Sunshine Recorder

Link: What will we do if the system can no longer create jobs? An interview with Anselm Jappe

A 2013 interview with Anselm Jappe in which he discusses the crisis of the society of labor, the logic of the commodity and exchange value and its disastrous consequences for an increasingly larger part of humanity, and perspectives for positive social change. 

What will we do if the system can no longer create jobs? An interview with Anselm Jappe – Alexandra Prado Coelho

According to the philosopher Anselm Jappe, who has come to Lisbon to give a talk at the Teatro Maria Matos, in capitalism we are defined by our relation to labor. But the system is a “house of cards that is beginning to collapse”. It is time to rethink the concept of labor.

Capitalism distorts the idea of labor, disconnecting it from society’s real needs. We work at an increasingly faster pace merely to feed the logic of the system. But the latter seems to have entered a self-destructive stage because, with the exclusion of ever more people from the labor market, there are increasingly more people who are also excluded from consumption, says the philosopher Anselm Jappe, who was born in 1962 in Germany and now lives in France and Italy.

Jappe—who has three books that have been published in Portugal by Antigona press, including The Adventures of the Commodity (2006)—is giving a talk next Tuesday, the 23rd, at the Teatro Maria Matos, as part of the Transition Lecture Series. In his presentation (which will be delivered in Portuguese) moderated by António Guerreiro, Jappe will explain why we must rethink the concept of labor.

Alexandra Prado Coelho (AC): Your talk is entitled, “After the End of Labor: Is Humanity Becoming Superfluous?” Is the end of labor on our horizon?

Anselm Jappe (AJ): This claim would have amazed most people a few decades ago, because modern society is by definition a society of labor, in which always more people are put to work. According to this logic, however, labor is not something that has always existed.

AC: How long has it existed?

AJ: In Antiquity, there was no word for “labor” that would have embraced all forms of activity. It would have been impossible to imagine, for example, that the activity of a priest, a peasant, or a slave would have all been considered to be labor. Each activity served to realize an end. What mattered was this end—to have things to eat, to perform services for God, to undertake a military campaign, etc. What mattered was the satisfaction of a need and labor was the means to obtain that satisfaction.

With industrial society, on the other hand, we work as much as possible because it is labor that gives us money, and all the satisfactions of needs only come later. It is always necessary to work more in order to increase production. Work is an expenditure of energy that is measured by time. If I make a table or teach a college class, these are two completely different things, but I can always say that, “I worked one hour”. This time is expressed in a quantity of money.

AC: Which is valued differently, in the case of the labor of a university professor or a blue collar worker.

AJ: One hour of labor by a specialized worker can be worth more than one hour of labor by a non-specialized worker. It is a quantitative difference, but it has nothing to do with the content of what is produced.

We have an industrial society that is based on the use of machines and technology, which serve to economize on labor. It would be logical that we should have to work less because we can have all of our needs satisfied with a minimum amount of activity. But what takes place is just the opposite. Today we work much more than ever before. All you need to do is to compare the pace of our lives and that of our grandparents.

Today, everything revolves around work. We can be workers or unemployed, but we are always defined by our relation to labor.

In the capitalist system, value is not given by the usefulness of things, but by the labor that was necessary for their manufacture. The more we work to make something, the more value is conferred upon the product. The wealth of the capitalist comes from making us work more than is necessary, which Marx called surplus-value.

On the other hand, capitalism makes labor the fuel of social life. In all previous societies, this social life was based things like the direct rule of an individual, ideas of honor or religious ideas. In modern society we are all defined by labor.

In the last few decades, however, labor is beginning to run out of steam. There is a constantly diminishing amount of work due to technological development. This could be good news—we could work less and have all we need. But just the opposite has taken place. People are losing their jobs, there is no real redistribution of activity, and those who are unemployed are also removed from consumption.

AC: Which is contrary to the logic of the system.

AJ: Yes, those who can no longer work can no longer have money with which to consume. This is a kind of self-abolition of capitalism. In a factory, a shirt is manufactured in five minutes, whereas previously an artisan required an hour to make a shirt. This means that there is less labor invested in a shirt. In a rational society, we would say, “we are going to make the same shirt as before, but we shall make it by working only five minutes”. But it is exactly the opposite that happens: the worker is compelled to work more, to make more shirts, and then it is necessary to sell them. If more and more is produced, it is in order to counteract the fact that in each commodity less labor is invested and therefore the surplus-value is correspondingly reduced. 

AC: But it is not always the case that by replacing humans by machines, value is withdrawn from the final product. If I want to buy a cup of coffee, it could either be served to me by a person or I could get it from a machine, but I still pay the same amount of money for it. 

AJ: And that is precisely where the contradiction lies—if a business replaces a worker with a machine, it will make more money because the machine costs less to operate. People pay the same amount for their coffee as before, but the business spends less money on wages. But if every business does the same thing, it is the system itself that is the loser because there will be less utilization of labor power. The businesses are acting contrary to the interest of the system. It has been that way from the beginning.

AC: But nonetheless, machines make more free time for us to devote to other activities, eventually leading to greater usefulness.

AJ: That would be the ideal situation. But in the capitalist system, not all activities have exchange value, only those that can reproduce the invested capital. What we do for ourselves or our friends is not considered to be labor because it does not enter into the logic of the market. An activity that is useful for us or for others is very different from what is considered to be labor in the capitalist system. We can say about a couple, that he works in a factory, and that is labor, but the mother does not work, she is busy with the children and taking care of her elderly father-in-law. The definition of labor has nothing to do with the content of the activity.

AC: Are productive activities necessarily linked to the production of commodities?

AJ: No, but they have to enter into the cycle in which capital is reproduced. Take a factory, for instance: the worker makes a car, the car is sold on the market and this represents profit for the capitalist, and his labor is therefore productive labor. It is also necessary to clean the factory, but those who perform this service do not produce any profit, their work is only a necessary expense, which makes no contribution to profit, but quite the contrary.

AC: We have tended to view capitalism as a system that is nourished by some and imposed on others. But that is not the way you see it. 

AJ: Capitalism has an anonymous, impersonal logic. The capitalists only execute the laws of a system that is much bigger than they are. There is, of course, individual responsibility, but this is less important than the logic of the system as a whole. Today there is once again a marked tendency to think that the problem is that there is a group of people who are too greedy, the speculators, bankers, etc., who go too far and put the whole system, which is based on honest workers, at risk.

There is a tendency towards personalizing capitalism, a tendency that is also often found in movements like the Indignados or Occupy Wall Street. This could prove to be dangerous because it is somewhat reminiscent of what took place in the 1930s with the fascist system, in which social hatred was turned against a group of people, in that case, against Jewish financiers.

The real problem is that there is no distribution of activities in accordance with social needs, which is what a reasonable society would do, but there is simply this unqualified need to work to produce things that we have no use for. This is something that even the left largely ignores, because it is always so concerned with the question of social justice, with trying to discover why it is that some people make more money than other people.

AC: If people have a tendency to personalize, this is because it is very hard to fight against a faceless system.

AJ: It is easier to hit the streets to protest against the bankers. But it is also easy to say that we are only victims, when in fact we all play our parts in this system, in this logic.

AC: It seems hard to be outside of the system. 

AJ: Yes, we all participate, for example, in the logic of competition, it is something that has completely penetrated us. We are always trying to sell ourselves, to be stronger than the others, to have success on the market. We have completely absorbed the capitalist logic, which is not natural, because, in the past, competition played a very minor role in everyday life.

AC: But don’t you think that the idea that so much depends on our abilities, and that we are not condemned to a certain place, as in a caste system, is a good thing?

AJ: Modernity is presented as a kind of liberation in relation to the feudal system, but it is only an apparent freedom, because it is a destructive logic that leads people to do everything that they can do, and to consider the world as a kind of raw material they can use to realize their own aspirations. It is true that modernism has a dynamism that previous societies lacked, but this dynamism gradually became a kind of individualism that took hold of people in the western countries. 

We look after our own interests like entrepreneurs, as if we were always on the lookout for business opportunities. It is necessary to exercise in order to be in good form for work, or to go places where we can meet people who might be able to help us obtain another interesting job.

AC: But, at least theoretically, things depend more on our individual will.

AJ: The official ideology says that each person can make whatever they want of his or her life, that we are not determined by the fact that we were born in Sweden or in Africa, but in reality that is not how it is. It is not like in “Monopoly”, where everyone begins the game with the same amount of money. There is no equal opportunity.

But even if such equality were to exist, it would be necessary to ask ourselves what it is that we want to do. A reasonable society would organize a collective agreement concerning what needs to be done so that we can live well, and then it would think about how to optimize its activities with the minimum possible amount of effort, so that each person can do his part for the collective life, and then during the rest of the time devote himself to doing whatever he wants.

AC: Is there any place outside the system?

AJ: It is obvious that this situation is causing us more and more suffering. The people who work suffer, we hear more and more about suicides linked to work, there is an enormous amount of pressure in the big corporations, everyone knows that within the next year half the employees will be laid off, so then everyone works like madmen in order to please that god called the logic of profitability. And those who do not work suffer because they are socially devalued.

There is presently a wide range of initiatives underway linked to the de-growth movement, alternative economies, local barter networks, or groups seeking to return to the rural areas, exchange networks between organic producers. I have often criticized them, but I think that, at least, they show a real interest in finding a way that is not just an alternative management of the same industrial society based on money.

For a long time, the left limited itself to proposing a more just distribution of the same contents. Today, there is at least an attempt to go beyond this. But there are always other social forces that, to the contrary, continue to want to snatch the last crumb of this cake that is always getting smaller.

AC: Is capitalism dying?

AJ: The human being is very often not profitable from the system’s point of view, and this means that he is also going to be deprived of the power to consume. In Europe some money is still distributed to those who are no longer profitable, but there is also enormous pressure to cut and cut some more. There is a feeling that there are people who are superfluous from the system’s point of view. For Germany, Greece is becoming a superfluous country. And in some countries there are entire layers of the population that no longer know what to do.

AC: Governments are talking about a return to growth, everyone wants to export to the new emerging markets.

AJ: Everyone wants to export, no one wants to import. But it is not possible to have a world in which everyone exports and no one imports. What has been called the Chinese economic miracle is also based on exports, above all to the US. If the small countries enter into the liberal logic of exports, the results are catastrophic. There are countries in Africa that once produced enough to feed themselves—they lived modestly, but with enough—and that then wiped everything in the name of exports, today they only produce bananas and if the market for bananas suddenly collapses, their entire economies will collapse.

It is necessary for us to free ourselves from this idea of producing first of all for a world market.

AC: Globalization brings us closer to other cultures. If we close ourselves off in our villages….

AJ: Global mobility is very much a one-way affair. Never before in Europe were the borders as closely guarded against the outside as they are now. There is one kind of mobility for tourists, and another kind of mobility for those who have to relocate in search of work. 

A return to the Nation-State is not an alternative—to me this seems to be a very dangerous ideology. A post-capitalist society must have an everyday basis in local realities; we should eat apples that are grown in the nearby orchard rather than in New Zealand. This, of course, would not prevent cultural and intellectual communication with people who live in other regions. There are people who choose to work less and reduce their material needs, organizing with others in order to enjoy a satisfying life that does not necessarily require the purchase of products or services.

AC: But you said that you were also critical of these movements. Why?

AJ: Because they think that it is enough to limit themselves to these measures. Buying our products from organic producers could be a first step.

AC: What would be the second step?

AJ: A social movement that would directly occupy the workshops and the factories. Capitalism is abandoning many productive forces, because they are no longer profitable, but they are still capable of functioning effectively.

AC: You are talking about occupations, community management, it sounds like April 25.

AJ: There is a historical memory that is worth recovering. Obviously, we are not going to start from scratch.

AC: But the system rapidly integrates these experiences.

AJ: But that does not necessarily imply that everything will happen the same way, because today the system is much weaker. Today we are living in times that are very different from the 1970s and 1980s. The system is in retreat. Those who have a place in the production-consumption cycle are constantly declining in numbers, even in the wealthiest countries. There are ever greater numbers of people who have no place in the system. If a factory was abandoned because of corporate relocation, it is possible to seize it and use it to make useful things.

AC: Such a change would require some kind of previous social conflict. It would require a large number of people.

AJ: I see another danger in such a movement—it could easily turn into a kind of management of poverty. Poverty is increasing and the State might very well give a piece of social management to this kind of alternative economy, saying: “take care of your own problems”.

It is truly a bizarre sight, for example, to see people who go to the markets and stores after they close to forage for discarded produce. This is being turned into a valorization of day-to-day survival that is absurd if it is extended to the global social level where such immense waste takes place. The idea of voluntary simplicity might pave the way for a discourse of the valorization of poverty.

AC: To create a post-capitalist system should we use previous models or is it necessary to invent everything?

AJ: Capitalism has failed to fulfill so many of its promises that we now find, among some milieus, a kind of nostalgia for a return to the past. But it is certain that we cannot go back, there is too great a risk of violent archaisms. It is clear that the solution can only be found by going forward. We can have a satisfying life with a much-reduced production in relation to what we have today.

AC: You see the ideal future as a world in which people work less, work is more rationally distributed….

AJ: … In which needs are defined, what we want to do in life and how we can do it with the least possible effort. It is necessary to begin to think on the basis of the results rather than on that of labor. Many of today’s needs are compensations for labor. A life dedicated only to labor is so unsatisfying that it is necessary to have subsequent compensations, television, cars, tourism, computer games.

AC: To what extent is this change currently taking place in politics?

AJ: When we think of politics, we think of the idea that the State must guarantee a better distribution of things. But we see that politics is not the solution, because it is structurally dependent on money. Since there is less money available for the State to distribute, the State has increasingly less power. The left, the “alter-globalists”, always call for a bigger role for the State. As if capital were the negative pole and the State the positive one. But if the State can no longer collect taxes, it no longer has anything to redistribute.

AC: Without a State, how can we guarantee protection for the most disadvantaged? Would there not be a risk that the logic of the locality would lead to village charity? 

AJ: The welfare State is still very young and is already beginning to be gradually dismantled everywhere. There are many States that have practically no public services. We would only be deceiving ourselves if we think that social concerns are at the heart of the State.

AC: What kind of social organization do you advocate?

AJ: Self-organization based on the neighborhoods in the cities, small units that make the decisions concerning their own lives, and then organize on a federal level with other communities. At this time, capitalism is a house of cards that is beginning to collapse. It is not possible to say how long it will take it to fall, but the signs are becoming increasingly more evident.

Link: Sex in China: An Interview with Li Yinhe

Li Yinhe is one of China’s best-known experts on sex and the family. A member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, she has published widely on sexual mores, women, and family issues. Li also runs a popular blog, where she has advocated for same-sex marriage and loosening restrictions on homosexuality, orgies, and sex in literature. In the 1980s, she studied at the University of Pittsburgh, earning a Ph.D. in 1988, but returned to China where she was asked by China’s pioneering sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, to be one of the first post-doctoral students at Peking University. Recently retired, the sixty-two-year-old spends much of her time on the Shandong coast.

I visited Li Yinhe at her country home outside of Beijing, where we discussed some of her work and current projects, including two unpublished volumes of short stories about sado-masochism.

Ian Johnson: Why sex?

Li Yinhe: During the first thirty years of its rule, the Communist Party was anti-sex. So studying sex is controversial. Even today, my views get a big reaction online. People attack me very strongly. Even in my current book, the section on laws about sex was eliminated. You can’t publish it.

What about orgies?

I have said they should get rid of laws against orgies, and the reaction was huge. You can’t advocate that in China. [Orgies are illegal in China, with the crime known as “crowd licentiousness.”] And there’s also pornography. Even now it’s still a sexual crime. Recently a twenty-four-year-old young woman from Beijing wrote a sexually explicit novel. She sold 80,000 copies online and was arrested. It was considered pornography. The sentence was light but she still got four months of detention. Advocating against this is not okay.

Why does the party care about sex? It doesn’t challenge its power base.

They still have this idea of what’s proper or not. It’s a very traditional idea. There are two main criteria for banning books or censoring. One is black and one is yellow. Black are political issues, like you’re opposing the CCP. Yellow is sex. This hasn’t changed.

You’ve actually been studying the evolution of official attitudes toward sex.

My latest academic project is a book that will be published later this year calledSexual Discourse in New China. I’m going through all the People’s Daily [the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper] from 1949 to 2010. You can see how the rhetoric has changed about prostitution or toward AIDS, or how the Party has viewed pornographic literature. For example, during the early years after Liberation, literature couldn’t discuss love because more important issues were war, politics, and sacrifice. So love—how could you talk about such a petit bourgeois issue?

Like in the novels of Eileen Chang?

Right, exactly, these issues were considered small and petty, even evil. Later on, toward the end of the 1950s, after a period of peace, you could write about love but sex was always taboo. Then after the reforms of the 1980s it was okay to write about love and sex, but how much was allowed? There were many discussions. For example, you could write about it with humanity, or softness, but not in a wild way. They couldn’t figure out what was okay.

I met your late husband, the novelist Wang Xiaobo, a year before he died in 1997. I was struck by the fact that his novel The Golden Age (translated as Wang in Love and Bondage) discusses sex quite explicitly. Did you talk about this issue much?

Wang Xiaobo wrote about sex in a very direct way. At first it was very difficult to publish. But then when he won a prize in Taiwan it was published here. We talked a lot, of course, and he supported me a lot. When I was researching homosexuals, some men didn’t want to talk to women about it and he helped me by conducting the interviews.

In your blog you’ve advocated legalizing same-sex marriage. Is that a realistic goal in China?

The attitude toward homosexuality in China is not as absolute as in the West. At least in some earlier eras, there wasn’t an absolute opposition to it. In China it’s never been illegal or outlawed. During the Song dynasty there was a law against homosexual prostitution, but not against homosexuality in principle. It’s more something that might have been considered ridiculous but not a crime.

So the main thing was you do your duty—get married and procreate?

Yes, that’s the key. But maybe more, Chinese people’s view of sex is different than foreigners’. Chinese view it as purely a physical desire. Who your partner is—male or female—or how you express it doesn’t matter. Anal sex or things like that, they don’t think it’s bad. So from this point of view, homosexuality is not such a problem. I read a survey of attitudes about same-sex marriage in 2008: about 10 to 20 percent thought it was absolutely no problem and 10 to 20 percent thought it was absolutely wrong. But the rest—the majority—just didn’t care. By contrast, in the United States, 47 percent were in favor of same-sex marriage and 43 percent were against. Only 10 percent didn’t have a view. For the Chinese it was like this: It doesn’t have to do with me so I don’t care.

For Chinese who do oppose it, what are their reasons?

They think it’s unnatural because homosexuals can’t have children. But I think this view is slowly changing. The main hindrance is there are no rights groups. In the West, you might have members of parliament or prominent people who are gay or lesbian and they can raise the issue of same-sex marriage. In China, no one raises the issue. Most people don’t think it’s a big issue.

But there have been examples of same-sex marriages.

A couple of years ago, the Chinese press carried sympathetic stories of a same-sex wedding. Everyone in the village was out to help them celebrate and photos circulated online. If you see those sorts of stories and photos, you’d assume it was legal. But that’s only what’s known as a folk-style wedding. It’s a big banquet and party but the Ministry of Civil Affairs doesn’t give you a marriage certificate. If you go there, the officials say, “No no, it’s impossible.” People have gone there on purpose and asked. The officials’ attitude was good; they said, “Ah, we’d like to help and approve this but the law doesn’t allow it.”

When was China’s marriage law passed?

In 1950. It was one of the first laws promulgated after the Communist takeover. It’s been revised a few times: in 1980 and 2000. In 2000, the National People’s Congress legal affairs committee asked experts for advice and I was interviewed. I said they should allow same-sex marriage but the legal affairs committee said, “Do we really need this? Why do we have to be at the forefront of it?” I said, “We’re not at the forefront.” In 2000, there were already five countries that had legalized same-sex marriage, but they said, “There’s no need.”

Are official attitudes toward sexuality also a reflection of earlier Chinese traditions?

I would divide Chinese sexual history into three very broad eras. In early traditional China, Chinese didn’t have that many prejudices. The view was that sex was the “harmony of yin and yang.” It was natural. Male and female together was a good thing, especially if it led to having children, because in traditional China children were so important. The second phase started around the Song dynasty (960-1279) The state began to emphasize purity and looked at things more from a perspective of virtue. There was a sense of antipathy toward sex. This period continued through the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The Qing were quite anti-sex. Under the previous dynasty, prostitution was not illegal. But starting in the Qing, officials were not allowed to engage prostitutes. Then in 1949, when the Communist Party took over, they forbid it. The pinnacle of this era was the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Women and men mostly wore the same clothes and sex was almost purged from public view.

The third era is the start of the reform years [beginning in 1978]. Sex could be a good thing and wasn’t a crime. New ideas were introduced as well, such as sexual rights. This is something that the first phase didn’t have.

What about women’s rights under the Communist Party? Has progress been illusory?

It’s definitely better than it was before 1949. It started in the 1950s, when all people—male or female—were asked to participate in the workforce. In the past it was “outward affairs handled by men, household affairs handled by women.” But this change—work—changed things for women in the cities and in the countryside.

Even in the countryside? Haven’t women always labored there?

Not always. In the north of China, women very often didn’t do agricultural work. They stayed at home, gave birth to children, and looked after the house. But starting in the 1950s they had to work. That helped their status immensely. They had their own income and didn’t have to rely on men. Now, in rural areas, women accounted for a third of a household’s income. This is quite different than not earning anything. In the cities, in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, women’s income reached 85 percent of men’s. This was amazing. It was really high by international standards. In the US around that time, it was just 60 percent.

But you don’t think that overall the status of women in China has declined since the economic reforms of the 1980s?

There have been some losses but it’s not uniform. Women’s income has slid from 85 percent to 70 percent of men’s. Also, there are more women not working and a lot of companies don’t want women with children, and if women get pregnant they lose their jobs. But it’s not all negative. In the 1980s, for example, the ratio of women to men at university was one to three. Now it’s 51 percent women. In fact, some universities have had to reduce admission standards for men to maintain some sort of equality—because women study harder than men! If you look at the situation of women entrepreneurs, there’s been a big improvement. Some reports say that many of the world’s top self-made female entrepreneurs are Chinese. In the past, managers were all men.

Besides blogging, you’re still writing a lot. What are you working on now?

I’ve written two short story collections about S&M.

Like 50 Shades of Grey?

It’s something like that. But I’m hesitant to try to publish them.

But I’m sure they would sell well.

Right now they would be banned. S&M isn’t acceptable. But I predict that in a few years it’ll be allowed.

Link: Interview with an Auschwitz Guard: 'I Do Not Feel Like a Criminal'

As a young man, Jakob W. worked in the watchtowers of Auschwitz. Charges against him were recently dropped, but he described to SPIEGEL what it was like to be a cog in the Nazis’ horrific machinery of death. 

Jakob W. was 19-years-old and in his third semester studying architecture at college when he received the letter that would, seven decades later, turn him into a suspect for complicity in murder.

In the summer of 1942, the young man from a village near Belgrade received his draft notice. Just a few months later, he was standing on a tower hundreds of kilometers away from his home in Yugoslavia. Jakob W. was now an SS guard in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp — and thus a party in the most horrific of the crimes committed by the Third Reich. For two and a half years, he looked down at the factory of human annihilation, day in and day out.

Now, in 2014, Jakob W. lives in a large, southern German city, his house plastered white and his garden filled with roses. A chain-link fence separates his yard from the neighbor’s. A retired civil servant with a degree in architecture, W. has lived here for more than 30 years. Wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and black leather shoes, he settles in the living room on a black leather couch, covered in a wool blanket. The room is crammed with carpets; an oak china cabinet overflows with knick-knacks. Above the sofa is an oil painting of a mountain lake at sunrise.

Jakob W. was one of the 30 people targeted by German prosecutors in the fall of 2013, suspected of being accessories to multiple murders. Given the advanced age of the suspects, it is likely that these will be the last legal proceedings in Germany relating to Nazi war crimes.

It is now August, and it is the third time that the retiree has received journalists from SPIEGEL. A few days prior, just after his 91st birthday celebration, he learned that state prosecutors in Stuttgart had abandoned the case against him. Jakob W. was already convicted by a Polish court in 1948 in connection with his Auschwitz duties and he cannot be punished a second time.

The elderly man, whose German has a slight Slavic tint, has the energy of a man 20 years his junior. He could now draw a line under his past. But just as he defied investigators earlier this summer when they asked him not to speak to the press, he has no intention of keeping his mouth shut now. He wants to “bear witness,” as he calls it, and share his version of the story. He has only one condition: Anonymity.


SPIEGEL: When did you first hear about the gas chambers?

W.: When you see that so many trains are coming, people arriving, then nobody can say anything. Everyone knew about it.

SPIEGEL: Were you ever inside a gas chamber?

W.: Just once. It was with a surveyor team. I was charged with guarding them. That was in 1943 or 1944.

SPIEGEL: How big was the chamber?

W.: Maybe as big as my entire house, which is 90 square meters (970 square feet). I mean, when one of the trains arrived, with 200 or 300 people, then they, if there were too many, had to wait outside.

SPIEGEL: You could see that from above?

W.: They had to wait in front of the gas chamber for an hour. And then they were led inside. They also heard the screams, but they, the SS people, the … I mean, that’s how it was. That’s how it … happened.

SPIEGEL: What was going through your mind when you were standing with the surveyors in the gas chamber?

W.: You can imagine it must have been a big room. It was pretty much a concrete bunker. There were pipes on the outside; I don’t know any more if there were four or six. Then they threw a can inside.

SPIEGEL: You saw SS troops throwing Zyklon B in from the outside?

W.: Yes, of course. Standing on the tower, you could see them coming. It was always a vehicle with two men inside. And then they drove directly there and did a little operation and then you knew: That is the death squad.


Jakob W. was in Auschwitz until January 1945. After that, his unit was sent to defend Breslau, the present-day Polish city of Wroclaw, where he lost his right eye and was wounded in the stomach. To this day, he can only hear out of his left ear. In addition to his wife, he also invited his neighbor to be present during the interview. He wants to show that he has no secrets, and never did.

Many knew that he was once a guard in Auschwitz, including his three sons, colleagues at work and the Protestant pastor from the local church. Even the Chancellery and the German president’s office knew. In 2011, Jakob W. wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-President Christian Wulff complaining that the state had docked his pension by €59 ($78) per month due to his violation of the “principles of humanity” during the Nazi period. A law passed by Helmut Kohl’s government made the decrease possible. His petition was politely rejected.


W.: In Auschwitz, I would have a week of daytime shifts and a week of nighttime shifts on the towers and then a week with the labor squads outside the camp.

SPIEGEL: Were you alone in the tower during your shifts?

W.: Yes, but at night there were two of us for the 12-hour shift, swapping out every three hours. In between, you could get some sleep. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, there is that famous gate through which the trains drove into the camp. Up above in the building was our break room for night shifts.

SPIEGEL: What do you remember about your service on the towers?

W.: Twelve hours is a long time. When it was hot, you had to stand the whole day in the sun. When it was cold, you had to constantly hop from one foot to the other. There you are, six meters (19 feet) up and you aren’t allowed to go down, not even to pee.

SPIEGEL: What did you think about when you were up there?

W.: In the morning, all the prisoners had to go to work, somewhere to build roads. In the evenings, they came back in. In between times, there was nobody to be seen in the camp. During those times, we would read. I had a Bible with me, or a newspaper. That wasn’t forbidden.

SPIEGEL: You read the Bible on the guard towers?

W.: I am an Protestant Christian. And I believe it was God’s will that I was just a guard. And not in a firing squad.

SPIEGEL: Did you ever shoot a prisoner in Auschwitz?

W.: I never shot anybody.

SPIEGEL: From the towers, you had a view of the entire camp. Did you ever see another SS soldier shoot a prisoner?

W.: No.

SPIEGEL: Did you ever see a prisoner trying to escape?

W.: No, but it happened. They were mostly acting out of desperation. They jumped onto the fence and were shot to death.

SPIEGEL: But you never saw such a thing?

W.: I never shot anybody.

SPIEGEL: Did you have any contact with the prisoners?

W.: Yes, but it was mostly the German ones.

SPIEGEL: And you talked with them?

W.: They only spoke to us if we spoke to them first. Because many of us would say things like “shit Jews” or “stinking Jews,” it’s their fault that we are here. I would almost say that the majority blamed the Jews for the fact that we had to stand guard there. We used the informal “du” (you) when speaking to them and they had to use the formal “Sie” (you) when they replied.

SPIEGEL: What did you talk about with them?

W.: One time we had this women’s labor squad, a couple of really young ones. And so I asked: “Why are you here?” Then she answered: “Because I’m Jewish.” And what are you supposed to say then?

SPIEGEL: Did you see the corpses being burned?

W.: The crematorium chimneys weren’t very tall. Depending on the wind direction, it stunk badly. And starting in 1944, the crematoria weren’t able to keep up. Next to them was a ditch, perhaps three or four meters across. A fire was burning in the trench day and night. Two men were always carrying straps that they used to pull them (Eds. note: the corpses) out of the gas chamber, removed the straps and threw them into the fire. If you were standing in the area, it was impossible to look away.

SPIEGEL: So you were on a tower near the gas chambers?

W.: We always changed. The fence was right behind the gas chambers and the towers were behind that. You could see it. A huge fire was burning.

SPIEGEL: A huge fire of corpses?

W.: It never went out. Day and night. You get used to everything. Nobody could leave. And you couldn’t complain, it wouldn’t have changed anything.


As Jakob W. was talking about this dark chapter of German history, his wife was sitting next to him, knitting. Sometimes she would help him recall something or complete his sentences. She knew many of the details. She says that sometimes, at birthday parties of friends or family members, her husband would start talking about Auschwitz out of the blue.

The story of SS guard Jakob W. got its start in Beška, a small town near Belgrade where so-called Danube-Swabians, as Yugoslavia’s German-speaking population was known, lived at the time. In April 1941, Hitler’s troops marched into Yugoslavia. For W., that is an important detail. He never had German citizenship, he was Yugoslavian. And he says he also isn’t responsible for the fact that, starting in 1942, the SS began sending long-serving SS guards to the front and replacing them with ethnic Germans. In the second half of the war, half of all guards were ethnic Germans.

Polish historian Aleksander Lasik maintains a database of SS members who served in concentration camps. He can substantiate that 45 men from W.’s home district served in Auschwitz. Jakob W. himself estimates that the number from Beška was around 20, including a cousin of his and a schoolmate. If that is true, Beška could very well have been the village with the highest concentration of Auschwitz personnel.


SPIEGEL: How did you get to Auschwitz?

W.: We were told that the train would leave from Indija, a village next door to Beška, at 9 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1942. SS people there received us. They told us that we weren’t allowed to get off the train anywhere. We traveled in a passenger train to Vienna, where the last car was separated from the train. It went to Auschwitz.

SPIEGEL: You were sitting in the last car, in other words?

W.: Yes. We were seated according to last name. “S” to “Z” were sitting in the last car and had to go to Auschwitz. It was by chance. When a train arrived in Vienna, the SS divided up the passengers. Names were called out alphabetically. And when one car filled up, they started with the next one.

SPIEGEL: How did the journey continue?

W.: When we arrived in the Auschwitz train station, we immediately marched the two kilometers to the Birkenau camp. First, they cut our hair short, vaccinated us and gave us tattoos. Mine was an upside-down “A,” which stood for my blood type. We initially received three months of training, including on a firing range. Lying down, standing, everything you can imagine.

SPIEGEL: Where were the others from?

W.: Our group was mostly made up of Germans from abroad, from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.


Jakob W. insists that he had no choice. Research conducted by the historian Jan Erik Schulte indicates that conscriptions into the Waffen SS in 1942 Yugoslavia were “essentially predominantly compulsory affairs.” As such, W.’s case began with a violation of the Hague Conventions, which expressly prohibits drafting foreign citizens to bear arms.

When W. arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was officially designated as a prisoner of war camp. Originally, SS head Heinrich Himmler had wanted to use prisoners of war to establish a network of defensive forts and barricades to protect German settlers in Eastern Europe. But then he had the site expanded into the largest death camp in the Nazi’s machinery of destruction.

At the time, Auschwitz was part of the German Reich, with Hitler having annexed the region following the attack on Poland. Ultimately, the complex included three main camps and around 50 subsidiary camps. Many prisoners were brutally murdered in the sub-camps as well, but gas chambers were only to be found in the core camp (“KL Auschwitz I”) and in the 140 hectare (346 acre) sea of barracks known as Auschwitz-Birkenau (“KL Auschwitz II”).

Surrounding Birkenau were thousands of cement poles connected to one-another by electric fencing. On the outside of the fence stood the guard towers of varying heights, with SS guards wielding spotlights and machine guns on top. Surrounding those barriers was an additional string of guard towers, allowing the SS to control a huge swath of terrain. They were to prevent prisoners from escaping while performing labor outside the camp. At times, there were 3,000 guards on duty.


W.: If you had a daytime shift, it ended at six in the evening. Then we went to the canteen. Afterwards you could request to leave the camp and you could go as far as the Auschwitz train station. The girls from Katowice, the nearest larger city, would always go there.

SPIEGEL: So you would leave the camp during the evenings?

W.: Yes, yes, of course. There were many bars. Most played skat and drank beer.

SPIEGEL: What did people talk about?

W.: People weren’t enthused about the leadership. We of course knew and everybody almost felt that it couldn’t end well, that it couldn’t been good when trains were being brought here full of people who were then getting killed. We all had that feeling. But, I mean, when you’re a soldier …


In the personnel files of camp staff members, there are official declarations stating, “I may not cause bodily harm or death to opponents of the state (prisoners).” It also states, “I am aware and I have been informed today that I will be punished by death if I misappropriate Jewish property of any kind.” The SS team at Auschwitz — a camp where the indiscriminate torture, robbing and murder of people was part of everyday life — were required to pledge in advance to do precisely the opposite.

One could view forms like that as a special form of cynicism. Or one could see it as a pseudo-legal facade aimed at covering up the Holocaust. One provision called for “absolute secrecy” to be maintained. In practice, it had no meaning.


W.: My brother visited me once. He began serving as a Wehrmacht soldier in 1941. I didn’t get any vacation at the time. He wrote to me that he had been given five days of special leave to visit me.

SPIEGEL: When was that?

W.: He arrived at the train station in Auschwitz in the summer of 1943. There was a home for visitors and he called me from there. I picked him up and we walked around the entire camp. He wore a Wehrmacht uniform, but that didn’t draw any attention in Birkenau.

SPIEGEL: And what did your brother say about the concentration camp?

W.: What did he say? He knew about it. Half of our village was in the SS and everyone had said something about it at home.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel about your brother’s visit?

W.: I was glad. My cousin, who was also a guard in Auschwitz, got a day off as well. The three of us walked around the camp. You have to imagine it being like a large village. The prisoners weren’t there, they were at work.

SPIEGEL: Do you show him the crematoriums where the gas chambers were located?

W.: He saw it, of course. That evening we went back the train station and into the bar.

Read more.

Link: Saying no! to Jack Bauer: Mainstreaming Torture

Rebecca Gordon is the bad-ass philosopher who argues that Jack Bauer is wrong to use torture. She is an applied ethicist who is engaged all the time with forging a dialectical relationship to the rest of the world, with current political realities, with torture as a government supported institution hidden in plain sight, with torture and Alisdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics, with torture as a practice, about what Obama should do, about ‘enhanced interrogation’, why Jack Bauer is wrong, why Anscombe thinks certain thought experiments can erode ethical thinking, about whether her approach is universal, about rival approaches and whether there are reasons for optimism around this depressing reality. Come gather round people…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Rebecca Gordon: It was an accident. I’d spent the previous 30-odd years as an activist in a variety of political movements, supporting myself as a bookkeeper and accountant. In 2000, it seemed that many of the movements I’d worked in (for women’s liberation, for LGBT in solidarity with people in Central America, against apartheid in South Africa and for racial justice in the United States) had reached a kind of stasis. A long phase of my personal life was also drawing to a close; my partner and I had been caring for my mother for some years; now she was dying. It seemed like a good moment to do something new. Naturally, I thought, “I’ll go back to school.”

Next question: What to study? Mathematics? History? Small particle physics? I decided I might as well do something that encompasses the whole shebang and study theology. So I wandered over to the Graduate Theological Union, where I thought I’d spend a couple of years and emerge with an M.Div. from Starr King School for Religious Leadership. Once you’re enrolled at GTU, you can take classes at any of the nine schools, and U.C. Berkeley. So I did. And, against all my expectations, I fell in love with scholarship.

The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California gave me a full ride for the first two years of a doctoral program in Ethics and Social Theory. As I worked on the dissertation, I began teaching in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. Now I had something entirely new to learn about: how to teach. For the last nine years I’ve had the privilege of talking with an economically, racially, and nationally diverse group of young people about their own deepest values — at the time in their lives when they are trying to figure out who they want to be in the world.

The work that became Mainstreaming Torture began as my dissertation at the GTU.

3:AM: You say that the world of philosophical ethics is divided into two very distinct segments – theoretical and applied ethics and that in the academy the theoretical is more esteemed. But you are an applied ethicist – so are you out to change the world – and do you think the academy should be too?

RG: I would never presume to seek to “change the world” as an individual actor. That is a project for many people thinking, deciding, and working together in organized ways. My goal for the students in my classes is that they emerge thinking of themselves as citizens – not necessarily, or only, of a single nation, but of the world. Do I think the academy should be out to change the world? I think that much of its work inevitably does change the world, and not always for the better. I think that those of us located in the academy have a responsibility to recognize that our institutions are embedded in a larger society, and that, as is true for any institution, we exist in dialectical relationship to the rest of the world.

3:AM: You’ve recently engaged with the highly topical issue of torture. Was the motivation political awareness of what’s happening recently?

RG: Yes, and no. Yes in that I began thinking and writing about state torture within two months of the terrible attacks of 9/11. And no, in the sense that I had long known that my own government supported torture regimes in many places, including Greece, the Philippines, and large parts of Latin America.

In 1984 I spent six months in the war zones of Nicaragua. There I met survivors of torture at the hands of the counter-revolutionary force the Reagan administration was (at that time illegally) training, arming, and supporting, known as the contra. The contra had an intentional strategy of terrorizing civilians in rural areas, torturing them to death and leaving mutilated bodies to be discovered by others. I met at least one torturer as well.

A few years later, I served as interpreter for a U.S. delegation to El Salvador, just a few weeks before the murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroaméricana in San Salvador. At that time, the Salvadoran government enjoyed military and political support from United States. During our two weeks in El Salvador, one of our key contacts in the labor movement there was arrested. We were able to visit him in prison, where he described how he had been tortured. Not for information, but as a matter of course.

Within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks, it became clear to anyone who wanted to know that one result was that people were going to be tortured. Of course this wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has been involved with torture, but September 11 did mark a real change. Almost overnight, a question that many people believed had been resolved – whether or not torture is wrong – was reopened. In November of 2011, Jonathan Alter, a mainstream liberal columnist, wrote in Newsweek, “In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to … torture.” He wondered whether it might be a good plan to deport the Muslims living in the United States whom the FBI had rounded up to “Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings.” Americans who weren’t thinking about new methods to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history” had failed to recognize that they lived in a transformed world. “Some people still argue,” wrote Alter, “that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.”

The people the FBI had rounded up turned out to have nothing to do with 9/11, but some of them were held for more than half a year in cells in Brooklyn, NY, where they were subjected to treatment that has since become very familiar: 23-hour-per-day isolation, short shackling, beatings, sexual humiliation, exposure to freezing temperatures, and in at least one case, anal rape with a police flashlight.

The more I think about institutionalized torture, the more I realize that it is hidden in plain sight all around us – in U.S. jails an prisons, and even in institutions for people with disabilities. So yes, it is topical. And it has been going on for a long time.

3:AM: Are you approaching this via virtue ethics, four cardinal virtues and Alisdair MacIntyre and what is the best way to understand what torture is?

RG: I’m going to reverse the order of these questions, because I think that once we understand what institutionalized state torture is, it becomes clearer why I think MacIntyre’s contemporary virtue ethics provide a useful way of understanding torture’s moral implications.

The torture that I am concerned with is institutionalized state torture – the kind of organized, intentional program carried on by governments. It’s not Jack Bauer saving Los Angeles on 24. It’s not some brave person preventing a ticking time-bomb from going off by torturing the one person who can stop it. We must stop thinking of torture as a series of isolated actions taken by heroic individuals in moments of extremity, and begin instead to understand it as a socially embedded practice. A study of past and present torture regimes suggests that institutionalized state torture has its own histories, its own traditions, its own rituals of initiation. It encourages, both in its individual practitioners and in the society that harbors it, a particular set of moral habits, call them virtues or vices as you prefer.

Here’s my definition of institutionalize state torture: It is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an official or agent of a political entity, which results in dismantling the victim’s sensory, psychological, and social worlds, with the purpose of establishing or maintaining that entity’s power. This definition can be expanded to reveal its legal, phenomenological, and political dimensions.

The language about “intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an agent of a political entity” mirrors the definition found in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment, to which the U.S. is a signatory. A phenomenological definition describes the ways in which torture reduces and distorts its targets’ orientation in time and space, its effects on language, and its destruction persons’ social connections. The “political” portion deals with the purposes of torture, which when it is institutionalized by a state, has much less to do with “intelligence gathering” than it does with political and social control.

So what does this understanding of torture have to do with virtue ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre? I would argue that when we understand torture as an ongoing practice, we can begin to see how it affects moral habits. (I’ll say more about how MacIntyre’s approach in answer to a later question.) The “cardinal” virtues have been around in “western” philosophy since Plato and Aristotle (although the latter’s catalogue of virtues was more varied and variable.) These virtues are courage, justice, temperance or moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming, I describe ways that each of these is distorted by the practice of torture. ‘

Courage becomes not the ability to withstand fear and pain, but the ability to overcome instinctive squeamishness and inflict it.

Justice is tricky to define, but one thing is clear, which is that torture subverts the usual temporal order of legal justice. Ordinarily, trial precedes punishment. In torture, the order is reversed, and in many cases, no trial ever occurs.

Temperance can be thought of as a properly measured response to the joys and pleasures of life. In torture, what is prized is moderation in enjoyment of causing suffering. That is, interviews with torturers suggest that they have little respect for peers who torture because they like doing it. Thomas Aquinas includes the subsidiary virtue of humility within the category of temperance. Torture belies the humility that allows us to recognize that no human being can know the contents of another person’s mind. We cannot identify with certainty the “really bad guys,” who may in fact turn out to be unlucky men scooped up and sold on an Afghan battlefield.

The wisdom I am concerned with is practical wisdom, what Aristotle calls phronesis, and Thomas prudence, right reason about things to be done. It is the intellectual virtue, that allows us to think properly about moral questions. In Mainstreaming, I said,

“In commenting on the perpetrators of great evil, including torturers [Hannah Arendt] observed that the one thing they appeared to have in common was “something entirely negative; it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” Elsewhere she writes, “Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility, but of personal judgment in the early stages of the Nazi regime, it is impossible to understand what happened.” The inability to think about what is happening around one, or to make a moral judgment about it, is a dangerous habit indeed.

The practice of institutionalized state torture requires precisely this “quite authentic inability to think” both in people directly involved, and in a public that learns not to think too hard about what is being done in our name for our supposed protection. I sometimes think it’s useful to talk about “culpable ignorance,” the failure to acknowledge something we could know if we chose to. Not that we haven’t had help getting there. I’ve argued that in the case of the “war on terror” the government’s “rhetoric of denial, the theater of fear with its manipulation of threat levels and [what William Cavanaugh calls] the ‘striptease of power,’ the apologias for torture by present and former government officials: All these serve to diminish ordinary citizens’ capacity to think clearly about moral questions.

Read more.

Edward Said in an interview with Timothy Appleby (1986) on the question "Can an Arab & Jewish state coexist?"

  • TA: Why don't you, once and for all, renounce terror?
  • ES: We're not in a position to renounce anything that confirms our status as essentially terrorists, which is what the Israelis have since the middle 1970s been trying to convince the world of. That all Palestinian acts of resistance are acts of terror. It's blatant hypocrisy, it's a lie, from a state that commands its bombers from a height of 10,000 feet to bomb refugee camps.
  • TA: Nonetheless...
  • ES: Nonetheless, I'm telling you about the image. Images are formed by the media, and you know as well as I do that you're not interested in covering Al Fajr [an Arab newspaper published in Jerusalem], but you do cover random outrages by individuals who attempt to blow up a bus in Israel. Have you ever actually done a body count? Have you? Have you any idea of the disparity between Israelis killed and Palestinians killed? I mean, we're talking hundreds to one...
  • TA: Why do you think you have such a hard time convincing anybody of this?
  • ES: Because we are a non-Western people from a civilization that has always been in conflict with the West. The world of Islam has always been a historical competitor, and it has never capitulated. So the one thing people don't understand is, why do you Palestinians whimper? Why don't you go away? Forget it. But we don't.
  • TA: Maybe time is running out.
  • ES: They said that five years ago [in 1981] -- the midnight hour. The fact is, every Israeli realizes they have no military option against us. What are they going to do? Kill everybody? So some of us say, WE FIGHT ON. And we keep saying, We're going to live together with you. That no matter what they do, we're a shadow.
  • TA: It seems quite clear the Israelis are not going to give up...
  • ES: It was very clear in Algeria. And they fought for what? 130 years? Then they gave up... [T]hey said that about the British in Kenya. Who could have imagined that after 300 years of colonization in India they would have left? They come and they go.

Link: Dead Can Dance

Why do we care about the dead? And what does this care keep alive in us? University of California,  Berkeley, historian Thomas Laqueur is working through these questions, focusing on the history of European death cultures. Sprawling and ambitious in scope, his forthcoming book traces the different ways that the dead are put to work to help structure living societies.

The Work of the Dead tells the story of how Europe’s deceased traveled from the churchyard to the out-of-town cemetery via images of colonial power and national unity, and the new uses they were put to in the process. The project gathers a vast quantity of material on the praxis of death, from archaeological evidence of prehistoric burial rites to the modern practice of cremation. This wealth of detail evokes not only the specific individual necessity of mourning—of figuring out what we have lost when we lose someone important to us and how this importance can persist without the presence of its object—but the larger social task of creating histories, genealogies, and stories that organize our relations to one another. In Laqueur’s account, the social as such starts to look like a vast work of mourning. Or maybe it’s better to say that mourning looks like the starting point of the social. Animals know death too, but they don’t make such a habit of it.

His previous books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990) and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003). Like these books, The Work of the Dead investigates the troubled line between nature and culture, and the manifold means by which broadly consistent physical facts become widely differing social realities.

In an interview, we talked about war memorials, Marx’s tomb, the names of the dead, and imperialist fantasies of murdering ghosts.

Can you give me a brief summary of the book you’re working on now?

The project I’m working on is called The Work of the Dead: Oblivion and Memory in Western Culture. I actually believe it to be broader than Western culture, but I want to be modest. The question I ask is, Why is it that we care for the dead body? We know that the dead body itself is just part of nature, that life has gone from it. But there’s a very long history going back to Paleolithic times of caring for the dead body, and people do it irrespective of what they believe about it. Socialists do it, Christians do it, Buddhists who believe that the body is irrelevant to the self do it. I’m interested in that puzzle.

Secondly, I’m interested in why we do it in practical ways: how dead bodies mark out borders and civilizations, how they seem to collect nations together. In other words, I want to argue that the living need the dead more than the dead need the living. The dead do all sorts of things for us.

I try to look at this in deep time, and I trace it through Christian traditions. I look at the 18th through the 20th centuries: how we find new places for the dead, how the cemetery replaces the churchyard, why, and how the cemetery is different from the churchyard. I explore why in the middle of the 19th century we start cremating people in these high-tech steel ovens that are borrowed from steelmaking technology, and what that means.

Lastly, I’m interested in the question of why, after so many centuries, millennia, of caring relatively little about the names of the dead, we’ve become so concerned about collecting them and marking landscapes with names, and putting names on memorials, and in general how we’ve come to think that every dead person has a name. Those are the big themes that I deal with.

In your book Making Sex, you insist on the idea that the body is culturally produced. You have a really nice phrase about how even though there is a body outside culture, we can access it only through culture. It seems that in relation to the dead, you can’t make that strong a claim. In some senses the biology of death—that bodies stop breathing, stop thinking, stop walking around—is absolute, and that’s an unassimilable fact that operates transculturally and transhistorically.

Sex operates like that too. Transhistorically, species that reproduce bisexually have two different sexes. So that’s the issue, how one understands and assimilates that fact into culture.

We know that Neanderthals buried, we know that some humans in the Paleolithic 25,000, 30,000 years ago buried. And as far as we have a record into the Upper Neolithic, very early settlements 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, people took care of the dead. So care of the dead is this moment in which the biological fact of death enters culture. Caring for the dead is like the incest taboo: It’s this moment, speaking theoretically, in which we move from nature into culture.

We care for the dead for all sorts of reasons, and each culture has made up many different reasons why it’s important. The dead are scary; the dead are scary for many reasons. The dead might be helped by the living and the living might be helped by the dead. The ultimate fact is that we care for the dead, and then we make up a bunch of reasons to justify that.

What strikes me as interesting is that we create communities with dead people that represent our communities, even though we know that what we’re burying is indistinguishable from anything else—the dead body of our friend is no different from the dead body of our enemy. But we believe it to be the dead body of a friend, and we invest meaning in that. We take nature, which is the dead body, and bring it into culture. That’s a very remarkable thing.

There are a bunch of tombs around Marx’s grave, and if an anthropologist were to dig it up a thousand years from now, they would think it looked exactly like a Sufi tomb, or a Catholic tomb, or a Hasidic tomb. Because somehow these dead materialist communists believe that their ashes produce a community with Karl Marx, even though their whole life philosophy suggests that’s rubbish. It’s not even his body in Highgate; it’s his ashes. But there’s a great Marx tomb that looks like there’s a body in it. There’s something equivalent in how we make gender out of sex. Everyone’s ashes are chemically indistinguishable, and yet ashes can make a community. If you were to say, okay, Marx’s ashes are there just to make a memorial, I would say that’s true, but it wouldn’t work without a body. If it were just a plaque with a name on it, it wouldn’t work. It’s similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; if you thought the body weren’t there, it wouldn’t work.

Even for people who explicitly believe that in death there’s nothing of the person left—for example, Marx was an Epicurean, and he thought that the atoms of your body returned to nature—the dead body matters. Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband writes very eloquently about what her dead body means to him. He says that, like her eyeglasses and her books are dear to him, all the more so her body, although he knows that she’s not in her body.

I was really interested in your description of cemeteries and how heavily they draw on a mishmash of ancient Egyptian architecture and other kinds. You also relate it to the colonial development of racial and national categories. Could you say more about how those things appear in these ornate cemeteries?

Before the Enlightenment, the only place you could get buried without ignominy was the churchyard. With the development of the cemetery, the dead make new kinds of communities.

In churchyards, the graves were all oriented east-west. In the English churchyard, there’s a particular botany: The yew tree is the tree of the churchyard. There’s only one kind of person in the churchyard: a Christian. There’s no private property in the churchyard, everything belongs to the community. Every monument has to have the approval of the parish priest, so you can’t build what you want there. The churchyard is a communal space, and it’s a space that belongs to the parish. Others can come in, but only by paying extra.

The cemetery is a place where (in theory) anyone can buy property, and you can lie next to anyone, and you can be buried in any direction you want to be buried. You can write anything you want on the tombstone. You can be any religion. If you’re Jewish, some rabbis might not be willing to bury you, but some rabbis would. It’s an open space, and people built according to the sensibilities of the day. Just like you can choose clothes that are slightly retro, the large cemeteries provided big tombs and they provided graves that looked like Egyptian tombs and Roman-style plinths, and you could present yourself in whatever way you wanted. The colonial cemetery in Calcutta looks like an imperial cemetery, it doesn’t look like a churchyard.

In Europe, every nation starts by producing national cemeteries. The first thing the Czechs do is produce a national cemetery. So the dead can produce all kinds of communities.

Race itself seems to have something to do with a long history of the dead.

In America there are segregated cemeteries, but it’s also the case with religious difference. In Northern Ireland, the Belfast cemetery has a Protestant and a Catholic section and it has a six-foot underground wall, so the purity of the Catholics and the purity of the Protestants won’t be violated. Communities of race and communities of servitude produce their own burial places.

The work of the dead is an immense feat of the human imagination. Not even the craziest 19th century racist argues that the actual bones of a dead black person are any different than the bones of a white person, and yet they won’t be buried next to each other. The dead are so crucial to making communities because they become paths to connect to the past. There was terrible uproar in Spain because the right wing has exhumed the bodies of Republicans and put them in the Franco memorial, which is seen as a monument to fascism. Yet the bodies don’t know the difference—they’re the same as the fascist bodies. Lorca has a wonderful line: “Nowhere are the dead more alive than Spain.” I don’t know if that’s especially true in Spain, but everywhere the dead are alive. We believe the dead to be alive whether we believe them to be ghosts or spirits or inhabit an afterlife. It’s immaterial whether or not we believe the dead are somewhere else—we take dead bodies to represent the dead and to matter and to be alive. A huge amount of life and culture is made manifest in the dead body.

We even believe the names to be alive. At the Vietnam Memorial people leave cigarettes and beer at the name of someone they loved. Even though if you actually asked them, do you actually believe in grave goods? Do you believe that there’s a ghost that will drink the beer? None of that. There’s no checklist of beliefs. But the name represents some version of the immortality or the presence of the person.

Is it a peculiarity of capitalist or white bourgeois society that it doesn’t specify any particular relation to the dead? Like you said about the people who leave beer at the Vietnam memorial, there’s no metaphysics that substantiates why they do it. That seems like a weird thing about modernity.

There aren’t many cultures that have a more engaged relation to the dead than the high capitalist or Victorian age. I think that now people are immensely engaged with the dead. There are endless battles about where someone can be buried. “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can’t be in my cemetery.” Or people ingest ashes of their loved ones or get tattoos with ink made from the ashes of their loved ones. There are endless stories.

I think the bourgeoisie is if anything more actively engaged with the dead, though it’s hard to quantify. I certainly don’t believe that we’re not engaged with the dead. If you think of the dead of conflict, of the Holocaust, of war—they are crucial in our culture. In the high era of imperialist capitalism, the Unknown Warrior becomes a shrine in every European country. And there’s no theology that justifies it.

I would say in some sense that bourgeois culture is more engaged with the dead than before because it’s a way to deal with the anxiety of “all that’s solid melts into the air.” It doesn’t melt into air—it stops with the dead. Many bourgeois conventions, rituals, and gestures are to make it stop. I don’t believe the line that we ever stopped making the dead central in all sorts of cultures.

As you get more and more violent mass death, with colonialism and the wars of the 20th century, I was thinking about how unbearable it would be for the agents of this colonial culture to have the dead as this malevolent force. What if we did believe that the dead who died badly had some kind of presence? Of course symbolically the dead are very active, but we don’t really believe that the ghosts of people who died in concentration camps are haunting Angela Merkel. But we could. I was thinking about how the refusal of ­certain forms of death is also a convenient refusal of certain forms of guilt.

How long have ghosts ever haunted anyone? Ghosts haunt historically for relatively short amounts of time. People complained about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin exactly because you don’t want the ghosts of the Holocaust dead in the middle of the city. I think the ghosts of the Holocaust have survived for longer in Germany than ghosts of previous injustices have survived anywhere else.

The colonial issue is another one. The unjustly dead of the British have not survived. That’s an interesting question, and I think it has to do with an idea of colonial power. You can kill the ghosts—that’s the imperialist fantasy. The Roman idea that you could actually kill everyone in Jerusalem or Carthage and that would be the end of them. They would not come back. That is the fantasy of colonial power, and it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

Is there a relation between death and gender?

I wanted to say at first, my book is mostly about men. Because of patriarchy, civilization is carried through men, and there’s less care for the dead women. But I think the truth of the matter is that it varies enormously from culture to culture and situation to situation. Sometimes archaeologically they find fewer women’s graves, because there are fewer women, like in the frontier societies of the Vikings. Sometimes there are equal numbers of women and women are cared for just as much as men.

I think that many public monuments and public presentations of the dead are about men because men die in war, and many of the great monuments to the dead are created in war. And “great men” have to be men, in patriarchal societies. But is there a dramatic difference in care of the dead by gender? Probably not. But that’s a hard thing to nail down. You can’t make the blanket statement that women’s bodies are less cared for in death, in general. The experts on the deep history of the dead aren’t clear on this. 

The masculine/feminine binary relates women to birth, death and this murky substrate, more associated with nature—and you talked about the dead body returning to nature. What do you think about that possible connection between women and death?

Mourners tend to be women, and you could argue that this is symbolically because women bring life into the world. In Jewish culture and in many other cultures, the dead body and menstrual blood are part of the same pollution system. In my work, I’ve tended to not deal with this so much because I don’t think it has a history and I don’t think it has a way to be empirically studied. What my work does is to say, look, there’s a universal history of the dead, but how we care for the dead in particular places is a consequence of particular social and cultural situations, not of theology, and not of ideology. The dead make communities, the dead work for the living. Sometimes it’s the bodies of dead women, sometimes of dead men, and sometimes it’s indifferent.

How does all this relate to either the personal experience of bereavement as an absolute loss, or our own awareness that we ourselves are going to die one day?

The whole notion is that we care for the dead body because the dead body of a friend or a loved one is significant, even though we know they are gone. In mourning, there are different stages. The body or some version of the body, or some sense that the body is somewhere, is crucial to mourning, both in the acute stages of acute loss and in the long stages of maintaining family connections and genealogy.

At some point, the dead will fade away—probably within decades. But yes, it’s about mourning. It’s about acute mourning or longer mourning. Whether you put the ashes in a river, whether you put the ashes in a burial place, or where you put the body, is crucial to mourning.

While the dead are gone, they’re not gone. While the dead don’t speak, they speak. St. Paul said that and we can say it now: The dead don’t speak and yet we hear them speak. We hear them speak in St. Paul, we hear them speak in the poetry of Thomas Hardy. They speak, and they chastise us and they say loving things to us, they say all sorts of things to us. And they say it from where the body is, usually. So everyone in mourning believes their dead aren’t gone, they’re somewhere, and they’re something. That’s why the whole thing works. A dog doesn’t have a sense that a dead dog is anywhere, but humans believe that the dead are somewhere.

But animals can mourn, dogs can mourn. People have seen elephants mourning.

It’s very brief. It’s not over the long term. Humans are the only creatures who produce culture around the dead.

Link: To Zion and Back

Ismail Khalidi interviews Max Blumenthal on the rise of Israeli extremism.

Max Blumenthal’s 2009 book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party, was positively reviewed and garnered plenty of media attention, landing on the New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. Progressives and liberals embraced Blumenthal’s analysis of the extreme right in the US, and championed his prowess as a writer and investigative journalist. His latest book, on the other hand, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books), which he describes as a “compendium of Israeli extremism,” has received far less mainstream coverage since its release in October 2013, and has opened Blumenthal up to a barrage of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum. Upon the release of Goliath, The Nation’s Eric Alterman wrote a scathing review, “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook,” which Blumenthal later responded to in the same publication.

Blumenthal is known, in part, for his viral (and later censored) YouTube video reports from West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in which he filmed groups of partying young Israelis (including many of American stock) around the time of President Obama’s first official trip to the region in 2009. In “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem on the Eve of Obama’s Cairo Address” and “Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv,” Blumenthal and his Israeli-American colleagues captured flashes of casual intolerance and racism in Israeli society rarely seen in the West: young Israelis and American Jews directing racist taunts at President Obama and regurgitating ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab tropes with fervor. Goliath is in part an expansion on this theme, based on about a year’s worth of reporting in Israel/Palestine and five years of research.

While the book focuses on the rightward shift in Israel—from its settler population (well over half a million today) to its political class and its Russian newcomers—Blumenthal also gives us a glimpse into Israel’s marginalized anti-Zionist left and the lives of its liberal Tel Aviv elites, the latter making up the bulk of Israel’s Labor Party. Goliath differs from most mainstream reporting on the conflict in that it is not entirely Israel-centric. In Blumenthal’s Israel—unlike in most of the US media’s reporting or in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land (Shavit was interviewed in Guernica in December)—Palestinians are not simply one-dimensional props in the background of Israel’s soul-searching about the past and decision-making about the future. Instead they are impossible to ignore.

I spoke with Blumenthal in a small sushi bar in the West Village during a break from his book tour. He was overflowing with analysis of the latest developments in Israel/Palestine (where he travels frequently). As in his writing, he does not shy from using words like “racist,” “fascist,” and “extremist” when describing certain Israeli policies and individuals. Blumenthal insists that he does not use them for shock value, but to accurately express what he has seen firsthand. “After a few months [in Israel],” he told me as we discussed the book, “you stop noticing every incarnation of radicalism and violence in Israeli society. It is so saturated into the reality that it practically fades into the scenery.”

Ismail Khalidi for Guernica

Guernica: The last month has seen the killing of three teenage Israeli settlers near Hebron and a massive Israeli sweep into the West Bank in which hundreds of Palestinians were arrested, injured, and killed. Earlier this month a Palestinian teen was abducted and killed by Israelis in Jerusalem (who are said to have burned the boy alive). Now the Israeli military is engaged in an offensive against Gaza while Hamas fires rockets toward Israel. What do the last month’s events tell us about the state of the conflict?

Max Blumenthal: The entire crisis occurred against the backdrop of a peace process that Netanyahu was blamed for destroying and in the wake of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal, which the US recognized and which Netanyahu was determined to destroy as well. The kidnapping of the three Israeli teens by what appears to be a rogue Hamas cell apparently seeking to generate some kind of prisoner exchange was too good of an opportunity for him to waste.

And so, as I’ve documented with on-the-record sources, Israeli investigators, Netanyahu and the honchos of the military-intelligence apparatus knew by the sound of gunshots on a recorded call by the teens to the police that the teens were killed right away. And they chose to lie, not only to the teens’ parents, whom they sought to deploy as props in their global PR campaign, but to the Israeli public. Through a military gag order, the Israeli media was not allowed to report on the investigation or the details of the recorded phone call. With the Israeli public and the world convinced that the teens were alive, Israeli troops ransacked the West Bank under the guise of a rescue mission, and embarked on a global propaganda campaign centering around the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys. The Israeli public was not emotionally prepared for the discovery of the teens’ bodies because they thought they would be returned home as Gilad Shalit was. So Netanyahu and his inner circle set the public up for a truly dangerous reaction.

In Goliath, I detailed the rise of anti-Arab mobs comprised of soccer thugs and of the burgeoning anti-miscegenation movement in Israel. Netanyahu’s manipulation of the kidnapping and his response to the discovery of the dead teens—he said, “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created”—validated these elements and emboldened them as they set out for revenge. Those young men who abducted the Palestinian teen Mohamed Abu Khdeir met at one of the revenge rallies in Jerusalem; they were fans of the soccer club Beitar Jerusalem, which I wrote about in Goliath and whose racist history is absolutely legion. The killers forced Abu Khdeir to drink gasoline and burned him alive. In a place where an eliminationist strain of racism has been so thoroughly mainstreamed, it might actually be a misnomer to call them “extremists.”

Now we come to the bombardment of Gaza. Netanyahu had blamed “all of Hamas” for the three teens’ kidnapping, calling them and the teens’ killers “human animals.” So while he is forced to denounce vigilante violence after helping inspire it, he needs to allow a society seething with resentment and thirsting for vengeance with a release valve. That is the function that Gaza serves in the Israeli psyche. Under Hamas’s governance, it is at once the epicenter of evil and the collective punching bag. There is no evidence that anyone there had any role whatsoever in the kidnapping in the West Bank. But they must pay the price in their own blood.

Once again I find myself saying, “Unfortunately, I was right.” And I say that with a certain level of frustration because I sensed that there were many, particularly in liberal Jewish circles, who did not want to see the Israel that unfolded on the pages of my book and who studiously ignored the warnings I tried to relay to them. Now they are forced to reckon with the reality and don’t really seem to have the words to effectively explain it all away as they used to be able to.

Guernica: Talk about your approach to capturing and writing about experiences in which you essentially go undercover. How do you gain access without arousing suspicion?

Max Blumenthal: My privilege as a white Jewish American in Israel is a major factor in getting me so much access to the key institutions of the Jewish state. I traveled to Israel/Palestine last September and was mostly in Ramallah, the occupied pseudo-capital of the Palestinian Bantustan in the West Bank—the Palestinian “state” that never will be. A lot of Palestinian-Americans have hawiyas, the green Palestinian IDs that limit them to the West Bank. These folks generally have the same education level as I do. Some of them work for NGOs in Ramallah, including outfits that have been raided by Israeli forces, and they have given up fairly comfortable lives in the US to contribute to Palestinian society. But they cannot travel around the land like I can. Some of them have actually asked me to help sneak them into Jerusalem or into Jaffa, places they want to visit or to see, places that they have deep connections to—familial, cultural, professional—but which are off limits to them because they are Palestinians who hold Palestinian IDs. It’s really upsetting as an American to witness their predicament. Here in the US we’d be equals, or at least, we would technically enjoy the same legal rights. There they are inferior to me simply because I have J-positive blood and they don’t.

Guernica: You were able to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and spent time there interviewing people for the book.

Max Blumenthal: I spent a lot of time there and I interviewed over a dozen lawmakers who were behind the parade of anti-democratic laws that were passed between 2009 and 2013. One of these was the “NGO Law,” which attempts to limit foreign funding for NGOs, a law very similar to one authorized by Vladimir Putin in Russia. Another law passed during this time was the “Nakba Law,” which is very similar to the law Turkey has on the books to suppress acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. This law limits the rights of Palestinians to publicly observe the Nakba [the word Palestinians use, which means “catastrophe,” to refer to the dispossession of three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948]. It basically slaps penalties on organizations and NGOs that participate in these events. The “Acceptance to Communities Law” allows communities of up to four hundred family units to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and religion, basically bringing Israel’s system of de facto segregation into de jure form. Winning the trust of these lawmakers was not very difficult as Max Blumenthal, the Jewish guy, even if I was posing adversarial questions. If I was a Palestinian reporter or even an African-American, they might have been more suspicious. Knesset members would frequently appeal to my Jewishness in an attempt to win me to their side.

Guernica: What about with more radical right-wing activists? How does that play out?

Max Blumenthal: I attended a party hosted by Im Tirtzu, a right-wing Israeli student group that kind of functions as the grassroots arm of Netanyahu and the Likud party. It aims to attack the NGOs and human rights groups and generally harass Palestinian-Israeli civil society. They stage counter-protests to the very small anti-war protests that happen on Israeli campuses, menace Palestinian students on those campuses, and blacklist “post-Zionist” academics. To get into the party, which was held at a bar in an affluent city called Herzliya, I just told the student activists at the door that I was an American-Jewish tourist and I had heard there was a party—I acted clueless. While I was there one of these Im Tirtzu apparatchiks sat down at the bar and began to hold forth. He reminded me of an American neocon, and even recommended to me the work of David Horowitz to explain why left wingers needed to be purged from the academy. And yet it was an otherwise mundane gathering, almost exclusively young guys wearing polo shirts and designer jeans listening to American music. You wouldn’t know they were extremists from the looks of them.

The night ended with a call for Ben Gurion University to fire twelve professors who Im Tirtzu deemed “post-Zionist” or insufficiently Zionist. So the Likud party, through its policies and its various wings and allies, is not only boycotting the Gaza Strip and Palestinian society in general, it is involved in organizing boycotts of Israel’s own national universities. This is completely consistent with the push to strip human rights NGOs of funding, punish Israeli citizens who boycott settlement products, gut Israeli high school textbooks of any reference to Palestinian dispossession, and generally realize Joseph McCarthy’s wildest fever dreams.

Guernica: In terms of the State of Israel, what are some trends not being reported in the mainstream media?

Max Blumenthal: The state is an ethnocracy, which means its institutions exist to provide privilege to one ethnic group over another and physically and legally exclude the “other.” This is the definition of extremism, or at least the basis for its promulgation and promotion.

I came into direct contact with the atmosphere of extremism immediately upon arrival. On the first night of an extended trip into ’48 Israel, I was staying in Jaffa, a once-vibrant Palestinian city, which is now a Palestinian ghetto of Tel Aviv that is being aggressively Judaized. Not too far from there is Bnei Brak, which is an ultra-Orthodox community. The people there were staging protests around the country at that point because the Supreme Court had passed a ruling forbidding an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school from segregating Mizrahi students and Ashkenazi students. While rampaging through the neighborhood, they set a huge fire in our dumpster. That was my first night in Jaffa! After a few months you stop noticing every incarnation of radicalism and violence. It is so saturated into your reality that it practically fades into the scenery.

Guernica: One does not typically get that impression reading mainstream US coverage.

Max Blumenthal: No. But it is right there if you choose to report it. Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner and the rest of the reporters at the New York Times Jerusalem bureau actually have to devote endless stores of energy to avoid reporting on all of the outrages unfolding all around them. Instead of reporting on the Prawer Plan to ethnically cleanse Bedouin citizens of Israel, for example, or the anti-African race riots in Tel Aviv—pivotal events in the history of the state of Israel—Rudoren covers a beauty contest for Holocaust survivors or takes to Facebook to complain about how she missed her spinning class but made up for it by scaling the steps of a building in Gaza destroyed by Israeli bombing. And when Kershner covers the national campaign to expel non-Jewish Africans, she focuses the story on the liberal Israelis and their anguished souls, rather than on the Africans who are being rounded up and placed in camps for the crime of not being Jewish. Just imagine if they went out and covered what was actually happening on the ground and clinically detailed the logic and planning behind it.

When I stayed in Jaffa, just five minutes south of Tel Aviv, I witnessed racist extremism all around me through the state-orchestrated process of Judaization. In Jaffa, this process takes the form of a very politicized kind of gentrification, with wealthy Tel Aviv tech entrepreneurs and wealthy American Jews being planted into the heart of this poor, deliberately neglected community—where, by the way, there are/were five hundred standing eviction orders, almost all for Palestinian residents. Judaization in Jaffa also has relied on the increasing presence of religious nationalists not so different from the fanatical settlers in the West Bank. My favorite fish restaurant, a Palestinian-owned place where I would sometimes hang out with friends and colleagues from Tel Aviv, was attacked and firebombed by right-wing extremists. A house down the street was attacked and just weeks before one of the oldest Muslim graveyards in Palestine was vandalized in a “price-tag” attack by settlers. This is inside the heart of “Israel proper.” Soon after that a group of settlers won an auction to build a religious nationalist yeshiva in the middle of Jaffa.

Guernica: How does the Israeli left regard the country’s rightward trend?

Max Blumenthal: It was not the right-wing Russians or the gun-toting settlers who carried out the Nakba. The Nakba is the legacy of Zionism’s putatively socialist wing. It was the grandfathers and mothers of the “enlightened public” of today’s Israel who literally drove tens of thousands of indigenous Palestinians into the sea in 1947-48 all along the Mediterranean coast, or who marched them at gunpoint to Ramallah. In the years leading up to the Nakba, during the 1920s and ’30s, Socialist Zionists implemented the project of Kibush Ha’avodah or the “Conquest of Labor,” establishing Jewish-only businesses and residential communities while organizing boycotts of Jewish businesses that hired Arabs. That meant attacking fellow Jews who didn’t uphold the same concept of separation and maintained business and community ties with Palestinian Arabs. So the legacy of the Zionist left of Tel Aviv is the Nakba, and the perpetuation of the Nakba is required to preserve Tel Aviv as one of the most homogenous cities on earth. There are fewer Arabs in Tel Aviv, one of the largest cities in the Middle East, than there are in Chicago, the largest city in the American Midwest. Just think about that for a second. How do you accomplish such a remarkable feat of social engineering without massive violence?

When the popular committee and some of the Arab civic activists in Jaffa asked for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality to include some Arabic writing on the city log to acknowledge the Arab presence and tradition and history there, Ron Huldai, the mayor, rejected the idea out of hand. He argued that there were so few Arabs living in the municipality that he had no reason to officially acknowledge their presence. This instance perfectly symbolized the form and function of Tel Aviv, the city that stands as the economic and political bulwark of settler-colonial apartheid, but also as its liberal mask. Without the Iron Wall, there would be no Tel Aviv bubble.

Guernica: The term “demographic threat” is bandied about and repeated here in the US, by journalists and liberal Zionists and politicians. Secretary of State John Kerry used this kind of language this past December, in fact, to refer to a “demographic time-bomb.” What does it mean, in effect?

Max Blumenthal: The term “demographic threat” is the language that justifies ethnic cleansing, transfer, ghettoization, siege, exclusion, refugee camps, and displacement and separation. As such, it is the term that distills the logic of Zionism’s approach to non-Jews.

This language has pretty dark connotations in the US, echoing Southern antebellum fears of slave revolts in areas where blacks outnumbered the white agrarian class. In today’s America, if figures as extreme as Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck were to say outright that we must stop the Mexicans or Muslims or what have you from staying in the US because they’re having too many babies and we’ll lose the character of white Christian America by 2050, they’d face serious consequences. You can be a bigot in the US, but you can’t come out and openly declare your support for racial nationalism. Only Zionists get to proclaim their fear of a brown planet while simultaneously maintaining a patina of liberal respectability.

Guernica: How does what’s taking place in Israel compare to the rightward anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim trends in Europe?

Max Blumenthal: I think we need to draw a contextual distinction between what the neo-fascists of Europe would like to do and what the state of Israel has done, and is currently doing. While rightists in Europe advocate the exclusion of immigrants, especially Muslims, and seek to prevent all forms of immigration, to conduct mass deportations and make immigrants’ lives horrible in order to preserve the white, Christian character of their countries, they are still not advocating anything as extreme as mainstream Zionists are. None of these figures—at least none that I’m aware of—are hatching plans at the government level for mass population transfer, or actually ejecting hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their homes and driving them over the border by force. Over 26,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967, mainly for demographic reasons, and today many mainstream liberal Zionists advocate “land swaps.” This is code for stripping hundreds of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel living near the Green Line of their citizenship in order to preserve Israel’s ethnic purity. This actually puts liberal Zionists to the right of European neo-fascists.

Guernica: How does 1967 figure into the equation for liberal Zionists?

Max Blumenthal: The Zionist left talks about 1967 as the greatest disaster in the history of Israel, but they are not necessarily beating their chests over the suffering of Palestinians under the occupation. It certainly pains them to have to recognize that Israel has not proven to be a benevolent colonial overlord, that it has not lifted up the Palestinian standard of living as many left-wing Zionists believed they could when they captured the West Bank and Gaza. What really destroys the Zionist left about the legacy of 1967 is that it led to the rise of the religious nationalist right, which has gradually supplanted them as the captains of the Jewish state by vowing to complete the unfinished process that began in 1948. Another reason the Zionist left gets so upset about 1967 is that the whole project of Greater Israel threatens the ethnocracy they founded—that the possibility of annexing more Palestinian territory means the possible absorption of hundreds of thousands of demographic threats, of human contaminants to the ethnically pure Jewish state. And so they campaign endlessly for a two-state solution, or better yet, a one-and-a-half state solution, to correct the error they committed in 1967.

What I have tried to do in my journalism is to document the state of the Zionist left and Israel’s “enlightened public” in its current phase. And what I have found is a largely detached sector of society that has little ability to influence the facts on the ground and which has turned inward, into their Tel Aviv bubble. Thanks to the momentary success of Netanyahu’s strategy of “peace without peace” and the disappearance of Palestinians after the Second Intifada, the “enlightened public” is able to experience a sense of European-style normality. They don’t need to worry about the occupation when there is no resistance to it, when Ehud Barak’s vision of Zionism as “a villa in the jungle” has been seemingly realized.

This is why the last leader of the Labor Party, Shelly Yachimovich, basically conceded there was no hope of ending the occupation and turned her party’s attention to lowering cottage cheese prices and making improvements in the national insurance system. She filled her party with the leaders of the 2011 tent protests, this incredibly peculiar national protest movement that consisted of thousands of young Israelis filling the streets to call for “social justice” while completely ignoring and refusing to acknowledge the occupation. The current state of the Labor Party reflects the normalization of settler-colonialism to the point that it seems invisible. This is why the BDS (boycott, divest, and sanctions) movement upsets liberal Zionists so greatly: it threatens to remind the “good” Israel that it is an active participant in an anachronistic project of settler-colonialism and that it can’t experience real normalization until Palestinians are granted rights.

Guernica: You lived for a time in Jerusalem. Talk about the scene there.

Max Blumenthal: I dedicate about a third of the book to my experiences in central Jerusalem, where I lived on a top floor walkup with a bunch of leftist Hebrew University students who had draped a banner out the window that read “Free Gaza.” And below us was a pedestrian shopping mall frequented by settlers and American-Jewish fanatics. The flat was a kind of sanctuary from virtually everything that existed outside our front door and it served as a sort of smoke-filled situation room for local leftists. I was there at a really unique time, when the movement to protest the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah just fifteen minutes away from us was at its height and the Palestinian popular struggle in the West Bank was still gathering momentum. These were doomed movements, of course, but they at least offered us a way to stave off the sense of dread at creeping fascism.

To give you an idea of the environment, just up the street from the flat was a bookstore called Pomerantz with a big picture on the window of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who spied for Israel and is in jail for life, and who right wingers are determined to see released. I walked into that bookstore to look for a book [Torat Hamelech, published in 2009] that been described in the Israeli paper Maariv as a “guide to killing non-Jews.” It was written by two settler rabbis from a yeshiva in Yitzhar, near Nablus, whose salaries were tendered by the state of Israel. The purpose of the book was basically to provide religious sanction for genocide; it was like a guide for when it is permissible to slaughter gentiles framed within a really demented vision of Jewish law. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, it has sold more copies than Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. So I went to Pomerantz to order the book because I wanted to get a comprehensive translation of it online, and I encountered the owner, a former firefighter from the US who had a religious awakening and moved to Israel. He says to me, “Look at that camera behind you. It goes straight to the Shabak.” It became clear that the store was under surveillance because it was a gathering place of religious nationalist settlers, the kind who carry out “price tag” attacks and sop up texts like Torat Hamelech.

A few days later there was a convention at the Jerusalem Ramada dedicated to defending the publication of this guide to killing non-Jews. I went with my roommate, a really remarkable guy named Yossi David, who was raised ultra-Orthodox and has turned into a full-fledged secular leftist. When we entered the hotel we found a veritable who’s who of state-funded rabbis, rabbis from yeshivas in major Israeli cities, gathered on a panel to defend this book before several hundred right-wing activists. When we entered, prayers were underway, and Yossi immediately joined them to avoid having us stand out—this goes back to your first question about how I was able to get so much access. So I reluctantly started davening with these settlers and I distinctly remember how gut-wrenching it was to chant the Kaddish with them, to say the mourner’s prayer alongside a bunch of people I consider to be racists. But here I was praying in the same hotel ballroom as Dov Lior, the rabbi who called for live human experimentation on Palestinian prisoners, and Baruch Marzel, the settler thug who runs anti-miscegenation vigilante squads, and Michael Ben-Ari, then a Knesset member who told me that Jordan was actually a part of Israel.

When the conference began in earnest, one major state rabbi after another rose up and defended this genocidal book, not necessarily on its merits, but because they feared that if it was censored, their own speech would be limited. And all of this is taking place in a Ramada banquet hall with chandeliers overhead and fake houseplants everywhere—a perfectly appropriate setting to illustrate the normalization of racist extremism in Israeli life.

Guernica: Is this kind of ideology widespread?

Max Blumenthal: Just consider a poll conducted by Ynet, the online version of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most influential paper, which showed that 46 percent of Israelis support “price tag” attacks on Palestinians, and that a vast majority of religious Israelis favor them. You can see how far the most extreme settlers have gotten in terms of influencing the national consciousness.

Guernica: And these settlers are funded by the state?

Max Blumenthal: The most extreme religious nationalist rabbis, yeshivas, and settlements—those I described earlier—are state-funded and also funded heavily by American NGOS with 501(c)(3) tax-deductible donations. While the US government sends the directors of Muslim-American charities to jail for life for sending charity to the Gaza Strip, the Central Fund of Israel, which is based right here in New York City on 6th Avenue at Marcus Brothers Textiles, sends millions to some of the most extreme settlers who are directly involved in terrorist attacks on defenseless Palestinians. The yeshiva at Yitzhar is a prime example. Though the State Department has actually classified settler attacks on Palestinians as terror attacks, the US Treasury Department does nothing to regulate the American nonprofits that fund the attackers.

Guernica: While your book has aroused a lot of controversy, commentators appear to have embraced Ari Shavit’s recent book, My Promised Land.

Max Blumenthal: It is depressing but not shocking to witness the liberal intelligentsia embrace Ari Shavit so enthusiastically. Shavit is someone who is as consistently wrong as Thomas Friedman on major issues, and at least as much a courtier of power. Shavit has done the bidding of Ehud Barak under the cover of legitimate journalism. I suppose it was fairly predictable that Friedman offered him a rave review, or that Leon Wieseltier and David Brooks threw themselves behind My Promised Land. I have to admit, though, that I was a little surprised that David Remnick, someone who has demonstrated sophistication on Israel-Palestine issues, hosted a lavish book party for Shavit and served as his interlocutor at his major event in New York City after running Shavit’s apologia for ethnic cleansing in the pages of The New Yorker. We need to recognize the significance of Shavit’s support from so many major liberal intellectuals and pundits in the light of his book and its arguments.

In his book, Shavit approaches 1948 as I do, but from an opposite perspective. He argues that as soon as the Zionist movement endeavored to establish a Jewish state in historic Palestine, the campaign of mass ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1948 was inevitable. I agree with that. And I agree with him that 1948, not 1967, is the source of Palestinian grievances. But while I regard the Nakba as an ongoing crime that needs to be prosecuted and reversed, just as anyone should regard any act of ethnic cleansing, Shavit defends its necessity and lectures Palestinians trapped in squalid refugee camps to just get over it. In this very magazine, Shavit declared that the Palestinians need to “grow up” and claimed that they are “addicted to victimhood” as though Holocaust-obsessed Israelis are not. He goes on to assert that “the Jews are the ultimate victims of the twentieth century,” meaning that Jewish suffering legitimizes the suffering they visited on Palestinians—the ends justify the means—and that that suffering should insulate Israel from any political consequences simply because it asserts its identity as a state of the Jews.

This is obviously an intellectually untenable argument and as a case for national legitimacy it is absolutely laughable. But it is also pretty morally repugnant. So we need to reflect on what this says about Shavit’s liberal Zionist-American promoters; what does it say that they are throwing their intellectual weight behind a prominent defender of ethnic cleansing? And we need to ask how Shavit is able to define himself as a man of the left, as a voice of morality, without anything resembling a challenge from his interviewers.

Link: What I've Learned as an Internet Drug Dealer

Many fans of Bitcoin would like to distance the technology from the reputation it has gained as the currency of choice for drug dealers and criminals on the internet. But to ignore the cryptocurrency’s use in illicit markets is to miss a vital part of what has made it successful. Food trucks and floundering satellite television companies accepting digital cash is nice, but if you want to see where the real action is in this new economy, you need to enter the deep web.

So one afternoon, I downloaded the Tor Browser, checked out /r/darknetmarkets for site recommendations, found one I liked, and took the dive.

Of course, I had heard about these sites for a long time, but it was still shocking to see what was on offer on my computer screen: row after row of listings for heroin, meth, MDMA, weed, coke, and any other drug you could want. It was Amazon for drugs, all priced in Bitcoin, all available for convenient vacuum sealed delivery to the mailing address of your choice.

Much like other e-commerce sites, every vendor on the site had a username and rating to help customers know which of these strangers selling potent narcotics over the internet had a track record of trustworthiness. One name in particular stood out, a vendor who had hundreds of completed sales with a nearly flawless feedback rating.

I sent a simple message identifying myself as a journalist and asking if he or she would be interested in an interview. To my surprise, a quick response appeared in my inbox: he or she would be happy to chat. The only stipulations were that we use PGP encrypted messaging and that I did not include his or her actual username in my article. The dealer chose the handle “RainDuck” for our interview.

Over the next week we exchanged messages about being a vendor on the dark web site Evolution, integrity on the black market, what it’s like to run a business that’s dependent on the Bitcoin network, and the war on drugs—at a time when that war is shifting to the web.

It’s not easy to estimate the amount of drugs sold online, but estimates by the United Nations and others say the market is multiplying in size. To stop the internet trade, the UN says that postal inspectors, customs agents, and “other agencies” are “vital to ensure that points in the supply chain could be more effectively cut off and make it more difficult for buyers to obtain products.”

A number of questions to RainDuck went nowhere: when I asked for RainDuck’s age, he apologized.I’m sorry but I can’t give even an approximate answer to that question. I’m old enough that I can do this safely, but not old enough to die of natural causes. That’s the best answer I can give, somewhere between 25 and 90.”

Motherboard: Why did you become a vendor?
RainDuck: I became a vendor after quite a bit of experience starting as a buyer. When I discovered the darknet markets, I saw an opportunity to avoid the shadyness that comes with buying drugs from a friend of a friend of that one guy that I met at a bar. I could buy drugs from someone after reading dozens of reviews on their service and product, and feel confident that I was getting what I was paying for.

Unfortunately vendors online can rip people off just as drug dealers in person can. There is a degree of safety, but some vendors follow a pattern of providing legitimate service for a short period of time before ripping a bunch of people off and running away with the money.

I saw an opportunity to provide a legitimate service to my customers. I became a vendor and made it a point to prove that I am honest and trustworthy. I made a name for myself and became known as the type of person who you could trust. I’ve had many opportunities to rip people off without repercussions, but I’ve never once scammed someone. Reputation is everything on the darknet markets, and establishing myself as a trustworthy individual has been far more profitable for me than being a con artist. To summarize, I saw an opportunity to provide a degree of service that is uncommon in the world of drugs, and decided to fill that void.

Were you involved in this industry before your current account? And if so, how long have you been in the business?
I have indeed been involved prior to my current account. Unfortunately I can’t go into specifics. Staying anonymous is the most important factor to any vendor who values his/her freedom, and being in the spotlight is not always a good thing. When someone has too much attention drawn to them it’s sometimes best to step back and lay low for awhile, and that applies to the internet just as much as to drug dealers in real life.

You are currently using a centralized marketplace. What are your thoughts on decentralized marketplaces (i.e. the Dark Market project) and what they mean for the future of online commerce?
Good question. To those who don’t know, centralized marketplaces hold all of the money for you. Tens of thousands of buyers and vendors will trust the marketplace to hold their money in escrow, and they release the funds from the buyer to the seller when both users confirm that the transaction has been complete.

The downside to this model is that the amount of money the marketplaces hold at a time can reach hundreds of millions of dollars, and it’s held by someone who has the opportunity to run away with the money at any time. In the last year there have been several marketplaces that have run away with a total of well over a billion dollars. Many people’s lives have been ruined by money loss, and the community as a whole is very distrustful of this business model after several recent scams.

Decentralized marketplaces limit their own power, and rather than keeping the money in their own account, they essentially hold “keys” to the accounts that the money is held in. Two people must use their keys in order to unlock the funds from escrow, whether those two people are the buyer and vendor, or the buyer and the marketplace, or the vendor and the marketplace. This allows the marketplace the ability to resolve issues without giving them the freedom to run off with large sums of money.

The downside to this model is that from a technical side it can be very hard to use. So far most of the decentralized marketplaces require some degree of programming knowledge, or external software, or otherwise are too complicated for the average user. For that reason most of the decentralized marketplaces attract less traffic. In the long run, I believe that we will move almost entirely to using decentralized markets, but it may be another year or two before the sites are streamlined to allow both the buyers and the vendors to use this kind of marketplace easily.

What is your average revenue and profit in a month?
Unfortunately that’s not a question I feel comfortable answering. I can say that there is a very large amount of money that can be made in this industry,and I make more than enough.

Did you have prior business experience before coming to this industry?
I did. Most people don’t consider selling drugs to be a business, but the successful vendors treat it just like any other business. It’s important to have good time management skills, accounting skills, as well as customer service skills. Being a vendor online is just like owning or managing a business—the only difference being that the government decided that what we do is illegal.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about dark net markets?
I think there are two equally large but opposing misconceptions. Some people believe that using darknet markets as a buyer is extremely dangerous and they don’t feel comfortable doing so because they think if a few grams of weed is sent to them that they will undoubtedly go to jail. Others are too confident in the safety of the markets, and they will openly talk about sensitive information that could easily lead to their arrest.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. For security reasons most marketplaces require buyers to encrypt their addresses using special software that only allows a specific person to read it. However there are a shocking number of people who don’t encrypt sensitive info and openly admit online to crimes that could easily lead to their arrest if the information were in the wrong hands.

At the same time, law enforcement for the most part is after the large-scale buyers and vendors who are moving large amounts of product. Although if given the opportunity they may try to arrest someone buying a small amount of weed, the truth is that the level of caution needed for someone interested in buying a quarter ounce of weed is completely different than the amount of paranoia and protection needed for someone buying thousands of dollars of product on a regular basis.

Use common sense and protect yourself, but realize that there are a plethora of people who use these sites on a regular basis, and 99.99% of the people who do so will never encounter any problems doing so. The system is designed to be relatively safe for the buyers, and in most cases you’re more likely to go to jail for buying drugs in real life than online.

Do you have any qualms about the fact that you may be supporting the problems of drug addicts?
Initially yes, though after becoming more involved in this community I look at things differently. Even among the “hard drugs” such as meth and heroin, many of the people who do it are not bad people, and not all of them are addicted. Most people only see the stereotypes. The truth is that while there are people who have used drugs and became addicted to them and had their lives ruined, a surprising number of the people who use drugs regularly you would never know. I regularly get messages from people who confide in me that although they are a successful businessperson, there’s not a single person who knows about their drug use because it’s not socially acceptable.

Prohibition has never worked. It didn’t work with alcohol and it doesn’t work with drugs. People should make their own choices. I’m not here to judge people for what they do, I just want to make sure that if they make that choice, they get it safely, at a fair price, and that they know what’s in it rather than buying cocaine from some random guy that turns out to be laundry detergent. There’s no doubt that drugs can be dangerous, but sometimes the lengths that people are forced to go through to get their drugs are more dangerous than the drugs themselves.

Do you use your own products?
I do occasionally, though I don’t use all of the drugs that I sell. I don’t mix business with pleasure, and I don’t have the time to do so often even if I wanted to. My use of my products is mainly limited to testing them and making sure they are safe before sending them off to my customers.

Drug legalization is slowly gaining traction among policy experts. Do you think, twenty years from now, this industry won’t be relegated to the lesser traveled corners of the internet?
Yes and no. There is increasing pressure to legalize drugs, but unfortunately most of that focus is strictly on marijuana, and that’s at the state level more than the federal level. It’s impossible to say what will happen 20 years from now, but there are too many people who profit off of the fact that drugs are illegal. Prisons, police officers, tobacco companies, and alcohol companies all would lose an unbelievable amount of funding if drugs were legalized.

It’s sad to think that the majority of people in jail right now are there for possession or sale of small amounts of drugs, but unfortunately it’s a cat and mouse game that take an insane amount of money from taxpayers and puts it in the pockets of the corporations that stand to benefit from the way the laws are structured now.

Only time will tell what will happen, but I doubt that 5, or 10, or even 20 years from now people will be openly doing cocaine, meth, shrooms, heroin, or acid, though I do think that weed has a much larger chance of being completely legalized due to the fact that it’s more socially acceptable.

You say that there are “too many people who profit off of the fact that drugs are illegal” for anyone to expect widespread legalization anytime soon. Do you think that’s the central motivation for the “War on Drugs”? Or is it more about protecting the public?
I think that point of view is very accurate. A lot of people seem to look at it as a conspiracy, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. Rather, it’s the people who profit off prohibition who spend very large sums of money to lobby politicians in Washington. It would be naive to think that’s not the case. Polls shows that the public is largely in favor of legalization (of certain drugs at least) and yet no one at the political level seems to be in any rush to make things happen.

At the very least, drug use should be legalized. If they want to keep throwing us dealers in jail that’s one thing, but the fact that 98% of drug related arrests involve simple possession is ridiculous, and it’s not okay that millions of people’s lives are being ruined when most of them simply were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for doing something that would be completely okay if they lived in certain states (Such as California and Colorado).

This answer refers mainly to marijuana of course, but again the point remains. There are almost as many people who smoke marijuana as there are who drink alcohol, and weed kills significantly less people. If we are still putting people in jail for possession of a much safer substance than alcohol, I wouldn’t count on heroin being legalized anytime soon.

You have to worry about law enforcement in your business. Have there been any close calls?
I can say that if I had what I would consider to be a close call I would get out of the business completely, but that doesn’t mean I feel completely safe either. In this business it’s always better to be too paranoid than not paranoid enough.

How do you deal with, what I would imagine to be, the constant stress from this paranoia?
Unfortunately I haven’t figured that part out yet. My business keeps me busy most of the time, and unlike traditional jobs I don’t get vacation days or time off. I’m too busy to focus on the constant stress I endure, and although that may sound pessimistic to some degree, I’m overall very happy with my life. I love what I do and knowing I’m providing a service that not many people can offer.

Mainly it’s the people who purchase drugs not recreationally but for medicinal purposes that makes it all worth it. I regularly have people confide in me that my products are the only thing that has relieved their pain, and many of my customers are old enough that they don’t have the ability to buy from a friend of a friend. Knowing that I’m helping to safely provide medication for someone who otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to get it is more rewarding than anything else. That said, the money isn’t bad either.

Would you consider vending online to be a safer option than vending in person?
For the vendors, dealing in person would be safer. For the buyers, the reverse is true. Law enforcement mainly targets the vendors, and most buyers have nothing to worry about unless they are ordering very large amounts of product. There have been reports of buyers being questioned after failing to take the proper steps to protect themselves, but buying online is generally much safer than buying in person for most circumstances.

If dealing in person is safer, then why do you choose to vend online?
Overall dealing in person is safer, but it depends what you are selling, who you are selling to, and how much. If you know what you’re doing, vending online has the potential to be safer than dealing in person, but the risk lies not in what you are doing, but the mistakes you make. For a vendor, all it takes is one message that is accidently left unencrypted, one fingerprint left on the inside of a package, or one strand of hair that could potentially lead to their arrest if in the wrong hands.

A vendor that knows what they are doing can be perfectly safe, but unfortunately there’s no college course for being an internet drug dealer. The only way to learn is to try it, but unfortunately this is one industry where making mistakes while learning is not okay. Essentially I choose to vend online because I feel I have the knowledge and ability to do so safely. For the majority of people who take the same path however, they are playing Russian roulette and they will either make very little money, quit shortly after, or law enforcement will just wait for them to make a mistake.

Do you run a solo operation or are there employees?
Sorry but I can’t answer that.

How does Bitcoin’s volatility affect your business?
When business is good bitcoin volatility isn’t an issue, but when business is slow, a drop in the value of bitcoin can be the difference between making a profit and breaking even or even losing money.

Bitcoin can definitely play a huge role in the amount of income vendors make, especially for newer vendors. Vendors that have not earned trust in the community are almost always required by the marketplaces to use their escrow system. On average it can take about a week between the time the package is sent and the time the money is released from escrow, but in some cases if there are problems with an order it can take 3 weeks or more.

In addition, the vendors have to find a way to safely and anonymously convert bitcoin into actual currency, which can take even longer. Considering that bitcoin can stay around the same rate for weeks and then suddenly increase or decrease by hundreds of dollars in a matter of days, newer vendors may find themselves gambling with their profits.

Many vendors who are more established can get away with requiring the funds to be released from escrow before sending packages. Even then it can be several days from the point the order is placed to where the vendor has the money physically in their possession, but it tends to average out over time. If a vendor does a lot of business consistently over time, they can accept short term losses from drops in bitcoin, knowing that at some point they will make more money if bitcoin goes up in the future.

How do you cash out your bitcoins?
Again, answering that question would be a security violation. I take very great lengths to make sure that I cash out my bitcoins safely, but elaborating on exactly what I do is not something I’m willing to share.

Among people in the “real world” of drug dealing, is Bitcoin gaining a name for itself?
Not at all. The majority of “real world” drug dealers have no idea what Bitcoin is or even that this community exists. Of those who do, they certainly won’t share that information with others. There is a huge opportunity for drug dealers to make a very large amount of money reselling the right products, but no one wants anyone else to know that. There are plenty of people who purchase from the darknet markets and resell the product wholesale, taking advantage of the cheap prices of Chinese-made drugs specifically, but it’s a very small percentage of dealers who do so.

Darkmarket sellers were some of the first in the world to rely heavily on the Bitcoin network for their trade. Considering this wealth of experience, do you think Bitcoin has a legitimate chance at becoming a widely used method of payment for transactions beyond the black market? Or do you think of it as mainly useful for what you do today and nothing else?
I think Bitcoin has the potential to become a widely used method of payment in general. Unfortunately until recently it’s been very unstable, and few legitimate businesses want to take the chance of accepting a payment method that may be worth 20 percent less a few days from now. Most businesses that accept bitcoin are owned by people who believe in the long-term potential of bitcoin, but currently the number of businesses who do so are few and far between. That said, there are a small number of very large businesses who have recently stated their intentions to accept bitcoin, and I believe that will encourage other smaller businesses to do the same.

Right now the bitcoin community is divided mainly among those who use it as an investment and those who use it for illicit purposes. Fortunately it seems that recently there are efforts by bitcoin investors to use it for more legitimate purposes, and we are seeing an exponential number of businesses offering services such as hotel rooms and flight, as well as retailers offering electronics, furniture, and other commodities. It’s too early to tell exactly how this will play out, but there are enough people who believe strongly in the long term future of bitcoin that I truly believe we will see much more widespread use of it for legitimate purposes. Bitcoin certainly isn’t going away anytime soon.

Do you plan on being in this business for a long time?
I do. I’ve done quite a bit in my life, but nothing has been as satisfying as being a vendor. It’s stressful, dangerous, and time consuming, but the rewards are great.

Link: Aleksandar Hemon on Man’s Inhumanity to Man

The Bosnian novelist discusses five books on man’s inhumanity to man, including works by Primo Levi and Cormac McCarthy - and Borowski’s chillingly titled This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentleme.

Can you describe Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man?

It’s called Survival in Auschwitz in the US to give it a positive spin – that’s the American publishing world: the Holocaust is all right as long as there are survivors. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, arrested in 1944 after Italy capitulated and the Nazis took over. He was shipped off to Auschwitz, but because he had a chemical degree, or because he was lucky – which was how he saw it – he was working in the chemical factory in Auschwitz, which was a technological venture. So he managed to survive and see the end, and in fact the book also deals with the last ten days when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz and the Russian troops had not yet arrived. Levi went back to Italy, indeed to the very same apartment where he was born, so his life was interrupted horribly. And then he wrote about his experiences, and eventually he committed suicide.

He bears witness to the Holocaust, but he’s a scientist, and he needs to understand the ethical system, as it were, behind those crimes. However perverted it is, he’s trying to understand how it works. So he talks about individual experiences, including his own. They’re always examples of a larger – I don’t want to say theory – but of a larger proposition or explanation. He unpacks the formula, as it were, behind it all. So it’s the victory of reason – or the proper kind of reason, as opposed to the Nazi kind of reason. The Holocaust was not madness: it was a technology, a system, and therefore rational. And Levi regains reason, by treating his experience in Auschwitz as something that is subject to rational analysis.

Your next book?

This is a book of stories which was originally published immediately after WWII, so they were very fresh, by Tadeusz Borowski: a young Pole who was a member of the Resistance, and who was arrested and incarcerated. He was an Auschwitz survivor. He killed himself while still in his 20s. The title story: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is about a group of inmates whose duties are to help unload the transport. It’s a horrifying story. It’s a horrifying book. He was not Jewish. So while Primo Levi talks from a superior moral position, from the point of view of a Jew, and someone for whom the starting point of the whole thing was the worthlessness of their life, Tadeusz Borowski could make choices, albeit under enormous moral and ethical pressures. He shows the dehumanisation of Auschwitz from a slightly different angle. It seems that the narrator makes the wrong choice: to go for survival at the expense of any respectful ethical choice. But that just shows how hard it was there. It’s not just suffering; it’s the violence and the ethics of it.

There’s another story where the inmates are playing football, and on the other side of the barbed wire fence is a transport. The narrator goes to get the ball when it goes out, and can see thousands of people lining up. Next time he goes to get the ball, there’s no one, and, he says, thousands of people perished between those two moments. So the narrator is not someone who wants to bear witness because it’s his ethical duty – which is Primo Levi’s position. The narrator in Borowski is someone who selfishly, so it seems, wants to protect himself from death and hunger – but at the same time he cannot but see what is happening: so he has this struggle which is horrifying in and of itself, and at the same time dehumanising and humanising. The struggle to stay a human being in a challenging situation is that if you want to stay a human being ethically, you have to stay a human being physically. And that’s what his struggle is, so it bears witness to the Holocaust in a different way.

Red Cavalry?

This is a fictionalised account of the expedition of the Red Cavalry – the Soviet expeditionary force – which in 1920 attacked Poland, hoping to reach Warsaw and establish a Soviet government. Babel was sent with the Red Cavalry as a reporter for a propaganda newspaper, and it’s based on his diaries. Red Cavalry begins with the Cossack troops crossing the River Zbrucz. After crossing, the narrator sees the sun rolling on the horizon like a lopped off head, and then you know that it’s not going to be comfortable. The book is made up of autonomous stories in which the central narrator is Lyutov, who’s obviously standing in for Babel, because he’s bookish and wears glasses. They are not always about Lyutov – sometimes he just reports or pretends to be reporting, and sometimes they are about how he works with the Cossack troops. Lyutov is Jewish – it is not always clear if the Cossacks know that. Cossacks, of course, practice the sport of killing Jews whenever they can. So Lyutov and Babel are in a very awkward position of at the same time being presumably loyal to the Revolution and to their comrades the Cossacks, and also to the tradition of Jews, and of non-violent engagement with the world. Lyutov does not adapt: he says he does not have that most basic of capabilities – to kill a man – and he fails as a Cossack in more ways than one.

It is an incredible piece of literature. Babel has an aesthetic that corresponds to not only his sensibility, but also to his awkward circumstance. You can sense the conflict between the sentences: they don’t flow smoothly, logically from each another; there’s a dialectic of narration, and you can sense the discipline. It was tricky for him: how to bear witness to things, how to talk about the fact that Cossacks were killing Jews, without being sent before a firing squad.

He failed that test?

Well, yes – although in the 1920s Babel apologised to the Cossack leader, Budyonny, and said the book was a mistake. But then he stayed put and never wrote anything like that again, vegetated as a writer, and was shot eventually. His last recorded words were to the NKVD agent who picked him up. Babel said to him, ‘You’re pretty busy these days.’

Blood Meridian?

It’s possibly the greatest American novel of the past 25 years. It is unique. Blood Meridian is amazing, because it’s so rigid in its outlook, so committed to its vision, that it does not care about the conflict of the reader who, if sane, has to be uncomfortable. It is the most violent book I have read. This is a book about a bunch of scalp-hunters in Southwestern American territories before the Civil War, who were hired to hunt, kill, and scalp Native Americans. It follows them as they ride on and roam around killing Indians, committing horrible massacres. It is quite literally apocalyptic. There’s a stretch of about 60 pages, when the only subject is the group, and the most common sentence is ‘They rode on’.

What is most uncomfortable for the reader is that there’s no space in the book from which you can judge it, no space into which the reader could step to protect himself or herself from this world – there are no good guys. Of course, you can close the book and go away, but there’s one scene of a massacre of Indians that is one continuous sentence for a couple of pages. If the sentence ends, or if it’s broken up into little sentences you could quit after, you know, the 25th sentence, but they are strung together paratactically, and you ride on in the sentence.

There’s also to my mind the most amazing character in American fiction in the 20th century: the Judge, who provides theories that justify the world in which these men operate. Also what I like about it is that it entirely blocks the kind of reading that is based on empathy. You cannot identify ethically or morally, or even intellectually or psychologically, with any of the characters. There’s no expression of emotion, no interiority: those men act, and when they act, they act violently. It desensitises you; not because you don’t care, but because the violence is a part of a larger plan. It is not a question of individual agency but rather of the state of the world, or the underlying laws that govern the world.

Tell me about The Known World.

It’s a novel about slavery, but specifically the few recorded instances of black slave-owners, and it’s a masterful, masterful work, the most complete work of literary imagination in recent American fiction. Edward P. Jones could be one of the greatest living American writers. Again it blocks the simple emotional reading that provides redemption, and teaches you that slavery was bad. It shows how dehumanising the whole system was, not only to the slaves, but to everyone involved; it is quite literally soul-emptying. It is of course, again, in some ways like the Holocaust: it was not madness, it was a rational system, an economic system in which all participated in various ways. Even among the slaves there were differences and hierarchies, and degrees of ethical involvement with the issue of slavery. Jones narrates, or manages, dozens of characters. They’re all individually defined, but there’s no central consciousness the way there might be in a straight up psychological novel that you follow as it progresses through some sort of sociological landscape, and so it’s like he’s conducting an orchestra of characters. He shifts from one to the other and has this particular narrative device in which he goes beyond the knowledge of his characters to tell the reader what will happen to them in the years after slavery. The suffering is not simply the physical suffering of individuals; it goes well beyond that. It goes to the heart of the system.

What Jones does is very important, I believe, when we’re talking about war and violence and suffering: not to reduce the understanding to a mere emotional response. Of course the Holocaust is horrifying, of course slavery is horrifying, but if you just see emotional release and redemption then you never understand it and never experience it as a reader.

Why did you choose this subject to talk about?

There’s a way of reading books that’s common in the United States, which is to identify with the best person in the book. And there are complications related to this particular mode of reading: you have to react emotionally to texts, and then analyse your emotions as though you’re analysing a text, and then in that emotional release find redemption. As far as Primo Levi goes, that doesn’t really do anything. It’s hard for me to feel better about the Holocaust when I read Primo Levi. Blood Meridian is the most radical in that sense, in that it’s obviously not about the Holocaust or anything comparable, but it simply does not allow you to assert your moral and human superiority. It confronts you with things that you would rather not know, and it blocks this emotional reading: you have to think about it.

Link: Life After Work

This article is from Issue 56 of Soundings and is available online exclusively at New Left Project.

Jo What are the main problems with work today?

Nina We have high unemployment, a massive increase in very low paid work, expanding hours, zero hours contracts, unpaid internships, exploited grey-market labour and prison labour and so on. At the same time, there’s a cultural fetishisation of work, with TV programmes suggesting that getting into work is all about improving your attitude, cutting your hair, trying harder, believing in yourself. The rhetoric is that work is a moral individual responsibility. If you’re not in work or trying to get work it’s a sign of moral failing: you’re somehow a lesser individual, especially if you’re on benefits.

It could be asked why you would even question work, when so many are unemployed. Shouldn’t we simply acknowledge that it’s clearly not healthy for people to be out of work? But there are serious questions to pose about the alienation and exploitation that people experience. Why shouldn’t we question what work is today, especially in such difficult circumstances? We need to have a discussion about work, in all of its aspects, simultaneously. I want to think more deeply about what is being sold and who gets a profit. Can we think about human activity beyond work: ‘non-alienated labour’, in old Marxist terms?

A lot of my interest in work comes from feminist debates about how different types of work are valued in relation to production and reproduction; about unpaid labour and the Wages for Housework Campaign. My book One Dimensional Woman partly came out of my experience working in job agencies and observing the feminisation of labour. I really hated having to be friendly when cold calling. There is a particular liberal feminist argument that says that more women in work is objectively a good thing: it is good for the economy, for women, for their visibility. But perhaps we need to go beyond that argument. What if work is part of the problem? What if work does not solve the obvious problems of gendered labour? We have to think about this alongside the fact that issues around childcare are not going to be solved by employers, because employers do not have a vested interest in solving them.

Anne The Precarious Workers Brigade is a group of mainly cultural and education workers organising around issues of precarity.[1] We came out of a smaller group called ‘The Carrot Workers’ Collective’, which was more concerned with free labour, particularly internships. We’re still dealing with those issues - they’re a significant pressure point - but the group wanted to broaden out to address systemic problems. We began by conducting a ‘People’s Tribunal on Precarity’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) two or three years ago, organised as part of its ‘Season of Dissent’. (This became problematic because there was actually rather a lot of dissent amongst workers at the ICA; they’d just undergone major restructuring and many people had lost their jobs.) The tribunal format derived from the People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War, and it was designed to shine a spotlight on a particular issue. We collected testimonies from groups of precarious workers, including ourselves and ex-workers at the ICA, and invited ‘expert witnesses’ to speak on the impact of precarity. We identified four main areas: migration; no pay, underpay and working conditions; institutional precarity; and ‘affect’ - addressing how precarity affects the mind and body, particularly in the long term. The audience developed lists of culprits, remedies and demands.

Barbara Out of that tribunal we formed working group models. One focuses on letter writing, especially to cultural institutions, as there’s a loophole in the law here. If an intern works unpaid for six months, four days a week, in a private institution then HMRC can crack down on that organisation for not paying them. But charities are a real grey area: they’re allowed to have volunteers and not pay them. And a lot of cultural institutions are charities, even though they are often semi-commercial. So you have to make the moral argument.

Anne This group seems to ruffle a lot of feathers. Just writing a chirpy letter to a gallery seems to get a lot of people upset! We also have an educational group, which has been writing what we call an alternative curriculum - a pack for people teaching work placements, for example, or careers offices, to help them raise these questions.

We collaborate a lot with the University of the Arts Students’ Union and the Devil Pays Nadacampaign to draw attention to free labour problems. Most universities no longer officially circulate information about unpaid positions through their careers offices, but lots of individual course leaders do. But there is also a demand for work placements, and we need to think about where that comes from.

Barbara We talk to students, particularly on courses relating to cultural industries, about how desires for control and flexible working on your own terms can get conflated with arguments about demands for flexibility on the market’s terms. Passion for your work can open up too much space for being exploited.

Nina That point is so important, because it is historically so clear that demands for flexibility, for part-time work, for a work/life balance, for autonomy, for self-organising, have been noted but then co-opted and given back to people in an exclusively negative way.

Barbara It’s also often very obvious that people are working for cultural capital, just for a label to flash on their CVs. I was talking to students recently who pointed out that they could go in anywhere and mop the floor – all that seems to matter is that they can say that they have worked there.

Anne And with ‘creative labour’, the difference between the work that gets paid as opposed to the work that does not get paid seems entirely nebulous. A tiny bit of pay is supposed to cover a vast amount of preparation.

Barbara Non-alienated work, like childcare, creates excuses not to pay people; there’s an opening for exploitation and self-exploitation. So when you organise around work, you’re aware of a lot of feminist history. You also have to avoid reducing everything to demands for wages, as they’re already alienated. A wage is a concrete concept, but it should actually be just atransitional demand, because you don’t want to become a wage slave either. It’s a complicated space to occupy.

Nina Questioning work always inevitably raises questions about money: what would it mean to live in a moneyless society? What would unalienated labour look like if you went back to the general ideology of communism? Of course it’s something of a joke now … but what really would it be like if we truly lived according to the idea of from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs? Debates around work, as in Kathi Weeks’s work, often end up with quite reformist demands.[2] Requests for a guaranteed basic income are clearly very radical - you can’t imagine this happening any time soon - but even they rely on the same basic structure of money. Thinking beyond the division of labour and the wage is speculative and utopian and idealist, but it’s important to start from there and then track back. It becomes an important ‘thought experiment’, if not exactly a political demand.

Barbara Michael Denning’s article ‘Wageless Life’ highlights how three quarters of the economy around the globe is not generated through paid work.[3] ‘The economy’ is not produced just in formal economies but outside, be this subsistence labour, housework, etc. Therefore Denning argues you always take a conceptual and strategic gamble when you organise around the figure of the male, nineteenth-century, industrial worker - which Britain is very wedded to.

Jo How do you get ‘unpleasant jobs’ done in a wageless society?

Nina Historically that’s precisely the right question. Early twentieth-century projections about work in relation to technology raised the almost reasonable expectation that work could be done by technology. People would not necessarily have to do the jobs that are traditionally valued less and associated with low wages, with migrant labour and with women. Silvia Federici says that one of the limits of mechanisation and technology is that you cannot outsource care; a robot is not going to look after you in the same way that another human can. So perhaps there’s another integral suggestion here: that we should start with care, and make care the most valued thing in the world, rather than the least valued in terms of economics and in terms of status.

Anne We also have a working group on the corporatisation of the arts, although working groups are not entirely separate. At the Whitechapel Gallery Samantha

Cameron and Nick Clegg were asked to curate the Government art collection and open it to the public while simultaneously cuts to the arts were being announced. So we dressed up as washerwomen, washed dirty laundry outside the Whitechapel and gave out pamphlets about whitewashing.

Jo That makes me think of Mierle Ladermans Ukeles’ 1969 work ‘Maintenance Art’, when she scrubbed the steps of a New York gallery to draw attention to how different types of work is valued and gendered; and how the feminist art-activist group the Guerrilla Girls often critique the galleries that host them.

Barbara Yes, a lot of us are artists and we often get invited to do a relational art project within an institution. We say no to ninety per cent of them, but occasionally we do say yes, and obviously we then have to raise questions about the extent of our engagement with the institution. It’s clearly problematic that the issues that we work on are questioning the structures of the institutions themselves, while they simultaneously want us to produce something radical within the content of those structures. We haven’t yet figured out exactly how to negotiate this. We keep experimenting with different ways of trying to be both inside and outside the institution, but it’s extremely difficult. So this particular working group focuses on interventional strategies and power games.

Nina It’s important to do that with all cultural institutions. Mapping where the money is and where it goes is essential. We also need to differentiate between people who are able to say no and those who aren’t. If you are a young struggling artist and you get an offer from an institution that is morally and financially dubious (and let’s face it, they all are), you are in a very different position to someone who is well established. This is also a question about accepting money for the work that you do; I sometimes offer articles to newly set up magazines for free, but you have to consider it on a case-by-case basis. There’s a huge difference between providing free labour for companies that can afford to pay you but don’t want to, and working for free for companies that just can’t afford it.

Anne The other working group is solidarities. We do not want to be a single-issue group protecting its own interests. We try to work with other groups, such as the Latin American Workers’ Association, with whom we created a card giving advice about UKBA raids, and which now has a life of its own and has been published in many languages. We’re also part of an International Coalition for Fair Internships, and we’ve worked with cleaners’ campaigns and Boycott Workfare.

Nina Some of the most important work that you are doing is pointing out that these different issues with work are related. How do you think it relates to housing? The statistics make it very clear how expensive renting and buying is, and no social housing is being built. The relationship between working for free and actually staying alive is becoming even more untenable for more and more people.

Barbara This is one of the reasons we really liked the word ‘precarity’ - we felt that it included wider questions about work, housing and general life conditions. Several people in the group are active in housing campaigns. This is what’s nice about The Common House (a new common activist space in Bethnal Green); we have freedom to converse with others, so, for example, someone joined our meeting last week from Tower Hamlets Housing Action. We’re very aware that all of the ways that people used to use to survive are disappearing: for example, the chances of getting a council flat now are extremely slim. The ways that people used to have to piece together a living out of very little are now gone.

Jo This also connects to the rising cost of living, to increasing food and energy costs.

Nina It’s a horrible ideological paradox: it’s increasingly difficult for everyone to stay alive, particularly through creative work and cultural life, but at the same time, that’s what’s being celebrated. The implication of the 1990s Cool Britannia fetish was that we were post-industry, and focused on pop music, culture and fashion, so everybody was told that they should come and study in London because it was such a cool place. But all the ways in which that lifestyle could be possible for an individual to experience are being stripped away, unless you’re really rich.

Barbara That moment made the cultural sector less middle-class, because it was seen as a viable moment for all kinds of people to enter it. But there was also a huge sense of let-down. It increased aspiration towards the cultural sector and closed opportunities down at the same time.

Jo What impact do you think your campaigns have had?

Anne The most obvious impact has been on internships. As it’s so specific it’s an issue people can really take hold of. The debate has increased dramatically. The Arts Council even published a set of guidelines on internships last year.

Jo Internships are on the radar of the mass media and on the public agenda in a way they simply weren’t five years ago. There are grassroots campaigns like yours, the TUC Intern Awarecampaign, books like Intern Nation getting a lot of press, and now government clampdowns and politicians supporting the case for paid internships.

Barbara Unpaid internships are definitely starting to become taboo: it’s gradual, but it is a shift. It’s good that there has been a tax clamp down on it through parliament. It’s no longer possible to advertise unpaid internships through universities officially, even though they still do under the table. When we first started working on this issue we were under New Labour, and you had to tread very softly with regard to how you talked about it. But now people are much more confident about saying unpaid internships are a bad thing. The recession has also hit the middle class: suddenly the parents of kids at Goldsmiths were aware of it in a way they weren’t before. We get interns talking about sitting in an office having not even been paid their fare to get there, and they will be putting in an order for £2000 of champagne. They suddenly have this very sharp, very intense experience of class.

Jo Do you think that creates solidarity between middle-class people on internships and people on workfare?

Barbara In our group it has. But Intern Aware wouldn’t join with us in putting their names on a naming and shaming campaign we ran jointly with Boycott Workfare on Oxford Street because they wanted it to be single issue. It’s an interesting question though: what’s the difference between working in Poundland for free and being an unpaid intern?

Nina It’s important to point out the similarities. I’m very worried about this general tendency amongst employers to want to pay everybody nothing. It’s obvious when you think about it: as an employer, as a corporation, why wouldn’t you want people to work for you for free? How do we give value back to workers and rethink how different work could be? I’m having some conceptual difficulties beginning my current project and thinking about how you translate these transitional and current demands to bigger structural questions. Of course insofar as I can’t imagine the end of wage labour for the time being, we need to campaign to make sure that people are being paid a wage that at least approximates to an amount that can keep up with living standards and housing. But it’s also about bigger issues than the wage. I’m not always sure how to link the more utopian anti-work demands in a useful political way.

Barbara The new campaigns around work have been many people’s first experience of collective organising. There’s something profoundly transformational about that. The moment where you get extra credit, or convince a company to pay for your lunch for a week, are small wins. But they can make a huge difference to people. Campaigners often have the realisation that if they work collectively, they can actually change things, they can ask for more.

Nina The living wage campaigns that have been small and tightly organised often seem to have been the most successful in getting answers to their demands. They have forced Vice-Chancellors to concede and so on. It clearly works.

Jo Also, politicians are today often very keen to be seen to approve of campaigns like that, even if they have little intention of following through.

Barbara Exactly. These arguments have the moral high ground.

Nina It goes back to the paradoxical arguments about the moral ideology of work that are being forced down people’s throats. I grew up in the 1990s and there was a rhetoric that suggested that women and men were equal, everyone could do work where they wanted to, that no one was held back by their gender. But the concept of what that employment was was never questioned. The other side of the rhetoric was that a job for life no longer existed, and you had to learn to be flexible. The one thing that you could not say was that you did not want to work. To my parents’ generation, work was everything; they worked solidly for forty years. When my mum lost her job having worked for twenty years, she became incredibly depressed and even suicidal, because her entire identity was tied up with being a worker. We really need to consider why that image of work has such a hold over people. Apart from the instrumental aspect of needing to stay alive, is there an ideology that if you do not work you’re not as good a person as someone who does?

Barbara Does that ideology affect you?

Nina I think so. I do work very hard and the idea of it irritates me.

Jo We’re talking about the relationship between gender and the transition between stereotypically Fordist and post-Fordist labour. Today the standard British response to the question ‘who are you?’ is to answer with your job description: it’s supposed to be your main source of identity and your sense of self. A lot of the feminist activity of the 1960s and 1970s was about the desire to open up a wider range of potential selves, especially through work. But many of these feminist demands made in the 1960s and 1970s around identity politics and on making work better, more interesting and more accessible to women, have been remodulated by post-Fordist capitalism into a hideously exploitative entrepreneurial ideology.

Barbara That’s where micro-political work becomes increasingly important. You have to be careful to not denigrate people’s desires. If somebody wants to be an artist, it is still a romantic and fantastic desire for self-expression and creativity. It’s an internal double bind that puts a social frame on your desires; but we need to question what would happen if we took our desires seriously instead of feeling guilty about them, or feeling that they will always be co-opted.

Jo On the one hand, working culture has forced many people to work longer and longer hours, on the other hand, many people can’t find work. How do we deal with this? One answer seems glaringly obvious: why can’t we just share it around more?

Nina There are obviously serious questions about global markets in relation to equal opportunities. Right-wing free marketeers have allowed the market to dictate where labour should go. This is a consequence of the idea that, for the benefit of capital, labour should be allowed to move freely.

We have talked about this stereotype of the industrial worker – in the British context a white man. But at the same time, so much of this country was built on the badly paid work of non-white people. The waves of migration have often been around specific areas of work, particularly transport, including the construction of motorways and the London Underground. The people at the bottom, doing the cleaning, are the ones sitting on the buses at 4.30 in the morning, who have to get to the offices to get them cleaned before the office workers arrive. And these people are primarily non-white migrants. Yet part of current anti-immigration ideology is trying to revert back to the idea that the British worker is white - despite the fact that this hasn’t been true for a very long time. Perhaps the best way to counteract that narrative is to say that everyone who works here is from here, adopting the pro-immigration French slogan.

Jo It becomes palpable to me when reading media articles worrying about how the national birth rate is declining, panicking that we won’t have enough workers to look after people when they are older, and discussing how to encourage women to have babies. Then, unconnected, beside those articles, they’ll be another article about the ‘problems’ of immigration. And sometimes another about a global crisis of population expansion and how the planet has too many bodies! But these different narratives will not be connected up in any way. There will not be a hint of how one problem could help the other; that the problems caused by a declining birth rate in some parts of the world might be helped by opening borders. Moving on to a different issue - do you see anything progressive in union activism at the moment?

Nina The spectre of them breaking from Labour would be interesting. There’s an endless problem about union bureaucracy. I’ve interviewed Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, and found that there’s a permanent mismatch between the militancy of the rhetoric and what’s actually achieved. I did think the TUC march was great and there’s some interesting activities, such as the idea to have a £1 per week subscription for an unemployed union. Although they weren’t very successful, they at least tried to break with the fantasy of the full-time employed unionised worker - that’s just not the reality for a great number of people. We have to think about who’s being excluded. I don’t want to be overly critical of unions in general, but we do have to ask questions about what very low union membership means. Unions are still very important, but they’re not the powerful force that they once were.

Jo The difficulty of unionising temporary and ‘portfolio’ workers who are employed across a range of sectors is a big problem. Carl Roper from the TUC suggested to me that one of the most interesting models is Equity, the actors’ union. They’ve always had to work with people who are in and out of work, whose positions are precarious - and they’ve been very experimental and successful in dealing with this.

Barbara We have been discussing the challenges around organising – particularly through our work with x:talk and the Sex Workers’ Union – and trying to suggest alternative forms of coming together. Maybe the meeting, as a form, is not the best method, for example. A friend of mine worked with the Migrants’ Association in Queens in New York, and they always have an after-school club, so the mums would be there, picking their kids up from school, and they’d then go for a meal together that was strictly limited to an hour, because everyone needed to get home afterwards. These were added incentives for people to attend the meeting. The Sex Workers’ Union organised language classes, which became a vehicle for organising because they happened in the brothels, in the workplace. Denning also discusses self-employed unions in India organised by people doing informal piece work on the streets. These unions are a much more self-organised, co-operative model, and make it easier for people to bargain for cheaper fibres, for example. So there are many different models around which it is possible to organise, and people might be able to learn from each other.

Anne We get a lot of emails asking for help with problems in the workplace. Of course, the first thing we ask them is if they have a union they could join. Because despite all the problems we’ve been talking about, if you’re a union member there is still someone who can fight your corner a bit.

Barbara There are still problems with the top-down system used by union campaigns. Partly the problem is they simply announce what needs to be done. And there’s another major problem: if you start with an assumption of identification as a worker, you lose half of your audience from the outset.

Jo That brings us back to gender and work. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is currently inciting women to embrace or ‘lean in’ to corporate culture in order to achieve, presumably so corporations can ‘lean out’ of their social responsibilities. And at the same time another very different right-wing discourse says that being in the workplace becomes more difficult for women after they’ve had kids, so women shouldn’t try to be like in the 1980s, and try to ‘have it all’, instead they should just relax into part-time work, and become what Rebecca Asher terms the ‘foundation parent’. I’m also interested in how flexibility is critiqued so much today as a tool of corporate culture. This is of course true; but sometimes on the left it goes hand in hand with an implicit nostalgia for Fordist culture that I find really problematic, given the place of women in the mid twentieth century. Why can’t we reclaim flexibility for the left instead? I think that should be on the agenda. For instance, it’s necessary for parents to be flexible because children are often ill, but I sometimes feel critiqued by a left position on work for even wanting that.

Anne I suppose the point is: flexibility on whose terms? You have to distinguish very carefully between those two things. Is it the workplace that requires you to be flexible or is it according to your needs?

Nina The implicit assumption that it is the woman’s responsibility to be the ‘foundation parent’ discounts the role of another parent or person in that scenario. And it hasn’t really been adequately politicised; since the 1970s, the politicisation of that question has just disappeared. Reproduction is considered to be a private choice that you can’t talk publicly about, it’s just thought to be a personal decision. That means that it is thought of as an individual family question rather than a wider social question.

Jo You can see that clearly in the implicit downgrading of the cultural status of nurseries and wider systems of socialised childcare. There’s been some interesting academic work by Glenda Wall tracking how, over the past thirty years, mainstream US media representation increasingly depicts nursery and social childcare provision as less desirable, even dangerous. This is in contrast to how the option for the upper-middle-class entrepreneurial family unit - that of privatised childcare, of nannies - has been rendered increasingly desirable and aspirational. It’s very different from the popular 1970s demand for collective childcare.

Nina It was really important in the Black Panthers. Part of the reason they were shut down was because they were doing the ‘breakfast-included’ version of care and community work. They were providing meals, doing breakfast clubs and so on; it was a vision of a social, co-operative world where everyone looks after each other. The critiques of nurseries are perhaps designed (in the same way as the attacks on the Black Panthers) to brutally shut down anything that has a collective, social dimension.

Barbara Any discussion about this leads onto the realities of employment inequalities as well. If you are in a heterosexual couple, the chances are that the man is earning more, so his wage would be the bigger sacrifice for that leave. And in that period of leave, the woman is established as the ‘foundation parent’. And that is actually legislated for. Where is the flexibility in that? The father has two weeks off and becomes the person who comes home at 6pm. It seems so easy to walk into that stereotype of gender relations. It’s a stereotype that is dictated by work: work policies and values.

Barbara One problem is that ‘social reproduction’ is a very difficult thing to organise around because no one really understands what it means - they just think it is about making babies!

Nina Going back to the beginning, we were talking about what it would mean to value care, or rather reproduction, in the broadest sense. These things are cut across by wage labour in very negative ways and we have to find a method for starting thinking from there. We need to value those things instead.

Barbara But what would that mean? Would that be a drive for payment? In Venezuela they’re paying housewives now.

Nina I went to see Selma James the other week, and they have the Venezuelan constitution on the wall. It is clearly very significant. Their ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign was very much an anti-work position. It was misunderstood very badly, deliberately I think, by a lot of British feminist leftists, who took it as middle-class women demanding to be paid for washing dishes. It was never that, although the phrase ‘wages for housework’ didn’t help. Instead it was about how we politicise the question of value and what we mean by work, as a means to destroy this entire edifice of work as it currently exists. One way of doing that positively is to think about what we should value that is devalued at the moment.

Jo Littler, the convenor of this discussion, is a Soundings editor. The other participants are Nina Power, who is writing a book on anti-work, and two members of the Precarious Worker’s Brigade, which campaigns against unpaid internships in the cultural industries alongside wider issues of precarious labour. The latter prefer to remain anonymous and have therefore been given the pseudonyms of Anne and Barbara.

Link: On the Tragedy of Life

Ken Gemes interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Ken Gemes never stops brooding on what the postmoderns got right about Nietzsche, about the lack of seriously considered theories in Nietzsche, about why his naturalism isn’t of interest, about the stark nihilist fact at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook, about the role of the genius, about being strangers to ourselves, ressentiment, Nietzschean localism, about Freud and Nietzsche’s relationship, about the ascetic ideal, about the canonical virtue of scientific empirical testability, about the need for fine grained logical content, about the value of his different philosophical interests and why what Nietzsche says may well be literally true. All in all, this one walks into the essential territory like its griot time…

3:AM: You’re a leading Nietzsche scholar. There’s been in the last decade or so some interesting developments in the understanding of this philosopher. One shift has been away from a postmodernist interpretation. So to begin with, can you say something about how you think postmodernism used and abused Nietzsche? Was Foucault the main culprit in this?

Ken Gemes: The postmodernists got something decidedly right about Nietzsche. Nietzsche, they say, disagrees with Descartes’ and Kant’s assumption that there is a pre-given soul or self for each person. That soul/self is a fiction. However that is merely on the descriptive side. On the normative, prescriptive, side, the post-modernists celebrate the demise of the self; they think we should totally jettison the notion of self.

For instance, the post-modernist Lytoard says we should reject all meta-narratives that try to create a centre of meaning; rather we should become ironists and employ multiple narratives, giving none any real authority. This is in fact the very nihilism that Nietzsche predicted would follow from a thorough appreciation of the Death of God. What strong individuals, the type that Nietzsche really cares about, do in the face of the collapse of all received, externally sanctioned, meta-narratives (be they that of religion, utilitarianism, Marxism, etc) is create their own meta-narrative; they impose their own values, recognizing that this is an existential act of self creation. Foucault himself actually gets a lot right about Nietzsche but also deforms him for his own purposes. I have no problem with that, since strong creative readers, rather than truth obsessed scholars, are Nietzsche’s preferred readers. That said, I find Nietzsche a hell of a lot more interesting than Foucault.

3:AM: I guess it was Nietzsche’s critique of truth that led to some of the postmodernist conclusions. So what do you think he was saying about truth?

KG: It is typical of modern philosophers to try to make Nietzsche speak to their limited concerns; hence they ask about Nietzsche’s theory of truth, Nietzsche’s epistemology, Nietzsche’s metaphysics. I don’t think Nietzsche had any seriously considered theory of truth, and was a fairly uneducated dilettante in his naive speculations about metaphysic, epistemology and the like. I would suggest that he occasionally fastened on to certain themes in epistemology and metaphysics because he thought he could use them to drive his normative agenda. For instance, the claim that there is no free will “in the superlative metaphysical sense” paves the way for a critique of received moral notions of guilt and responsibility. He was far more interested in, and perspicuous on, such psychological questions as “Why do we value truth so highly?” then such standard philosophical question as “What is the nature of truth?” Nietzsche says that he who reads him well reads him as a psychologist. I agree, but would add that one should also read him as a Kulturkritiker.

3:AM: What is your general position about Nietzsche then? Is it in the naturalist camp in the tradition of the German mid 19th century materialists like Buchner or do you situate him coming from some other place and going somewhere else?

KG: I don’t doubt that Nietzsche was in some sense a naturalist. But I don’t find that to be of much interest. In the 19th century naturalists were more or less a dime a dozen and I don’t see that he adds much to the picture.

3:AM: Is the tragedy of life in Nietzsche the stark nihilist fact that life is meaningless?

KG: Yes. Schopenhauer focused on the, for him, atemporal fact that life inevitably involves suffering. For Nietzsche’s the fundamental problem, a problem that only comes fully into view with modernity, is that life appears meaningless. Note, I refer to appearance deliberately; for the psychologist Nietzsche it does not really matter whether life actually is, or is not meaningful. What is crucial is that to us moderns it appears meaningless. Current Anglo-American interpreters tend to emphasize Nietzsche’s undoubted debt to Schopenhauer. But if we see Nietzsche as not being primarily fixated on the problem of suffering but on the particularly modern problem of the loss of meaning we have a perspective that allows emphasis of his debt to Wagner. One of Wagner’s key obsessions is that our modern will to truth destroy all those illusions and myths that provide existential meaning to our lives. It is from his engagement with Hölderlin and Wagner, among others, that Nietzsche picked up this theme.

3:AM: Do you agree with Leiter’s arguments that conclude that Nietzsche was addressing a limited type of person, the genius, and that broadening his conclusions to a more general position and audience misconceives his project?

KG: Nietzsche, like his early mentor Wagner, was influenced by the German Romantics’notion that modernity lacks any cultural unity. He first naively followed Wagner in believing that a new unified high culture could be created through a new mythology. He soon wised up and saw (as did Taine, De Tocqueville, and Mill in his occasional pessimistic moods) that philistine culture (“the tyranny of the majority” to use De Tocqueville’s words) was inevitable. The mature Nietzsche, like the early Nietzsche, still ultimately cares about high culture, but came to believe that its survival and development was in the hands of a few individuals of genius. It is such individuals who are his real conversational partners and who he really cared to influence. In a sense, he is talking in a one way, albeit temporally two directional, conversation to the dead (his great predecessors such as Schopenhauer and Goethe) and to the yet to be born (his successors, including Mann, Rilke, Hesse and the like).

3:AM: You take a key message from Nietzsche’s Genealogy to be that we remain of necessity “stranger to ourselves.” Can you explain what you think Nietzsche is saying in what you call a “beautiful and uncanny phrase”?

KG: There is an intellectual sense in which we are “strangers to ourselves”; namely, there are parts of our psyche that we are unaware of. Thus the Christian slave, who preaches love, is typically unaware that in fact he has a raging repressed desire to have revenge against his oppressors. But the really profound sense in which we are strangers to ourselves is that there are parts of us that are in a sense split-off, working autonomously, from our conscious I and other parts of our psyche. Nietzsche’s ideal, for his select few, is the achievement of a sublimated unity, where the parts (for Nietzsche these are fundamentally different drives) are integrated into a unified whole. This estrangement from ourselves precludes such a unity and so prevents us having genuine selves and freedom.

3:AM: Does Nietzsche intend us to stop being strangers, to engage in a “shattering struggle” using “momentous courage”?

KG: As a decided elitist (he says “let the rules of the herd rule – in the herd”) he thinks the vast majority of us will inevitably remain strangers to ourselves. And doing so is not such a bad thing as it makes our pathetic lives bearable, and also we are needed to do the non-creative work, which is all we are rally capable of, and which is needed to keep society going. But for those with genuine talents he thinks finding a master voice (a master drive) that sublimates, brings into unity, the other minor keys is the high road to full creative expression. This seems to me a rather fanciful romantic notion; a kind of unity worship, Einheit über alles. I don’t see why unity is essential to full creativity. I think he is on a better track when arguing that a disunifed self (for Nietzsche a kind of non-self) is not one that can fully overcome ressentiment – the ressentiment that comes when any parts of ourselves are pathologically repressed. Again, I am not sure that being a creature of ressentiment precludes the high creativity that Nietzsche so valued. I suspect that his real objection to ressentiment is that it makes its bearer ugly. His ultimate criticism of ressentiment may be aesthetic.

3:AM: You say that Nietzsche is “always a local rather than a global thinker.” This seems strange given that he seems to go back to very ancient pre-Socratic roots to justify his claims, and this seems a pretty global procedure. But also, doesn’t the claim of being local threaten his message with parochialism – modernity has changed since he was writing, so his locality has gone and he is no longer relevant?

KG: To answer the last part first: The lack of the illusions of meaning remains one of the core problems of modernity. So Nietzsche’s core problem is arguably still with us. But we may indeed get over that and then perhaps Nietzsche will have less to say to us. It is his belief that all great ideas have their own death built into themselves; they overcome themselves. Genius that he was Nietzsche saw his own obsolescence in his vision of the last men; people who were contented with herd happiness and do not feel the call of existential questions. He was appalled by such lack of ambition but at the same time realized that he had no purchase on such creatures.

Nietzsche is a local thinker in the sense that he does not ask, as a typical philosopher would, questions such as “What is the value of truth?”, hoping to find a final answer that serves all people for all time. Rather, he asks what is the value of so and so’s high estimation of truth. Thus he says in his own case and that of Goethe their high estimation of truth was part of their engagement with the world; but for typical scholars their high estimation of truth is a way of disengaging from the world. Like Schopenhauer they aspire to be mere passive mirrors of the world; pure subjects of knowledge. Similarly with religions and illusions, Nietzsche does not globally condemn them tout court but asks of each illusion and religion whether it serves to affirm life or deny life. For instance, he has no problem with the illusion of the Greek Gods; the Greek Gods were simply a projection, a personification onto nature, of the Greeks themselves; so that in worshipping a God filled nature the Greeks were in fact healthily worshipping themselves and their natural drives. The Judeo-Christian religions, in contrast, use their God to slander this world, saying that (acting on) our natural drives, for instance sexual and aggressive drives, is an affront to God. Philosophers ask the global question what is good; Nietzsche asks local questions like what is good for this kind of person in this kind of situation. Thus he allows that a high valuation of altruism and compassion may be good for members of the herd but for genuinely creative individuals they may be a debilitating distraction.

3:AM: You have compared Freud and Nietzsche on the idea of sublimation and you find Nietzsche’s account or analysis superior. Can you first say how the two thinkers diverge?

KG: There is a stupid question (not one you asked) about how the genius, Freud, borrowed from another genius, Nietzsche – usually this is asked in the context of an implication that Freud did not properly acknowledge his debt to Nietzsche. This is not something we should care about. What is helpful is to use the work of one to illuminate that of the other.

From a Nietzschean point of view, Freud is focused rather on the mundane descriptive causal problems of herd happiness and unhappiness. Nietzsche, of course, has total disdain for such pedestrian problems. It is Nietzsche’s focus on the idea of great individuals that leads him to a picture of sublimation as a thorough integration of the drives, and, conversely, to picture pathology as a disintegration of the self into mere competing drives. Freud, on the other hand, notoriously had a good deal of trouble separating pathology from sublimation. Both, for Freud, involve the redirection of sexual impulses; sublimation leading to symptom like formations that are socially acceptable (for instance, in the case of Leonardo Da Vinci, a fixation on artistic creation), as contrasted to the case of pathology where the symptoms are social unacceptable (for instance, in the case of the psychotic judge Schreber, a fixation on the belief that God is attempting to castrate and feminize him). From a psychologist’s point of view the mere vagaries of social acceptability should not mark the distinction between the healthy and the pathological. I am on Nietzsche’s side here; much of what society approves of is pathological and some of what it disapproves of is quite healthy.

3:AM: Given the psychological insights you find in Nietzsche, why should we heed him now rather than just turn to the psychologists who followed and have gone on since?

KG: Nietzsche is a psychologist with a grand normative vision. Most psychologists have no articulate normative vision or implicitly follow Freud’s totally mundane vision of turning extraordinary unhappiness to ordinary happiness. Also, Nietzsche had the good taste to at least implicitly recognize that psychology cannot yet seriously hope to be rigorous science. Personally, I think because of complexity issues it never will be – it is computationally intractable (too many variables) for beings like us. Freud maintained a fairly inappropriate, one might even say, near fraudulent, veneer of scientific authority for much of his career.

3:AM: And if as you say Nietzsche says philosophy is merely the last manifestation of the ascetic ideal, why continue with doing philosophy? Do you like the ascetic ideal? Or is he wrong to think of philosophy like that? And how could he know whether philosophy was the last manifestation anyway?

KG: Well, as Nietzsche himself says, the ascetic ideal gave man depth and made him interesting. Unlike Nietzsche, I still think it can be a source of great creativity. Nietzsche has as tendency to berate it as pathological, but that is probably, as he himself realized, an expression of its pathological effect on him. Like Nietzsche, I strongly value human creativity in its highest forms and philosophy is one expression of that creativity. Of course it’s desperately difficult to be a genuinely creative philosopher, and people like Descartes, Kant and Nietzsche put us lesser mortals totally in the shade – talk about the difference between Gods and the human-all-too-human! Still we help keep the philosophical Gods alive and add more or less important footnotes to their work. To use another metaphor, there is a wide space of reason; the Gods map out significant portions of that space, we mortals explore and map out minor alleys.

Link: Marxism vs. Liberalism, H. G. Wells interviews Joseph Stalin

In 1934, H. G. Wells arrived in Moscow to meet Soviet writers interested in joining the international PEN Club, of which he was then president. While there, Stalin granted him an interview. His deferential conversation was criticised by J M Keynes and George Bernard Shaw, among others, in the New Statesman. First published as a special NS supplement on 27 October 1934.

H. G. Wells: I am very much obliged to you, Mr Stalin, for agreeing to see me. I was in the United States recently. I had a long conversation with President Roosevelt and tried to ascertain what his leading ideas were. Now I have come to ask you what you are doing to change the world…

Joseph Stalin: Not so very much.

I wander around the world as a common man and, as a common man, observe what is going on around me.

Important public men like yourself are not “common men”. Of course, history alone can show how important this or that public man has been; at all events, you do not look at the world as a “common man”.

I am not pretending humility. What I mean is that I try to see the world through the eyes of the common man, and not as a party politician or a responsible administrator. My visit to the United States excited my mind. The old financial world is collapsing; the economic life of the country is being reorganised on new lines.

Lenin said: “We must learn to do business,” learn this from the capitalists. Today the capitalists have to learn from you, to grasp the spirit of Socialism. It seems to me that what is taking place in the United States is a profound reorganisation, the creation of planned, that is, Socialist, economy. You and Roosevelt begin from two different starting points. But is there not a relation in ideas, a kinship of ideas, between Moscow and Washington?

In Washington I was struck by the same thing I see going on here; they are building offices, they are creating a number of state regulation bodies, they are organising a long-needed civil service. Their need, like yours, is directive ability.

The United States is pursuing a different aim from that which we are pursuing in the USSR. The aim which the Americans are pursuing arose out of the economic troubles, out of the economic crisis. The Americans want to rid themselves of the crisis on the basis of private capitalist activity, without changing the economic basis. They are trying to reduce to a minimum the ruin, the losses caused by the existing economic system.

Here, however, as you know, in place of the old, destroyed economic basis, an entirely different, a new economic basis has been created. Even if the Americans you mention partly achieve their aim, ie, reduce these losses to a minimum, they will not destroy the roots of the anarchy which is inherent in the existing capitalist system. They are preserving the economic system which must inevitably lead, and cannot but lead, to anarchy in production. Thus, at best, it will be a matter, not of the reorganisation of society, not of abolishing the old social system which gives rise to anarchy and crises, but of restricting certain of its excesses. Subjectively, perhaps, these Americans think they are reorganising society; objectively, however, they are preserving the present basis of society. That is why, objectively, there will be no reorganisation of society.

Nor will there be planned economy. What is planned economy? What are some of its attributes? Planned economy tries to abolish unemployment. Let us suppose it is possible, while preserving the capitalist system, to reduce unemployment to a certain minimum. But surely, no capitalist would ever agree to the complete abolition of unemployment, to the abolition of the reserve army of unemployed, the purpose of which is to bring pressure on the labour market, to ensure a supply of cheap labour. You will never compel a capitalist to incur loss to himself and agree to a lower rate of profit for the sake of satisfying the needs of the people.

Without getting rid of the capitalists, without abolishing the principle of private property in the means of production, it is impossible to create planned economy.

I agree with much of what you have said. But I would like to stress the point that if a country as a whole adopts the principle of planned economy, if the government, gradually, step by step, begins consistently to apply this principle, the financial oligarchy will at last be abolished and Socialism, in the Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word, will be brought about.

The effect of the ideas of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” is most powerful, and in my opinion they are Socialist ideas. It seems to me that instead of stressing the antagonism between the two worlds, we should, in the present circumstances, strive to establish a common tongue for all the constructive forces.

In speaking of the impossibility of realising the principles of planned economy while preserving the economic basis of capitalism, I do not in the least desire to belittle the outstanding personal qualities of Roosevelt, his initiative, courage and determination. Undoubtedly Roosevelt stands out as one of the strongest figures among all the captains of the contemporary capitalist world. That is why I would like once again to emphasise the point that my conviction that planned economy is impossible under the conditions of capitalism does not mean that I have any doubts about the personal abilities, talent and courage of President Roosevelt.

But if the circumstances are unfavourable, the most talented captain cannot reach the goal you refer to. Theoretically, of course, the possibility of marching gradually, step by step, under the conditions of capitalism, towards the goal which you call Socialism in the Anglo-Saxon meaning of the word, is not precluded. But what will this “Socialism” be? At best, bridling to some extent the most unbridled of individual representatives of capitalist profit, some increase in the application of the principle of regulation in national economy. That is all very well. But as soon as Roosevelt, or any other captain in the contemporary bourgeois world, proceeds to undertake something serious against the foundation of capitalism, he will inevitably suffer utter defeat. The banks, the industries, the large enterprises, the large farms are not in Roosevelt’s hands. All these are private property. The railroads, the mercantile fleet, all these belong to private owners. And, finally, the army of skilled workers, the engineers, the technicians, these too are not at Roosevelt’s command, they are at the command of the private owners; they all work for the private owners.

We must not forget the functions of the State in the bourgeois world. The State is an institution that organises the defence of the country, organises the maintenance of “order”; it is an apparatus for collecting taxes. The capitalist State does not deal much with economy in the strict sense of the word; the latter is not in the hands of the State. On the contrary, the State is in the hands of capitalist economy. That is why I fear that in spite of all his energies and abilities, Roosevelt will not achieve the goal you mention, if indeed that is his goal. Perhaps in the course of several generations it will be possible to approach this goal somewhat; but I personally think that even this is not very probable.

Perhaps I believe more strongly in the economic interpretation of politics than you do. Huge forces striving for better organisation, for the better functioning of the community, that is, for Socialism, have been brought into action by invention
and modern science. Organisation, and the regulation of individual action, have become mechanical necessities, irrespective of social theories. If we begin with the State control of the banks and then follow with the control of the heavy industries, of industry in general, of commerce, etc, such an all-embracing control will be equivalent to the State ownership of all branches of national economy.

Socialism and Individualism are not opposites like black and white. There are many intermediate stages between them. There is Individualism that borders on brigandage, and there is discipline and organisation that are the equivalent of Socialism. The introduction of planned economy depends, to a large degree, upon the organisers of economy, upon the skilled technical intelligentsia who, step by step, can be converted to the Socialist principles of organisation. And this is the most important thing, because organisation comes before Socialism. It is the more important fact. Without organisation the Socialist idea is a mere idea.

There is no, nor should there be, irreconcilable contrast between the individual and the collective, between the interests of the individual person and the interests of the collective. There should be no such contrast, because collectivism, Socialism, does not deny, but combines individual interests with the interests of the collective. Socialism cannot abstract itself from individual interests.

Socialist society alone can most fully satisfy these personal interests. More than that, Socialist society alone can firmly safeguard the interests of the individual. In this sense there is no irreconcilable contrast between Individualism and Socialism. But can we deny the contrast between classes, between the propertied class, the capitalist class, and the toiling class, the proletarian class? On the one hand we have the propertied class which owns the banks, the factories, the mines, transport, the plantations in colonies. These people see nothing but their own interests, their striving after profits. They do not submit to the will of the collective; they strive to subordinate every collective to their will. On the other hand we have the class of the poor, the exploited class, which owns neither factories nor works, nor banks, which is compelled to live by selling its labour power to the capitalists and which lacks the opportunity to satisfy its most elementary requirements.

How can such opposite interests and strivings be reconciled? As far as I know, Roosevelt has not succeeded in finding the path of conciliation between these interests. And it is impossible, as experience has shown. Incidentally, you know the situation in the US better than I do, as I have never been there and I watch American affairs mainly from literature. But I have some experience in fighting for Socialism, and this experience tells me that if Roosevelt makes a real attempt to satisfy the interests of the proletarian class at the expense of the capitalist class, the latter will put another President in his place. The capitalists will say: Presidents come and Presidents go, but we go on for ever; if this or that President does not protect our interests, we shall find another. What can the President oppose to the will of the capitalist class?

I object to this simplified classification of mankind into poor and rich. Of course there is a category of people which strive only for profit. But are not these people regarded as nuisances in the West just as much as here? Are there not plenty of people in the West for whom profit is not an end, who own a certain amount of wealth, who want to invest and obtain a profit from this investment, but who do not regard this as the main object? In my opinion there is a numerous class of people who admit that the present system is unsatisfactory and who are destined to play a great role in future capitalist society.

During the past few years I have been much engaged in and have thought of the need for conducting propaganda in favour of Socialism and cosmopolitanism among wide circles of engineers, airmen, military technical people, etc. It is useless to approach these circles with two-track class-war propaganda. These people understand the condition of the world. They understand that it is a bloody muddle, but they regard your simple class-war antagonism as nonsense.

You object to the simplified classification into rich and poor. Of course there is a middle stratum, there is the technical intelligentsia that you have mentioned and among which there are very good and very honest people. Among them there are also dishonest and wicked people; there are all sorts of people among them. But first of all mankind is divided into rich and poor, into property owners and exploited; and to abstract oneself from this fundamental division and from the antagonism between poor and rich means abstracting oneself from the fundamental fact.

I do not deny the existence of intermediate middle strata, which either take the side of one or the other of these two conflicting classes, or else take up a neutral or semi-neutral position in the struggle. But, I repeat, to abstract oneself from this fundamental division in society and from the fundamental struggle between the two main classes means ignoring facts. The struggle is going on and will continue. The outcome will be determined by the proletarian class – the working class.

But are there not many people who are not poor, but who work and work productively?

Of course, there are small landowners, artisans, small traders, but it is not these people who decide the fate of a country, but the toiling masses, who produce all the things society requires.

But there are very different kinds of capitalists. There are capitalists who only think about profit, about getting rich; but there are also those who are prepared to make sacrifices. Take old [J P] Morgan, for example. He only thought about profit; he was a parasite on society, simply, he merely accumulated wealth. But take [John D] Rockefeller. He is a brilliant organiser; he has set an example of how to organise the delivery of oil that is worthy of emulation.

Or take [Henry] Ford. Of course Ford is selfish. But is he not a passionate organiser of rationalised production from whom you take lessons? I would like to emphasise the fact that recently an important change in opinion towards the USSR has taken place in English-speaking countries. The reason for this, first of all, is the position of Japan, and the events in Germany. But there are other reasons besides those arising from international politics. There is a more profound reason, namely, the recognition by many people of the fact that the system based on private profit is breaking down. Under these circumstances, it seems to me, we must not bring to the forefront the antagonism between the two worlds, but should strive to combine all the constructive movements, all the constructive forces in one line as much as possible. It seems to me that I am more to the Left than you, Mr Stalin; I think the old system is nearer to its end than you think.

 In speaking of the capitalists who strive only for profit, only to get rich, I do not want to say that these are the most worthless people, capable of nothing else. Many of them undoubtedly possess great organising talent, which I do not dream of denying. We Soviet people learn a great deal from the capitalists. And Morgan, whom you characterise so unfavourably, was undoubtedly a good, capable organiser. But if you mean people who are prepared to reconstruct the world, of course, you will not be able to find them in the ranks of those who faithfully serve the cause of profit. We and they stand at opposite poles.

You mentioned Ford. Of course, he is a capable organiser of production. But don’t you know his attitude towards the working class? Don’t you know how many workers he throws on the street? The capitalist is riveted to profit; and no power on earth can tear him away from it. Capitalism will be abolished, not by “organisers” of production, not by the technical intelligentsia, but by the working class, because the aforementioned strata do not play an independent role. The engineer, the organiser of production, does not work as he would like to, but as he is ordered, in such a way as to serve the interests of his employers. There are exceptions of course; there are people in this stratum who have awakened from the intoxication of capitalism. The technical intelligentsia can, under certain conditions, perform miracles and greatly benefit mankind. But it can also cause great harm.

We Soviet people have not a little experience of the technical intelligentsia. After the October Revolution, a certain section of the technical intelligentsia refused to take part in the work of constructing the new society; they opposed this work of construction and sabotaged it. We did all we possibly could to bring the technical intelligentsia into this work of construction; we tried this way and that. Not a little time passed before our technical intelligentsia agreed actively to assist the new system. Today the best section of this technical intelligentsia is in the front rank of the builders of Socialist society. Having this experience, we are far from underestimating the good and the bad sides of the technical intelligentsia, and we know that on the one hand it can do harm, and on the other hand it can perform “miracles”.

Of course, things would be different if it were possible, at one stroke, spiritually to tear the technical intelligentsia away from the capitalist world. But that is Utopia. Are there many of the technical in­telligentsia who would dare break away from the bourgeois world and set to work reconstructing society? Do you think there are many people of this kind, say, in England or in France? No; there are few who would be willing to break away from their employers and begin reconstructing the world.

Besides, can we lose sight of the fact that in order to transform the world it is necessary to have political power? It seems to me, Mr Wells, that you greatly underestimate the question of political power, that it entirely drops out of your conception.

What can those, even with the best intentions in the world, do if they are unable to raise the question of seizing power, and do not possess power? At best they can help the class which takes power, but they cannot change the world themselves. This can only be done by a great class which will take the place of the capitalist class and become the sovereign master as the latter was before. This class is the working class. Of course, the assistance of the technical intelligentsia must be accepted; and the latter, in turn, must be assisted. But it must not be thought that the technical intelligentsia can play an independent historical role.

The transformation of the world is a great, complicated and painful process. For this task a great class is required. Big ships go on long voyages.

Yes, but for long voyages a captain and navigator are required.

That is true; but what is first required for a long voyage is a big ship. What is a navigator without a ship? An idle man.

The big ship is humanity, not a class.

You, Mr Wells, evidently start out with the assumption that all men are good. I, however, do not forget that there are many wicked men. I do not believe in the goodness of the bourgeoisie.

I remember the situation with regard to the technical intelligentsia several decades ago. At that time the technical intelligentsia was numerically small, but there was much to do and every engineer, technician and intellectual found his opportunity. That is why the technical intelligentsia was the least revolutionary class. Now, however, there is a super­abundance of technical intellectuals, and their mentality has changed very sharply. The skilled man, who would formerly never listen to revolutionary talk, is now greatly interested in it.

Recently I was dining with the Royal Society, our great English scientific society. The President’s speech was a speech for social planning and scientific control. Thirty years ago, they would not have listened to what I say to them now. Today, the man at the head of the Royal Society holds revolutionary views, and insists on the scientific reorganisation of human society. Your class-war propaganda has not kept pace with these facts. Mentality changes.

Yes, I know this, and this is to be explained by the fact that capitalist society is now in a cul de sac. The capitalists are seeking, but cannot find, a way out of this cul de sac that would be compatible with the dignity of this class, compatible with the interests of this class. They could, to some extent, crawl out of the crisis on their hands and knees, but they cannot find an exit that would enable them to walk out of it with head raised high, a way out that would not fundamentally disturb the interests of capitalism.

This, of course, is realised by wide circles of the technical intelligentsia. A large section of it is beginning to realise the community of its interests with those of the class which is capable of pointing the way out of the cul de sac.

You of all people know something about revolutions, Mr Stalin, from the practical side. Do the masses ever rise? Is it not an established truth that all revolutions are made by a minority?

To bring about a revolution a leading revolutionary minority is required; but the most talented, devoted and energetic minority would be helpless if it did not rely upon the at least passive support of millions.

At least passive? Perhaps subconscious?

Partly also the semi-instinctive and semi-conscious, but without the support of millions, the best minority is impotent.

I watch Communist propaganda in the West, and it seems to me that in modern conditions this propaganda sounds very old-fashioned, because it is insurrectionary propaganda.

Propaganda in favour of the violent overthrow of the social system was all very well when it was directed against tyranny. But under modern conditions, when the system is collapsing anyhow, stress should be laid on efficiency, on competence, on productiveness, and not on insurrection.

It seems to me that the insurrectionary note is obsolete. The Communist propaganda in the West is a nuisance to constructive-minded people.

Of course the old system is breaking down, decaying. That is true. But it is also true that new efforts are being made by other methods, by every means, to protect, to save this dying system. You draw a wrong conclusion from a correct postulate. You rightly state that the old world is breaking down. But you are wrong in thinking that it is breaking down of its own accord. No; the substitution of one social system for another is a complicated and long revolutionary process. It is not simply a spontaneous process, but a struggle; it is a process connected with the clash of classes.

Capitalism is decaying, but it must not be compared simply with a tree which has decayed to such an extent that it must fall to the ground of its own accord. No, revolution, the substitution of one social system for another, has always been a struggle, a painful and a cruel struggle, a life-and-death struggle. And every time the people of the new world came into power they had to defend themselves against the attempts of the old world to restore the old power by force; these people of the new world always had to be on the alert, always had to be ready to repel the attacks of the old world upon the new system.

Yes, you are right when you say that the old social system is breaking down; but it is not breaking down of its own accord. Take Fascism for example. Fascism is a reactionary force which is trying to preserve the old system by means of violence. What will you do with the Fascists? Argue with them? Try to convince them? But this will have no effect upon them at all. Communists do not in the least idealise methods of violence. But they, the Communists, do not want to be taken by surprise; they cannot count on the old world voluntarily departing from the stage; they see that the old system is violently defending itself, and that is why the Communists say to the working class: Answer violence with violence; do all you can to prevent the old dying order from crushing you, do not permit it to put manacles on your hands, on the hands with which you will overthrow the old system.

As you see, the Communists regard the substitution of one social system for another, not simply as a spontaneous and peaceful process, but as a complicated, long and violent process. Communists cannot ignore facts.

But look at what is now going on in the capitalist world. The collapse is not a simple one; it is the outbreak of reactionary violence which is degenerating to gangsterism. And it seems to me that when it comes to a conflict with reactionary and unintelligent violence, Socialists can appeal to the law, and instead of regarding the police as the enemy they should support them in the fight against the reactionaries. I think that it is useless operating with the methods of the old insurrectionary Socialism.

The Communists base themselves on rich historical experience which teaches that obsolete classes do not voluntarily abandon the stage of history.

Recall the history of England in the seventeenth century. Did not many say that the old social system had decayed? But did it not, nevertheless, require a Cromwell to crush it by force?

Cromwell acted on the basis of the constitution and in the name of constitutional order.

In the name of the constitution he resorted to violence, beheaded the king, dispersed Parliament, arrested some and beheaded others!

Or take an example from our history. Was it not clear for a long time that the Tsarist system was decaying, was breaking down? But how much blood had to be shed in order to overthrow it?

And what about the October Revolution? Were there not plenty of people who knew that we alone, the Bolsheviks, were indicating the only correct way out? Was it not clear that Russian capitalism had decayed? But you know how great was the resistance, how much blood had to be shed in order to defend the October Revolution from all its enemies.

Or take France at the end of the eighteenth century. Long before 1789 it was clear to many how rotten the royal power, the feudal system, was. But a popular insurrection, a clash of classes was not, could not be avoided. Why? Because the classes which must abandon the stage of history are the last to become convinced that their role is ended. It is impossible to convince them of this. They think that the fissures in the decaying edifice of the old order can be repaired and saved.

That is why dying classes take to arms and resort to every means to save their existence as a ruling class.

But were there not a few lawyers at the head of the great French Revolution?

I do not deny the role of the intelligentsia in revolutionary movements. Was the great French Revolution a lawyers’ revolution and not a popular revolution, which achieved victory by rousing vast masses of the people against feudalism and championed the interests of the Third Estate? And did the lawyers among the leaders of the great French Revolution act in accordance with the laws of the old order? Did they not introduce new, bourgeois-revolutionary law?

The rich experience of history teaches that up to now not a single class has voluntarily made way for another class. There is no such precedent in history. The Communists have learned this lesson of history. Communists would welcome the voluntary departure of the bourgeoisie. But such a turn of affairs is improbable, that is what experience teaches. That is why the Communists want to be prepared for the worst and call upon the working class to be vigilant, to be prepared for battle.

Who wants a captain who lulls the vigilance of his army, a captain who does not understand that the enemy will not surrender, that he must be crushed? To be such a captain means deceiving, betraying the working class. That is why I think that what seems to you to be old-fashioned is in fact a measure of revolutionary expediency for the working class.

I do not deny that force has to be used, but I think the forms of the struggle should fit as closely as possible to the opportunities presented by the existing laws, which must be defended against reactionary attacks. There is no need to disorganise the old system because it is disorganising itself enough as it is. That is why it seems to me insurrection against the old order, against the law, is obsolete, old-fashioned. Incidentally, I exaggerate in order to bring the truth out more clearly. I can formulate my point of view in the following way: first, I am for order; second, I attack the present system in so far as it cannot assure order; third, I think that class war propaganda may detach from Socialism just those educated people whom Socialism needs.

In order to achieve a great object, an important social object, there must be a main force, a bulwark, a revolutionary class. Next it is necessary to organise the assistance of an auxiliary force for this main force; in this case this auxiliary force is the party, to which the best forces of the intelligentsia belong. Just now you spoke about “educated people”. But what educated people did you have in mind? Were there not plenty of educated people on the side of the old order in England in the seventeenth century, in France at the end of the eighteenth century, and in Russia in the epoch of the October Revolution? The old order had in its service many highly educated people who defended the old order, who opposed the new order.

Education is a weapon the effect of which is determined by the hands which wield it, by who is to be struck down. Of course, the proletariat, Socialism, needs highly educated people. Clearly, simpletons cannot help the proletariat to fight for Socialism, to build a new society.

I do not under-estimate the role of the intelligentsia; on the contrary, I emphasise it. The question is, however, which intelligentsia are we discussing? Because there are different kinds of intelligentsia.

There can be no revolution without a radical change in the educational system. It is sufficient to quote two examples – the example of the German Republic, which did not touch the old educational system, and therefore never became a republic; and the example of the British Labour Party, which lacks the determination to insist on a radical change in the educational system.

That is a correct observation. Permit me now to reply to your three points. First, the main thing for the revolution is the existence of a social bulwark. This bulwark of the revolution is the working class.

Second, an auxiliary force is required, that which the Communists call a Party. To the Party belong the intelligent workers and those elements of the technical intelligentsia which are closely connected with the working class. The intelligentsia can be strong only if it combines with the working class. If it opposes the working class it becomes a cipher.

Third, political power is required as a lever for change. The new political power creates the new laws, the new order, which is revolutionary order.

I do not stand for any kind of order. I stand for order that corresponds to the interests of the working class. If, however, any of the laws of the old order can be utilised in the interests of the struggle for the new order, the old laws should be utilised.

And, finally, you are wrong if you think that the Communists are enamoured of violence. They would be very pleased to drop violent methods if the ruling class agreed to give way to the working class. But the experience of history speaks against such an assumption.

There was a case in the history of England, however, of a class voluntarily handing over power to another class. In the period between 1830 and 1870, the aristocracy, whose influence was still very considerable at the end of the eighteenth century, voluntarily, without a severe struggle, surrendered power to the bourgeoisie, which serves as a sentimental support of the monarchy. Subsequently, this transference of power led to the establishment of the rule of the financial oligarchy.

But you have imperceptibly passed from questions of revolution to questions of reform. This is not the same thing. Don’t you think that the Chartist movement played a great role in the reforms in England in the nineteenth century?

The Chartists did little and disappeared without leaving a trace.

I do not agree with you. The Chartists, and the strike movement which they organised, played a great role; they compelled the ruling class to make a number of concessions in regard to the franchise, in regard to abolishing the so-called “rotten boroughs”, and in regard to some of the points of the “Charter”. Chartism played a not unimportant historical role and compelled a section of the ruling classes to make certain concessions, reforms, in order to avert great shocks. Generally speaking, it must be said that of all the ruling classes, the ruling classes of England, both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, proved to be the cleverest, most flexible from the point of view of their class interests, from the point of view of maintaining their power.

Take as an example, say, from modern history, the General Strike in England in 1926. The first thing any other bourgeoisie would have done in the face of such an event, when the General Council of Trade Unions called for a strike, would have been to arrest the Trade Union leaders. The Brit­ish bourgeoisie did not do that, and it acted cleverly from the point of view of its own interests. I cannot conceive of such a flexible strategy being employed by the bourgeoisie in the United States, Germany or France. In order to maintain their rule, the ruling classes of Great Britain have never forsworn small concessions, reforms. But it would be a mistake to think that these reforms were revolutionary.

You have a higher opinion of the ruling classes of my country than I have. But is there a great difference between a small revolution and a great reform? Is not a reform a small revolution?

Owing to pressure from below, the pressure of the masses, the bourgeoisie may sometimes concede certain partial reforms while remaining on the basis of the existing social-economic system. Acting in this way, it calculates that these concessions are necessary in order to preserve its class rule. This is the essence of reform. Revolution, however, means the transference of power from one class to another. That is why it is impossible to describe any reform as revolution.

I am very grateful to you for this talk, which has meant a great deal to me. In explaining things to me you probably called to mind how you had to explain the fundamentals of Socialism in the illegal circles before the revolution. At the present time there are only two persons to whose opinion, to whose every word, millions are listening – you and Roosevelt. Others may preach as much as they like; what they say will never be printed or heeded.

I cannot yet appreciate what has been done in your country; I only arrived yesterday. But I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something very considerable is being done here. The contrast with 1920 is astounding.

Much more could have been done had we Bolsheviks been cleverer.

No, if human beings were cleverer. It would be a good thing to invent a Five-Year Plan for the reconstruction of the human brain, which obviously lacks many things needed for a perfect social order. [Laughter]

Don’t you intend to stay for the Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union?

Unfortunately, I have various engagements to fulfil and I can stay in the USSR only for a week. I came to see you and I am very satisfied by our talk. But I intend to discuss with such Soviet writers as I can meet the possibility of their affiliating to the PEN Club. The organisation is still weak, but it has branches in many countries, and what is more important, the speeches of its members are widely reported in the press. It insists upon this, free expression of opinion – even of opposition opinion. I hope to discuss this point with Gorki. I do not know if you are prepared yet for that much freedom …

We Bolsheviks call it “self-criticism”. It is widely used in the USSR. If there is anything I can do to help you I shall be glad to do so.

Link: How We Behave, an Interview with Michel Foucault

No serious thinker can afford to ignore Michel Foucault. He has a formidable intelligence, he is also pop, “difficult,” and controversial. Not since Aristotle has a man been so obsessed with categories—as he works toward a challenging, idiosyncratic synthesis of social, political, and cultural history in his books Discipline and Punish, Madness and Civilization, and the History of Sexuality. As Foucault explains to interviewers Paul Rabinow and Hubert L. Dreyfus in the following pages, his new project is to draw “a genealogy of ethics.” Beginning with classical Greek culture, through the Christian period and into the present day, he looks at change in, among other things, food, sex, and writing. He also, unexpectedly, emerges here as something else—a charming, accessible, contradictory man with an oddly cheerful view of our civilization.

The first volume of your work The History of Sexuality was published in 1976. Do you still think that understanding sexuality is central to understanding who we are?

Michel Foucault: I must confess that I am much more interested in problems about techniques of the self and things like that rather than sex… sex is boring.

It sounds like the Greeks were not too interested either.

NO, they were not much interested in sex. It was not a great issue. Compare, for instance, what they say about the place of food and diet. I think it is extremely interesting to see the move, the very slow move, from the privileging of food, which was overwhelming in Greece, to interest in sex. Food was still much more important during the early Christian days than sex. For instance, in the rules for monks, the problem was food, food, food. Then you can see a slow shift during the Middle Ages, when they were in a kind of equilibrium…and after the seventeenth century it was sex.

Yet volume 2 of The History of Sexuality, L’Usage des Plaisirs, is concerned almost exclusively with, not to put too fine a point on it, sex.

What I wanted to do in volume 2 of The History of Sexuality was to show that you have nearly the same restrictive, prohibitive code in the fourth century B.C. as with the moralists and doctors at the beginning of the Roman Empire. But I think that the way they integrate those prohibitions in relation to the self is completely different. I don’t think one can find any normalization in, for instance, the Stoic ethics. The reason is, I think, that the principal aim, the principal target, for this kind of ethics was aesthetic. First, this kind of ethics was only a problem of personal choice. Second, it was reserved for a few people in the population; there was no question of prescribing a pattern of behavior for everybody. It was a personal choice for a small elite. The reason for making this choice was the will to live a beautiful life, and to leave to others memories of a beautiful existence. I don’t think that we can say that this kind of ethics was an attempt to normalize the population.

Reading Seneca, Plutarch, and all those people, I discovered that there were a very great number of problems about the self, the ethics of the self, the technology of the self—and I had the idea of writing a book composed of a set of separate studies, papers about such and such aspects of ancient, pagan technology of the self.

What is the title?

Le Souci de Soi, which is separate from the sex series, is composed of different papers about the self (for instance, a commentary on Plato’s Alcibiades in which you find the first elaboration of the notion of epimeleia heautou, “care of oneself”), about the role of reading and writing in constituting the self, maybe the problem of the medical experience of the self, and so on….

What strikes me is that in Greek ethics people were concerned with their moral conduct, their ethics, their relations to themselves and to others much more than with religious problems. For instance, what happens to us after death? What are the gods? Do they intervene or not? These are very, very unimportant problems for them; they are not directly related to ethics, to conduct. The second thing is that ethics was not related to any social—or at least to any legal—institutional system. For instance, the laws against sexual misbehavior were few and not very compelling. The third thing is that what they were worried about, their theme, was to constitute an ethics which was an aesthetics of existence.

Well, I wonder if our problem nowadays is not, in a way, similar, since most of us no longer believe that ethics is founded in religion, nor do we want a legal system to intervene in our moral, personal, private lives. Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principle on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics. They need an ethics, but they cannot find any ethics other than an ethics founded on so-called scientific knowledge of what the self is, what desire is, what the unconscious is, and so on. I am struck by this similarity of problems.

Do you think that the Greeks offer an attractive and plausible alternative?

No! I am not looking for an alternative; you can’t find the solution of any problem in a solution of a different problem raised at another time by other people. You see, what I want to do is not the history of solutions, and that’s the reason why I don’t accept the word alternative. I would like to do the genealogy of problems, of problématiques. My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism.

I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger. Take as an example Robert Castel’s analysis of the history of the antipsychiatry movement (La Gestion des Risques). I agree completely with what Castel says, but that does not mean, as some people suppose, that the mental hospitals were better than antipsychiatry; that does not mean that we were not right to criticize those mental hospitals.

So, Greek life may not have been altogether perfect; still it seems an attractive alternative to endless Christian self-analysis.

Greek ethics was linked to a purely virile society with slaves, in which the women were underdogs whose pleasure had no importance, whose sexual life had to be oriented only toward, even determined by, their status as wives, and so on.

So the women were dominated, but surely homosexual love was better than now.

It might look that way. Since there is an important and large literature about loving boys in Greek culture, some historians say, “Well, that’s the proof that they loved boys.” But I say that proves that loving boys was a problem. Because if there were no problem, they would speak of this kind of love in the same terms as love between men and women. The problem was that they couldn’t accept that a young boy who was supposed to become a free citizen could be dominated and used as an object for someone else’s pleasure. A woman, a slave, could be passive: such was their nature, their status. All this philosophizing about the love of boys—with always the same conclusion: please, don’t treat a boy as a woman—is proof that they could not integrate this real practice in the framework of their social selves.

You can see through a reading of Plutarch how they couldn’t even imagine reciprocity of pleasure between a boy and a man. If Plutarch finds problems in loving boys, it is not at all in the sense that loving boys was antinatural or something like that. He says, in effect, “It’s not possible that there could be any reciprocity in the physical relations between a boy and a man.”

Link: ‘A Racism without Races’: An interview with Étienne Balibar

Professor emeritus at the Université Paris X, the philosopher Étienne Balibar has made the question of racism and its new forms of expression an important theme of his political philosophy, notably in his critique of capitalism and of liberal society. He is the author, among others, ofCitoyen Sujet et autres essais d’anthropologie philosophique (2010) andLa proposition de l’égaliberté (2011), published by Presses Universitaires de France. Passing through Montreal last November, he was keen to answer our questions.

Relations: Given the predominance of the question of human rights in our societies, as well as the official condemnation of racism, one might think that racism is a relic of ages past. Yet this is not the case. To what extent is it still a central – indeed, structural – phenomenon, particularly in the era of capitalist globalisation? In other words, what does it say about our societies?

Étienne Balibar: certainly, it tells us that our society is ill – but what society isn’t? I believe that it is important to begin by freeing ourselves of any idealist images, by understanding that it is utopian to imagine a society without any pathologies. But utopias do have a role: they allow us to imagine alternatives and ways of cracking down on unbearable forms of exploitation, domination or hatred.

But let us get back to the problem of racism, because that is what we are here concerned with analysing and neutralising as completely as is possible. What you call the ‘predominance of human rights’ is an ideological phenomenon that certainly is of symptomatic value, but is not enough to change social structures. There are even ways of using it that hide the varieties of racism that are now developing, paradoxically by way of a ‘humanitarian’ or ‘philanthropic’ discourse that serves to keep populations or categories of individuals in the condition of recipients of help rather than as bearers of equal rights. Differences or incapacities are presented as essential properties, though they are in fact the result of historical conditions and of relations of domination.

The official condemnation of racism is a very important historical phenomenon. It coincided – at the end of the Second World War – with the dawn of Black Americans’ great Civil Rights campaigns and the development of more and more irresistible anti-colonial liberation movements, with the awareness that there was an ‘ideological form’ common to all the persecution and discrimination founded on ‘origins’ or ‘heredity’. There was at that time a tendency to consider this ideological form as related to pseudo-scientific myths (see the founding documents of UNESCO and the 1950-51 Declarations on Race). Such a representation of racism was evidently strengthened by Nazism’s use of biological racial doctrines, eugenics and the social Darwinism that was, moreover, also present in the discourse of other institutional racisms. But today we can see that this explanation was too intellectual. That is why even if the UNESCO doctrine and the human rights philosophy that inspired it were right to insist on the important role of education in the struggle against racism, they were too quick to assume that knowledge, or even the capacity for knowledge, would alone provide the key to solving this problem. They were also too linked to a given historical conjuncture and a certain spirit of civilisation. But, alas, no civilisation has a monopoly on racism. And, besides, as the history of the uses of the word ‘race’ and related words like caste or lineage in fact demonstrates, racism both preceded biological ideologies and has survived them. The anthropological red thread of which I am making use consists of studying the discriminatory uses and the metamorphoses of the ‘genealogical schema’, that is, the idea that generation after generation children inherit the ‘qualities’ – or, conversely, collective ‘defects’ – of their parents, be they physical, moral or intellectual… Naturally different societies give such an idea different content, and not all make use of it in an equally violent fashion. A current example of great significance would be the way in which our liberal societies, which preach individualism and equal opportunities, trap the descendants of immigrants within a ‘foreign identity’ for two or three generations, even when they are societies formed by the mixing of populations and the contributions of immigrants, as is the case in North America and in certain European countries such as France.

Does capitalist globalisation, structurally speaking, tend to reinforce discriminatory uses of the genealogical schema and the reappearance of racism in new forms? Yes, of course, above all in the neoliberal form which is today dominant across the world. After all, this does not only entail, as Immanuel Wallerstein in particular has emphasised, a global hierarchisation of the workforce for the sake of its exploitation, meaning that it is differentiated and divided or even that some groups of workers are set against others: men and women, people from the North or the South, workers from different cultures and nationalities… Rather, it also entails a systematic ‘disaffiliation’ of individuals (an expression that I in this case owe to Robert Castel) detaching them from their traditional solidarities, or those that had been reconstructed by way of social struggles, and can even lead to deracination and nomadism, pauperisation, the loss of social rights and, more profoundly still, the loss of the social recognition attached to one’s work. These phenomena, which are today being exacerbated, are justified by a whole individualist and utilitarian discourse that can very well present itself as humanist: as a reaction they engender a powerful need for community, which can easily become exclusivist and spontaneously linked to the idea of genealogy, whereby individuals seek a guarantee against total abandonment.

Is there a continuity or rupture between the racism of times past, and that which has banned the word ‘race’?

There are, necessarily, essential continuities, first of all because ways of thinking and of representation that are rooted in feeling of belonging and the image of community only evolve very slowly; but above all, because – contrary to what my previous remarks might lead you to think – racism is not simply a psychological phenomenon: it always has an institutional racism. It has even occurred to me to say that every racism is a ‘state racism’: but perhaps that is bending the stick too far in the other direction. When I thought that I was considering the development in France of the ideology of ‘national preference’ using which the far right have adjusted part of their discourse and their voter base; but all the same I think that every racism is inscribed in institutions and in ‘pathological effects’, of greater or lesser intensity, connected to their functioning.

Historically, racism has had three great institutional anchors, though they are clearly not completely independent of one another – and when the state takes charge of ‘totalising’ them and making them ‘official’, it can lead to terrifying results. The first is what Michel Foucault called the ‘biopolitics’ of industrial societies, which treats ‘human material’ as an exploitable resource, which implies selecting, evaluating and eventually eliminating it  (what Bertrand Ogilvie called the ‘production of the disposable man’). The second is xenophobia, or what I called – in the book I wrote together with WallersteinRace, nation, class. Ambiguous Identities – the ‘interior supplement’ of nationalism. It is a question of representing a certain ‘identity’ or a certain biological, cultural or religious ‘purity’, as a necessary cement for the preservation of national unity and its protection against internal or external enemies (above all, perhaps, the internal ones…). Finally, the third form is the representation of the variety of groups of humans on the Earth’s surface in terms of a competition between masters and slaves, or simply between ‘incompatible’ civilisations. This representation, which was considerably developed by colonialism, has also been reproduced in the post-colonial period, in the world of the new global relations of force. We could call it a sort of ‘inverse cosmopolitanism’, in opposition to the cosmopolitanism that emerged from the tradition of the Enlightenment. Since what flows from it is no longer mutual recognition and the consciousness that we belong to one same humanity, but, instead, an intensification of intolerance and falling back on identities.

So I think that none of these great institutional anchoring points of racism has disappeared in today’s world, but also that it is very important to analyse how they vary. Capitalism’s biopolitics changes, just as do inequalities, population flows, the ruling powers at the global scale and even the functions and tendencies of nationalism, which is itself dependent on national situations. This is why the idea of ‘race’ can be recomposed, and even become invisible: for example in what has been called ‘differentialist’ or ‘culturalist’ racism, and what I myself some years ago called a ‘racism without races’.

How can we collectively oppose racism and xenophobia? What forms of anti-racist struggle ought to be given priority?

There is no simple recipe for answering this question. I am tempted to say three things. Firstly, in order to reinforce the idea that this question is of fundamental importance for all our societies, I would say that the development of racism in its various forms is inversely proportional to the vitality of democratic citizenship. That is why I insist so much on the institutional dimension. Citizenship is not automatically democratic, egalitarian or the synonym of equal freedom, even if the Western tradition (and no doubt also others) does draw a symbolic link between the idea of the common good and that of the participation of ‘anyone and everyone’ in public affairs, as Jacques Rancière has put it. There is a constant oscillation in the rise and fall of discrimination: one should neither believe in guaranteed progress nor become fatalist about it. Next, the anti-racist struggle necessarily has an ethical as much as a political dimension: it is not very useful to repeat commonplaces like ‘all of us are racists’ but it is important to emphasise that if the struggle is a collective one then it also progresses by way of a transformation of our own selves, and thus also through an effort to imagine other social relations, other figures of the Other, and building a new identity for ourselves. The ‘genealogical question’ is a very complicated one, but it is crucial, here: what does it mean to belong to a tradition, a culture or a group in a way that is not exclusive, and thus does not exclude others? What does it mean to be oneself?

To finish, I would say that the anti-racist struggle cannot progress simply by way of humanist preaching, whether that be secular or religious: we need a political struggle to transform the structures that produce the conditions for racism and ‘make use of them’ for their own reproduction – meaning capitalism, nationalism, imperialism and their latest avatars. In this sense, the anti-racist struggle does not necessarily mean constantly having the word ‘racism’ on our lips; it is a struggle for social welfare, equal rights, education, and moral and religious tolerance.

However, these direct and indirect efforts must be inscribed within a horizon that allows us to explain their meaning. There is just one word for this: I for my part very much cling onto the idea of ‘cosmopolitanism’, because racism in the era of globalisation could be described as an ‘inverse cosmopolitanism’, to reuse the expression I have just mentioned. We must try to reverse this reversal, not only by administrative measures or state cultural policies, but from below, through practices of resistance and solidarity, which are also local practices, because ‘the whole world’ is today present in every neighbourhood and, in a certain sense comes to seek us out in our own homes. We can then speak of a practical cosmopolitanism, a cosmopolitanism from below in our neighbourhoods and daily lives, which can become the substance of a rebuilt citizenship.