Sunshine Recorder

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.

Link: Technology and Consumership

Today’s media, combined with the latest portable devices, have pushed serious public discourse into the background and hauled triviality to the fore, according to media theorist Arthur W Hunt. And the Jeffersonian notion of citizenship has given way to modern consumership.

Almantas Samalavicius: In your recently published book Surviving Technopolis, you discuss a number of important and overlapping issues that threaten the future of societies. One of the central themes you explore is the rise, dominance and consequences of visual imagery in public discourse, which you say undermines a more literate culture of the past. This tendency has been outlined and questioned by a large and growing number of social thinkers (Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Neil Postman and others). What do you see as most culturally threatening in this shift to visual imagery?

Arthur W. Hunt III: The shift is technological and moral. The two are related, as Ellul has pointed out. Computer-based digital images stem from an evolution of other technologies beginning with telegraphy and photography, both appearing in the middle of the nineteenth century. Telegraphy trivialized information by allowing it to come to us from anywhere and in greater volumes. Photography de-contextualized information by giving us an abundance of pictures disassociated from the objects from which they came. Cinema magnified Aristotle’s notion of spectacle, which he claimed to be the least artistic element in Poetics. Spectacle in modern film tends to diminish all other elements of drama (plot, character, dialogue and so on) in favour of the exploding Capitol building. Radio put the voice of both the President and the Lone Ranger into our living rooms. Television was the natural and powerful usurper of radio and quickly became the nucleus of the home, a station occupied by the hearth for thousands of years. Then the television split in two, three or four ways so that every house member had a set in his or her bedroom. What followed was the personal computer at both home and at work. Today we have portable computers in which we watch shows, play games, email each other and gaze at ourselves like we used to look at Hollywood stars. To a large extent, these technologies are simply extensions of our technological society. They act as Sirens of distraction. They push serious public discourse into the background and pull triviality to the foreground. They move us away from the Jeffersonian notion of citizenship, replacing it with modern capitalism’s ethic of materialistic desire or “consumership”. The great danger of all this, of course, is that we neglect the polis and, instead, waste our time with bread and circuses. Accompanying this neglect is the creation of people who spend years in school yet remain illiterate, at least by the standards we used to hold out for a literate person. The trivialization spreads out into other institutions, as Postman has argued, to schools, churches and politics. This may be an American phenomenon, but many countries look to America’s institutions for guidance.

AS: Philosopher and historian Ivan Illich – one of the most radical critics of modernity and its mythology – has emphasized the conceptual difference between tools, on one hand, and technology on the other, implying that the dominance and overuse of technology is socially and culturally debilitating. Economist E.F. Schumacher urged us to rediscover the beauty of smallness and the use of more humane, “intermediate technologies”. However, a chorus of voices seems to sink in the ocean of popular technological optimism and a stubborn self-generating belief in the power of progress. Your critique contains no call to go back to the Middle Ages. Nor do you suggest that we give anything away to technological advances. Rather, you offer a sound and balanced argument about the misuses of technology and the mindscape that sacrifices tradition and human relationships on the altar of progress. Do you see any possibility of developing a more balanced approach to the role of technology in our culture? Obviously, many are aware, even if cynically, that technological progress has its downsides, but what of its upsides?

AWH: Short of a nuclear holocaust, we will not be going back to the Middle Ages any time soon. Electricity and automobiles are here to stay. The idea is not to be anti-technology. Neil Postman once said to be anti-technology is like being anti-food. Technologies are extensions of our bodies, and therefore scale, ecological impact and human flourishing becomes the yardstick for technological wisdom. The conventional wisdom of modern progress favours bigger, faster, newer and more. Large corporations see their purpose on earth to maximize profits. Their goal is to get us addicted to their addictions. We can no longer afford this kind of wisdom, which is not wisdom at all, but foolishness. We need to bolster a conversation about the human benefits of smaller, slower, older and less. Europeans often understand this better than Americans, that is, they are more conscious of preserving living spaces that are functional, aesthetically pleasing and that foster human interaction. E.F. Schumacher gave us some useful phraseology to promote an economy of human scale: “small is beautiful,” “technologies with a human face” and “homecomers.” He pointed out that “labour-saving machinery” is a paradoxical term, not only because it makes us unemployed, but also because it diminishes the value of work. Our goal should be to move toward a “third-way” economic model, one of self-sufficient regions, local economies of scale, thriving community life, cooperatives, family owned farms and shops, economic integration between the countryside and the nearby city, and a general revival of craftsmanship. Green technologies – solar and wind power for example – actually can help us achieve this third way, which is actually a kind of micro-capitalism.

AS: Technologies developed by humans (e.g. television) continue to shape and sustain a culture of consumerism, which has now become a global phenomenon. As you insightfully observe in one of your essays, McLuhan, who was often misinterpreted and misunderstood as a social theorist hailed by the television media he explored in a great depth, was fully aware of its ill effects on the human personality and he therefore limited his children’s TV viewing. Jerry Mander has argued for the elimination of television altogether, nevertheless, this medium is alive and kicking and continues to promote an ideology of consumption and, what is perhaps most alarming, successfully conditioning children to become voracious consumers in a society where the roles of parents become more and more institutionally limited. Do you have any hopes for this situation? Can one expect that people will develop a more critical attitude toward these instruments, which shape them as consumers? Does social criticism of these trends play any role in an environment where the media and the virtual worlds of the entertainment industry have become so powerful?

AWH: Modern habits of consumption have created what Benjamin Barber calls an “ethos of infantilization”, where children are psychologically manipulated into early adulthood and adults are conditioned to remain in a perpetual state of adolescence. Postman suggested essentially the same thing when he wroteThe Disappearance of Childhood. There have been many books written that address the problems of electronic media in stunting a child’s mental, physical and spiritual development. One of the better recent ones is Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. Another one is Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. We have plenty of books, but we don’t have enough people reading them or putting them into practice. Raising a child today is a daunting business, and maybe this is why more people are refusing to do it. No wonder John Bakan, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, wrote a New York Times op-ed complaining, “There is reason to believe that childhood itself is now in crisis.” The other day I was listening to the American television program 60 Minutes. The reporter was interviewing the Australian actress Cate Blanchett. I almost fell out of my chair when she starkly told the reporter, “We don’t outsource our children.” What she meant was, she does not let someone else raise her children. I think she was on to something. In most families today, both parents work outside the home. This is a fairly recent development if you consider the entire span of human history. Industrialism brought an end to the family as an economic unit. First, the father went off to work in the factory. Then, the mother entered the workforce during the last century. Well, the children could not stay home alone, so they were outsourced to various surrogate institutions. What was once provided by the home economy (oikos) – education, heath care, child rearing and care of the elderly – came to be provided by the state. The rest of our needs – food, clothing, shelter and entertainment – came to be provided by the corporations. A third-way economic ordering would seek to revive the old notion of oikos so that the home can once again be a legitimate economic, educational and care-providing unit – not just a place to watch TV and sleep. In other words, the home would once again become a centre for production, not just consumption. If this every happened, one or both parents would be at home and little Johnny and sister Jane would work and play alongside their parents.

AS: I was intrigued by your insight into forms of totalitarianism depicted by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Though most authors who discussed totalitarianism during the last half of the century were overtaken by the Orwellian vision and praised this as most enlightening, the alternative Huxleyan vision of a self-inflicted, joyful and entertaining totalitarian society was far less scrutinized. Do you think we are entering into a culture where “totalitarianism with a happy face” as you call it prevails? If so, what consequences you foresee?

AWH: It is interesting to note that Orwell thought Huxley’s Brave New Worldwas implausible because he maintained that hedonistic societies do not last long, and that they are too boring. However, both authors were addressing what many other intellectuals were debating during the 1930s: what would be the social implications of Darwin and Freud? What ideology would eclipse Christianity? Would the new social sciences be embraced with as much exuberance as the hard sciences? What would happen if managerial science were infused into all aspects of life? What should we make of wartime propaganda? What would be the long-term effects of modern advertising? What would happen to the traditional family? How could class divisions be resolved? How would new technologies shape the future?

I happen to believe there are actually more similarities between the Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World than there are differences. Both novels have as their backstory the dilemma of living with weapons of mass destruction. The novel 1984 imagines what would happen if Hitler succeeded. In Brave New World, the world is at a crossroads. What is it to be, the annihilation of the human race or world peace through sociological control? In the end, the world chooses a highly efficient authoritarian state, which keeps the masses pacified by maintaining a culture of consumption and pleasure. In both novels, the past is wiped away from public memory. In Orwell’s novel, whoever “controls the past controls the future.” In Huxley’s novel, the past has been declared barbaric. All books published before A.F. 150 (that is, 150 years after 1908 CE, the year the first Model T rolled off the assembly line) are suppressed. Mustapha Mond, the Resident Controller in Brave New World, declares the wisdom of Ford: “History is bunk.” In both novels, the traditional family has been radically altered. Orwell draws from Hitler Youth and the Soviets Young Pioneers to give us a society where the child’s loyalty to the state far outweighs any loyalty to parents. Huxley gives us a novel where the biological family does not even exist. Any familial affection is looked down upon. Everybody belongs to everybody, sexually and otherwise. Both novels give us worlds where rational thought is suppressed so that “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength” (1984). InBrave New World, when Lenina is challenged by Marx to think for herself, all she can say is “I don’t understand.” The heroes in both novels are malcontents who want to escape this irrationality but end up excluded from society as misfits. Both novels perceive humans as religious beings where the state recognizes this truth but channels these inclinations toward patriotic devotion. In1984, Big Brother is worshipped. In Brave New World, the Christian cross has been cut off at the top to form the letter “T” for Technology. When engaged in the Orgy-Porgy, everyone in the room chants, “Ford, Ford, Ford.” In both novels an elite ruling class controls the populace by means of sophisticated technologies. Both novels show us surveillance states where the people are constantly monitored. Sound familiar? Certainly, as Postman tells us in his foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Huxley’s vision eerily captures our culture of consumption. But how long would it take for a society to move from a happy faced totalitarianism to one that has a mask of tragedy?

AS: Your comments on the necessity of the third way in our societies subjected to and affected by economic globalization seem to resonate with the ideas of many social thinkers I interviewed for this series. Many outstanding social critics and thinkers seem to agree that the notions of communism and capitalism have become stale and meaningless; further development of these paradigms lead us nowhere. One of your essays focuses on the old concept of “shire” and household economics. Do you believe in what Mumford called “the useful past”? And do you expect the growing movement that might be referred to as “new economics” to enter the mainstream of our economic thinking, eventually leading to changes in our social habits?

AWH: If the third way economic model ever took hold, I suppose it could happen in several ways. We will start with the most desirable way, and then move to less desirable. The most peaceful way for this to happen is for people to come to some kind of realization that the global economy is not benefiting them and start desiring something else. People will see that their personal wages have been stagnant for too long, that they are working too hard with nothing to show for it, that something has to be done about the black hole of debt, and that they feel like pawns in an incomprehensible game of chess. Politicians will hear their cries and institute policies that would allow for local economies, communities and families to flourish. This scenario is less likely to happen, because the multinationals that help fund the campaigns of politicians will not allow it. I am primarily thinking of the American reality in my claim here. Unless corporations have a change of mind, something akin to a religious conversion, we will not see them open their hearts and give away their power.

A more likely scenario is that a grassroots movement led by creative innovators begins to experiment with new forms of community that serve to repair the moral and aesthetic imagination distorted by modern society. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls this the “Benedict Option” in his book After Virtue. Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture essentially calls for the same solution. Inspired by the monasteries that preserved western culture in Europe during the Dark Ages, these communities would serve as models for others who are dissatisfied with the broken dreams associated with modern life. These would not be utopian communities, but humble efforts of trial and error, and hopefully diverse according to the outlook of those who live in them. The last scenario would be to have some great crisis occur – political, economic, or natural in origin – that would thrust upon us the necessity reordering our institutions. My father, who is in his nineties, often reminisces to me about the Great Depression. Although it was a miserable time, he speaks of it as the happiest time in his life. His best stories are about neighbours who loved and cared for each other, garden plots and favourite fishing holes. For any third way to work, a memory of the past will become very useful even if it sounds like literature. From a practical point of view, however, the kinds of knowledge that we will have to remember will include how to build a solid house, how to plant a vegetable garden, how to butcher a hog and how to craft a piece of furniture. In rural Tennessee where I live, there are people still around who know how to do these things, but they are a dying breed.

AS: The long (almost half-century) period of the Cold War has resulted in many social effects. The horrors of Communist regimes and the futility of state-planned economics, as well as the treason of western intellectuals who remained blind to the practice of Communist powers and eschewed ideas of idealized Communism, have aided the ideology of capitalism and consumerism. Capitalism came to be associated with ideas of freedom, free enterprise, freedom to choose and so on. How is this legacy burdening us in the current climate of economic globalization? Do you think recent crises and new social movements have the potential to shape a more critical view (and revision) of capitalism and especially its most ugly neo-liberal shape?

AWH: Here in America liberals want to hold on to their utopian visions of progress amidst the growing evidence that global capitalism is not delivering on its promises. Conservatives are very reluctant to criticize the downsides of capitalism, yet they are not really that different in their own visions of progress in comparison to liberals. It was amusing to hear the American politician Sarah Palin describe Pope Francis’ recent declarations against the “globalization of indifference” as being “a little liberal.” The Pope is liberal? While Democrats look to big government to save them, Republicans look to big business. Don’t they realize that with modern capitalism, big government and big business are joined at the hip? The British historian Hilarie Belloc recognized this over a century ago, when he wrote about the “servile state,” a condition where an unfree majority of non-owners work for the pleasure of a free minority of owners. But getting to your question, I do think more people are beginning to wake up to the problems associated with modern consumerist capitalism. A good example of this is a recent critique of capitalism written by Daniel M. Bell, Jr. entitled The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. Here is a religious conservative who is saying the great tempter of our age is none other than Walmart. The absurdist philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus once said the real passion of the twentieth century was not freedom, but servitude. Jacques Ellul, Camus’s contemporary, would have agreed with that assessment. Both believed that the United States and the Soviet Union, despite their Cold War differences, had one thing in common – the two powers had surrendered to the sovereignty of technology. Camus’ absurdism took a hard turn toward nihilism, while Ellul turned out to be a kind of cultural Jeremiah. It is interesting to me that when I talk to some people about third way ideas, which actually is an old way of thinking about economy, they tell me it can’t be done, that we are now beyond all that, and that the our economic trajectory is unstoppable or inevitable. This retort, I think, reveals how little freedom our system possesses. So, I can’t have a family farm? My small business can’t compete with the big guys? My wife has to work outside the home and I have to outsource the raising of my children? Who would have thought capitalism would lack this much freedom?

AS: And finally are you an optimist? Jacques Ellul seems to have been very pessimistic about us escaping from the iron cage of technological society. Do you think we can still break free?

AWH: I am both optimistic and pessimistic. In America, our rural areas are becoming increasingly depopulated. I see this as an opportunity for resettling the land – those large swaths of fields and forests that encompass about three quarters of our landmass. That is a very nice drawing board if we can figure out how to get back to it. I am also optimistic about the fact that more people are waking up to our troubling times. Other American writers that I would classify as third way proponents include Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, Rod Dreher, Mark T. Mitchell, Bill Kauffman, Joseph Pearce and Allan Carlson. There is also a current within the American and British literary tradition, which has served as a critique of modernity. G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Day and Allen Tate represent this sensibility, which is really a Catholic sensibility, although one does not have to be Catholic to have it. I am amazed at the popularity of novels about Amish people among American evangelical women. Even my wife reads them, and we are Presbyterians! In this country, the local food movement, the homeschool movement and the simplicity movement all seem to be pointing toward a kind of breaking away. You do not have to be Amish to break away from the cage of technological society; you only have to be deliberate and courageous. If we ever break out of the cage in the West, there will be two types of people who will lead such a movement. The first are religious people, both Catholic and Protestant, who will want to create a counter-environment for themselves and their children. The second are the old-school humanists, people who have a sense of history, an appreciation of the cultural achievements of the past, and the ability to see what is coming down the road. If Christians and humanists do nothing, and let modernity roll over them, I am afraid we face what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man”. Lewis believed our greatest danger was to have a technological elite – what he called The Conditioners – exert power over the vast majority so that our humanity is squeezed out of us. Of course all of this would be done in the name of progress, and most of us would willingly comply. The Conditioners are not acting on behalf of the public good or any other such ideal, rather what they want are guns, gold, and girls – power, profits and pleasure. The tragedy of all this, as Lewis pointed out, is that if they destroy us, they will destroy themselves, and in the end Nature will have the last laugh.

Link: Simone de Beauvoir, The Art of Fiction No. 35

Simone de Beauvoir had introduced me to Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I had interviewed. But she hesitated about being interviewed herself: “Why should we talk about me? Don’t you think I’ve done enough in my three books of memoirs?” It took several letters and conversations to convince her otherwise, and then only on the condition “that it wouldn’t be too long.”

The interview took place in Miss de Beauvoir’s studio on the rue Schoëlcher in Montparnasse, a five-minute walk from Sartre’s apartment. We worked in a large, sunny room which serves as her study and sitting room. Shelves are crammed with surprisingly uninteresting books. “The best ones,” she told me, “are in the hands of my friends and never come back.” The tables are covered with colorful objects brought back from her travels, but the only valuable work in the room is a lamp made for her by Giacometti. Scattered throughout the room are dozens of phonograph records, one of the few luxuries that Miss de Beauvoir permits herself.

Apart from her classically featured face, what strikes one about Simone de Beauvoir is her fresh, rosy complexion and her clear blue eyes, extremely young and lively. One gets the impression that she knows and sees everything; this inspires a certain timidity. Her speech is rapid, her manner direct without being brusque, and she is rather smiling and friendly.

Madeleine Gobeil: For the last seven years you’ve been writing your memoirs, in which you frequently wonder about your vocation and your profession. I have the impression that it was the loss of religious faith that turned you toward writing.

Simone De Beauvoir: It’s very hard to review one’s past without cheating a little. My desire to write goes far back. I wrote stories at the age of eight, but lots of children do the same. That doesn’t really mean they have a vocation for writing. It may be that in my case the vocation was accentuated because I had lost religious faith; it’s also true that when I read books that moved me deeply, such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, I wanted terribly much to be, like her, someone whose books would be read, whose books would move readers.

Have you been influenced by English literature?

The study of English has been one of my passions ever since childhood. There’s a body of children’s literature in English far more charming than what exists in French. I loved to read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, George Eliot, and even Rosamond Lehmann.

Dusty Answer?

I had a real passion for that book. And yet it was rather mediocre. The girls of my generation adored it. The author was very young, and every girl recognized herself in Judy. The book was rather clever, even rather subtle. As for me, I envied English university life. I lived at home. I didn’t have a room of my own. In fact, I had nothing at all. And though that life wasn’t free, it did allow for privacy and seemed to me magnificent. The author had known all the myths of adolescent girls—handsome boys with an air of mystery about them and so on. Later, of course, I read the Brontës and the books of Virginia Woolf: Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t care much for The Waves, but I’m very, very fond of her book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

What about her journal?

It interests me less. It’s too literary. It’s fascinating, but it’s foreign to me. She’s too concerned with whether she’ll be published, with what people will say about her. I liked very much “A Room of One’s Own” in which she talks about the situation of women. It’s a short essay, but it hits the nail on the head. She explains very well why women can’t write. Virginia Woolf is one of the women writers who have interested me most. Have you seen any photos of her? An extraordinarily lonely face … In a way, she interests me more than Colette. Colette is, after all, very involved in her little love affairs, in household matters, laundry, pets. Virginia Woolf is much broader.

Did you read her books in translation?

No, in English. I read English better than I speak it.

What do you think about college and university education for a writer? You yourself were a brilliant student at the Sorbonne and people expected you to have a brilliant career as a teacher.

My studies gave me only a very superficial knowledge of philosophy but sharpened my interest in it. I benefited greatly from being a teacher—that is, from being able to spend a great deal of time reading, writing and educating myself. In those days, teachers didn’t have a very heavy program. My studies gave me a solid foundation because in order to pass the state exams you have to explore areas that you wouldn’t bother about if you were concerned only with general culture. They provided me with a certain academic method that was useful when I wrote The Second Sex and that has been useful, in general, for all my studies. I mean a way of going through books very quickly, of seeing which works are important, of classifying them, of being able to reject those which are unimportant, of being able to summarize, to browse.

Were you a good teacher?

I don’t think so, because I was interested only in the bright students and not at all in the others, whereas a good teacher should be interested in everyone. But if you teach philosophy you can’t help it. There were always four or five students who did all the talking, and the others didn’t care to do anything. I didn’t bother about them very much.

You had been writing for ten years before you were published, at the age of thirty-five. Weren’t you discouraged?

No, because in my time it was unusual to be published when you were very young. Of course, there were one or two examples, such as Radiguet, who was a prodigy. Sartre himself wasn’t published until he was about thirty-five, when Nausea and The Wall were brought out. When my first more or less publishable book was rejected, I was a bit discouraged. And when the first version of She Came to Stay was rejected, it was very unpleasant. Then I thought that I ought to take my time. I knew many examples of writers who were slow in getting started. And people always spoke of the case of Stendhal, who didn’t begin to write until he was forty.

In The Blood of Others and All Men Are Mortal you deal with the problem of time. Were you influenced, in this respect, by Joyce or Faulkner?

No, it was a personal preoccupation. I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve, I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out. That’s horrible too, though I personally have never been troubled by it. There’s always been great continuity in my life. I’ve always lived in Paris, more or less in the same neighborhoods. My relationship with Sartre has lasted a very long time. I have very old friends whom I continue to see. So it’s not that I’ve felt that time breaks things up, but rather the fact that I always take my bearings. I mean the fact that I have so many years behind me, so many ahead of me. I count them.

In the second part of your memoirs, you draw a portrait of Sartre at the time he was writing Nausea. You picture him as being obsessed by what he calls his “crabs,” by anguish. You seem to have been, at the time, the joyous member of the couple. Yet, in your novels you reveal a preoccupation with death that we never find in Sartre.

But remember what he says in The Words. That he never felt the imminence of death, whereas his fellow students—for example, Nizan, the author of Aden, Arabie—were fascinated by it. In a way, Sartre felt he was immortal. He had staked everything on his literary work and on the hope that his work would survive, whereas for me, owing to the fact that my personal life will disappear, I’m not the least bit concerned about whether my work is likely to last. I’ve always been deeply aware that the ordinary things of life disappear, one’s day-to-day activities, one’s impressions, one’s past experiences. Sartre thought that life could be caught in a trap of words, and I’ve always felt that words weren’t life itself but a reproduction of life, of something dead, so to speak.

That’s precisely the point. Some people claim that you haven’t the power to transpose life in your novels. They insinuate that your characters are copied from the people around you.

I don’t know. What is the imagination? In the long run, it’s a matter of attaining a certain degree of generality, of truth about what is, about what one actually lives. Works which aren’t based on reality don’t interest me unless they’re out-and-out extravagant, for example the novels of Alexandre Dumas or of Victor Hugo, which are epics of a kind. But I don’t call “made-up” stories works of the imagination but rather works of artifice. If I wanted to defend myself, I could refer to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all the characters of which were taken from real life.

In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.

Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.

None of your female characters are immune from love. You like the romantic element.

Love is a great privilege. Real love, which is very rare, enriches the lives of the men and women who experience it.

In your novels, it seems to be the women—I’m thinking of Françoise in She Came to Stay and Anne in The Mandarins—who experience it most.

The reason is that, despite everything, women give more of themselves in love because most of them don’t have much else to absorb them. Perhaps they’re also more capable of deep sympathy, which is the basis of love. Perhaps it’s also because I can project myself more easily into women than into men. My female characters are much richer than my male characters.

You’ve never created an independent and really free female character who illustrates in one way or other the thesis of The Second Sex. Why?

I’ve shown women as they are, as divided human beings, and not as they ought to be.

After your long novel, The Mandarins, you stopped writing fiction and began to work on your memoirs. Which of these two literary forms do you prefer?

I like both of them. They offer different kinds of satisfaction and disappointment. In writing my memoirs, it’s very agreeable to be backed up by reality. On the other hand, when one follows reality from day to day, as I have, there are certain depths, certain kinds of myth and meaning that one disregards. In the novel, however, one can express these horizons, these overtones of daily life, but there’s an element of fabrication that is nevertheless disturbing. One should aim at inventing without fabricating. I had been wanting to talk about my childhood and youth for a long time. I had maintained very deep relationships with them, but there was no sign of them in any of my books. Even before writing my first novel, I had a desire to have, as it were, a heart-to-heart talk. It was a very emotional, a very personal need. After Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter I was unsatisfied, and then I thought of doing something else. But I was unable to. I said to myself, “I’ve fought to be free. What have I done with my freedom, what’s become of it?” I wrote the sequel that carried me from the age of twenty-one to the present time, from The Prime of Life to Force of Circumstance

At the meeting of writers in Formentor a few years ago, Carlo Levi described The Prime of Life as “the great love story of the century.” Sartre appeared for the first time as a human being. You revealed a Sartre who had not been rightly understood, a man very different from the legendary Sartre.

I did it intentionally. He didn’t want me to write about him. Finally, when he saw that I spoke about him the way I did, he gave me a free hand.

In your opinion, why is it that, despite the reputation he’s had for twenty years, Sartre the writer remains misunderstood and is still violently attacked by critics?

For political reasons. Sartre is a man who has violently opposed the class into which he was born and which therefore regards him as a traitor. But that’s the class which has money, which buys books. Sartre’s situation is paradoxical. He’s an antibourgeois writer who is read by the bourgeoisie and admired by it as one of its products. The bourgeoisie has a monopoly on culture and thinks that it gave birth to Sartre. At the same time, it hates him because he attacks it.

In an interview with Hemingway in The Paris Review, he said, “All you can be sure about, in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it.” Of course, you don’t agree. Do you still believe in “commitment”?

Hemingway was precisely the type of writer who never wanted to commit himself. I know that he was involved in the Spanish civil war, but as a journalist. Hemingway was never deeply committed, so he thinks that what is eternal in literature is what isn’t dated, isn’t committed. I don’t agree. In the case of many writers, it’s also their political stand which makes me like or dislike them. There aren’t many writers of former times whose work was really committed. And although one reads Rousseau’s Social Contract as eagerly as one reads his Confessions, one no longer reads The New Héloïse.

The heyday of existentialism seems to have been the period from the end of the war to 1952. At the present time, the “new novel” is in fashion; and such writers as Drieu La Rochelle and Roger Nimier.

There’s certainly a return to the right in France. The new novel itself isn’t reactionary, nor are its authors. A sympathizer can say that they want to do away with certain bourgeois conventions. These writers aren’t disturbing. In the long run, Gaullism brings us back to Pétainism, and it’s only to be expected that a collaborator like La Rochelle and an extreme reactionary like Nimier be held in high esteem again. The bourgeoisie is showing itself again in its true colors—that is, as a reactionary class. Look at the success of Sartre’s The Words. There are several things to note. It’s perhaps—I won’t say his best book, but one of his best. At any rate, it’s an excellent book, an exciting display of virtuosity, an amazingly written work. At the same time, the reason it has had such success is that it’s a book that is not “committed.” When the critics say that it’s his best book, along with Nausea, one should bear in mind that Nausea is an early work, a work that is not committed, and that it is more readily accepted by the left and right alike than are his plays. The same thing happened to me with The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Bourgeois women were delighted to recognize their own youth in it. The protests began with The Prime of Life and continued with Force of Circumstance. The break is very clear, very sharp.

The last part of Force of Circumstance is devoted to the Algerian war, to which you seem to have reacted in a very personal way.

I felt and thought about things in a political way, but I never engaged in political action. The entire last part of Force of Circumstance deals with the war. And it seems anachronistic in a France that is no longer concerned with that war.

Didn’t you realize that people were bound to forget about it?

I deleted lots of pages from that section. I therefore realized that it would be anachronistic. On the other hand, I absolutely wanted to talk about it, and I’m amazed that people have forgotten it to such a degree. Have you seen the film La Belle Vie, by the young director Robert Enrico? People are stupefied because the film shows the Algerian war. Claude Mauriac wrote in Le Figaro Litteraire: “Why is it that we’re shown parachute troopers on public squares? It’s not true to life.” But it is true to life. I used to see them every day from Sartre’s window at Saint Germain des Prés. People have forgotten. They wanted to forget. They wanted to forget their memories. That’s the reason why, contrary to what I expected, I wasn’t attacked for what I said about the Algerian war but for what I said about old age and death. As regards the Algerian war, all Frenchmen are now convinced that it never took place, that nobody was tortured, that insofar as there was torture they were always against torture.

At the end of Force of Circumstance you say: “As I look back with incredulity at that credulous adolescent, I am astounded to see how I was swindled.” This remark seems to have given rise to all kinds of misunderstandings.

People—particularly enemies—have tried to interpret it to mean that my life has been a failure, either because I recognize the fact that I was mistaken on a political level or because I recognize that after all a woman should have had children, etc. Anyone who reads my book carefully can see that I say the very opposite, that I don’t envy anyone, that I’m perfectly satisfied with what my life has been, that I’ve kept all my promises and that consequently if I had my life to live over again I wouldn’t live it any differently. I’ve never regretted not having children insofar as what I wanted to do was to write.

Then why “swindled”? When one has an existentialist view of the world, like mine, the paradox of human life is precisely that one tries to be and, in the long run, merely exists. It’s because of this discrepancy that when you’ve laid your stake on being—and, in a way you always do when you make plans, even if you actually know that you can’t succeed in being—when you turn around and look back on your life, you see that you’ve simply existed. In other words, life isn’t behind you like a solid thing, like the life of a god (as it is conceived, that is, as something impossible). Your life is simply a human life.

So one might say, as Alain did, and I’m very fond of that remark, “Nothing is promised us.” In one sense, it’s true. In another, it’s not. Because a bourgeois boy or girl who is given a certain culture is actually promised things. I think that anyone who had a hard life when he was young won’t say in later years that he’s been “swindled.” But when I say that I’ve been swindled I’m referring to the seventeen-year-old girl who daydreamed in the country near the hazel bush about what she was going to do later on. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, writing books, learning about things, but I’ve been swindled all the same because it’s never anything more. There are also Mallarmé’s lines about “the perfume of sadness that remains in the heart,” I forget exactly how they go. I’ve had what I wanted, and, when all is said and done, what one wanted was always something else. A woman psychoanalyst wrote me a very intelligent letter in which she said that “in the last analysis, desires always go far beyond the object of desire.” The fact is that I’ve had everything I desired, but the “far beyond” which is included in the desire itself is not attained when the desire has been fulfilled. When I was young, I had hopes and a view of life which all cultured people and bourgeois optimists encourage one to have and which my readers accuse me of not encouraging in them. That’s what I meant, and I wasn’t regretting anything I’ve done or thought.

Some people think that a longing for God underlies your works.

No. Sartre and I have always said that it’s not because there’s a desire to be that this desire corresponds to any reality. It’s exactly what Kant said on the intellectual level. The fact that one believes in causalities is no reason to believe that there is a supreme cause. The fact that man has a desire to be does not mean that he can ever attain being or even that being is a possible notion, at any rate the being that is a reflection and at the same time an existence. There is a synthesis of existence and being that is impossible. Sartre and I have always rejected it, and this rejection underlies our thinking. There is an emptiness in man, and even his achievements have this emptiness. That’s all. I don’t mean that I haven’t achieved what I wanted to achieve but rather that the achievement is never what people think it is. Furthermore, there is a naïve or snobbish aspect, because people imagine that if you have succeeded on a social level you must be perfectly satisfied with the human condition in general. But that’s not the case.

“I’m swindled” also implies something else—namely, that life has made me discover the world as it is, that is, a world of suffering and oppression, of undernourishment for the majority of people, things that I didn’t know when I was young and when I imagined that to discover the world was to discover something beautiful. In that respect, too, I was swindled by bourgeois culture, and that’s why I don’t want to contribute to the swindling of others and why I say that I was swindled, in short, so that others aren’t swindled. It’s really also a problem of a social kind. In short, I discovered the unhappiness of the world little by little, then more and more, and finally, above all, I felt it in connection with the Algerian war and when I traveled.

Some critics and readers have felt that you spoke about old age in an unpleasant way.

A lot of people didn’t like what I said because they want to believe that all periods of life are delightful, that children are innocent, that all newlyweds are happy, that all old people are serene. I’ve rebelled against such notions all my life, and there’s no doubt about the fact that the moment, which for me is not old age but the beginning of old age, represents—even if one has all the resources one wants, affection, work to be done—represents a change in one’s existence, a change that is manifested by the loss of a great number of things. If one isn’t sorry to lose them it’s because one didn’t love them. I think that people who glorify old age or death too readily are people who really don’t love life. Of course, in present-day France you have to say that everything’s fine, that everything’s lovely, including death.

Beckett has keenly felt the swindle of the human condition. Does he interest you more than the other “new novelists”?

Certainly. All the playing around with time that one finds in the “new novel” can be found in Faulkner. It was he who taught them how to do it, and in my opinion he’s the one who does it best. As for Beckett, his way of emphasizing the dark side of life is very beautiful. However, he’s convinced that life is dark and only that. I too am convinced that life is dark, and at the same time I love life. But that conviction seems to have spoiled everything for him. When that’s all you can say, there aren’t fifty ways of saying it, and I’ve found that many of his works are merely repetitions of what he said earlier. Endgame repeats Waiting for Godot, but in a weaker way.

Are there many contemporary French writers who interest you?

Not many. I receive lots of manuscripts, and the annoying thing is that they’re almost always bad. At the present time, I’m very excited about Violette Leduc. She was first published in 1946 in Collection Espoir, which was edited by Camus. The critics praised her to the skies. Sartre, Genet, and Jouhandeau liked her very much. She never sold. She recently published a great autobiography called The Bastard, the beginning of which was published in Les Temps Modernes, of which Sartre is editor-in-chief. I wrote a preface to the book because I thought that she was one of the unappreciated postwar French writers. She’s having great success in France at the present time.

And how do you rank yourself among contemporary writers?

I don’t know. What is it that one evaluates? The noise, the silence, posterity, the number of readers, the absence of readers, the importance at a given time? I think that people will read me for some time. At least, that’s what my readers tell me. I’ve contributed something to the discussion of women’s problems. I know I have from the letters I receive. As for the literary quality of my work, in the strict sense of the word, I haven’t the slightest idea.

Link: Hell on Earth

At the University of Oxford, a team of scholars led by the philosopher Rebecca Roache has begun thinking about the ways futuristic technologies might transform punishment. In January, I spoke with Roache and her colleagues Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen about emotional enhancement, ‘supercrimes’, and the ethics of eternal damnation. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Suppose we develop the ability to radically expand the human lifespan, so that people are regularly living for more than 500 years. Would that allow judges to fit punishments to crimes more precisely?

Roache: When I began researching this topic, I was thinking a lot about Daniel Pelka, a four-year-old boy who was starved and beaten to death [in 2012] by his mother and stepfather here in the UK. I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice in cases like that was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

But I soon realised it’s not that simple. In the US, for instance, the vast majority of people on death row appeal to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment. That suggests that a quick stint in prison followed by death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic, but if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before. If you look at the enormous prison population in the US, you find an astronomical number of elderly prisoners, including quite a few with pacemakers. When I went digging around in medical journals, I found all these interesting papers about the treatment of pacemaker patients in prison.

Suppose prisons become more humane in the future, so that they resemble Norwegian prisons instead of those you see in America or North Korea. Is it possible that correctional facilities could become truly correctional in the age of long lifespans, by taking a more sustained approach to rehabilitation?

Roache: If people could live for centuries or millennia, you would obviously have more time to reform them, but you would also run into a tricky philosophical issue having to do with personal identity. A lot of philosophers who have written about personal identity wonder whether identity can be sustained over an extremely long lifespan. Even if your body makes it to 1,000 years, the thinking goes, that body is actually inhabited by a succession of persons over time rather than a single continuous person. And so, if you put someone in prison for a crime they committed at 40, they might, strictly speaking, be an entirely different person at 940. And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else. Most of us would think that unjust.

Let’s say that life expansion therapies become a normal part of the human condition, so that it’s not just elites who have access to them, it’s everyone. At what point would it become unethical to withhold these therapies from prisoners?

Roache: In that situation it would probably be inappropriate to view them as an enhancement, or something extra. If these therapies were truly universal, it’s more likely that people would come to think of them as life-saving technologies. And if you withheld them from prisoners in that scenario, you would effectively be denying them medical treatment, and today we consider that inhumane. My personal suspicion is that once life extension becomes more or less universal, people will begin to see it as a positive right, like health care in most industrialised nations today. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that in the US, prisoners sometimes receive better health care than uninsured people. You have to wonder about the incentives a system like that creates.

Where is that threshold of universality, where access to something becomes a positive right? Do we have an empirical example of it?

Roache: One interesting case might be internet access. In Finland, for instance, access to communication technology is considered a human right and handwritten letters are not sufficient to satisfy it. Finnish prisons are required to give inmates access to computers, although their internet activity is closely monitored. This is an interesting development because, for years, limiting access to computers was a common condition of probation in hacking cases – and that meant all kinds of computers, including ATMs [cash points]. In the 1980s, that lifestyle might have been possible, and you could also see pulling it off in the ’90s, though it would have been very difficult. But today computers are ubiquitous, and a normal life seems impossible without them; you can’t even access the subway without interacting with a computer of some sort.

In the late 1990s, an American hacker named Kevin Mitnick was denied all access to communication technology after law enforcement officials [in California] claimed he could ‘start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone’. But in the end, he got the ruling overturned by arguing that it prevented him from living a normal life.

What about life expansion that meddles with a person’s perception of time? Take someone convicted of a heinous crime, like the torture and murder of a child. Would it be unethical to tinker with the brain so that this person experiences a 1,000-year jail sentence in his or her mind?

Roache: There are a number of psychoactive drugs that distort people’s sense of time, so you could imagine developing a pill or a liquid that made someone feel like they were serving a 1,000-year sentence. Of course, there is a widely held view that any amount of tinkering with a person’s brain is unacceptably invasive. But you might not need to interfere with the brain directly. There is a long history of using the prison environment itself to affect prisoners’ subjective experience. During the Spanish Civil War [in the 1930s] there was actually a prison where modern art was used to make the environment aesthetically unpleasant. Also, prison cells themselves have been designed to make them more claustrophobic, and some prison beds are specifically made to be uncomfortable.

I haven’t found any specific cases of time dilation being used in prisons, but time distortion is a technique that is sometimes used in interrogation, where people are exposed to constant light, or unusual light fluctuations, so that they can’t tell what time of day it is. But in that case it’s not being used as a punishment, per se, it’s being used to break people’s sense of reality so that they become more dependent on the interrogator, and more pliable as a result. In that sense, a time-slowing pill would be a pretty radical innovation in the history of penal technology.

I want to ask you a question that has some crossover with theological debates about hell. Suppose we eventually learn to put off death indefinitely, and that we extend this treatment to prisoners. Is there any crime that would justify eternal imprisonment? Take Hitler as a test case. Say the Soviets had gotten to the bunker before he killed himself, and say capital punishment was out of the question – would we have put him behind bars forever?

Roache: It’s tough to say. If you start out with the premise that a punishment should be proportional to the crime, it’s difficult to think of a crime that could justify eternal imprisonment. You could imagine giving Hitler one term of life imprisonment for every person killed in the Second World War. That would make for quite a long sentence, but it would still be finite. The endangerment of mankind as a whole might qualify as a sufficiently serious crime to warrant it. As you know, a great deal of the research we do here at the Oxford Martin School concerns existential risk. Suppose there was some physics experiment that stood a decent chance of generating a black hole that could destroy the planet and all future generations. If someone deliberately set up an experiment like that, I could see that being the kind of supercrime that would justify an eternal sentence.

In your forthcoming paper on this subject, you mention the possibility that convicts with a neurologically stunted capacity for empathy might one day be ‘emotionally enhanced’, and that the remorse felt by these newly empathetic criminals could be the toughest form of punishment around. Do you think a full moral reckoning with an awful crime the most potent form of suffering an individual can endure?

Roache: I’m not sure. Obviously, it’s an empirical question as to which feels worse, genuine remorse or time in prison. There is certainly reason to take the claim seriously. For instance, in literature and folk wisdom, you often hear people saying things like, ‘The worst thing is I’ll have to live with myself.’ My own intuition is that for very serious crimes, genuine remorse could be subjectively worse than a prison sentence. But I doubt that’s the case for less serious crimes, where remorse isn’t even necessarily appropriate – like if you are wailing and beating yourself up for stealing a candy bar or something like that.

I remember watching a movie in school, about a teen that killed another teen in a drunk-driving accident. As one of the conditions of his probation, the judge in the case required him to mail a daily cheque for 25 cents to the parents of the teen he’d killed for a period of 10 years. Two years in, the teen was begging the judge to throw him in jail, just to avoid the daily reminder.

Roache: That’s an interesting case where prison is actually an escape from remorse, which is strange because one of the justifications for prison is that it’s supposed to focus your mind on what you have done wrong. Presumably, every day you wake up in prison, you ask yourself why you are there, right?

What if these emotional enhancements proved too effective? Suppose they are so powerful, they turn psychopaths into Zen masters who live in a constant state of deep, reflective contentment. Should that trouble us? Is mental suffering a necessary component of imprisonment?

Roache: There is a long-standing philosophical question as to how bad the prison experience should be. Retributivists, those who think the point of prisons is to punish, tend to think that it should be quite unpleasant, whereas consequentialists tend to be more concerned with a prison’s reformative effects, and its larger social costs. There are a number of prisons that offer prisoners constructive activities to participate in, including sports leagues, art classes, and even yoga. That practice seems to reflect the view that confinement, or the deprivation of liberty, is itself enough of a punishment. Of course, even for consequentialists, there has to be some level of suffering involved in punishment, because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.

I wanted to close by moving beyond imprisonment, to ask you about the future of punishment more broadly. Are there any alternative punishments that technology might enable, and that you can see on the horizon now? What surprising things might we see down the line?

Roache: We have been thinking a lot about surveillance and punishment lately. Already, we see governments using ankle bracelets to track people in various ways, and many of them are fairly elaborate. For instance, some of these devices allow you to commute to work, but they also give you a curfew and keep a close eye on your location. You can imagine this being refined further, so that your ankle bracelet bans you from entering establishments that sell alcohol. This could be used to punish people who happen to like going to pubs, or it could be used to reform severe alcoholics. Either way, technologies of this sort seem to be edging up to a level of behaviour control that makes some people uneasy, due to questions about personal autonomy.

It’s one thing to lose your personal liberty as a result of being confined in a prison, but you are still allowed to believe whatever you want while you are in there. In the UK, for instance, you cannot withhold religious manuscripts from a prisoner unless you have a very good reason. These concerns about autonomy become particularly potent when you start talking about brain implants that could potentially control behaviour directly. The classic example is Robert G Heath [a psychiatrist at Tulane University in New Orleans], who did this famously creepy experiment [in the 1950s] using electrodes in the brain in an attempt to modify behaviour in people who were prone to violent psychosis. The electrodes were ostensibly being used to treat the patients, but he was also, rather gleefully, trying to move them in a socially approved direction. You can really see that in his infamous [1972] paper on ‘curing’ homosexuals. I think most Western societies would say ‘no thanks’ to that kind of punishment.

To me, these questions about technology are interesting because they force us to rethink the truisms we currently hold about punishment. When we ask ourselves whether it’s inhumane to inflict a certain technology on someone, we have to make sure it’s not just the unfamiliarity that spooks us. And more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether punishments like imprisonment are only considered humane because they are familiar, because we’ve all grown up in a world where imprisonment is what happens to people who commit crimes. Is it really OK to lock someone up for the best part of the only life they will ever have, or might it be more humane to tinker with their brains and set them free? When we ask that question, the goal isn’t simply to imagine a bunch of futuristic punishments – the goal is to look at today’s punishments through the lens of the future.

Link: "God didn't die, he was transformed into money" — An interview with Giorgio Agamben

A 2012 interview with the Italian philosopher, who expresses his views on the economic crisis, capitalism as a religion (Walter Benjamin), the role of history in European cultural identity, “bio-politics”, the “state of exception”, and the fate of contemporary art (“trapped between the Scylla of the museum and the Charybdis of commodification”).

Peppe Savà: The Monti government is invoking the crisis and the emergency situation and it seems to be the only solution for both the financial catastrophe as well as the indecent forms assumed by power in Italy: is Monti’s perspective the only solution or could it to the contrary become a pretext to impose serious limitations on democratic liberties?

Giorgio Agamben: These days, the words “crisis” and “economy” are not used as concepts but rather as words of command that facilitate the imposition and acceptance of measures and restrictions that the people would not otherwise accept. Today, “crisis” means, “you must obey!” I think it is very obvious to everyone that the so-called “crisis” has been going on for decades and that it is actually nothing but the normal functioning of capitalism in our time. And there is nothing rational about the way capitalism is now functioning.

In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin’s idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones and its experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even loans to the state, which has so blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time. Furthermore, the claim that today’s capitalism is a religion is most effectively demonstrated by the headline that appeared on the front page of a major national newspaper a few days ago: “Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost”. Well, “salvation” is a religious concept, but what does “regardless of the cost” mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements.

The economic crisis that is now threatening many European countries: can it be generally conceived as a crisis of modernity as a whole?

The crisis that is now affecting Europe is not so much an economic problem, as we are being told, but above all a crisis of our relation to the past. Knowledge of the past is the only way to have access to the present. It is through their quest to understand the present that men—or at least the Europeans—felt compelled to interrogate the past. I have specified that this involved “we Europeans” because it seems to me, granting that the word Europe has any meaning, it now seems obvious that this meaning cannot be political, or religious, or much less economic, but consists in the fact that the European man—unlike, for example, the Asians and the Americans, for whom history and the past have a totally different meaning—can approach his truth only by way of a confrontation with the past, only by settling accounts with his history. The past is not just a patrimony of objects and traditions, of memories and knowledge, but above all an essential anthropological component of European man, who can access the present only by looking at what happened in the past. The special relation that the European countries (Italy and of course Sicily are exemplary from this point of view) have with their cities, with their works of art, and with their landscapes, is not a matter of preserving more or less valuable, but external and accessible, things: it is a question of the true European reality, its indisputable survival. This is why, by destroying the Italian countryside with the concrete of highways and high-speed trains, the speculators, while refusing to deprive themselves of their profits, are destroying our very identity. The very expression, “cultural goods” is deceptive, because it suggests that the term embraces certain goods and excludes others, goods that can be economically exploited and even sold, as if one could liquidate and offer one’s own identity for sale.

Many years ago, a philosopher who was also a high official of the nascent Europe, Alexandre Kojeve, maintained that homo sapiens had reached the end of his history and that he had only two choices: access to a post-historical animality (as exemplified by the American Way of Life) or snobbery (as exemplified by the Japanese) that continues to celebrate its tea ceremony, empty and devoid of any historical meaning. Between an integrally re-animalized United States and a Japan that remains human only by renouncing all historical content, Europe can offer the alternative of a culture that remains human and vital even after the end of history, because it is capable of confronting its own history in its totality in order to proceed from there to attain a new life.

Your most famous book, Homo Sacer, is a study of the relation between political power and naked life and reveals the difficulties that both terms entail. What is the point of possible intermediation between these two poles?

What my research has shown me is that sovereign power has been based since its origins on the separation between naked life (the biological life that in Greece took place in the home) and life as politically defined (which takes place in the city). Naked life was excluded from politics and was at the same time included and captured by its own exclusion: in this sense, naked life is the negative basis of power. This separation attains its most extreme form in modern bio-politics. What happened in the totalitarian states of the 20th century is that power (perhaps by way of science) decided just what, in the final reckoning, is a human life and what is not a human life. In opposition to this view, what we have to do is to conceive of a politics of vital forms, that is, a life that cannot be separated from its form, one that will never be naked again.

The boredom, to employ a euphemism, with which the ordinary person confronts politics: is this connected with the specific conditions of Italy or is it somehow inevitable?

I think that today we are facing a new phenomenon that goes beyond disenchantment and the mutual suspicion between citizens and power, a phenomenon that affects the whole planet. What is taking place is a radical transformation of the categories with which we have habitually thought about politics. The new order of world power is based on a model of governance that defines itself as democratic, but which has nothing in common with what this term meant in Athens. The fact that this model is, from the viewpoint of power, more economical and efficient, is proven by the fact that it was adopted even by the regimes that up until quite recently were dictatorships. It is much easier to manipulate people’s opinions by means of the media and television than to have to permanently impose every decision by means of violence. The political forms that we once knew—the nation-state, sovereignty, democratic participation, political parties, international law—have come to the end of their history. They remain part of our lives as empty forms, but contemporary politics assumes the form of an “economy”, that is, a government of things and of men. So that our only recourse is to think integrally, based on the principle that we previously defined with the expression, which is otherwise so obscure, of “political life”.

The state of exception that you have linked with the concept of sovereignty today seems to take on the character of a normal situation, but the citizens are still at a loss when faced with the uncertainty of their everyday lives: is it possible to attenuate this feeling?

We have been living for decades in a state of exception, which has become the rule; as in the case of the economy, crisis is the normal condition. The state of exception that was supposed to be limited in time is instead the normal model of governance today and this is true of the very same states that call themselves democratic. Few people are aware of the fact that the security regulations introduced after September 11 (they had been established in Italy since the Years of Lead) are worse than the ones that were on the books under fascism. And the crimes against humanity committed under Nazism were made possible by the fact that Hitler had taken power and proclaimed a state of exception that was never repealed. Hitler, however, did not have the same possibilities of control (biometric data, surveillance cameras, cell phones, credit cards) that are at the disposal of our contemporary states. One could very well say that today the state considers every citizen to be a virtual terrorist. This can have no other consequence than to diminish and render impossible the participation in politics that is supposed to define democracy. A city whose squares and streets are controlled by way of surveillance cameras cannot be a public place: it is a prison.

The great authority that so many people attribute to scholars who, like you, research the nature of political power: is it possible that these scholars can awaken in us the hope that, to use a cliché, the future will be better than the present?

Optimism and pessimism are not useful categories for thinking. As Marx wrote in a letter to Ruge: “it is precisely the desperate situation which fills me with hope”.

May we ask you a question about the speech you gave in Sicily? Some people have concluded that it was an homage to Piero Guccioni, to an old friend, while others have seen it as a suggestion concerning how we might escape from the checkmate in which contemporary art finds itself trapped.

It is true that my speech was an homage to Piero Guccioni and to Scicli, a small city where some of the most important painters of our time are living. There the situation of art is vividly felt and it might be the best place to understand the crisis of the relation with the past that we just talked about. The only place where one can live in the past is the present and if the present ceases to feel the life of its own past, then the museum and art, which are the most well known images of that past, become problematic places. In a society that no longer wants to have anything to do with its past, art finds itself trapped between the Scylla of the museum and the Charybdis of commodification. And since our museums of contemporary art are so often temples of the absurd, both of these things go hand in hand. Duchamp was probably the first person to become aware of the dead end in which art had become interred. Just what did Duchamp invent with his “ready-made”? He took some ordinary object, a urinal, for example, and by introducing it into a museum he compelled the museum to show it as a work of art. Naturally—after a brief period of surprise and shock—nothing can be attributed to its presence there: not the work because it is an ordinary object, just any industrially-produced object, and not the artistic work because it involved absolutely no “poiesis”, no production—and much less the artist, except as a philosopher or a critic or as Duchamp liked to say, as “one who breathes”, a mere living being. In any case it is certainly true that he did not claim to have produced a work of art, but to have cleared the way for art, which was stuck between the museum and commodification. As you know, what happened instead is that a class, one that is still active, of clever speculators transformed “ready-made” into a work of art. And so-called contemporary art does nothing but repeat Duchamp’s gesture by filling the museums, which are nothing but organs of the market devoted to accelerating the circulation of merchandise which, like money, have attained a state of liquidity and which they want to continue to value as if they were works of art, with non-works and non-performances. This is the contradiction of contemporary art: it abolishes the work of art and then puts a price tag on the result.

Link: An interview with Adam Curtis, producer of the BBC documentaries The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self

Adam Curtis remains at the forefront of documentary filmmaking. He began in the early 80s, but his first major breakthrough came in 1992 withPandora’s Box, a film which warned of the dangers technocratic politics and saw him pick up his first of six career BAFTAs.

Holed up in a BBC basement, Curtis brings together disparate subjects and uses archival footage to chart political history. His love of music is playfully interwoven into the narrative, whilst his unique, deadpan voice discusses the failures of political systems and ideologies.

In his 2004 film, Power of Nightmares, his most remarkable piece of work to date, Curtis debunked the myth that al-Qaeda was an organised global network posing an apocalyptic threat to the West, which, In a post-911 context that saw governments and mass media exaggerating al-Qaeda’s size and influence, was a bold message. Time, of course, has been incredibly kind to his analysis.

After a six month chase attempting to secure an interview, I finally came into contact with him at the Latitude Festival where he was discussing static culture, his latest area of fascination. After forcing a written invitation into his hand, not long later I met him at the British Library in central London. He turned out to be engaging and personable, veering frantically one from one topic to another, remaining insightful and charming throughout.

What follows is an extract from a long conversation regarding his work, politics, journalism and our willing acceptance of the computer systems that guide our choices.

[…] So this idea that computer systems are dictating too much to us, which is reducing our imagination to see a future … how are we going to break that?

I have a theory that people might get fed up with computers, quite simply. I think the interesting thing about the Edward Snowden case is it makes you realise how much the cloud thing on the Internet is a surveillance system. I don’t mean it is a conspiracy. It’s sort of like you are part of something you might not necessarily want to be part of. And I just wonder whether, in fact – the Internet won’t go away – but its magic will disappear. Our delight in screens that we can go like that with [AC scrolls with fingers] will disappear. It will become a functional local library, coupled with sort of weird people chatting online, and the stuff that you don’t know is true or not, and another culture will arise separately from it, which might go back a bit to books and newspapers. I still think newspapers might come back if they could do some good journalism. I mean the reason we don’t read newspapers these days is because the journalism is so boring.

I’ve heard you lament the fact that the financial crash hasn’t presented to us in understandable terms by the media …

I think this is a really interesting thing. So much of the way the present world is managed is through – not even systems – its organizations, which are boring. They don’t have any stories to tell. Economics, for example, which is central to our life at the moment … I just drift off when people talk about collateralised debt obligations, and I am not alone. It’s impossible to illustrate on television, it’s impossible to tell a story about it, because basically it’s just someone doing keystrokes somewhere in Canary Wharf in relation to a server in … I dunno … Denver, and something happens, and that’s it. I use the phrase, ‘They are unstoryfiable’. Journalism cannot really describe it any longer, so it falls back onto its old myths of dark enemies out there. Whether those dark enemies are Al-Qaeda, Soviets, or criminal masterminds who are grooming children for white slavery. All of which may or may not be true, but it’s what they fall back on and don’t report. I mean, the Guardian made a noble attempt to describe that company, Serco, which no-one has ever heard of, but which is an incredibly powerful outsourcer of government things, and it’s been doing some not very good things recently, but it’s incredibly boring and that’s the problem. Journalism is a trick to find a way of making the boring interesting, and as yet it hasn’t found a way of doing it.

Journalism isn’t describing to us the world as it is, which we know is there, but we want someone to make sense of it for us. We want someone to explain to us about what’s going on with the banks, but in ways we can get emotionally. We want someone to describe to us who these strange people are like G4S, who constantly turn up doing odd things like at the Olympics and then disappear again. We want people to notice that.  Just like we want music that will actually take us out of ourselves and make us feel not alone and emotionally part of something. Both music and journalism are totally failing to do that at the moment. And it’s a moment in history when they haven’t caught up, maybe something else will catch up and describe it to us.

Will journalism catch up?

Yeah, of course it will, what else is there? I mean I don’t buy this internet … the internet is just a new system of delivery, it’s not a new content thing. Of course journalism will catch up, it’s just no one has found it yet. It’s a way of connecting with you and me emotionally.

So, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for a particular journalist with an idea?

Yeah. Or a group of journalists who will find a way of connecting with us. It happened back in the 60s with what was called “New Journalism” because they had the funny idea that you spend time with someone and you write about what was in that person’s head, and then you described it like a novelist. And that connected with the new sensibility. 

Well, the new sensibility at the moment is a sense of isolation and a sense of, “What the hell is this all for?” and a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. That’s what is around at the moment. No one has captured that yet in a way that makes you feel connected to what they’re saying. Instead what we have are these people who play on the anxiety which is not right, you know: “All the world’s going to die … Al-Qaeda is going to kill you with an atomic weapon coming up the Thames on a boat.” They are taking serious issues but amplifying them to try and scare you to get your attention, but in fact, what they should be doing is trying to connect with you emotionally and actually describe the world and help you understand it more. Then it excites you andfrightens you; I’m not pleading for a boring journalism, I’m pleading for a better journalism. And I think the same is true of music, which takes you out of yourself. 

What about The Power of Nightmares? The central theme of that is that Al-Qaeda and terrorism isn’t as apocalyptic as some suggested. I think time has been kind to that message. At first people were probably thinking you were …


Yes, but I think that film stands up.

I would argue that what I said back then absolutely stands up, despite all the horrors that have happened. What I was saying has absolutely been proved by the facts. There is no organised network; there is a serious, dangerous and very nasty threat from small groups of disaffected Islamists who have no real form of connection with each other and are inspired by a corroded and corrupted idea, and they are actually on the decline. That doesn’t mean it’s not a serious threat.

Also, a lot of my colleagues – on the basis of absolutely no evidence – created a complete fiction of this apocalyptic, organized network and they should be ashamed of doing it.

What do you think about the rise of – it’s not really a rise – the presence of the EDL and this anti-Muslim narrative that stemmed from a lot of what you were trying to push back against?

It’s not that strong. It’s stronger in France than it is here, and also again, so much of that is disaffection with unemployment and uncertainty. I mean the real problem of our time is the uncertainty that people feel, and no politicians are really dealing with it, so of course they take it out on easy targets like that. UKIP, I don’t think is a significant force, I really don’t. The really interesting thing of our time is not what we had back with Al-Qaeda, which is journalists trying to tell us all these fears. It’s just the general sort of emptiness and unknowingness, politicians not having the faintest clue what’s going on. It’s a sense of drift that no one has really got hold of now.

Going back to music and journalism, we don’t have the sense that anyone is reporting to us, or communicating to us, what is really going on in the world at the moment. We have got this idea that we have screens around us all the time and we see everything and we somehow know everything that is happening in the world because it is reported to us 24 hours a day but actually we also have a sense that we haven’t got the faintest idea of what’s going on. Things just come and go like that, and no journalism is making sense of it. It reports it to us, but it doesn’t make sense of it. Music and culture is absolutely failing to create a framework of sensibility for us to understand it. It’s just rehashing stuff from … I don’t know … Marcel Duchamp in 1919. 

Again it’s in a static way, because no one knows what’s going on. The fears have diminished because that was a reaction. Now we’re in this “I don’t know what’s going on” so let’s just go listen to Coldplay… [laughs] Not that there is anything wrong with Coldplay.

So, when the financial crash happened, I expected more socialist ideas to start penetrating the narrative, and I don’t really think that that has happened. Why do you think that is?

That’s one of the great shocking things of the last decade … I mean, it’s astonishing. The failure of the left to engage with what happened after 2008 is just mind-boggling. They should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. It’s amazing, they just go around mouthing stuff with absolutely no way of explaining what’s going on in a way that doesn’t sound again a bit like Savages. They are mouthing the sort of stuff that was said in the 1980s about Margaret Thatcher. 

We are in a genuinely new world at the moment and no one knows its dimensions and they have to come up with something. The Occupy movement absolutely astonished me. They had a brilliant slogan the 99 and 1 per cent – that was the first time I thought someone’s got it, but then they completely blew it. I went to their meetings and they have been completely captivated by this pseudo-managerial theory of a new kind of democracy where there are no leaders and everyone sits around gesticulating if they disagree. It was one of the most absurd ideas in modern politics. 

If you are dealing with questions of power you have to understand power, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, either on your side or their side. The point about managerialism is it pretends power doesn’t exist; it’s a way of keeping you in your place. For them to buy into that was the most cosmically stupid ideas I have ever heard in my life. If you want to change the world you have to deal with questions of power: the power of the ones who don’t want you to change it, and the power of those assembled on your side who do want to change it. Humans are humans, and power is a really complicated thing and you can’t ignore it and by ignoring it they let everything go, so now there is a vacuum, an absolute vacuum. We have alternative comedians telling us everything is shit … well that’s nothing! I know that.

In The Century of Self you discuss this idea that politicians interview the public through focus groups and then use the results to dictate policy. That seems the wrong way round to me.

If you like this, then you’ll like that. It’s the same thing. It’s what’s called a market idea of democracy, and the Market Idea of democracy says that real democracy is not about taking people somewhere else: it’s about finding out what they want and giving it to them. But in market terms, that’s absolutely right. I don’t have any problems with the free market, its fine, that’s what it does. It’s extremely appropriate in finding out what goods you want and giving it to you and also knowing what you might like and giving it to you. When it is then transferred into politics, that’s when the problem happens. When it is then transferred into culture and journalism, everything just becomes reinforcing. It becomes like a feedback loop. So in the BBC we do this, we know what journalism works for people and we give more of that and it becomes … it creates that very static world but that’s not necessarily the fault of the system.

There are other ways of journalism, it’s just that journalists don’t know how to do it any longer because they haven’t really got the new apparatus to understand and describe the world to us. So they rely on just going to ask you. I know this myself; a lot of journalists I know in television and in print go on about, “Oh if only we didn’t have this terrible system where we are forced to do these focus groups and stuff we could do much better journalism” then you say to them, “Well, what sort of journalism would you do?” And they come out with the same old stuff: that bankers are bad, spies are terrible, and you think actually maybe this is all a bit of a smokescreen to disguise the fact that you sort of run out of puff yourself and everyone is waiting. I have this terrible feeling that we are all waiting for something new, some new view of the world to come along and that maybe we are sort of at the end of our own cold war at the moment.

All the institutions are declining. Universities are declining, spies are completely useless, and banks were our last shot at giving us cheap money and keep things going when industry collapsed. Its all a little bit like these giant institutions are all declining, a bit like the eighties and we are waiting for something new to come along and culture is letting us down. I mean everyone is obsessed by culture at the moment and it’s supposed to be radical. I moved into this world a bit with the Massive Attack thing and they all think they are so radical. They are not radical at all; they play back to us old ideas all the time. I mean all the so-called radical art that was around in the last two Manchester festivals I’ve been at could have been done in 1919 by Marcel Duchamp. That’s not to say it’s bad, but to pretend that it is somehow a new radical vision of the world is wrong and it’s reinforcing what’s been around since the early days of modernism. Some of it is very good – Savages are very good – but it’s been around. It’s enjoyable and it’s fun, but this idea that somehow art can point the way to the future is not what seems to be happening to me at the moment. Art is stuck in the past, just like music is stuck in the past, and journalism is stuck in the past. Something will happen; it’s quite an exciting idea, really.

One doesn’t know what it would be, and it may be right at the margins, it may have nothing to do with journalism. I’m making this up because my dates are so bad, but If you were around in the 1860’s and you have these people wandering around going, “We have this idea of history, that it is like a science, and that you can analyze it and logically that means that the class structure will happen like this and we will have Marxists …” You’d think they were nutty, that they were geeks. They were probably the geeks of their time, they were right at the fringe. I think maybe we are far too much of the establishment. All these radicals – including myself – we think we are somewhere radical but actually we are deeply, deeply, deeply conservative at the moment. And what has a veneer of radicalism is actually possibly the most conservative force at the moment. By that I mean radical culture, art, music and a lot of radical journalism and radical politics – whilst none of it is bad – its mechanisms, and ways of seeing the world are borrowed from the past and its stuck in the past. It’s stuck with a nostalgia for a radicalism of the past and that’s not the radicalism that’s necessary.

Yes there is a lot of poverty around, yes there is a lot of people being thrown out of work – I know all that – but the really big thing that is in the back of most people’s minds at the moment is a sense of total uncertainty, loneliness, isolation and not knowing where they’re going for what they’re doing. A sense of unconnectedness. And if you really want to change the world and make it better for those who are out of work and who are poor you have got to get the bigger group on your side and the way you get that bigger group on your side is by connecting with those uncertainties in the back of their minds, the loneliness the uncertainty and sense of isolation that is really big at the moment. And no one is doing that, no one has got a music, no one has got a journalism, a politics, a culture that heartfully connects with it. People are yearning for it; I know it I feel it. I like the culture, I like reading some good journalism, I like going to see bands but none of it goes, “Yes, that’s it that gets me.” That’s what I think, and we are just waiting for it. It’s quite exciting because you know it can’t go on like this. Something is going to come along.

I found it really interesting in The Century of Self, this idea that New Labour were seen as visionary, but they were just charlatans in a way weren’t they? They stole a lot of ideas from the Democrats in America. Peter Mandelson, for example …

I wouldn’t say they were charlatans, I would say they were opportunists. They were technocrats. Basically they were technocrats who stole an ideological cloak of Labour, and draped over what was really … They are managerial technocrats, because that’s really all focus groups are. It’s a managerial idea. It’s going, well listen we’ll just ask them what they want and give it to them and that will make them happy and the key thing is to go and identify the swing voter, that’s the key technocrat thing. They went and identified who were the swing voters; they’re the ones who never make up their minds. Ask them what they want, give it to them, and bingo – you’ll get the swing voters on your side. Which means that a great deal of your future is decided by indecisive people in Uttoxeter.

Philip Gould: do you think he was the thinking behind the New Labour movement?

Yeah, he was clever; he was the technocrat. Because Gould spotted early on the whole idea of focus groups, and how you could extend them. What went wrong with New Labour, which I think is quite interesting, is that Blair got fed up with focus groups and started to do something off his own back, which was Iraq. It was almost like he got fed up and felt imprisoned by them. No one has ever explained to me why Blair went to war in Iraq. My own personal theory is that he got so fed up with having to focus group everything that he just thought, “Oh sod it, I’m going to do something off my own back” and then he discovered he could. Because the really interesting thing about that time – it’s really odd – you have this obsession with focus group politics, which is that you have to ask people what they want otherwise they will turn against you and you will lose power. Yet at the same time, you can decide to invade Iraq, two million people can come out onto the streets of London, you go, “Fuck off!” and they go “Alright” and you go home. I mean where is the power in society?

It’s the same with the economic thing, isn’t it? We are told this is what’s happened so we have to accept X, Y, Z cuts in this area.

But that’s because the left hasn’t come up with an alternative theory. In a way you can’t really blame people for going, “Ok” because the job of the so-called left is to come up with an explanation that makes me think “Oh yeah, I get it and that’s wrong. I must do something about it. I get it, they have simplified it down to me, and I get it”. But if you start talking to me about austerity versus collateralised debt obligations and was the austerity to do with the banks being bailed out or because Gordon Brown spent too much money on hospitals? I just drift away. I go and watch The Departed on Channel Four and think about zombies.

Why do you think people at ground level seem to have more anger and ire towards what they perceive as feckless welfare claimants at the bottom, than they do where the real problem exists, at the top? Why do you think there is such a disconnect?

Because it’s a very easy thing to do and it’s a traditional thing on the right to do, to blame others for stealing from you. All the left has got to do is find an equally simple way of explaining what is going on at the top and re-divert your attention and anger to that, but they are not doing it. I have no idea why they’re not doing it. I’m not a politician; I’m a journalist. It’s not my job to do it and especially with the BBC it’s not my job to do it, but I am absolutely astonished that they’re not doing it. They really should hang their heads in shame, because it means they are not up to their jobs. If the right can do the divide and rule thing which you have just described of getting lower middle class people to get pissed off with the working class claimants, I’m afraid the left’s job is to take that anger and uncertainty which the right are accessing and redirect it to better and more purposeful -from their point of view – targets. And they are not doing it, they are just not.

The right seem to set the terms of the debate and the left operate within it, don’t they?

Yes, you have to set your own terms and that’s all it is.

What’s next for you, then?

I think I’m going to do a history of entertainment, and the relationship between entertainment and power. I am subtitling the rise of the media industrial complex, from gangsters and Jimmy Savile in Leeds in the 1950s, to YouTube and Google in the present day, via Rupert Murdoch. Entertainment and Power: The Rise of the Media Industrial Complex.

There you go.

Link: Interview with John Gray

"The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere."

In his new book The Silence of Animals, the philosopher John Gray explores why human beings continue to use myth to give purpose to their lives. Drawing from the material of writers such as J.G. Ballard, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and others, Gray looks at how we can reinvent meaning in our lives through a variety of myths and different moments in history.

Gray refutes that humanity is marching forward to progress, where utopian ideals of civilisation and enlightenment are the end goals. He sees human beings as incapable of moving beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful.

I spent two hours with Gray at his publishers’ office in London, drinking tea, discussing philosophy, history and literature. Our conversation covered a wide number of key thinkers, from both the ancient and modern world. He began by talking about one of his literary heroes, the late J.G. Ballard.

Why did you decide to include J.G. Ballard in this book, as an example of someone who uses myth as a central theme in his writing?

Well what I like about his writing is the lyricism: they are full of the most beautiful images. Ballard always said he wanted to be a painter, but didn’t have the talent. But his books are galleries of images. The way I talk about him in The Silence of Animals definitely reflects that. The ability he had was to turn scenes of desolation into beauty. When he walked as a child into a ruined and empty casino [in Shanghai in the 1930s], he said it was like wandering into something from the Arabian Nights. To him it was a realm of magic. What he was able to do from that experience was to conjure beauty out of it. That I believe is the power of myth.

In your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.

What is your own relationship with religion?

I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.

You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

Would you call yourself an existentialist? 

No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.

Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?

Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with.  Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.

In one part of the book you ask why humans have such a need for meaning. You’re a philosopher: isn’t meaning important for you?

Well knowledge is important. But I’m not sure if finding a true meaning is. But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality. Even Epicurus said: When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. What he was getting at was that we have a different sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have the idea of our mortality then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a single coherent story.

You also argue that the need for silence is distinctively human. Why do other animals not need this silence?

What distinguishes humans from animals is precisely this need to tell stories. What people seem to want is not to be caught in the shroud of language. Silence for other animals means rest. But the noise that other animals flee is created by other animals. Humans are the only animals that flee internal noise. Humans throughout history, and prehistory, have engaged in all sorts of meditation, either to shift the way they perceive the world, or to produce in themselves, some state of silence, from which something else will come.

Link: Learn to Live without Masters, an interview with Slavoj Žižek

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera: You seem to entail that even in democracy we keep looking for new masters, new guidance and new recipes, when in fact we should strive to get rid of them all. To be consistent with that perspective one must then question also the position of the engaged intellectual, such as yourself, which more often than not appears as the ‘advanced’ conscience of society, the one proposing new forms of social and political experimentation and innovation. You have been approvingly portrayed several times as such, as an experimental performer or an innovative thinker, for instance by the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago, after the screening of the film ‘Zizek!’. However, if you reject this role for the intellectual as a convincing form of political action in the present situation, then what is/should be the proper role of the public or politically engaged intellectual? Have intellectuals done anything of any relevance whatsoever, as a British journalist put it after the death of Jacques Derrida? Or is it their destiny to fail (politically) even when they succeed?

Slavoj Zizek: What can a philosopher do today, what can he or she tell the general public haunted by the problems of ecology, of racism, of religious conflicts, etc.? The task is not to provide answers, but to show how the way we perceive a problem can be part of the problem, mystifying it instead of enabling us to solve it. There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions.

A fake sense of urgency pervades the Left-liberal humanitarian discourse: “A woman is raped every six seconds in this country,” “In the time it takes you to read this paragraph, ten children will die of hunger”… Underlying all this is a hypocritical sentiment of moral outrage. This kind of pseudo-urgency was exploited by Starbucks coffee stores a couple of years ago: at the store’s entrance, posters greeting customers pointed out that almost half of the chain’s profits went into health-care for the children of Guatemala, the source of their coffee, the inference being that with every cup you drink, you save a child’s life. 

There is a fundamental anti-theoretical edge to these urgent injunctions. There is no time to reflect: we have to act now. Through this fake sense of urgency, the post-industrial rich, living in their secluded virtual world, not only do not deny or ignore the harsh reality outside their area – they actively refer to it all times. As Bill Gates recently put it: “What do computers matter when millions are still unnecessarily dying of dysentery?”

Against this fake urgency, we might want to place Marx’s wonderful letter to Engels of 1870, when, for a brief moment it seemed that a European revolution was again at the gates. Marx’s letter conveys his sheer panic: can’t the revolutionaries wait for a couple of years? He hasn’t yet finished his Capital. A critical analysis of the present global constellation - one which offers no clear solution, no “practical” advice on what to do, and provides no light at the end of the tunnel, since one is well aware that this light might belong to a train crashing towards us - usually meets with reproach: ‘Do you mean we should do nothing? Just sit and wait?’ One should gather the courage to answer: “YES, precisely that!” There are situations when the only truly “practical” thing to do is to resist the temptation to engage immediately and to “wait and see” by means of a patient, critical analysis.

There is a well-known Soviet joke about Lenin. Under Socialism, Lenin’s advice to young people, his answer to what they should do, was ‘Learn, learn, and learn’. This was evoked at all times and displayed on all school walls. The joke goes: Marx, Engels and Lenin are asked whether they would prefer to have, a wife or a mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers ‘A wife!’, while Engels, more of a bon vivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says: ‘I’d like to have both!’ Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisseur behind his austere revolutionary image? No – he explains: ‘so that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife…’ ‘And then, what do you do?’ ‘I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!’

Is this not exactly what Lenin did after the catastrophe of 1914? He withdrew to a lonely place in Switzerland, where he ‘learned, learned, and learned,’ reading Hegel’s logic. And this is what we should do today when we find ourselves bombarded by mediatic images of violence. We need to ‘learn, learn, and learn’ what causes this violence.

This, of course, in no way means that one should agree with the liberal common wisdom according to which philosophers in politics stand for a catastrophic misfortune: starting with Plato, they either miserably fail or succeed… in supporting tyrants. The reason, so the story goes on, is that philosophers try to impose their Notion on reality, violating it - no wonder that, from Plato to Heidegger, they are resolutely anti-democratic (with the exception of some empiricist and pragmatists), dismissing the crowd of “people” as the victim of sophists, at the mercy of contingent plurality… So when the common wisdom hears of Marxists who defend Marx, claiming that his ideas were not faithfully realized in Stalinism, the reply: thanks God! It would have been even worse to fully realize them! Heidegger at least was willing to draw consequences of his catastrophic experience and conceded that those who think ontologically have to err ontically, that the gap is irreducible, that there is no “philosophical politics” proper. It thus seems that G.K.Chesterton was fully justified in his ironic proposal to install a “special corps of policemen, policemen who are also philosophers”:

“It is their business to watch the beginnings of this conspiracy, not merely in a criminal but in a controversial sense. /…/ The work of the philosophical policeman /…/ is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.”

Would not thinkers as different as Popper, Adorno and Levinas, also subscribe to a slightly changed version of this idea, where actual political crime is called “totalitarianism” and the philosophical crime is condensed in the notion of “totality”? A straight road leads from the philosophical notion of totality to political totalitarianism, and the task of “philosophical police” is to discover from a book of Plato’s dialogues or a treatise on social contract by Rousseau that a political crime will be committed. The ordinary political policeman goes to secret organizations to arrest revolutionaries; the philosophical policeman goes to philosophical symposia to detect proponents of totality. The ordinary anti-terrorist policeman tries to detect those preparing to blow up buildings and bridges; the philosophical policeman tries to detect those about to deconstruct the religious and moral foundation of our societies…

One should thoroughly reject not only this criminalization of intellectuals, but, even more, the defensive domestication of radical intellectuals who, so the story goes, offer a provocative correction to democracy which, through his exaggeration, renders visible the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the democratic project. The idea is that radical theories are provocations which are not really “meant seriously,” but aim, through their “provocative” character, to awaken us from the democratic-dogmatic slumber and thus contribute to the revitalization of democracy itself… This is how the establishment likes “subversive” theorists to be: turned into harmless gadflies who bite us and thus awaken us to inconsistencies and imperfection of our democratic enterprise – God forbid to take their project seriously and try to live them…

Link: Life as a Nonviolent Psychopath

In 2005, James Fallon’s life started to resemble the plot of a well-honed joke or big-screen thriller: A neuroscientist is working in his laboratory one day when he thinks he has stumbled upon a big mistake. He is researching Alzheimer’s and using his healthy family members’ brain scans as a control, while simultaneously reviewing the fMRIs of murderous psychopaths for a side project. It appears, though, that one of the killers’ scans has been shuffled into the wrong batch.

The scans are anonymously labeled, so the researcher has a technician break the code to identify the individual in his family, and place his or her scan in its proper place. When he sees the results, however, Fallon immediately orders the technician to double check the code. But no mistake has been made: The brain scan that mirrors those of the psychopaths is his own.

After discovering that he had the brain of a psychopath, Fallon delved into his family tree and spoke with experts, colleagues, relatives, and friends to see if his behavior matched up with the imaging in front of him. He not only learned that few people were surprised at the outcome, but that the boundary separating him from dangerous criminals was less determinate than he presumed. Fallon wrote about his research and findings in the book The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain, and we spoke about the idea of nature versus nurture, and what—if anything—can be done for people whose biology might betray their behavior.

One of the first things you talk about in your book is the often unrealistic or ridiculous ways that psychopaths are portrayed in film and television. Why did you decide to share your story and risk being lumped in with all of that?

I’m a basic neuroscientist—stem cells, growth factors, imaging genetics—that sort of thing. When I found out about my scan, I kind of let it go after I saw that the rest of my family’s were quite normal. I was worried about Alzheimer’s, especially along my wife’s side, and we were concerned about our kids and grandkids. Then my lab was busy doing gene discovery for schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s and launching a biotech start-up from our research on adult stem cells. We won an award and I was so involved with other things that I didn’t actually look at my results for a couple of years.

This personal experience really had me look into a field that I was only tangentially related to, and burnished into my mind the importance of genes and the environment on a molecular level. For specific genes, those interactions can really explain behavior. And what is hidden under my personal story is a discussion about the effect of bullying, abuse, and street violence on kids.

You used to believe that people were roughly 80 percent the result of genetics, and 20 percent the result of their environment. How did this discovery cause a shift in your thinking?

I went into this with the bias of a scientist who believed, for many years, that genetics were very, very dominant in who people are—that your genes would tell you who you were going to be. It’s not that I no longer think that biology, which includes genetics, is a major determinant; I just never knew how profoundly an early environment could affect somebody.

While I was writing this book, my mother started to tell me more things about myself. She said she had never told me or my father how weird I was at certain points in my youth, even though I was a happy-go-lucky kind of kid. And as I was growing up, people all throughout my life said I could be some kind of gang leader or Mafioso don because of certain behavior. Some parents forbade their children from hanging out with me. They’d wonder how I turned out so well—a family guy, successful, professional, never been to jail and all that.

I asked everybody that I knew, including psychiatrists and geneticists that have known me for a long time, and knew my bad behavior, what they thought. They went through very specific things that I had done over the years and said, “That’s psychopathic.” I asked them why they didn’t tell me and they said, “We did tell you. We’ve all been telling you.” I argued that they had called me “crazy,” and they all said, “No. We said you’re psychopathic.”

I found out that I happened to have a series of genetic alleles, “warrior genes,” that had to do with serotonin and were thought to be at risk for aggression, violence, and low emotional and interpersonal empathy—if you’re raised in an abusive environment. But if you’re raised in a very positive environment, that can have the effect of offsetting the negative effects of some of the other genes.

I had some geneticists and psychiatrists who didn’t know me examine me independently, and look at the whole series of disorders I’ve had throughout my life. None of them have been severe; I’ve had the mild form of things like anxiety disorder and OCD, but it lined up with my genetics.

The scientists said, “For one, you might never have been born.” My mother had miscarried several times and there probably were some genetic errors. They also said that if I hadn’t been treated so well, I probably wouldn’t have made it out of being a teenager. I would have committed suicide or have gotten killed, because I would have been a violent guy.

How did you react to hearing all of this?

I said, “Well, I don’t care.” And they said, “That proves that you have a fair dose of psychopathy.” Scientists don’t like to be wrong, and I’m narcissistic so I hate to be wrong, but when the answer is there before you, you have to suck it up, admit it, and move on. I couldn’t.

I started reacting with narcissism, saying, “Okay, I bet I can beat this. Watch me and I’ll be better.” Then I realized my own narcissism was driving that response. If you knew me, you’d probably say, “Oh, he’s a fun guy”–or maybe, “He’s a big-mouth and a blowhard narcissist”—but I also think you’d say, “All in all, he’s interesting, and smart, and okay.” But here’s the thing—the closer to me you are, the worse it gets. Even though I have a number of very good friends, they have all ultimately told me over the past two years when I asked them—and they were consistent even though they hadn’t talked to each other—that I do things that are quite irresponsible. It’s not like I say, Go get into trouble. I say, Jump in the water with me.

What’s an example of that, and how do you come back from hurting someone in that way?

For me, because I need these buzzes, I get into dangerous situations. Years ago, when I worked at the University of Nairobi Hospital, a few doctors had told me about AIDS in the region as well as the Marburg virus. They said a guy had come in who was bleeding out of his nose and ears, and that he had been up in the Elgon, in the Kitum Caves. I thought, “Oh, that’s where the elephants go,” and I knew I had to visit. I would have gone alone, but my brother was there. I told him it was an epic trek to where the old matriarch elephants went to retrieve minerals in the caves, but I didn’t mention anything else.

When we got there, there was a lot of rebel activity on the mountain, so there was nobody in the park except for one guard. So we just went in. There were all these rare animals and it was tremendous, but also, this guy had died from Marburg after being here, and nobody knew exactly how he’d gotten it. I knew his path and followed it to see where he camped.

That night, we wrapped ourselves around a fire because there were lions and all these other animals. We were jumping around and waving sticks on fire at the animals in the absolute dark. My brother was going crazy and I joked, “I have to put my head inside of yours because I have a family and you don’t, so if a lion comes and bites one of our necks, it’s gotta be you.”

Again, I was joking around, but it was a real danger. The next day, we walked into the Kitum Caves and you could see where rocks had been knocked over by the elephants.  There was also the smell of all of this animal dung—and that’s where the guy got the Marburg; scientists didn’t know whether it was the dung or the bats.

A bit later, my brother read an article in The New Yorker about Marburg, which inspired the movieOutbreak. He asked me if I knew about it. I said, “Yeah. Wasn’t it exciting? Nobody gets to do this trip.” And he called me names and said, “Not exciting enough. We could’ve gotten Marburg; we could have gotten killed every two seconds.” All of my brothers have a lot of machismo and brio; you’ve got to be a tough guy in our family. But deep inside, I don’t think that my brother fundamentally trusts me after that. And why should he, right? To me, it was nothing.

After all of this research, I started to think of this experience as an opportunity to do something good out of being kind of a jerk my entire life. Instead of trying to fundamentally change—because it’s very difficult to change anything—I wanted to use what could be considered faults, like narcissism, to an advantage; to do something good.

What has that involved?

I started with simple things of how I interact with my wife, my sister, and my mother. Even though they’ve always been close to me, I don’t treat them all that well. I treat strangers pretty well—really well, and people tend to like me when they meet me—but I treat my family the same way, like they’re just somebody at a bar. I treat them well, but I don’t treat them in a special way. That’s the big problem.

I asked them this—it’s not something a person will tell you spontaneously—but they said, ”I give you everything. I give you all this love and you really don’t give it back.” They all said it, and that sure bothered me. So I wanted to see if I could change. I don’t believe it, but I’m going to try.

In order to do that, every time I started to do something, I had to think about it, look at it, and go: No. Don’t do the selfish thing or the self-serving thing. Step-by-step, that’s what I’ve been doing for about a year and a half and they all like it. Their basic response is: We know you don’t really mean it, but we still like it.

I told them, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You accept this? It’s phony!” And they said, “No, it’s okay. If you treat people better it means you care enough to try.” It blew me away then and still blows me away now. 

But treating everyone the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it? Is it just that the people close to you want more from you?

Yes. They absolutely expect and demand more. It’s a kind of cruelty, a kind of abuse, because you’re not giving them that love. My wife to this day says it’s hard to be with me at parties because I’ve got all these people around me, and I’ll leave her or other people in the cold. She is not a selfish person, but I can see how it can really work on somebody.


I gave a talk two years ago in India at the Mumbai LitFest on personality disorders and psychopathy, and we also had a historian from Oxford talk about violence against women in terms of the brain and social development. After it was over, a woman came up to me and asked if we could talk. She was a psychiatrist but also a science writer and said, “You said that you live in a flat emotional world—that is, that you treat everybody the same. That’s Buddhist.” I don’t know anything about Buddhism but she continued on and said, “It’s too bad that the people close to you are so disappointed in being close to you. Any learned Buddhist would think this was great.” I don’t know what to do with that.

Sometimes the truth is not just that it hurts, but that it’s just so disappointing. You want to believe in romance and have romance in your life—even the most hardcore, cold intellectual wants the romantic notion. It kind of makes life worth living. But with these kinds of things, you really start thinking about what a machine it means we are—what it means that some of us don’t need those feelings, while some of us need them so much. It destroys the romantic fabric of society in a way.

So what I do, in this situation, is think: How do I treat the people in my life as if I’m their son, or their brother, or their husband? It’s about going the extra mile for them so that they know I know this is the right thing to do. I know when the situation comes up, but my gut instinct is to do something selfish. Instead, I slow down and try to think about it. It’s like dumb behavioral modification; there’s no finesse to this, but I said, well, why does there have to be finesse? I’m trying to treat it as a straightaway thing, when the situation comes up, to realize there’s a chance that I might be wrong, or reacting in a poor way, or without any sort of love—like a human.

A few years ago there was an article in The New York Times called, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?" The subject was a boy named Michael whose family was concerned about him—he’d been diagnosed with several disorders and eventually deemed a possible psychopath by Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University who studies "callous unemotional children." Dr. Waschbusch examines these children in hopes of finding possible treatment or rehabilitation. You mentioned earlier that you don’t believe people can fundamentally change; what is your take on this research?

In the 70’s, when I was still a post-doc student and a young professor, I started working with some psychiatrists and neurologists who would tell me that they could identify a probable psychopath when he or she was only 2 or 3 years old. I asked them why they didn’t tell the parents and they said, “There’s no way I’m going to tell anybody. First of all, you can’t be sure; second of all, it could destroy the kid’s life; and third of all, the media and the whole family will be at your door with sticks and knives.” So, when Dr. Waschbusch came out two years ago, it was like, “My god. He actually said it.” This was something that all psychiatrists and neurologists in the field knew—especially if they were pediatric psychologists and had the full trajectory of a kid’s life. It can be recognized very, very early—certainly before 9-years-old—but by that time the question of how to un-ring the bell is a tough one.

My bias is that even though I work in growth factors, plasticity, memory, and learning, I think the whole idea of plasticity in adults—or really after puberty—is so overblown. No one knows if the changes that have been shown are permanent and it doesn’t count if it’s only temporary. It’s like the Mozart Effect—sure, there are studies saying there is plasticity in the brain using a sound stimulation or electrical stimulation, but talk to this person in a year or two. Has anything really changed? An entire cottage industry was made from playing Mozart to pregnant women’s abdomens. That’s how the idea of plasticity gets out of hand. I think people can change if they devote their whole life to the one thing and stop all the other parts of their life, but that’s what people can’t do. You can have behavioral plasticity and maybe change behavior with parallel brain circuitry, but the number of times this happens is really rare.

So I really still doubt plasticity. I’m trying to do it by devoting myself to this one thing—to being a nice guy to the people that are close to me—but it’s a sort of game that I’m playing with myself because I don’t really believe it can be done, and it’s a challenge.

In some ways, though, the stakes are different for you because you’re not violent—and isn’t that the concern? Relative to your own life, your attempts to change may positively impact your relationships with your friends, family, and colleagues. But in the case of possibly violent people, they may harm others.

The jump from being a “prosocial” psychopath or somebody on the edge who doesn’t act out violently, to someone who really is a real, criminal predator is not clear. For me, I think I was protected because I was brought up in an upper-middle-class, educated environment with very supportive men and women in my family. So there may be a mass convergence of genetics and environment over a long period of time. But what would happen if I lost my family or lost my job; what would I then become? That’s the test.

For people who have the fundamental biology—the genetics, the brain patterns, and that early existence of trauma—first of all, if they’re abused they’re going to be pissed off and have a sense of revenge: I don’t care what happens to the world because I’m getting even. But a real, primary psychopath doesn’t need that. They’re just predators who don’t need to be angry at all; they do these things because of some fundamental lack of connection with the human race, and with individuals, and so on.

Someone who has money, and sex, and rock and roll, and everything they want may still be psychopathic—but they may just manipulate people, or use people, and not kill them. They may hurt others, but not in a violent way. Most people care about violence—that’s the thing. People may say, “Oh, this very bad investment counselor was a psychopath”—but the essential difference in criminality between that and murder is something we all hate and we all fear. It just isn’t known if there is some ultimate trigger. 

Link: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

Along with Guy Debord, the voice of Raoul Vaneigem was one of the strongest of the Situationists. Counterpoised to Debord’s political and polemic style, Vaneigem offered a more poetic and spirited prose. The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations), published in the same year as The Society of the Spectacle, helped broaden and balance the presentation of the SI’s theories and practices. One of the longest SI members, and frequent editor of the journal Internationale Situationniste, Vaneigem finally left the SI in November of 1970, citing their failures as well as his own in his letter of resignation. Soon after, Debord issued a typically scathing response denouncing both Vaneigem and his critique of the Situationist International.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I just visited Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, who have written an appeal to Barack Obama. What would your appeal and/or advice be to Obama?

Raoul Vaneigem: I refuse to cultivate any relationship whatsoever with people of power. I agree with the Zapatistas from Chiapas who want nothing to do with either the state or its masters, the multinational mafias. I call for civil disobedience so that local communities can form, coordinate, and begin self-producing natural power, a more natural form of farming, and public services that are finally liberated from the scams of government by the Left or the Right. On the other hand, I welcome the appeal by Chamoiseau, Glissant, and their friends for the creation of an existence in which the poetry of a life rediscovered will put an end to the deadly stranglehold of the commodity.

HUO: Could we talk about your beginnings? How did your participation in situationism begin, and what was your fundamental contribution? At the outset of your relationship with the SI, there was the figure of Henri Lefebvre. What did he mean to you at the time? Why did you decide to send him poetic essays?

RV: I would first like to clarify that situationism is an ideology that the situationists were unanimous in rejecting. The term “situationist” was ever only a token of identification. Its particularity kept us from being mistaken for the throngs of ideologues. I have nothing in common with the spectacular recuperation of a project that, in my case, has remained revolutionary throughout. My participation in a group that has now disappeared was an important moment in my personal evolution, an evolution I have personally pressed on with in the spirit of the situationist project at its most revolutionary. My own radicality absolves me from any label. I grew up in an environment in which our fighting spirit was fueled by working class consciousness and a rather festive conception of existence. I found Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life captivating. When La Somme et le reste [The Sum and the Remainder] was published, I sent him an essay of sorts on “poetry and revolution” that was an attempt to unify radical concepts, Lettrist language, music, and film imagery by crediting them all with the common virtue of making the people’s blood boil. Lefebvre kindly responded by putting me in touch with Guy Debord who immediately invited me to Paris. The two of us had very different temperaments, but we would agree over a period of nearly ten years on the need to bring consumer society to an end and to found a new society on the principle of self-management, where life supersedes survival and the existential angst that it generates.

HUO: Which situationist projects remain unrealized?

RV: Psychogeography, the construction of situations, the superseding of predatory behavior. The radicality, which, notwithstanding some lapses, never ceased to motivate us, remains a source of inspiration to this day. Its effects are just beginning to manifest themselves in the autonomous groups that are now coming to grips with the collapse of financial capitalism.

HUO: The Situationist International defined the situationist as someone who commits her- or himself to the construction of situations. What were those situations for you, concretely? How would you define the situationist project in 2009?

RV: By its very style of living and thinking, our group was already sketching out a situation, like a beachhead active within enemy territory. The military metaphor is questionable, but it does convey our will to liberate daily life from the control and stranglehold of an economy based on the profitable exploitation of man. We formed a “group-at-risk” that was conscious of the hostility of the dominant world, of the need for radical rupture, and of the danger of giving in to the paranoia typical of minds under siege. By showing its limits and its weaknesses, the situationist experience can also be seen as a critical meditation on the new type of society sketched out by the Paris Commune, by the Makhnovist movement and the Republic of Councils wiped out by Lenin and Trotsky, by the libertarian communities in Spain later smashed by the Communist Party. The situationist project is not about what happens once consumer society is rejected and a genuinely human society has emerged. Rather, it illuminates now how lifestyle can supersede survival, predatory behavior, power, trade and the death-reflex.

HUO: You and Guy Debord are the main protagonists of the situationist movement. How do you see Debord’s role and your role?

RV: Not as roles. That is precisely what situationism in its most ridiculous version aims at: reducing us to cardboard cut-outs that it can then set up against one another according to the spectacle’s standard operating procedure. I am simply the spokesman, among others, of a radical consciousness. I just do what I can to see that resistance to market exploitation is transformed into an offensive of life, and that an art of living sweeps away the ruins of oppression.

HUO: What were your reasons for resigning from the group?

RV: Following the occupation movements of May 1968, we knew that some recuperation was afoot. We were familiar with the mechanisms of alienation that would falsify our ideas and fit them neatly into the cultural puzzle. It became clear to us, during the last conference in Venice, that we had failed to shatter those mechanisms, that in fact they were shattering us from the inside. The group was crumbling, the Venice conference was demonstrating its increasing uselessness, and the only answers put forward were commensurate with the self-parody we had fallen into. Dissension intensified to the point of paranoid denunciation: of betrayals of radicality, of breaches of revolutionary spirit, of dereliction of conscience. Those times of catharsis and anathema are now long past, and it might be useful to examine how it is that we sowed the seeds of failure for which the group ended up paying such a heavy price. The shipwreck, however, did not indiscriminately sweep away to the shores of oblivion all of us who participated in the adventure. The group vanished in such a way as to allow the individuals to either consolidate their radicality, disown it, or lapse into the imposture of radicalism. I have attempted to analyze our experimental adventure in Entre le deuil du monde et la joie de vivre [Between Mourning the World and Exuberant Life].

HUO: You have written a lot on life, not survival. What is the difference?

RV: Survival is budgeted life. The system of exploitation of nature and man, starting in the Middle Neolithic with intensive farming, caused an involution in which creativity—a quality specific to humans—was supplanted by work, by the production of a covetous power. Creative life, as had begun to unfold during the Paleolithic, declined and gave way to a brutish struggle for subsistence. From then on, predation, which defines animal behavior, became the generator of all economic mechanisms.

HUO: Today, more than forty years after May ‘68, how do you feel life and society have evolved?

RV: We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

HUO: Your new book takes us on a trip “between mourning the world and exuberant life.” You revisit May ‘68. What is left of May ‘68? Has it all been appropriated?

RV: Even if we are today seeing recycled ideologies and old religious infirmities being patched up in a hurry and tossed out to feed a general despair, which our ruling wheelers and dealers cash in on, they cannot conceal for long the shift in civilization revealed by May 1968. The break with patriarchal values is final. We are moving toward the end of the exploitation of nature, of work, of trade, of predation, of separation from the self, of sacrifice, of guilt, of the forsaking of happiness, of the fetishizing of money, of power, of hierarchy, of contempt for and fear of women, of the misleading of children, of intellectual dominion, of military and police despotism, of religions, of ideologies, of repression and the deadly resolutions of psychic tensions. This is not a fact I am describing, but an ongoing process that simply requires from us increased vigilance, awareness, and solidarity with life. We have to reground ourselves in order to rebuild—on human foundations—a world that has been ruined by the inhumanity of the cult of the commodity.

HUO: What do you think of the current moment, in 2009? Jean-Pierre Page has just published Penser l’après crise [Thinking the After-Crisis]. For him, everything must be reinvented. He says that a new world is emerging now in which the attempt to establish a US-led globalization has been aborted.

RV: The agrarian economy of the Ancien Régime was a fossilized form that was shattered by the emerging free-trade economy, from the 1789 revolution on. Similarly, the stock-dabbling speculative capitalism whose debacle we now witness is about to give way to a capitalism reenergized by the production of non-polluting natural power, the return to use value, organic farming, a hastily patched-up public sector, and a hypocritical moralization of trade. The future belongs to self-managed communities that produce indispensable goods and services for all (natural power, biodiversity, education, health centers, transport, metal and textile production …). The idea is to produce for us, for our own use—that is to say, no longer in order to sell them—goods that we are currently forced to buy at market prices even though they were conceived and manufactured by workers. It is time to break with the laws of a political racketeering that is designing, together with its own bankruptcy, that of our existence.

HUO: Is this a war of a new kind, as Page claims? An economic Third World War?

RV: We are at war, yes, but this is not an economic war. It is a world war against the economy. Against the economy that for thousands of years has been based on the exploitation of nature and man. And against a patched-up capitalism that will try to save its skin by investing in natural power and making us pay the high price for that which—once the new means of production are created—will be free as the wind, the sun, and the energy of plants and soil. If we do not exit economic reality and create a human reality in its place, we will once again allow market barbarism to live on.

HUO: In his book Making Globalization Work, Joseph Stiglitz argues for a reorganization of globalization along the lines of greater justice, in order to shrink global imbalances. What do you think of globalization? How does one get rid of profit as motive and pursue well-being instead? How does one escape from the growth imperative?

RV: The moralization of profit is an illusion and a fraud. There must be a decisive break with an economic system that has consistently spread ruin and destruction while pretending, amidst constant destitution, to deliver a most hypothetical well-being. Human relations must supersede and cancel out commercial relations. Civil disobedience means disregarding the decisions of a government that embezzles from its citizens to support the embezzlements of financial capitalism. Why pay taxes to the bankster-state, taxes vainly used to try to plug the sinkhole of corruption, when we could allocate them instead to the self-management of free power networks in every local community? The direct democracy of self-managed councils has every right to ignore the decrees of corrupt parliamentary democracy. Civil disobedience towards a state that is plundering us is a right. It is up to us to capitalize on this epochal shift to create communities where desire for life overwhelms the tyranny of money and power. We need concern ourselves neither with government debt, which covers up a massive defrauding of the public interest, nor with that contrivance of profit they call “growth.” From now on, the aim of local communities should be to produce for themselves and by themselves all goods of social value, meeting the needs of all—authentic needs, that is, not needs prefabricated by consumerist propaganda.

HUO: Edouard Glissant distinguishes between globality and globalization. Globalization eradicates differences and homogenizes, while globality is a global dialogue that produces differences. What do you think of his notion of globality?

RV: For me, it should mean acting locally and globally through a federation of communities in which our pork-barreling, corrupt parliamentary democracy is made obsolete by direct democracy. Local councils will be set up to take measures in favor of the environment and the daily lives of everyone. The situationists have called this “creating situations that rule out any backtracking.”

HUO: Might the current miscarriages of globalization have the same dangerous effects as the miscarriages of the previous globalization from the ‘30s? You have written that what was already intolerable in ‘68 when the economy was booming is even more intolerable today. Do you think the current economic despair might push the new generations to rebel?

RV: The crisis of the ‘30s was an economic crisis. What we are facing today is an implosion of the economy as a management system. It is the collapse of market civilization and the emergence of human civilization. The current turmoil signals a deep shift: the reference points of the old patriarchal world are vanishing. Percolating instead, still just barely and confusedly, are the early markers of a lifestyle that is genuinely human, an alliance with nature that puts an end to its exploitation, rape, and plundering. The worst would be the unawareness of life, the absence of sentient intelligence, violence without conscience. Nothing is more profitable to the racketeering mafias than chaos, despair, suicidal rebellion, and the nihilism that is spread by mercenary greed, in which money, even devalued in a panic, remains the only value.

HUO: In his book Utopistics, Immanuel Wallerstein claims that our world system is undergoing a structural crisis. He predicts it will take another twenty to fifty years for a more democratic and egalitarian system to replace it. He believes that the future belongs to “demarketized,” free-of-charge institutions (on the model, say, of public libraries). So we must oppose the marketization of water and air.1 What is your view?

RV: I do not know how long the current transformation will take (hopefully not too long, as I would like to witness it). But I have no doubt that this new alliance with the forces of life and nature will disseminate equality and freeness. We must go beyond our natural indignation at profit’s appropriation of our water, air, soil, environment, plants, animals. We must establish collectives that are capable of managing natural resources for the benefit of human interests, not market interests. This process of reappropriation that I foresee has a name: self-management, an experience attempted many times in hostile historical contexts. At this point, given the implosion of consumer society, it appears to be the only solution from both an individual and social point of view.

HUO: In your writing you have described the work imperative as an inhuman, almost animal condition. Do you consider market society to be a regression?

RV: As I mentioned above, evolution in the Paleolithic age meant the development of creativity—the distinctive trait of the human species as it breaks free from its original animality. But during the Neolithic, the osmotic relationship to nature loosened progressively, as intensive agriculture became based on looting and the exploitation of natural resources. It was also then that religion surfaced as an institution, society stratified, the reign of patriarchy began, of contempt for women, and of priests and kings with their stream of wars, destitution, and violence. Creation gave way to work, life to survival, jouissance to the animal predation that the appropriation economy confiscates, transcends, and spiritualizes. In this sense market civilization is indeed a regression in which technical progress supersedes human progress.

HUO: For you, what is a life in progress?

RV: Advancing from survival, the struggle for subsistence and predation to a new art of living, by recreating the world for the benefit of all.