selective scavenging” for biographical and textual evidence that scholar Steven Aschheim identified as the usual mode of such politicization. Some Völkischer Beobachter contributors recognized that Nietzsche had not been a committed anti-Semite, and had even criticized the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner, his own sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster. One editor, for instance, said about Nietzsche: “His work contains other crass contradictions and obscurities, especially in his treatment of the Jewish Question, where he sometimes confesses himself as an Anti-Semite, and then as a philo-Semite. Equally obscure is what he understood as race and nation. This may be a result of the eruptive nature of his creativity and the shortness of his life, which didn’t allow him enough time to go into these issues deeply.”

Link: St. Petersburg 1914: The Door to Another Age

As war approached in 1914, the Russian capital St Petersburg was the scene of imperial splendour and abject poverty, utopian hopes and portents of impending doom.

I have never met anyone who is more proud of her kitchen door than Firuza Seidova. In fact, Firuza is so proud of the door in her St Petersburg kitchen that she has invited me to her flat on Liteiny Prospekt to see it.

I’m here very early in the morning - the night train from Moscow has whisked me to a St Petersburg which is still dark and sleepy and bitterly cold. But at home, Firuza is wide awake and welcoming. She’s made me breakfast - black bread with thick slices of cheese and a cup of piping hot green tea.

We’re sitting at her kitchen table eating our buterbrody - and staring at the door. To be honest, it doesn’t look very special. The old wooden panels have faded. They’re blotchy - and scratched. I can’t help thinking the whole thing could do with a fresh lick of paint.

But when Firuza starts recounting the history of her apartment, I realise this is much more than just a battered old door - it’s a gateway to a golden past, to the St Petersburg of 1914.

"Back then, all sorts came through my kitchen," she says. "The Emperor Nicholas was here, Sergei Prokofiev, too, and some of the most famous names in the history of chess."

Firuza shows me an old black and white photograph of two men engrossed in a game of chess. I instantly recognise the door at the back of the picture - it’s the one in Firuza’s kitchen!

One hundred years ago, Firuza Seidova’s flat was the headquarters of the St Petersburg Chess Society. The kitchen door is all that’s left of the original rooms - the last surviving link to an intriguing story.

It was spring 1914. And to mark its 10th anniversary, the St Petersburg Chess Society organised a tournament for some of the greatest players on the planet. Not everyone could make it. Chess stars from Austria-Hungary had to decline their invitations, because of pre-war tension with Russia.

Nevertheless, the list of competitors was impressive.

The favourite was from Germany: the world champion for the last 20 years, Emanuel Lasker - such an elegant, inspirational player that the St Petersburg press dubbed him “the poet of the chess table”. His main rival was the man soon to be hailed as “the human chess machine”, the flamboyant Cuban diplomat Jose Raul Capablanca.

From England came the heavy-drinking Mancunian Joseph Blackburne (nickname “The Black Death”). From America, top tactician Frank Marshall. Representing Russia, the attacking Alexander Alekhine. And there they all were, fighting it out in Firuza’s flat.

For one glorious month Europe seemed to forget it was on the precipice of war and was transfixed by battles on the chessboards of St Petersburg. Each move, every twist and turn in this grand tournament was transmitted back across the continent by an army of reporters. The venue wasn’t nearly big enough for the crowds that came. One journalist complained that “the stuffiness and the heat were almost tropical”.

And this is how newspaper Novoye Vremya described the atmosphere:

"Spectators were packed in unceremoniously like sardines in a barrel. They craned their necks; they stood on tiptoes, even on chairs so they could see the play… and the room was so thick with tobacco smoke, it was like a mortuary where they’re busy cutting up corpses."

And yet, in this stifling, smoky hell of a chess club, there was a feeling that something very special was being forged from the intellectual tussles taking place here, something which transcended chess, something great that would change the world for the better. The newspaper Kopeika predicted that in St Petersburg “the noble game of chess” would “promote the idea of world peace”.

In the journal Rech, Emanuel Lasker went even further. He seemed to imply that the competitors would be thinking so hard about their chess moves that, somewhere along the way, they would think up a whole “new set of values” for mankind. A very lofty, rather ambitious thought.

But even “chess poets” and “human chess machines” need some down time. So one day the competitors were treated to a tour of St Petersburg. And what they would have seen that day would have made them feel very much at home. For St Petersburg was Russia’s most cosmopolitan city, a capital created with one purpose - to make Russia look like Europe.

The palaces were like those you’d find in France, Italy or Germany; the canals were like Amsterdam or Venice. Even the city’s name, Sankt Peterburg, had been deliberately chosen by Peter the Great to sound more Dutch than Russian. Over the centuries, architects, engineers, shipbuilders and shopkeepers travelled here from across Europe, taking part in this unique project to westernise Russia. Many of the visitors put down roots and foreign communities became part of the fabric of St Petersburg. In 1914 the city boasted German butchers, Austrian bakeries, English sweet shops. At the city’s grandest delicatessen, the Yeliseyev, goods were advertised in Russian, French and German.

And then there were the cinemas, with their exotic, non-Slavic names. St Petersburg’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt, was full of them - the Crystal Palace, the Majestic, Folies Bergere, foreign titles which conjured up images of European grandeur. In 1914 a new cinema opened up on Nevsky, the Parisiana. It was, by all accounts, a remarkable building. The auditorium was built in the style of Louis XVI of France, with stucco walls and a giant marble staircase. Some of the stalls and the balcony lodges even had their own telephones. And the cinema roof could be opened mechanically so you could relax, watch a film and gaze at the stars.

The Parisiana symbolised everything Russia wanted to be in 1914 - a world leader, an innovator, an industrial, technological and cultural powerhouse. I try to find the Parisiana on Nevsky Prospekt. Sadly, it’s no longer there. It’s been replaced by a Swedish clothes store. Still, I suppose that even Swedish sweaters, socks and bras keep up that St Petersburg tradition of embracing Europe.

I get chatting to a security guard in the clothes shop. He tells me about an old cinema that has survived, just down the road. A narrow archway leads me into a back yard and there it is - a hidden jewel of St Petersburg cinema history. Since communist times, this semi-circular structure with classical columns has been known as the Aurora - in honour of the naval cruiser which, legend has it, fired the first shot in the Russian Revolution.

But the cinema’s original name was the Piccadilly. It, too, was new in 1914 and, like the Parisiana, was conceived as a sumptuous palace of film. Inside I discover the most stunning cinema foyer I’ve ever seen, with gigantic Chinese vases and exquisite frescoes.

If the spectacular St Petersburg cinema halls of 1914 projected a brash confidence, a country oozing money and ambition, the films themselves told a different story. That year, Russian silent movies were obsessed with destruction and violence.

In the film Life in Death, a doctor is so keen to preserve his wife’s beauty that he kills her and embalms her body. And in Child of the Big City, director Yevgeny Bauer foretells the disintegration of Russian society. Desperate to escape her sweatshop existence, seamstress Mary seduces a wealthy gentleman called Viktor. She then drains him of all his money and throws him penniless onto the street. Viktor shoots himself. On seeing his lifeless body, the heartless Mary is quoted as saying, “Well, they do say that meeting a dead man brings you good luck.” She steps over his corpse and never looks back.

In many ways, the silver screen reflected the dark reality of St Petersburg 1914. True, this was a city of plenty, where you could buy anything from foreign maple syrup to coats made of kangaroo fur. But it was also a place of abject poverty for many of the workers, of poor housing, appalling sanitation and widespread disease.

The death rate in St Petersburg was higher than in any capital in Europe. Suicide was on the rise, too. And it was a violent city. A sharp increase in street crime pointed to growing hostility between the social classes.

The local press lamented the disturbing new phenomenon of “hooliganism”. Little did they know that in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, female punk bands and Greenpeace activists would be charged with the same crime.

There were strikes at factories, arrests of suspected revolutionaries. More than anything, there was a sense of impending doom. On 19 May, St Petersburg was invaded by dragonflies, a bizarre infestation of biblical proportions - the skies, the streets and the River Neva were teeming with insects. Many people in the city saw it as a terrifying omen.

This was a very different St Petersburg from the city experienced by the stars of the 1914 chess tournament - they were treated to concerts, lavish banquets and presented with gilded wine glasses specially made by Faberge. Locked in their intellectual bubble, the players could think grand thoughts about changing the world. But outside, the world was changing anyway, and it wasn’t the masters of chess who would shape the future.

One week before the dragonflies descended, Lasker was declared chess champion of St Petersburg. That summer, there was another international chess competition, in Mannheim, Germany. It featured 11 players from the Russian empire.

By this time, though, few people believed in the power of chess to change the world. After round 11 of the Mannheim tournament, Germany declared war on Russia. All the Russian players were arrested and imprisoned, including the future world champion, Alekhine. Later he’d be put in solitary confinement for smiling at a guard.

In response to the declaration of war, Tsar Nicholas II renamed his capital. Suddenly “Sankt Peterburg” sounded too German and the city became Petrograd - far more Russian. Of course, Russia’s 20th Century nightmare was only just beginning. World war would lead to revolution and brutal civil war.

But what I find most remarkable about the St Petersburg of 1914 is that it was this moment in history - the eve of cataclysmic change - when Russia reached her creative peak. When artists and composers decided that anything goes, experimenting like never before with words and sound and colour.

Many of Russia’s most creative writers and poets gravitated towards the Stray Dog Cafe in St Petersburg - an artistic salon in a cellar where they could stay up all night reciting their works, and arguing about art and politics. The Russian Revolution would destroy many of them. Mandelstam died in a Soviet prison camp. Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky committed suicide.

Sitting at her kitchen table, in what was once the St Petersburg Chess Society, Firuza Seidova has a simple explanation for this explosion of creativity, which preceded Russia’s catastrophe.

"It’s the same with my house plants, when I don’t look after them properly," she says, pointing to flowerpots on the windowsill.

"You see, when flowers feel that they’re dying, they try to blossom one last time."

Introduction from Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” (Pièces originales…, 372-4).

"Finally, he was quartered," recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. "This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints…

"It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blashemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: ‘My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!’ The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient."

Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: “The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece.

"After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient’s body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.

"Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, ‘Pardon, my God! Pardon, my Lord.’ Despite all this pain, he raised his head from time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain. Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened his lips and repeated: ‘Pardon, Lord.’

"The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.

"Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): ‘Kiss me, gentlemen.’ The parish priest of St Paul’s did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul’s to pray for him at the first mass.

"After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.

"When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood.

"…In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o’clock.

"There were those who made something of the fact that a dog had lain the day before on the grass where the fire had been, had been chased away several times, and had always returned. But it is not difficult to understand that an animal found this place warmer than elsewhere" (quoted in Zevaes, 201-14).

Eighty years later, Léon Faucher drew up his rules “for the House of young prisoners in Paris”:

"Art. 17. The prisoners’ day will begin at six in the morning in winter and at five in summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day will end at nine o’clock in winter and at eight in summer.

Art. 18. Rising. At the first drum-roll, the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors. At the second drum-roll, they must be dressed and make their beds. At the third, they must line up and proceed to the chapel for morning prayer. There is a five-minute interval between each drum-roll.

Art. 19. The prayers are conducted by the chaplain and followed by a moral or religious reading. This exercise must not last more than half an hour.

Art. 20. Work. At a quarter to six in the summer, a quarter to seven in winter, the prisoners go down into the courtyard where they must wash their hands and faces, and receive their first ration of bread. Immediately afterwards, they form into work-teams and go off to work, which must begin at six in summer and seven in winter.

Art. 21. Meal. At ten o’clock the prisoners leave their work and go to the refectory; they wash their hands in their courtyards and assemble in divisions. After the dinner, there is recreation until twenty minutes to eleven.

Art. 22. School. At twenty minutes to eleven, at the drum-roll, the prisoners form into ranks, and proceed in divisions to the school. The class lasts two hours and consists alternately of reading, writing, drawing and arithmetic.

Art. 23. At twenty minutes to one, the prisoners leave the school, in divisions, and return to their courtyards for recreation. At five minutes to one, at the drum-roll, they form into workteams.

Art. 24. At one o’clock they must be back in the workshops: they work until four o’clock.

Art. 25. At four o’clock the prisoners leave their workshops and go into the courtyards where they wash their hands and form into divisions for the refectory.

Art. 26. Supper and the recreation that follows it last until five o’clock: the prisoners then return to the workshops.

Art. 27. At seven o’clock in the summer, at eight in winter, work stops; bread is distributed for the last time in the workshops. For a quarter of an hour one of the prisoners or supervisors reads a passage from some instructive or uplifting work. This is followed by evening prayer.

Art. 28. At half-past seven in summer, half-past eight in winter, the prisoners must be back in their cells after the washing of hands and the inspection of clothes in the courtyard; at the first drum-roll, they must undress, and at the second get into bed. The cell doors are closed and the supervisors go the rounds in the corridors, to ensure order and silence” (Faucher, 274, 82).

We have, then, a public execution and a time-table. They do not punish the same crimes or the same type of delinquent. But they each define a certain penal style. Less than a century separates them. It was a time when, in Europe and in the United States, the entire economy of punishment was redistributed. It was a time of great “scandals” for traditional justice, a time of innumerable projects for reform. It saw a new theory of law and crime, a new moral or political justification of the right to punish; old laws were abolished, old customs died out. “Modern” codes were planned or drawn up: Russia, 1769; Prussia, 1780; Pennsylvania and Tuscany, 1786; Austria, 1788; France, 1791, Year IV, 1808 and 1810. It was a new age for penal justice.

Among so many changes, I shall consider one: the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle. Today we are rather inclined to ignore it; perhaps, in its time, it gave rise to too much inflated rhetoric; perhaps it has been attributed too readily and too emphatically to a process of “humanization”, thus dispensing with the need for further analysis. And, in any case, how important is such a change, when compared with the great institutional transformations, the formulation of explicit, general codes and unified rules of procedure; with the almost universal adoption of the jury system, the definition of the essentially corrective character of the penalty and the tendency, which has become increasingly marked since the nineteenth century, to adapt punishment to the individual offender? Punishment of a less immediately physical kind, a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display, should not all this be treated as a special case, an incidental effect of deeper changes? And yet the fact remains that a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared. 

The people demands only what is necessary, it merely wants justice and tranquility; the rich lay claim to everything, they invade all others’ rights and aim at universal domination. Social abuses are the handiwork and province of the rich, they are the scourge of the people. The interest of the people is the general interest, that of the rich is a particular interest; and yet you wish to give the people no voice in government and make the rich all-powerful!
— Maximilien Robespierre in his March 1791 speech on the right to vote (via crookedsin)
…Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for the villains! No! Mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity. Society owes protection only to peaceable citizens; the only citizens in the Republic are the republicans. For it, the royalists, the conspirators are only strangers or, rather, enemies. This terrible war waged by liberty against tyranny—is it not indivisible? Are the enemies within not the allies of the enemies without? The assassins who tear our country apart, the intriguers who buy the consciences that hold the people’s mandate; the traitors who sell them; the mercenary pamphleteers hired to dishonor the people’s cause, to kill public virtue, to stir up the fire of civil discord, and to prepare political counterrevolution by moral counterrevolution—are all those men less guilty or less dangerous than the tyrants whom they serve?
— Maximillien Robespierre

(Source: fourwindsshotgun)

Link: Dead and Going to Die

The famous photographs of Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Lewis Powell show modern self-consciousness being born before an indifferent lens

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they were haunted by an image, often an old photograph. It is a figurative and evocative expression. To say that an image is haunting is to say that the image has lodged itself in the mind the way a ghost might stubbornly take up residence in a house, or that it has somehow taken hold of the imagination and lives on there as a spectral after-image. When we speak of images of the deceased, of course, the language of haunting approaches literalness. In these photographs, the dead enjoy an afterlife in the beholder’s imagination.I’ve lately been haunted myself by one such photograph. It is a well-known image of Lewis Powell, the man hanged for his failed attempt to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward. On the night that John Wilkes Booth murdered the president, Powell was to kill the secretary of state, and their co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt failed to attempt the assassination altogether. Powell followed through and inflicted tremendous suffering on the Seward household, though Seward himself would survive the attack.

When I came upon the image of Powell above in a series of recently colorized Civil War photographs, I was immediately captivated by its apparent modernity. Nineteenth century photographs tend to have a distinct feel, one that clearly announces the distant “pastness” of what they have captured. That they are ordinarily black-and-white only partially explains this effect. More significantly, the effect is communicated by the look of the people in the photographs — not their physical appearance, though; rather, it’s the “look” of their personality.

There is distinct subjectivity — or, perhaps, lack thereof — that emerges from most old photographs. There is something in the eyes that suggests a way of being in the world that is foreign and impenetrable to us. The camera itself seems to be a double cause of this dissonance. First, the subjects seem unsure of how to position themselves before the camera; they are still unsettled, it seems, by the photographic technique. They also seem to be wrestling with the camera’s gaze. They are too aware of it. It has rendered them objects, and they’ve not yet managed to negotiate the terms under which they may recover their status as subjects in their own right. In short, they had not yet grown comfortable playing themselves before the camera or with the self-alienated stance that such performance entails.

But then there is this image of Powell, which looks as if it could have been taken yesterday and posted on Instagram. The gap in consciousness seems entirely closed. The “pastness” is eclipsed. Was this merely a result of his clean-shaven, youthful air? Was it the temporal ambiguity of his clothing or of the way he wore his hair? Or was Powell on to something that his contemporaries had not yet grasped? Did his image hold some clue about the evolution of modern consciousness? I went in search of an answer, and I found that the first person I turned to had been there already.

Roland Barthes’s discussion of death and photography inCamera Lucida has achieved canonical status, so I turned to his analysis in order to shed light on my experience of this particular image that was so weighted with death. I soon discovered that an image of Powell appears in Camera Lucida. It is not the same image that grabbed my attention, but a similar photograph taken at the same time. In this photograph, Powell is looking at the camera, the manacles that bind his hands are visible, but still the modernity of expression persists.

Barthes was taken by the way that a photograph suggests both the “that-has-been” and the “this-will-die” aspects of a photographic subject. His most famous discussion of this dual gesture involved a photograph of his mother, which does not appear in the book. But a shot of Powell is used to illustrate a very similar point. It is captioned, “He is dead, and he is going to die …” The photograph simultaneously witnesses to three related realities. Powell was, he is no more, and in the moment captured by this photograph, he is on his way to death.

Barthes also repurposed two Latin words for his analysis:studium and punctum. The studium of a photograph is its ostensible subject matter and what we might imagine the photographer seeks to convey through the photograph. Thepunctum by contrast is the aspect that “pricks” or “wounds” the viewer. The experience of the punctum is wholly subjective. It is the aspect of a photograph that disturbs thestudium and jars the viewer. Regarding the Powell photograph, Barthes writes,

The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence.

In my own experience, the studium was already the awareness of Powell’s impending death. The punctum was the modernity of Powell’s subjectivity. Still eager to account for the photograph’s effect, I turned from Barthes to historical sources that might shed light on the photographs.

Link: Strange Freedom: The Origins of the Neoliberal Leviathan

What happened to our dream of freedom? This is the question posed by Adam Curtis in his 2007 documentary The Trap. Curtis describes how, with the rise of neoliberalism, a particular vision of human freedom came to dominate our politics; one which promised liberation from staid post-war bureaucracy and class strictures, but resulted in ‘new and increasingly controlling system[s] of management’ and ‘a return of the power of class and privilege.’  It was, Curtis notes, a ‘very strange kind of freedom.’ 

In the first episode of The Trap, Curtis details the origins of this strange freedom in the quintessential Cold War think-tank, the RAND Corporation.  The brain trust of the US military-industrial complex, the RAND Corporation grew out of wartime collaboration between the US Air Force and the Douglas Aircraft Company.  Though it started life as a research and development institute for military hardware, RAND was most successful in its development of systems analysis and game theory—the mathematical modelling of strategic decision-making.  RAND analysts used game theory to model the logic of nuclear strategy; a rational madness made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s dark satire Dr Strangelove, the eponymous anti-hero of which is said to have been modelled on RAND consultant Herman Kahn.  The influence of RAND’s models, however, was much broader than dubious strategic doctrines like Mutually Assured Destruction.  As Sonja Amadae has detailed, RAND research was central to the development of rational choice theory, the assumptions of which now dominate economic textbooks and increasingly the other social sciences.[1] 

Adam Curtis’s account of RAND focuses on the figure of John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician portrayed by Russell Crow in A Beautiful Mind.  Nash specialised in modelling ‘non-cooperative games,’ lending his name to the ‘Nash equilibrium,’ in which no player in a game would benefit by unilaterally changing their strategy.  Nash also suffered from mental illness and experienced paranoid delusions of communist conspiracies.  Curtis sees Nash’s paranoid and misanthropic worldview reflected in his research and, he seems to suggests, in the rational choice vision of humans as isolated, calculating individuals.  This is an engaging narrative, but Nash was only one of a host of gifted and politically committed mathematicians, logicians and economists at RAND who contributed towards the development of rational choice theory.  Foremost among them was Kenneth Arrow, whose ‘impossibility theorem’ showed that it was impossible to arrive at a rational outcome on the basis of a set of individual ranked preferences.  Arrow later developed with Gérard Debreu a proof of ‘economic equilibrium’, that is, a model of the perfect free market.  The particular vision of politics and human freedom developed by these organic intellectuals of the US corporate-state elite was crafted in opposition to Marxist ideas and was all the more powerful for, like Marxism, its purported objective and scientific nature.  Implicit in these rational choice models was a view of politics, not as a realm for deliberation and cooperation, but a site of conflicting claims by isolated, calculating actors.

Rational choice theory, of which RAND was formative, overlapped with and influenced the neoliberal movement.  It had a particularly strong influence on the field of public choice, which was founded by leading Mont Pelerin Societymembers James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, the former of whom studied under Milton Friedman and also spent time at RAND.  Public choice theorists applied rational choice models to democratic politics, viewing all actors as self-serving utility maximisers and rejecting altogether the notions of public service which underpinned the embedded liberalism of the post-war period.  Another particularly influential public choice theorist was William Niskanen, a former RAND analyst who, inspired by Ludwig von Mises’s classic 1944 polemicBureaucracy, developed a rational choice model of public sector bodies which argued that state officials would naturally act as ‘budget maximisers’ and tend towards the oversupply of services.  Though a relatively small faction of the ‘neoliberal thought collective’, the public choice school would prove highly influential in shaping neoliberal policies because of its more developed conception of politics and the state, a political vision crafted in opposition to both the post-war expansion of the public sector and the radical egalitarian movements of the 1960s. 

The founding fathers of public choice, Buchanan and Tullock, were essentially chased off the campus of the University of Virginia by the New Left, from where they decamped to Virginia Tech.  There they founded the Center for the Study for Public Choice.  Partly in reaction to the social upheavals of this period, members of the Center for the Study for Public Choice subsequently spent considerable timestudying theories of anarchy and addressing the question of whether the state was necessary to preserve economic freedom.  They were almost unanimous in reaching the conclusion that a world of voluntary associations was not realistic and that the state was necessary to protect private property and enforce contracts.  Buchanan’s own conclusion to this effect was based on a Nash equilibrium which proved that individuals would always be better off plundering rather than respecting each other’s property.  In 1986, addressing a closed meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, Buchanan declared that: ‘Man is, and must remain, a slave to the state.’[2]  Mark Olssen contrasts the public choice perspective on markets and the state with ‘the classical liberal tradition’ which ‘had stressed the role of markets as “self-regulating” and as supported by arguments based on the freedom of the individual from the state’:

Buchanan distrusted that the required efficiency gains would emerge through automatic mechanisms of the market and supported efficiency achievements through a tightening of state control.  In this, Buchanan introduced a major shift from liberal to neoliberal governmentality…  In Buchanan’s view, then, the state should tighten the screws on individuals and encourage supply-side monitoring in the interests of promoting efficiency in market terms.[3]

Olssen contrasts this perspective with ‘Hayek’s naturalist faith in markets as spontaneous self-ordering systems.’  But in fact Hayek, like Buchanan, believed that a world without law and order would result in the erosion of individual freedom, though he saw the threat emanating from humanity’s natural inclination towards cooperative behaviour, rather than the rational interest in violating property rights.  Writing in 1986, Hayek lamented the ‘failure of a large number of people to accept the moral principles which form the basis of the capitalist system.’  This failure, he believed, was the result of the revival by socialists of ‘primitive instincts and feelings’ which had hitherto been suppressed by ‘commercial or mercantile morals.’  He believed that our distinct past in ‘primitive small society’ had left ‘very strong emotional feelings which we all have in our bones and of which we cannot entirely rid ourselves’—feelings which led us to interfere with the market system.  Though Hayek held a quite different view of human nature to the public choice theorists, he arrived at the similar conclusion that what was necessary was to ‘confine yourself to creating an institutional framework within which the price system will operate as efficiently as possible.’  To do otherwise would only frustrate the working of the ‘price system’ and undermine the interests of humanity as a whole.  Crucially, then, all neoliberals shared an understanding that a ‘free society’ would not emerge spontaneously, but would need to be instituted through a particular legal and political framework—and not one to which the population as a whole would necessarily accede. 

Neoliberalism in general, and public choice in particular, possessed a well developed diagnosis of the pathologies of democratic politics in the 1970s—an overloaded state captured by special interests and populated by self-serving bureaucrats—as well as an awareness of the necessity of state authority to redress this and realise their strange vision of human freedom.  Methodologically, the public choice philosophy of society and the state owed a significant debt to the intellectual work of the RAND analysts, but its starting point was Hobbes’sLeviathan, and the mathematical modelling of Hobbesian anarchy undertaken by Winston Bush (who had been instrumental in organising the public choice seminars on anarchism).  This debt to Hobbes is particularly revealing.  As Quentin Skinner has detailed, Hobbes in his own time pioneered an innovative reactionary reimagining of the concept of freedom as consistent with both fear and repression.  Writing at the time of the English Civil War, Hobbes rejected the newly revived Roman conception of liberty as freedom from the power of another, arguing instead for a narrow definition of freedom as unrestricted motion. 

Whilst the neoliberals did not wholly embrace Hobbes’s Leviathan,[4] there are clearly echoes of this reactionary conception of freedom in the neoliberal worldview, which despite its populist gloss is at root an anti-democratic vision.  This impulse has been most comprehensively exposed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine and is most starkly illustrated by the neoliberals’ collaboration with the Pinochet regime in Chile.  In a 1982 letter to Hayek, Thatcher wrote, ‘I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable.’  Yet the same authoritarian tendencies were also present in Thatcherism, which Andrew Gamble influentially characterised as ‘the free economy and the strong state’; a marriage which, like the Pinochet collaboration, only seems ironic if the neoliberal rhetoric of freedom is left unexamined.  Consider, for example, Nigel Lawson’s remark that democracy is a ‘greatly over-hyped blessing’ and ‘clearly less important than freedom, the rule of law and constitutional government.’  For Lawson, the ‘strong government’ of which he was a part was necessary to impose ‘unpopular policies,’ and its ‘contempt for consensus was at that time both important and fully justified.’   Lawson is here clearly influenced by the emphasis placed by public choice theorists, and theGerman neoliberals, on a strong legal framework to support ‘free enterprise.’  It is an unusually honest expression from a key protagonist of the true dynamic of neoliberal governance, which, as Alasdair Roberts details in The Logic of Discipline, was built upon a ‘deep scepticism about the merits of conventional methods of democratic governance.’  Public choice theorists and conservative political scientists like Samuel Huntington, Roberts notes, thought democracy tended ‘to produce policies that are short-sighted, unstable, or designed to satisfy the selfish concerns of powerful voting blocs, well-organized special interests, and the bureaucracy itself.[5]  Their proposed solution was to ‘transfer authority to new groups of technocratic guardians,’ an obvious example being the granting of ‘independence’ to Central Banks.[6]  In reality though, ‘the logic of discipline’ led not so much to the rise of a new technocratic elite, but the near total dominance of policy making by big business, from monetary policy to infrastructure development and art and culture.  Moreover, realising the ‘free society’ required not just the dismantling of the partially democratised functions of the state, but also the, often violent, disciplining of populations into the new arrangements.  Hence why for all the rhetoric about freedom, neoliberal governments have in practice overseen a strengthening of repressive state apparatuses, including an expansion of police powers beyond the classic liberal democratic framework and the increased, and racialised, incarceration of the urban poor. 

With the collapse of global financial markets in 2008, in Britain, as elsewhere, we have seen the neoliberal state’s coercive apparatus in full swing, from its harsh treatment of the young people involved in the English riots of 2011 to the callousness of the Coalition Government’s dismantling of the welfare state.  There is no irony in this state of affairs.  The rise of ‘technocratic government’ in response to the Euro crisis and the increasingly violent repression of political dissent is no aberration.  It is the logical endgame of a dark political vision crafted in opposition to democratic advances; the realisation of a strange freedom which lies at the root of the neoliberal dystopia, from which the political establishment offers no deliverance.

Link: Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

[…] I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies—a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle—have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

Link: Remembering the Wandervogel

The fashionable rent boy gangs that terrorized the Nazis.

You thought that youth culture began after the Second World War, but it didn’t. In fact, the story goes back to the late 19th century, when urban gangs in American and Northern Europe began to attract outraged press attention through their behavior and dress: the Hooligans in London, the Apaches in Paris, the Scuttlers in Manchester, and the Hudson Dusters in Manhattan.

These street kids saw their flamboyant dress and bad attitudes reflected by the newly growing media, but they were in no way ideological. Another group acted differently. Beginning in Germany during the early 1900s, the Wandervogel—literally, wandering birds—rejected the onset of the materialist, consumerist, mass-production society in favor of researching folklore and tramping around the countryside.

After the First World War, the Wandervogel split into many different groups and factions, ranging from the proto-hippies of the Ascona commune to the proto-fascist White Knights. After the Great Crash of 1929, Germany’s economy went into meltdown and—just like today—youths were disproportionately hit: Half a million adolescents wandered round the country in hopeless vagabondage.

What had been a lifestyle choice had become sheer grim necessity. In this desperate situation, many adolescents crossed the boundary into outright criminality. One of the most bizarre groupings was discovered by the investigative journalist Christine Fournier in Berlin during 1930, who called them “Ring” youth gangs and typified their attitude with the phrase “a hatred of society.”

Fournier traced their origin to a traditional inner-city gang mentality turned toxic after a decade of political polarization between fascism and communism, and boosted by massive unemployment figures. A year after the Crash, there were about 14,000 feral kids between 14 and 18 living rough in the outskirts of Berlin (a district that was circled by a “Ring” of avenues, hence the term).

Homeless and adrift from adult society, these kids organized themselves into gangs with bloodthirsty—often Indian-derived—names like Blood of the Trappers, Red Apaches, Black Love, Black Flag, and Forest Pirates. They supported themselves through crime: petty burglary, theft, larceny, and prostitution, both male and female.

This was fairly standard-issue stuff for juvenile delinquents in Europe and America, but what was extraordinary about the Ring youth gangs was their sheer number and the sophisticated savagery of their social structure. In the late 1920s, they had consolidated into one large federation with geographically zoned groups (e.g., the South Ring, the East Ring) led by a “Ring Bull.”

By the early 1930s, they had established elaborate and bizarre codes of behavior. Prospective members had to go through sexual rituals—a pagan “baptism” often involving public intercourse or masturbation—before admission. The initiation ceremony almost always degenerated, according to Christine Fournier, into a “drunken binge, a mad orgy.” She called it “a spontaneous return to barbarism.”

In 1932, the radical French journalist Daniel Guerin, on a visit to Germany, encountered a wild gang near Berlin. They looked like Wandervogel but “had the depraved and troubled faces of hoodlums and the most bizarre coverings on their heads: black or grey Chaplinesque bowlers, old women’s hats with the brims turned up Amazon-fashion, adorned with ostrich plumes and medals.”

He also noted “handkerchiefs or scarves in screaming colors tied any which way around the neck, bare chests bursting out of open skin vests with broad stripes, arms scored with fantastic or lewd tattoos, ears hung with pendulums or enormous rings, leather shorts surmounted by immense triangular belts daubed with all the colors of the rainbow, esoteric numbers, human profiles, and inscriptions such as Wild-frei [wild and free] or Rauber [bandits].”

Guerin thought they were “a bizarre mixture of virility and effeminacy,” and worried that “those who would know how to discipline these masquerade Apaches could make real bandits out of them.” Some did become Nazis—like Winnetou, a prominent Ring Bull. But others went underground: They continued to live free, wandering and harassing the Nazis wherever they could.

This was no mean feat. By 1939, more than 80 percent of all German males between ten and 18 were members of the Hitler Youth: Compliance was enforced by strict laws and powerful police organizations. Evading this “prison organization forced upon youth” was extremely difficult, but even with the regime at its height, there were many youths who risked their liberty, if not their lives, to live the way they wanted.