Sunshine Recorder

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: Genetics and Homosexuality

Sexual preference is one of the most strongly genetically determined behavioural traits we know of. A single genetic element is responsible for most of the variation in this trait across the population. Nearly all (>95%) of the people who inherit this element are sexually attracted to females, while about the same proportion of people who do not inherit it are attracted to males. This attraction is innate, refractory to change and affects behaviour in stereotyped ways, shaped and constrained by cultural context. It is the commonest and strongest genetic effect on behaviour that we know of in humans (in all mammals, actually). The genetic element is of course the Y chromosome.

The idea that sexual behaviour can be affected by – even largely determined by – our genes is therefore not only not outlandish, it is trivially obvious. Yet claims that differences in sexual orientationmay have at least a partly genetic basis seem to provoke howls of scepticism and outrage from many, mostly based not on scientific arguments but political ones.

The term sexual orientation refers to whether your sexual preference matches the typical preference based on whether or not you have a Y chromosome. It is important to realise that it therefore refers to four different states, not two: (i) has Y chromosome, is attracted to females; (ii) has Y chromosome, is attracted to males; (iii) does not have Y chromosome, is attracted to males; (iv) does not have Y chromosome, is attracted to females. We call two of these states heterosexual and two of them homosexual. (This ignores the many inpiduals whose sexual preferences are not so exclusive or rigid).

A recent twin study confirms that sexual orientation is moderately heritable – that is, that variation in genes contributes to variation in this trait. These effects are detected by looking at pairs of twins and determining how often, when one of them is homosexual, the other one is too. This rate is much higher (30-50%) in monozygotic, or identical, twins (who share all of their DNA sequence), than in dizygotic, or fraternal, twins (who share only half of their DNA), where the rate is 10-20%. If we assume that the environments of pairs of mono- or dizygotic twins are equally similar, then we can infer that the increased similarity in sexual orientation in pairs of monozygotic twins is due to their increased genetic similarity.

These data are not yet published (or peer reviewed) but were presented by Dr. Michael Bailey at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting (Feb 12th 2014) and widely reported on. They confirm and extend findings from multiple previous twin studies across several different countries, which have all found fairly similar results (see here for more details). Overall, the conclusion that sexual orientation is partly heritable was already firmly made. 

The reaction to news of this recent study reveals a deep disquiet with the idea that homosexuality may arise due to genetic differences. First, there are those who scoff at the idea that such a complex behaviour could be determined by what may be only a small number of genetic differences – perhaps only one. As I recently discussed, this view is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what genetic findings really mean. Finding that a trait (a difference in some system) can be affected by a single genetic difference does not mean a single gene is responsible for crafting the entire system – it simply means that the system does not work normally in the absence of that gene. (Just as a car does not work well without its steering wheel).

Others have expressed a variety of personal and political reactions to these findings, ranging from welcoming further evidence of a biological basis for sexual orientation to worry that it will be used to label homosexuality a genetic disorder and even to enable selective abortion based on genetic prediction. The latter possibility may be made more technically feasible by the other aspect of the recently reported study, which was the claim that they have mapped genetic variants affecting sexual orientation to two specific regions of thegenome. (This doesn’t mean they have identified specific genetic variants but may be a step towards doing so).

Let’s explore what the data in this case really show and really mean. A variety of conclusions can be drawn from this and previous studies:

1. Differences in sexual orientation are partly attributable to genetic differences.

2. Sexual orientation in males and females is controlled by distinct sets of genes. (Dizygotic twins of opposite sex show no increased similarity in sexual orientation compared to unrelated people – if a female twin is gay, there is no increased likelihood that her twin brother will be too, and vice versa).

3. Male sexual orientation is rather more strongly heritable than female.

4. The shared family environment has no effect on male sexual orientation but may have a small effect on female sexual orientation.

5. There must also be non-genetic factors influencing this trait, as monozygotic twins are still often discordant (more often than concordant, in fact).

The fact that sexual orientation in males and females is influenced by distinct sets of genetic variants is interesting and leads to a fundamental insight: heterosexuality is not a single default state. It emerges from distinct biological processes that actively match the brain circuitry of (i) males or (ii) females to their chromosomal andgonadal sex so that most inpiduals who carry a Y chromosome are attracted to females and most people who do not are attracted to males.

What is being regulated, biologically, is not sexual orientation (whether you are attracted to people of the same or opposite sex), but sexual preference (whether you are attracted to males or females). Given how complex the processes of sexual differentiation of the brain are (involving the actions of many different genes), it is not surprising that they can sometimes be impaired due to variation in those genes, leading to a failure to match sexual preference to chromosomal sex. Indeed, we know of many specific mutations that can lead to exactly such effects in other mammals – it would be surprising if similar events did not occur in humans.

These studies are consistent with the idea that sexual preference is a biological trait – an innate characteristic of an inpidual, not strongly affected by experience or family upbringing. Not a choice, in other words. We didn’t need genetics to tell us that – personal experience does just fine for most people. But this kind of evidence becomes important when some places in the world (like Uganda, recently) appeal to science to claim (wrongly) that there is evidence that homosexuality is an active choice and use that claim directly to justify criminalisation of homosexual behaviour.

Importantly, the fact that sexual orientation is only partly heritable does not at all undermine the conclusion that it is a completely biological trait. Just because monozygotic twins are not always concordant for sexual orientation does not mean the trait is not completely innate. Typically, geneticists use the term “non-shared environmental variance” to refer to factors that influence a trait outside of shared genes or shared family environment. The non-shared environment term encompasses those effects that explain why monozygotic twins are actually less than identical for many traits (reflecting additional factors that contribute to variance in the trait across the population generally).

The terminology is rather unfortunate because “environmental” does not have its normal colloquial meaning in this context. It does not necessarily mean that some experience that an inpidual has influences their phenotype. Firstly, it encompasses measurement error (just the difficulty in accurately measuring the trait, which is particularly important for behavioural traits). Secondly, it includes environmental effects prior to birth (in utero), which may be especially important for brain development. And finally, it also includes chance or noise – in this case, intrinsic developmental variation that can have dramatic effects on the end-state or outcome of brain development. This process is incredibly complex and noisy, in engineering terms, and the outcome is, like baking a cake, never the same twice. By the time they are born (when the buns come out of the oven), the brains of monozygotic twins are already highly unique.

Genetic differences may thus change the probability of an outcome over many instances, without determining the specific outcome in any inpidual. 

A useful analogy is to handedness. Handedness is only moderately heritable but is effectively completely innate or intrinsic to the inpidual. This is true even though the preference for using one hand over the other emerges only over time. The harsh experiences of many in the past who were forced (sometimes with deeply cruel and painful methods) to write with their right hands because left-handedness was seen as aberrant – even sinful – attest to the fact that the innate preference cannot readily be overridden. All the evidence suggests this is also the case for sexual preference.

What about concerns that these findings could be used as justification for labelling homosexuality a disorder? These are probably somewhat justified – no doubt some people will use it like that. And that places a responsibility on geneticists to explain that just because something is caused by genetic variants – i.e., mutations – does not mean it necessarily should be considered a disorder. We don’t consider red hair a disorder, or blue eyes, or pale skin, or – any longer – left-handedness. All of those are caused by mutations.

The word mutation is rather loaded, but in truth we are all mutants. Each of us carries hundreds of thousands of genetic variants, andhundreds of those are rare, serious mutations that affect the function of some protein. Many of those cause some kind of difference to our phenotype (the outward expression of our genotype). But a difference is only considered a disorder if it negatively impacts on someone’s life. And homosexuality is only a disorder if society makes it one.

Link: Four Futures

In his speech to the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, Slavoj Žižek lamented that “It’s easy to imagine the end of the world, but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” It’s a paraphrase of a remark that Fredric Jameson made some years ago, when the hegemony of neoliberalism still appeared absolute. Yet the very existence of Occupy Wall Street suggests that the end of capitalism has become a bit easier to imagine of late. At first, this imagining took a mostly grim and dystopian form: at the height of the financial crisis, with the global economy seemingly in full collapse, the end of capitalism looked like it might be the beginning of a period of anarchic violence and misery. And still it might, with the Eurozone teetering on the edge of collapse as I write. But more recently, the spread of global protest from Cairo to Madrid to Madison to Wall Street has given the Left some reason to timidly raise its hopes for a better future after capitalism.

One thing we can be certain of is that capitalism will end. Maybe not soon, but probably before too long; humanity has never before managed to craft an eternal social system, after all, and capitalism is a notably more precarious and volatile order than most of those that preceded it. The question, then, is what will come next. Rosa Luxemburg, reacting to the beginnings of World War I, cited a line from Engels: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” In that spirit I offer a thought experiment, an attempt to make sense of our possible futures. These are a few of the socialisms we may reach if a resurgent Left is successful, and the barbarisms we may be consigned to if we fail.

Much of the literature on post-capitalist economies is preoccupied with the problem of managing labor in the absence of capitalist bosses. However, I will begin by assuming that problem away, in order to better illuminate other aspects of the issue. This can be done simply by extrapolating capitalism’s tendency toward ever-increasing automation, which makes production ever-more efficient while simultaneously challenging the system’s ability to create jobs, and therefore to sustain demand for what is produced. This theme has been resurgent of late in bourgeois thought: in September 2011, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote a long series on “The Robot Invasion,” and shortly thereafter two MIT economists published Race Against the Machine, an e-book in which they argued that automation was rapidly overtaking many of the areas that until recently served as the capitalist economy’s biggest motors of job creation. From fully automatic car factories to computers that can diagnose medical conditions, robotization is overtaking not only manufacturing, but much of the service sector as well.

Taken to its logical extreme, this dynamic brings us to the point where the economy does not require human labor at all. This does not automatically bring about the end of work or of wage labor, as has been falsely predicted over and over in response to new technological developments. But it does mean that human societies will increasingly face the possibility of freeing people from involuntary labor. Whether we take that opportunity, and how we do so, will depend on two major factors, one material and one social. The first question is resource scarcity: the ability to find cheap sources of energy, to extract or recycle raw materials, and generally to depend on the Earth’s capacity to provide a high material standard of living to all. A society that has both labor-replacing technology and abundant resources can overcome scarcity in a thoroughgoing way that a society with only the first element cannot. The second question is political: what kind of society will we be? One in which all people are treated as free and equal beings, with an equal right to share in society’s wealth? Or a hierarchical order in which an elite dominates and controls the masses and their access to social resources?

There are therefore four logical combinations of the two oppositions, resource abundance vs. scarcity and egalitarianism vs. hierarchy. To put things in somewhat vulgar-Marxist terms, the first axis dictates the economic base of the post-capitalist future, while the second pertains to the socio-political superstructure. Two possible futures are socialisms (only one of which I will actually call by that name) while the other two are contrasting flavors of barbarism.

1. Egalitarianism and abundance: communism

2. Hierarchy and abundance: rentism

3. Egalitarianism and scarcity: socialism

4. Hierarchy and scarcity: exterminism

Read more.

Link: A Scanner Darkly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link: How Much is Enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for Good Life

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that increases in productivity due to technological progress would lead within a century to most people enjoying much more leisure. He believed that by 2030 the average working week would be around fifteen hours. Eighty-four years later, it doesn’t look like this prediction will come true. Most full-time workers work two, three, or four times, that: and many part-time workers would work more hours if they could since they need the money.

So why haven’t we come closer to realizing the expectations of Russell and Keynes? In their recent book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), Robert and Edward Skidelsky offer an interesting answer. According to them Keynes’ mistake was his failure to realize that capitalism has unleashed forces that can’t be brought under control. Specifically, it has greatly inflamed a natural human desire for recognition and status, turning it into an insatiable desire for ever more wealth—wealth being the number one determinant of status in our society. If we could just settle for a modest level of comfort, we could work far less. But the yearning for more wealth and more stuff now leads people to spend far more time working than they need to. The same insatiability characterizes our society as a whole. Every politician and most economists take for granted that we should be striving with all our might to achieve economic growth without limit. The wisdom of this relentless, endless pursuit of economic growth is rarely questioned.

The Skidelskys’ explanation of why we still work much more than Keynes predicted isn’t entirely wrong, but I don’t think it’s the whole story or even the most important part. It’s no doubt true of some people that they are driven to work more than they need to by insatiable greed. But I suspect that far more people work the hours they do because of circumstances beyond their control. For instance, many people work long hours simply because their hourly wage is quite low, so they work overtime, or perhaps take a second job, just in order to have enough to live on. Some live in expensive metropolitan areas like Boston or San Francisco, so even though they make a good wage, they actually need a full time job even to secure a fairly modest level of comfort, given the cost of housing. Many people keep working full time, even though they’d like to retire or go part time, because only a full time job will provide indispensible benefits like health insurance and a pension. And lots of people would like to cut back the hours they work but can’t for a simple reason: their boss won’t let them.

But there’s also another factor preventing us from achieving a more leisured and balanced lifestyle, and that is the intensely competitive social environment in which we live.

Enthusiastic supporters of capitalism typically sing the praises of economic competition. It’s the goose that lays the golden eggs—the golden eggs being innovation, higher quality goods and services, lower prices, economic growth, and consequently, at least for many, higher living standards, and the satisfaction of desires. Those who accentuate the positive here (who, it should be noted, tend to be people who can expect to be winners rather than losers) are also often inclined to stress the non-economic benefits of competition, such as its power to motivate hard work and produce excellence. Others may be less gung ho about the free market, but nevertheless accept a competitive environment as the situation we find ourselves in. The New York Times op-ed writers I read every morning over my corn flakes exemplify this attitude. A recent Nicholas Kristof article (NYT, 4-3-14) was titled, “We’re not No. 1! We’re not No. 1!” It was about how the US was falling behind other countries according to the Social Progress Index, and concluded, “The Social Progress Index offers a reminder that what’s at stake is…the health of our society and our competitiveness around the globe.” Thomas Friedman regularly laments how the US is failing to do what it needs to do in order to keep up with the global competition. He compares American pre-college education unfavorably with what he sees in places like South Korea, Singapore, and Shnaghai. Globalization and the computer revolution, he argues, mean that the only way to sustain decent levels of skilled employment in the US is to do whatever it takes to compete with such countries, especially in education and in the hi-tech industries of the future.

From the point of view of someone like Friedman, to complain about living in a competitive culture would be like fish moaning about how wet their world is. To resist it would be like fish trying to quit the ocean and walk up the beach. The only thing to do in a competitive world is—compete. But is it? Must we all succumb to our current competitive environment by embracing its values, practices, and goals?

I’m happy to admit that competition can often yield desirable outcomes. But unless we’re blinded by free-market ideology we should also recognize that a competitive culture has its drawbacks. For instance, it creates losers—many of them. Most start-up companies fail; most wannnabe athletes don’t make it. A competitive environment is stressful, and where the competition is fierce and the stakes are high, the stress is correspondingly severe. Living and working in a fiercely competitive world makes it harder to enjoy leisure. While you’re relaxing or recreating, you’re continually aware that you could (and perhaps feel that you should) be doing something to make sure you’re getting ahead of, or at least keeping up with the competition. And you may well be right: those that don’t keep up fall behind and suffer the consequences, which can be serious.

This last point is the one I particularly wish to focus on. Competition is a treadmill. If you stop running you get thrown off. And if the treadmill speeds up, you just have to run faster. Treadmills are fine machines for those who like to use them, but they’re no fun at all for people who don’t particularly enjoy working out. Similarly, competitive environments in optional fields like sport aren’t problematic: you can simply opt out. But this is not really the case in areas like education or employment. We find ourselves thrown into a world where the price for taking it a little easy is not trivial. In the worst cases, people may end up not being able to make enough money to escape deprivation and anxiety. But even for people free from worries of that sort, not being competitive may mean, for instance, that you can’t go to the college of your choice, that you don’t receive adequate financial aid, that you can’t pursue the professional career you would prefer, that you don’t advance in your career as you would like. I’m not saying that these outcomes are unjust; I’m simply pointing out that not throwing oneself into the game with sufficient gusto can carry unwelcome consequences.

In a highly competitive culture people are forced to work harder than they would like to or than is good for them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of children in school. As noted earlier, social commentators like Thomas Friedman worry incessantly about how American kids are falling behind kids in other countries in their mastery of important skills. Now I don’t deny for a minute that he has good reasons to complain about defects in the American educational system, the main one being the shockingly low level of basic skills and basic knowledge attained by the majority of high school students. But the solution is not to emulate what goes on in places like South Korea. There, the intensity of the competition to get into prestigious universities means that many young people, and their families, feel forced to sacrifice a balanced life on the altar of professional prospects. It’s common for high school students to study from five or six in the morning until past midnight, six or seven days a week, getting by on a very few hours sleep, eschewing entirely such things as sports, relationships, or recreational time with family and friends. In the US, students aiming to enter elite colleges don’t usually go to such an extreme, but something of the same pattern has been emerging over the last twenty years or so. The anxiety this creates for all concerned was apparent in the controversy surrounding Amy Chua’s 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

            Giving up on or shortchanging many of the traditional pleasures of childhood and youth—such as nice long periods of undirected play or just messing about with a few friends—isn’t the only serious negative effect of life on the competitive treadmill. Another unfortunate consequence is the way it can weaken intrinsic motivation. Students are intrinsically motivated when they study because they love the subject, or just love studying. The motivation is extrinsic when it is directed toward earning grades, winning prizes, improving one’s class rank, getting into college, and so on. The same distinction applies to other activities, including what we do to earn a living. In the workplace, money is the primary extrinsic motivator for most people.

            Speaking as someone who has been involved in education for several decades, I would say that the single most serious problem in American education is the low-level of intrinsic motivation that so many students bring to the classroom. If a student finds a subject inherently interesting and really enjoys learning, everything else will take care of itself. That’s why the starting point of any educational reform should be to focus on ways to increase the intrinsic satisfaction that students derive from studying. Yet the competitive environment militates against this. I admit it would be utopian to imagine a world where the only motivation for any activity is intrinsic. But it still makes sense to try to increase the intrinsic satisfaction that students derive from their studies and employees from their work, while steering away from whatever leads them to view what they do as a mere means to an end. It makes sense both because they will enjoy their work more and because they are likely to pursue it to a higher level.

In general, the most fortunate people are those who enjoy high levels of intrinsic motivation: for them, work isn’t “work” in the bad sense; it’s simply what they want to do. It’s as if they’re being paid to eat ice cream. But while an intensely competitive environment may force students to put in many hours of hard work, it can suppress virtues such as curiosity or love of learning. Inexorably, the focus starts to be on winning the competition, which means scoring the necessary points, which means making high grades and relentlessly prepping for specific exams—and these grades and exam scores come to be the end-it-itself over which students, parents, and, sad to say, teachers obsess. The tail wags the dog­–and that is not a formula for a happy dog.

To continue with the treadmill metaphor. We find ourselves on a treadmill while still young, and education teaches us to get used to being on it though our working life. It goes faster than many of us wish because we don’t get to set the pace. Instead, the pace is set by the forces of competition. These include the familiar market forces of supply and demand–the drive to improve market share by producing a better product or producing it more cheaply than the competition. But they also include, less directly, the rivalry at the top end of the income chain between CEOs, board members, major shareholders, college presidents, and the like whose insistence on keeping up with their peers is satisfied on the backs of those working beneath them.

Capitalism’s cheerleaders often talk about the productivity of competition and the efficiency of the market, and the market is undoubtedly good for some things—for instance, producing great stuff like iphones and cheap blue jeans. But it’s pretty bad for producing other things like affordable housing in London, or low cost health care, or jobs for everyone that wants to work, or the more leisured lifestyle envisaged by Keynes. The problem is that market forces don’t care about anyone’s well-being or happiness. So they crank up the speed of the treadmill, quite indifferent to the effect of this on both the poor sods who are already busting a gut and the even poorer folks who can’t climb aboard.

There is a solution. The government could enact policies aimed at making it much easier and attractive for people to settle for a modest but comfortable standard of living that doesn’t require them to work too hard. Specifically, governments could guarantee free universal health care, free education, affordable housing through controls on the housing market, and an adequate state retirement pension. This no doubt sounds utopian, but there are, in fact, countries where each of these things is available. To the obvious objection that America can’t afford it, the answer is: yes we can. There is a vast amount of wealth swishing around the United States, but its distribution is lopsided. Indeed, the country is much wealthier today than, say, in 1935 when it passed the first Social Security Act, or in 1944 when it passed the GI Bill. A similar point applies to many other countries that are far richer now than at the end of World War Two. The main obstacle isn’t that such policies are economically unfeasible: it’s that they require a more radical redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation along with much more extensive government intervention in areas like health care and housing, and both of these moves are fiercely opposed by currently prevailing ideologies and vested interests.

The single most important idea in Marx’s philosophy is this: the social system we live under, which appears as a mighty alien power to which we must succumb as to a blind force of nature, is actually a human creation that we can, should, and will eventually bring under our control to serve our consciously chosen ends. This is how we should view the intensely competitive culture that we currently find ourselves part of. I am not saying competition should everywhere be avoided, abandoned or abolished. It has its place, its uses and its benefits. But we should also recognize that it is a serious obstacle to realizing Keynes’ vision of a world where everyone enjoys relatively leisured, balanced lives, and work, in the words of Paul Lafargue, becomes a “condiment to idleness.”

Link: Beware of cupcake fascism

A sickly sweet movement expresses the desire of an infantilised populace to hide from the world while imposing bourgeois values.

The cupcake is barely a cake. When we think about what “the cake-​like” ideally should be, it is something spongy, moist, characterised by excess, collapsing under its own weight of gooey jam, meringue, and cream. It is something sickly and wet that makes your fingers sticky. The cupcake is none of these things; that is, it possesses none of the ideal essence of cakiness. The cupcake is neat, precise, and uniform. It is dry, polite, and low-​fat. It is defined by its shape, not its taste, and the cake-​cup limits any potential excess. The cupcake is largely aimed at the sort of flat-​stomached people who think consuming sweet things is “a bit naughty” and who won’t even permit themselves to go overboard on their binges. The cupcake is vintagey and twee. It invokes a sense of wholesomeness and nostalgia, albeit for a past never experienced, a more perfect past, just as vintage-​style clothing harks back to an idealised image of the 1920s through 60s that never existed. The cupcake appears as a cultural trope alongside the drinking of tea and gin and the lisped strumming of ukuleles.

The constellation of cultural tropes that most paradigmatically manifest in the form of the cupcake are associated in particular with infantilisation. Of course, looking back to a perfect past that never existed is nothing if not the pained howl of a child who never wanted to be forced to grow up, and the cupcake and its associates market themselves by catering to these never-​never-​land adults’ tastes. These products, which treat their audience as children, and more specifically the children of the middle classes – perfect special snowflakes full of wide-​eyed wonder and possibility – succeed as expressions of a desire on behalf of consumers to always and forever be children, by telling consumers not only that this is OK, but also that it is, to a real degree, possible.

It’s an understandable urge, given how terrifying and confusing the world is at present. But it is, of course, the wrong response. Infantilised possibilities stand in a strange relationship to what we might call possibility as such. This is because, to actually be alive and able to take up possibilities in a genuine way means being able to take a critical and thus transformative stance towards one’s environment; it is to really be a fully cognitive adult. Thus, the possibility of always remaining a cognitive child must involve the elision of the appropriate orientation to possibility. Taking up this particular possibility (to remain a child rather than become adult) means shutting the pursuit of all other possibilities down.

Hence, we see how the restrictive shape of the cupcake, its cold and uniform neatness, matches up with the infantilising elements of twee cupcakey tropes: it is only possible, as an adult, to remain a cognitive child if you are a child without sticky fingers, drily conforming to a prescribed set of rules.

'Keep Calm and Carry On'

Something became clear to me in the aftermath of the London riots in 2011, when I saw thousands of people take to the streets with brooms at the instigation of a twitter hashtag (#riotcleanup), and “clean up” the effects of the anger of the rioters, which was already in the process of being dismissed and demonised in the media as opportunistic looting long before the police would find a way to havetheir killing of Mark Duggan declared “lawful”. This realisation was that if you wanted to found a fascist reich in Britain today, you could never do so on the basis of any sort of ideology of racial superiority or militaristic imagery or anything of the like. Fascism is, if nothing else, necessarily majoritarian, and nowadays racism is very niche-​appeal (just look at how laughable every EDL march is, where the anti-​fascists outnumber the alleged fascists by a ratio of more than two to one). But you could get a huge mass of people to participate in a reactionary endeavour if you dressed it up in nice, twee, cupcakey imagery, and persuaded everyone that the brutality of your ideology was in fact a form of niceness. If a fascist reich was to be established anywhere today, I believe it would necessarily have to exchange iron eagles for fluffy kittens, swap jackboots for Converse, and the epic drama of Wagnerian horns for mumbled ditties on ukuleles.

Fascism is, properly understood, a certain sort of response to a crisis. It is the reactionary response, as opposed to the radical one. The radical response is to embrace the new possibilities thrown up by the crisis; the reactionary one is to shut these possibilities down. In bourgeois society, thus, fascism will always mean the assertion of middle-​class values in the face of a crisis. Because this assertion must mean shutting certain other emerging sets of possibilities down, it will always involve a sort of violence, although this violence can of course be merely passive-​aggressive.

The 2011 riots were a sort of response to the present global financial crisis, and one more radical than reactionary. They were directionless, yes, but they were the product of a summer of simmering tension produced by the austerity measures the government had imposed as its own reactionary response to the financial crisis, which threatened and still threatens to eliminate the futures of every young person in Britain, especially those from poorer backgrounds – the majority of the rioters. Against the possibilities thrown up by the riots (if nothing else, the possibility of expressing real anger), the participants in #riotcleanup passive-​aggressively asserted the very same middle-​class values that informed the imposition of austerity.

There is no better expression of all this than in the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On”, which of course adorns everything cupcakey (“Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake” is almost as prevalent a poster as the original). The association is a profound one on many levels. The “Keep Calm” poster was originally designed as a propaganda poster during the second world war. It plays on similar appeals to vintage nostalgia that the notion of “having a cupcake” does. It appeals to an idealised past that was never experienced by the longer-​afterer. It is also a past that never could have been experienced, since the “Keep Calm” poster was never actually used. It was rediscovered in 2000 and was quickly found to have a vast appeal based largely on how much the slogan cohered with an idealised image of the 1940s. In fact, the poster had never been used because it was considered by those who saw it at the time to be patronising.

Thus the form of the slogan is a perfect expression of the infantilised subject’s orientation towards reality. The same goes for the content. The idea that the best response to any situation is just to accept existing conditions, swallow your anger, swallow your pride, and continue as best you might is an expression of a sort of ideal Britishness, the “stiff upper lip”. But stiff upper lip is, dialectically speaking, nothing more than a form of cowardice; less a level-​headed stoicism than a neurotic unwillingness to confront an unjust reality. Many of the participants in #riotcleanup also participated in another riots-​era hashtag, #OperationCupOfTea, which implored people not to go out rioting but rather, to stay indoors and “have a nice cup of tea”. These nice white middle-​class boys and girls out early clutching brooms were all people whose instinctual orientation towards a hostile world is to cover up, hide, and thus maintain that world in its hostility without confronting it. Images from the #riotcleanup could only seem as if they were from a political rally, for the assertion of this cowardice as a political force.

Gentrification

There is now such a critical mass of infantilised subjects in our society that we see their tropes at work everywhere, aggressively. Typically, any middle-​class man or woman up to their forties is an infantilised subject nowadays. This means a majority of consumers. Thus every advertising campaign launched by a major corporation and every government public service announcement proudly proclaims that the ideology of cupcake fascism is appealing to them.

It is everywhere, from the most trivial examples: a waste bin with a little picture of a sad puppy on it and the line “It’s not my fault my mess doesn’t get cleaned up”, or a napkin dispenser that says on it “Please Only Take One of Me”, (this latter is, incidentally, something I once saw in the House of Commons cafeteria; even those in positions of what in some lights can look like actual power are in the grip of infantilisation). All the way to massive, blockbuster instances of the phenomenon such as the recent Coca-​Cola #ReasonsToBelieve campaign which was full of such obviously insidious expressions of cupcakey positivity as “For every tank being built … there are thousands of cakes being baked” and “for every red card given … there are 12 celebratory hugs”. The advert also features a scene in which a man high-fives a cat.

All of this has an effect on our culture that we can understand as being a sort of gentrification. The cupcake has always itself been a gentrifying force: after all, the “pop-​up cupcake shop” is the paradigmatic pop-​up shop. But what all these things do is assert the infantilised values of an increasingly infantilised middle-​class world on general society. This is how the passive-​aggressive violence of the infantilised twee fascist manifests itself: moving across the world with a cupcake as a cowcatcher, shunting out everything that does not correspond to the values manifested within it; a much more effective way of sweeping up the sort of (poor, working-​class, black) forces that informed the 2011 London riots than any broom. Not uncoincidentally, #ReasonsToBelieve included footage of said riots labelled as an “expression of hatred” to be contrasted with the wave of love apparently unleashed by a long-​overdue government recognition of gay unions.

Niceness

It is in some sense a contradiction to think of cupcake fascism as both an aggressively assertive movement violently imposing a particular set of bourgeois values on society and also the expression of a desire on the behalf of an infantilised populace to “go into hiding” from the world. But these two things only appear in conflict pending the assumption of the right perspective on the matter.

Cupcake fascism asserts itself violently through something the infantilised subject holds deeply as an ideal. This ideal is niceness. On the one hand, niceness is just what the infantilised subject thinks is lacking from the world she is hiding from. In the first instance, the problem these people had with the London rioters was that they were not being nice enough. If the rioters had just sat down with a cup of tea and talked their problems through with their oppressors, the infantilised subject thinks, then there would have been no need to resort to damaging private property. The sort of niceness I mean here is precisely that embodied in the figure of the cupcake: neat and predictable, undangerous and healthy, redolent of a perfect past that never was. In a nicer world, everything would work as it should, the good and hard-​working would get exactly what they deserve, and everyone would behave properly.

This last aspect of the infantilised subject’s vision of a “nicer” world is the most telling, for on the other hand, niceness is also an injunction from above. “Just be nice!” is something a parent or teacher would tell a wayward child. The injunction to behave properly, to smile and get on with it, is precisely a way of shutting down any form of social resistance. People are conditioned to be nice from the very start of school, and it is the effect of an infantilising gentrification that this injunction is further spread by those who have most effectively internalised it. These people are the middle classes. To be nice, to “behave properly”, is simply to behave like an infantilised middle-​class subject. Thus every marketing campaign or government public service announcement that passive-​aggressively preaches niceness is really a violent enforcement of reactionary values that serves to preserve a crisis-​stricken status quo.

The radical possibility and cake

If we see the paradigmatic mechanisms of social oppression operative today in the form of a cupcake, then the clue to the overthrowing of these mechanisms exists also in cake, albeit of an entirely different kind. It is precisely in the truly cake-​like, the spongy and the moist and the excessive and the unhealthy. Against the austerity of the cupcake-​form, we need to recapture, in our social reality, a sort of joy: the joy of being open to genuinely alternative possibilities.

Another way of looking comes when we examine the way in which an infantilised adult is precisely not a child. A child cannot remain a child; a child is on the way to becoming an adult. When a child does child-​like things, it is in order to explore the world in a way that equips it to one day confront that world for what it is, as what the child will be as an individual. So the child is open to possibility. And the child always has sticky fingers, and jam around its lips, and does things that no one would ever think are in its best interests. The infantilised adult, by contrast, because it is neurotically trying to remain a child, must shut down possibilities. It cannot engage with the world in a way characterised by the joy of possibility. In order to actually live the possibility of remaining a child, the world that the infantilised adult engages with must always remain “safe” and coldly uniform: the cupcake as opposed to the messy and collapsing sponge-​cake.

Thus, if we want to be less infantilised, we have to behave more like children. If this seems like a paradox, it must mean that you are just not thinking about the matter dialectically enough.

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: The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others

We all distinguish between plants and animals. We understand that plants, in general, are immobile, rooted in the ground; they spread their green leaves to the heavens and feed on sunlight and soil. We understand that animals, in contrast, are mobile, moving from place to place, foraging or hunting for food; they have easily recognized behaviors of various sorts. Plants and animals have evolved along two profoundly different paths (fungi have yet another), and they are wholly different in their forms and modes of life. And yet, Darwin insisted, they were closer than one might think.

Charles Darwin’s last book, published in 1881, was a study of the humble earthworm. His main theme—expressed in the title, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms—was the immense power of worms, in vast numbers and over millions of years, to till the soil and change the face of the earth. But his opening chapters are devoted more simply to the “habits” of worms.

Worms can distinguish between light and dark, and they generally stay underground, safe from predators, during daylight hours. They have no ears, but if they are deaf to aerial vibration, they are exceedingly sensitive to vibrations conducted through the earth, as might be generated by the footsteps of approaching animals. All of these sensations, Darwin noted, are transmitted to collections of nerve cells (he called them “the cerebral ganglia”) in the worm’s head.

“When a worm is suddenly illuminated,” Darwin wrote, it “dashes like a rabbit into its burrow.” He noted that he was “at first led to look at the action as a reflex one,” but then observed that this behavior could be modified—for instance, when a worm was otherwise engaged, it showed no withdrawal with sudden exposure to light.

For Darwin, the ability to modulate responses indicated “the presence of a mind of some kind.” He also wrote of the “mental qualities” of worms in relation to their plugging up their burrows, noting that “if worms are able to judge…having drawn an object close to the mouths of their burrows, how best to drag it in, they must acquire some notion of its general shape.” This moved him to argue that worms “deserve to be called intelligent, for they then act in nearly the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.”

As a boy, I played with the earthworms in our garden (and later used them in research projects), but my true love was for the seashore, and especially tidal pools, for we nearly always took our summer holidays at the seaside. This early, lyrical feeling for the beauty of simple sea creatures became more scientific under the influence of a biology teacher at school and our annual visits with him to the Marine Station at Millport in southwest Scotland, where we could investigate the immense range of invertebrate animals on the seashores of Cumbrae. I was so excited by these Millport visits that I thought I would like to become a marine biologist myself.

If Darwin’s book on earthworms was a favorite of mine, so too was George John Romanes’s 1885 book Jelly-Fish, Star-Fish, and Sea-Urchins: Being a Research on Primitive Nervous Systems, with its simple, fascinating experiments and beautiful illustrations. For Romanes, Darwin’s young friend and student, the seashore and its fauna were to be passionate and lifelong interests, and his aim above all was to investigate what he regarded as the behavioral manifestations of “mind” in these creatures.

I was charmed by Romanes’s personal style. (His studies of invertebrate minds and nervous systems were most happily pursued, he wrote, in “a laboratory set up upon the sea-beach…a neat little wooden workshop thrown open to the sea-breezes.”) But it was clear that correlating the neural and the behavioral was at the heart of Romanes’s enterprise. He spoke of his work as “comparative psychology,” and saw it as analogous to comparative anatomy.

Louis Agassiz had shown, as early as 1850, that the jellyfish Bougainvillea had a substantial nervous system, and by 1883 Romanes demonstrated its individual nerve cells (there are about a thousand). By simple experiments—cutting certain nerves, making incisions in the bell, or looking at isolated slices of tissue—he showed that jellyfish employed both autonomous, local mechanisms (dependent on nerve “nets”) and centrally coordinated activities through the circular “brain” that ran along the margins of the bell.

By 1883, Romanes was able to include drawings of individual nerve cells and clusters of nerve cells, or ganglia, in his book Mental Evolution in Animals. “Throughout the animal kingdom,” Romanes wrote,

nerve tissue is invariably present in all species whose zoological position is not below that of the Hydrozoa. The lowest animals in which it has hitherto been detected are the Medusae, or jelly-fishes, and from them upwards its occurrence is, as I have said, invariable. Wherever it does occur its fundamental structure is very much the same, so that whether we meet with nerve-tissue in a jelly-fish, an oyster, an insect, a bird, or a man, we have no difficulty in recognizing its structural units as everywhere more or less similar.

At the same time that Romanes was vivisecting jellyfish and starfish in his seaside laboratory, the young Sigmund Freud, already a passionate Darwinian, was working in the lab of Ernst Brücke, a physiologist in Vienna. His special concern was to compare the nerve cells of vertebrates and invertebrates, in particular those of a very primitive vertebrate (Petromyzon, a lamprey) with those of an invertebrate (a crayfish). While it was widely held at the time that the nerve elements in invertebrate nervous systems were radically different from those of vertebrate ones, Freud was able to show and illustrate, in meticulous, beautiful drawings, that the nerve cells in crayfish were basically similar to those of lampreys—or human beings.

And he grasped, as no one had before, that the nerve cell body and its processes—dendrites and axons—constituted the basic building blocks and the signaling units of the nervous system. Eric Kandel, in his book In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006), speculates that if Freud had stayed in basic research instead of going into medicine, perhaps he would be known today as “a co-founder of the neuron doctrine, instead of as the father of psychoanalysis.”

Although neurons may differ in shape and size, they are essentially the same from the most primitive animal life to the most advanced. It is their number and organization that differ: we have a hundred billion nerve cells, while a jellyfish has a thousand. But their status as cells capable of rapid and repetitive firingis essentially the same.

The crucial role of synapses—the junctions between neurons where nerve impulses can be modulated, giving organisms flexibility and a whole range of behaviors—was clarified only at the close of the nineteenth century by the great Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who looked at the nervous systems of many vertebrates and invertebrates, and by C.S. Sherrington in England (it was Sherrington who coined the word “synapse” and showed that synapses could be excitatory or inhibitory in function).

In the 1880s, however, despite Agassiz’s and Romanes’s work, there was still a general feeling that jellyfish were little more than passively floating masses of tentacles ready to sting and ingest whatever came their way, little more than a sort of floating marine sundew.

But jellyfish are hardly passive. They pulsate rhythmically, contracting every part of their bell simultaneously, and this requires a central pacemaker system that sets off each pulse. Jellyfish can change direction and depth, and many have a “fishing” behavior that involves turning upside down for a minute, spreading their tentacles like a net, and then righting themselves, which they do by virtue of eight gravity-sensing balance organs. (If these are removed, the jellyfish is disoriented and can no longer control its position in the water.) If bitten by a fish, or otherwise threatened, jellyfish have an escape strategy—a series of rapid, powerful pulsations of the bell—that shoots them out of harm’s way; special, oversized (and therefore rapidly responding) neurons are activated at such times.

Of special interest and infamous reputation among divers is the box jellyfish (Cubomedusae)—one of the most primitive animals to have fully developed image-forming eyes, not so different from our own. The biologist Tim Flannery, in an article in these pages, writes of box jellyfish:

They are active hunters of medium-sized fish and crustaceans, and can move at up to twenty-one feet per minute. They are also the only jellyfish with eyes that are quite sophisticated, containing retinas, corneas, and lenses. And they have brains, which are capable of learning, memory, and guiding complex behaviors.1

We and all higher animals are bilaterally symmetrical, have a front end (a head) containing a brain, and a preferred direction of movement (forward). The jellyfish nervous system, like the animal itself, is radially symmetrical and may seem less sophisticated than a mammalian brain, but it has every right to be considered a brain, generating, as it does, complex adaptive behaviors and coordinating all the animal’s sensory and motor mechanisms. Whether we can speak of a “mind” here (as Darwin does in regard to earthworms) depends on how one defines “mind.”

We all distinguish between plants and animals. We understand that plants, in general, are immobile, rooted in the ground; they spread their green leaves to the heavens and feed on sunlight and soil. We understand that animals, in contrast, are mobile, moving from place to place, foraging or hunting for food; they have easily recognized behaviors of various sorts. Plants and animals have evolved along two profoundly different paths (fungi have yet another), and they are wholly different in their forms and modes of life.

And yet, Darwin insisted, they were closer than one might think. He wrote a series of botanical books, culminating in The Power of Movement in Plants (1880), just before his book on earthworms. He thought the powers of movement, and especially of detecting and catching prey, in the insectivorous plants so remarkable that, in a letter to the botanist Asa Gray, he referred to Drosera, the sundew, only half-jokingly as not only a wonderful plant but “a most sagacious animal.”

Darwin was reinforced in this notion by the demonstration that insect-eating plants made use of electrical currents to move, just as animals did—that there was “plant electricity” as well as “animal electricity.” But “plant electricity” moves slowly, roughly an inch a second, as one can see by watching the leaflets of the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) closing one by one along a leaf that is touched. “Animal electricity,” conducted by nerves, moves roughly a thousand times faster.2

Signaling between cells depends on electrochemical changes, the flow of electrically charged atoms (ions), in and out of cells via special, highly selective molecular pores or “channels.” These ion flows cause electrical currents, impulses—action potentials—that are transmitted (directly or indirectly) from one cell to another, in both plants and animals.

Plants depend largely on calcium ion channels, which suit their relatively slow lives perfectly. As Daniel Chamovitz argues in his book What a Plant Knows (2012), plants are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more. Plants know what to do, and they “remember.” But without neurons, plants do not learn in the same way that animals do; instead they rely on a vast arsenal of different chemicals and what Darwin termed “devices.” The blueprints for these must all be encoded in the plant’s genome, and indeed plant genomes are often larger than our own.

The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm “dashes…into its burrow.” Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.

This new form of life—animal life—emerging perhaps 600 million years ago conferred great advantages, and transformed populations rapidly. In the so-called Cambrian explosion (datable with remarkable precision to 542 million years ago), a dozen or more new phyla, each with very different body plans, arose within the space of a million years or less—a geological eye-blink. The once peaceful pre-Cambrian seas were transformed into a jungle of hunters and hunted, newly mobile. And while some animals (like sponges) lost their nerve cells and regressed to a vegetative life, others, especially predators, evolved increasingly sophisticated sense organs, memories, and minds.

Link: Guy Debord: The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy

Situationist International, December 1965.

August 13­16, 1965, the blacks of Los Angeles revolted. An incident between traffic police and pedestrians developed into two days of spontaneous riots. Despite increasing reinforcements, the forces of order were unable to regain control of the streets. By the third day the blacks had armed themselves by looting accessible gun stores, enabling them to fire even on police helicopters. It took thousands of police and soldiers, including an entire infantry division supported by tanks, to confine the riot to the Watts area, and several more days of street fighting to finally bring it under control. Stores were massively plundered and many were burned. Official sources listed 32 dead (including 27 blacks), more than 800 wounded and 3000 arrests.

Reactions from all sides were most revealing: a revolutionary event, by bringing existing problems into the open, provokes its opponents into an unhabitual lucidity. Police Chief William Parker, for example, rejected all the major black organizations’ offers of mediation, correctly asserting: “These rioters don’t have any leaders.” Since the blacks no longer had any leaders, it was the moment of truth for both sides. What did one of those unemployed leaders, NAACP general secretary Roy Wilkins, have to say? He declared that the riot “should be put down with all necessary force.” And Los Angeles Cardinal McIntyre, who protested loudly, did not protest against the violence of the repression, which one might have supposed the most tactful policy at a time when the Roman Church is modernizing its image; he denounced “this premeditated revolt against the rights of one’s neighbor and against respect for law and order,” calling on Catholics to oppose the looting and “this violence without any apparent justification.” And all those who went so far as to recognize the “apparent justifications” of the rage of the Los Angeles blacks (but never their real ones), all the ideologists and “spokesmen” of the vacuous international Left, deplored the irresponsibility, the disorder, the looting (especially the fact that arms and alcohol were the first targets) and the 2000 fires with which the blacks lit up their battle and their ball. But who has defended the Los Angeles rioters in the terms they deserve? We will. Let the economists fret over the $27 million lost, and the city planners sigh over one of their most beautiful supermarkets gone up in smoke, and McIntyre blubber over his slain deputy sheriff. Let the sociologists bemoan the absurdity and intoxication of this rebellion. The role of a revolutionary publication is not only to justify the Los Angeles insurgents, but to help elucidate their perspectives, to explain theoretically the truth for which such practical action expresses the search.

In Algiers in July 1965, following Boumédienne’s coup d’état, the situationists issued an Address to the Algerians and to revolutionaries all over the world which interpreted conditions in Algeria and the rest of the world as a whole. Among other examples we mentioned the movement of the American blacks, stating that if it could “assert itself incisively” it would unmask the contradictions of the most advanced capitalist system. Five weeks later this incisiveness was in the streets. Modern theoretical criticism of modern society and criticism in acts of the same society already coexist; still separated but both advancing toward the same realities, both talking about the same thing. These two critiques are mutually explanatory, and neither can be understood without the other. Our theory of “survival” and of “the spectacle” is illuminated and verified by these actions which are so incomprehensible to American false consciousness. One day these actions will in turn be illuminated by this theory.

Until the Watts explosion, black civil rights demonstrations had been kept by their leaders within the limits of a legal system that tolerates the most appalling violence on the part of the police and the racists — as in last March’s march on Montgomery, Alabama. Even after the latter scandal, a discreet agreement between the federal government, Governor Wallace and Martin Luther King led the Selma marchers on March 10 to stand back at the first police warning, in dignity and prayer. The confrontation expected by the demonstrators was reduced to a mere spectacle of a potential confrontation. In that moment nonviolence reached the pitiful limit of its courage: first you expose yourself to the enemy’s blows, then you push your moral nobility to the point of sparing him the trouble of using any more force. But the main point is that the civil rights movement only addressed legal problems by legal means. It is logical to make legal appeals regarding legal questions. What is irrational is to appeal legally against a blatant illegality as if it was a mere oversight that would be corrected if pointed out. It is obvious that the crude and glaring illegality from which blacks still suffer in many American states has its roots in a socioeconomic contradiction that is not within the scope of existing laws, and that no future judicial law will be able to get rid of this contradiction in the face of the more fundamental laws of this society. What American blacks are really daring to demand is the right to really live, and in the final analysis this requires nothing less than the total subversion of this society. This becomes increasingly evident as blacks in their everyday lives find themselves forced to use increasingly subversive methods. The issue is no longer the condition of American blacks, but the condition of America, which merely happens to find its first expression among the blacks. The Watts riot was not a racial conflict: the rioters left alone the whites that were in their path, attacking only the white policemen, while on the other hand black solidarity did not extend to black store-owners or even to black car-drivers. Martin Luther King himself had to admit that the revolt went beyond the limits of his specialty. Speaking in Paris last October, he said: “This was not a race riot. It was a class riot.”

The Los Angeles rebellion was a rebellion against the commodity, against the world of the commodity in which worker-consumers are hierarchically subordinated to commodity standards. Like the young delinquents of all the advanced countries, but more radically because they are part of a class without a future, a sector of the proletariat unable to believe in any significant chance of integration or promotion, the Los Angeles blacks take modern capitalist propaganda, its publicity of abundance, literally. They want to possess now all the objects shown and abstractly accessible, because they want to use them. In this way they are challenging their exchange-value, the commodity reality which molds them and marshals them to its own ends, and which has preselected everything. Through theft and gift they rediscover a use that immediately refutes the oppressive rationality of the commodity, revealing its relations and even its production to be arbitrary and unnecessary. The looting of the Watts district was the most direct realization of the distorted principle: “To each according to their false needs” — needs determined and produced by the economic system which the very act of looting rejects. But once the vaunted abundance is taken at face value and directly seized, instead of being eternally pursued in the rat-race of alienated labor and increasing unmet social needs, real desires begin to be expressed in festive celebration, in playful self-assertion, in the potlatch of destruction. People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities. They stop submitting to the arbitrary forms that distortedly reflect their real needs. The flames of Watts consummated the system of consumption. The theft of large refrigerators by people with no electricity, or with their electricity cut off, is the best image of the lie of affluence transformed into a truth in play. Once it is no longer bought, the commodity lies open to criticism and alteration, whatever particular form it may take. Only when it is paid for with money is it respected as an admirable fetish, as a symbol of status within the world of survival.

Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence. What is a policeman? He is the active servant of the commodity, the man in complete submission to the commodity, whose job it is to ensure that a given product of human labor remains a commodity, with the magical property of having to be paid for, instead of becoming a mere refrigerator or rifle — a passive, inanimate object, subject to anyone who comes along to make use of it. In rejecting the humiliation of being subject to police, the blacks are at the same time rejecting the humiliation of being subject to commodities. The Watts youth, having no future in market terms, grasped another quality of the present, and that quality was so incontestable and irresistible that it drew in the whole population — women, children, and even sociologists who happened to be on the scene. Bobbi Hollon, a young black sociologist of the neighborhood, had this to say to the Herald Tribune in October: “Before, people were ashamed to say they came from Watts. They’d mumble it. Now they say it with pride. Boys who used to go around with their shirts open to the waist, and who’d have cut you to pieces in half a second, showed up here every morning at seven o’clock to organize the distribution of food. Of course, it’s no use pretending that food wasn’t looted… . All that Christian blah has been used too long against blacks. These people could loot for ten years and they wouldn’t get back half the money those stores have stolen from them over all these years… . Me, I’m only a little black girl.” Bobbi Hollon, who has sworn never to wash off the blood that splashed on her sandals during the rioting, adds: “Now the whole world is watching Watts.”

Link: Treatises of Fascism

If we are to maintain our vigilance in the face of the possibility, of the return of fascist forms of government to Europe, it is important to understand some of the structural causes that facilitated the rise of fascism and allowed it to gain such a hold of the populations in the countries involved.  One of these is philosophical, and another is simply how it spreads.

European fascism first became a potent force through the rise to power of Mussolini in Italy in the early 1920s. While some reference will be made here to his version of the doctrine where relevant, my focus will lie more heavily on the German manifestation, carried through to the brutal conclusion of the Holocaust by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.

It has been argued that the theoretical basis for fascism had already been provided at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, by the emergence of several harsh philosophical critiques of Enlightenment thinking. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual’s inherent rational nature, and therefore right to freedom of thought and action, embodied through political liberalism, was attacked by several thinkers around this time.

Prominent was Gustave Le Bon, who pointed out the irrational, destructive nature of individuals as members of crowds and called on great leaders to organise the crowd politically by calling up its soul, as any appeal to a crowd’s voice of reason is doomed to failure; Georges Sorel, who placed equal weight on the emotional, irrational drives of individuals as their rational faculties, and thought the former necessary in order to spur revolutionary direct action; and Friedrich Nietzsche, who outlined his philosophy of the will to power as the drive of the biologically determined elite of great men (“Übermenschen”), if necessary at the expense of the weaker masses of “the herd”.

While none of these writers, with the possible exception of Sorel in his later years, could have been described as fascist sympathisers and all had their work greatly twisted, many important elements of later fascist doctrine can be read from their philosophies. In addition, Charles Darwin‘s evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest” laid the grounds for “Social Darwinism,” the extension of his theory to cover civilisations competing for scarce resources in necessarily violent conflict. This justified the fascists’ open glorification of violence and war.

The battered and bruised post-World War I Europe, especially in a Germany humiliated by defeat and financially squeezed by the Treaty of Versailles, provided a fine breeding ground for radical thought on both right and left. For a time, and to the horror of most of the middle and upper classes, it seemed highly possible that the waves of theBolshevik Revolution in Russia would sweep over much of Europe. In Italy, the violent determination of Mussolini, aided by the widespread support of predominantly conservative police, army, church and corporate concerns, based an entire regime on that possibility.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the shaky democracy of the Weimar Republic remained in place despite Communist electoral gains and several attempted coups, including a failed putsch by the Nazis in 1923. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 however, reignited the flames of popular discontent, and allowed the Nazis to make unexpected and unprecedented gains in the 1930 election. Further gains followed in late 1932, and Hitler was declared Chancellor in January 1933. From then on, he and his party used all manner of nefarious means to consolidate their power, and eventually do away with the constitution and democratic system al together, beginning the years of fascist dictatorship that only ended with Germany’s defeat in World War II.

Musollini is quoted as saying that “fascism is reaction,” pointing out fascism as an essentialized rejection of Enlightenment forms and values, which in the fascist view had created both capitalism, and the cold materialism of  Marxist alternatives. Fascists claimed that liberalism was predicated on invalid assumptions of equality and individual rationality, which they responded to by emphasising the irrational and passionate elements of individual character.

They forwarded an alternative to the liberal conception of freedom, related entirely to one’s part in the collective “Being” of the state. The ultimate goal of fascism was the creation of a powerful nation and the rights of the individual only existed in as much as they were willing and able to work towards that goal. In the fascist conception of freedom, it exists only through obedience to laws and a framework of order, as laid down by the ruling elite. The intention is of complete state control, with no part of life remaining politically neutral.

Fascism’s nationalistic character is fused with this thinking. The nation has a particularly virulent racial character. By scapegoating and dehumanizing the Jews, and other racialized populations, they managed to great a feeling of moral uprightness and superiority in the “us,” while evil resided with “them.” Importantly, though, anti-Semitism was primarily a feature of German fascism. It became more overtly stated in Italy only as ties with Germany deepened into World War II. Regardless, these attitudes paved the way for atrocities to come, as political opponents of the national state were simply dealt with brutally and expunged.

Additionally, the recognition of corporate elites’ usefulness to the party meant that, with the exception of Jews, they were left largely in place. Many of these elites, like Hugo Boss, were more than happy to join the Nazi ride once they saw all the new markets and opportunities for profit in military production, imperial expansion, slave labour, and the appropriation of Jewish assets. 

As the fascist powers were quick to point out, they weren’t unique for this. Rather, the use of imperialism, repression, and racism to drive the pursuit of power and profit had already been done by the established imperial powers of Britain, France et al. Indeed, the fascists often expressed the virtue of being comparatively honest about it! There actually is something to this: after all, the only real difference is that the fascists did away with the hypocrisy by nakedly celebrating domination itself.

While these were the philosophical conditions for German fascism to emerge, one other question to be considered is how the wider population could have allowed the system to continue. Especially in the wake of the erosion of their own liberty and the ever-greater horrors being perpetrated.

In part, the answer lies in the fact that for many Germans, Nazism brought about drastic improvements in their quality of life. The hunger and unemployment of the Depression era were left behind, as new prosperity flooded the land. The consideration of where all this prosperity was coming from, namely from the removal and replacement of Jews and other undesireables from their social positions, and later the fruits of imperial conquest, could be ignored when considered that the new German sense of community had earned social trust.

The fact that the Führer was its charismatic protector and father figure didn’t matter as much to the more liberally-minded. Hitler had earned the loyalty and quasi-religious adoration of many Germans through his appeals to their passionate souls. Wilhelm Reich writes in great detail about this aspect of fascist leadership, as well as about his belief in sexual liberation as the means of defeating totalitarianism, in his 1933bookThe Mass Psychology of Fascism.

One other factor that must be considered though, which was investigated by Milton Mayer, an American journalist of German-Jewish origin, in his seminal work, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

In a particularly powerful passage detailing his interview with a former professor, the interviewee explains how the structures of the new society arrived in a slow dripfeed, never quite providing the one incident that would create the spark of popular unrest, and never quite revealing just how corrupt and immoral the regime had been become. It was only apparent that fascism had occurred when all avenues of effective resistance had already been minimized or exhausted.

He talks about how people were slowly habituated to the idea of government in secret, most apparently through elites processing information that ordinary people couldn’t understand and that was too dangerous to be released or discussed. This paralleled the ever increasing demands of bureaucratic paperwork and “expected” community work, which reached the point where “dictatorship provided an excuse not to think for people who didn’t want to think anyway.”

According to the professor, hindsight comes too late; “… one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings… Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves.” By the time he had become truly aware of the extent of what was going on, knowledge of the state’s means of dealing with dissent, and talk of a post-war “’victory orgy” to “take care of” those who thought their “treasonable attitude” had escaped notice”, was enough to convince any remaining dissenters to keep their thoughts to themselves.

In the end, he was left with shame at his inability to see and act earlier; “Men like me, who were (against National Socialism in principle), are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better.”

And how much has truly changed, particularly when it comes to the United States? Wikileaks and Edward Snowden security state revelations have been taken in stride by many Americans, who go so far as to say that there are simply some matters that the government should think about, rather than them. The lifestyle of suburbia itself, which was deliberately cultivated to resist Communism, is just one example of a wider culture that provides people an excuse not to think and engage critically with the world around them. It isn’t just America: we see elements of this worldwide.

It is important to remember that fascism’s victory predicated on the fact that by the time people noticed what was happening, the totalitarian regime had already spread its tentacles through the entirety of society, and completed the forced subordination of individual will to the dictates of the state. We are kidding ourselves if we think that it could never happen again.

Link: On Heidegger and Nazism

It’s not news that Heidegger had more than a flirtation with Nazism.

The controversy stirred up by the revelations in Evelyn Barish’s new biography of the literary scholar and “deconstructionist” Paul de Man (which Louis Menand recently discussed in the magazine) will, I suspect, seem like a collegial colloquium compared with the uproar attending the publication of the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s “Schwarzen Hefte” (“Black Notebooks”), written between 1931 and the early nineteen-seventies.

The first three volumes (1931-41), have been released in German in the past few months. They’re being published only now because, according to their editor, Peter Trawny, Heidegger requested that they be the final publications in his complete works. The notebooks have been the talk of European op-ed pages, and much of the discussion—at least, in Germany, France, and Great Britain—is centered on their revelations of Heidegger’s deep-rooted and unambiguous anti-Semitism.

It’s not news that Heidegger (1889-1976) had more than a flirtation with Nazism. After becoming a Party member, in 1933, he was named rector of the University of Freiburg, and he praised the Party in his inaugural address. He resigned from the job the following year (though he remained in the Party). Even as a high-school philosophy buff, in the seventies, I knew of Heidegger’s enthusiasm from reading “An Introduction to Metaphysics,” from 1935, which contains a line of praise for National Socialism. When Victor Farias’s book “Heidegger and Nazism,” which amplified the historical record of Heidegger’s activities and public remarks during the time of the Third Reich, appeared, in 1987, it became, as Menand writes, a central topic of debate in the intellectual world for a time. It also gave rise to Jacques Derrida’s book “Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question,” which defends Heidegger by showing that the underpinnings of his philosophy—his vocabulary and his network of metaphors—were the same as those of the era’s ostensibly liberal thinkers.

But early debate about “Black Notebooks” is focussed on Heidegger’s acknowledgment of the important role of anti-Semitism in his philosophy. Unlike de Man, whose anti-Semitic texts, written when de Man was in his early twenties, seemed mainly a matter of overweening careerism, Heidegger’s “Notebooks” are works of the full flowering of his philosophical maturity, written privately, as a means for him to work out his ideas. Heidegger has long been suspected of anti-Semitism in his private life, as well as of collaboration with an anti-Semitic regime, but, Trawny writes, “nobody would have suspected an anti-Semitism transmuted into philosophy.” (Trawny’s new book is titled “Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy.”)

According to Thomas Assheuer, writing in Die Zeit, “The Jew-hatred in ‘Black Notebooks’ is no afterthought; it forms the foundation of the philosophical diagnosis.” In other words, these newly published writings show that, for Heidegger, anti-Semitism was more than just a personal prejudice. In the GuardianPhilip Oltermann offers some choice passages:

“World Judaism,” Heidegger writes in the notebooks, “is ungraspable everywhere and doesn’t need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.”

In another passage, the philosopher writes that the Jewish people, with their “talent for calculation,” were so vehemently opposed to the Nazi’s racial theories because “they themselves have lived according to the race principle for longest.”

The French philosopher Emmanuel Faye picks up on one notably insidious term in the new publications:

We know that [Heidegger] speaks in his “Black Notebooks” of the “worldlessness” of Judaism…. Jews aren’t just considered to lack a homeland, they are said definitively to be worldless. It’s worth recalling that worldlessness is an expression that Heidegger doesn’t even use for animals, which, in a 1929 lecture, he calls “world-poor.” In this complete dehumanization of Judaism, the Jews no longer have a place in the world, or, rather, they never had one. We also discover…that the Heideggerian idea of “being-in-the-world” which is central to “Being and Time” can take on the meaning of a discriminatory term with an anti-Semitic intent.

Oltermann adds that Heidegger also “argues that like fascism and ‘world judaism,’ Soviet communism and British parliamentarianism should be seen as part of the imperious dehumanising drive of western modernity.” Yet, in the magazine Prospect, the philosopher Jonathan Rée attempts to defend Heidegger by minimizing the significance of this idea: “One of his arguments is that Judaism, like Bolshevism and Fascism, participates in the corrosive calculative culture of modernity, even though it goes back thousands of years.” This makes me wonder about Rée as well: Isn’t it a priori anti-Semitic to consider Judaism “corrosive”? And wouldn’t that idea, as Oltermann suggests, place anti-Semitism at the core of Heidegger’s philosophical conception of history?

So the discussion has begun. But the underlying question is: Why the ongoing fascination with deconstructionism and with the work of the philosopher whose radical works inspired it? Why does this philosophical strain seem strangely central to the conception of modern criticism, even as it recedes in influence? And why do these thinkers’ personal lives and ideological compromises seem unusually relevant to their work, beyond the usual scandal-sheet Schadenfreude?

It may have something to do with their distinctive views regarding the relevance (or, rather, irrelevance) of character and personality to the objects of their study. Menand offers a crucial insight in his Critic at Large piece on de Man, explaining that deconstructionism offered a sort of nuclear physics of literature:

It generated intellectual power by bracketing off most of what might be called (with due acknowledgment of the constructed nature of the concept) the real-life aspects of literature—that literature is written by people, that it affects people, that it is a report on experience. But it was exciting to get inside the atom.

The crucial difference is that, when a physicist splits atoms, they’re not the atoms of the chair that he’s sitting on or of the equipment that he’s splitting them with. Deconstruction pulls the chair out from under the reader, compels the reader to undermine his own habits of reading. By dissolving the overt categories of reading—plot, story, style, character, moral—deconstruction wrenched literature away from the amateurs and delivered it to the sole care of academics, who alone had the tools with which to approach it. Thus, it transformed the academic study of literature from a marginal scholarly apparatus of footnotes to the only game in town, thereby turning traditional readers into spectators.

Deconstruction is a reflexive philosophy: it makes the very notion of literary analysis a self-revealing, self-questioning, quasi-poetic creation, undoing the traditional hierarchy by which the literary critic is the handmaiden of the creative writer. This philosophy doesn’t merely study the art of writing, it fuses with the art; instead of depersonalizing literary criticism into a quasi-scientific activity, it turns the literary critic into a self-defined peer of the novelist and the poet. (Similarly, Roland Barthes’s famous “death of the author” was actually the birth of a new author; namely, the critic who proclaimed that death.)

Heidegger happens to have been—a blessing and a curse—a brilliant writer, whose serpentine, spellbinding prose was both an argument against the traditional authority of logical reasoning and a performative undermining of that authority. (De Man, by contrast, is a rather dully mechanical writer; when I read his books in college, I found it strange that his influence should have survived his prose.)

But, even without particular regard to Jews and Nazis, Heidegger’s brilliance was intrinsically political. For Heidegger, the project of rescuing language from the ostensible truth of logic and restoring it to iridescent incantation implied kicking out the intellectual struts from under the claims to progress on the part of technological society. By undermining logic and science, Heidegger also undermined the Enlightenment—and the individualism, the freedoms, the claim to rights that are made in the name of reason and progress. Even apart from his specific ideological pronouncements, Heidegger was, philosophically, an anti-humanist rightist.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is another splendid writer whose prose is also a performance of his philosophy. But, for Derrida (who was Jewish), the project of deconstruction, with its undoing of long-sedimented hierarchies and categories, was, in effect, a way of attacking traditional power structures philosophically. If I had to sum up his life’s work in a single sentence, it would be: redefining the Heideggerian project as leftist. Derrida is gone now, but, with the discovery of Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks,” this reconstruction of Heidegger may prove harder, in retrospect, for his acolytes to sustain.

Link: True Communism Is the Foreignness of Tomorrow: Alain Badiou talks in Athens

In late January the philosopher Alain Badiou was in Athens, where he gave three talks. The theme of the first of these was Plato, the second was on Lacan, while the third – the text of which appears below – was the most ‘political’. Each of the three talks had a packed-out audience. For this third talk, indeed, even the amphitheatre of the Law School did not suffice to contain the great number of attendees, with many of the large crowd of young people present filling out the stairs and floor. It took place on 25 January, and was jointly organised by the psychoanalysis review Alithia, the municipal elections movement Open City, and the SYRIZA youth organisation ‘Left Union’. It was supported by the Nikos Poulantzas Institute.

"The principle that there is a single world does not contradict the infinite play of identities and differences" — Alain Badiou

I would like to thank, and to salute, all our Greek friends, and beyond that all those who are today struggling against the terrible situation inflicted on the Greek people by the financial oligarchy that today holds power in Europe, in service of globalised capitalism.

The infamous Troika, which in reality runs the Greek government today, is not only the representative of Europe. Because Europe today is but a transmission belt for globalised capitalism. What are the Greek people told, in order to justify their oppression and devastation? That you have to take your place in the world as it really is. You have to take account of the realities of the contemporary world. You have to resign yourselves to obeying the laws of the market economy and global competition.

In order to resist this propaganda, it is necessary to start out from one very simple proposition. Today, there is no real world constituted by the men and women who live on this planet.

Why do I say that there is no world of men and women? Because the world that does exist, the world of globalisation, is only a world of commodities and financial exchange. It is exactly what Marx predicted a hundred and fifty years ago: the world of the world market. In this world, there are only things – sellable objects – and signs – the abstract instruments of buying and selling, the different forms of money and credit. Yet it is not true that in this world human subjects exist freely. And, for starters, they absolutely do not have the basic right to move around and settle down where they want. For the crushing majority of men and women in the so-called world, the world of commodities and money, have not the slightest access to this world. They are harshly walled off from it, existing outside of it, where there are very few commodities and no money at all. And I mean ‘walled off’ very concretely. Everywhere in the world, walls are being built. The wall that is intended to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis; the wall on the Mexican-US border; the electrified barrier between Africa and Spain; the mayor of one Italian town suggested building a wall between the centre and the suburbs! Always more walls, imprisoning the poor in their own homes. There are those in Europe who think we ought to build a wall between unlucky Greece and well-off Northern Europe. The pretend world of globalisation is a world of walls and imprisonment.

Almost twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. This symbolised the unity of the world after fifty years of separation. During these fifty years there were two worlds, the socialist world and the capitalist world. Or as some said, the totalitarian world and the democratic world. So, then, the fall of the Berlin Wall was the triumph of a single world, the world of democracy. Yet now we see that the wall merely shifted. It had stood between the totalitarian East and democratic West, but today stands between the rich capitalist North and the devastated, poor South. This is also the case even within Europe. In times past – also within individual countries, including the Northern ones – the contradiction used to oppose a powerful, organised working class to the ruling bourgeoisie that controlled the state. Today, we everywhere see only the ruling bourgeoisie that controls the state. Today, we everywhere see the rich beneficiaries of global trade and the enormous mass of the excluded, and between the two there are all sorts of walls and barriers; they no longer go to the same schools, they do not get the same healthcare, they cannot move around in the same way, they do not live in the same parts of the city…

‘Excluded’ is the right name for all those who are not in the real world, who are outside it, behind the wall and the barbed wire. Or here, in Greece, behind the wall of prejudice and behind Europe’s gendarmes.

Thirty years ago there was an ideological wall, a political iron curtain. Today there is a wall that separates the jouissance of the rich from the desire of the poor.

Everything works as if sharp separations have to be drawn among living bodies according to their provenance and resources, in order for the single world of monetary signs and objects to exist. Today, I repeat, there is no world. That is, because the cost of the unified world of capital is the brutal, violent division of human existence into two regions separated by walls, police dogs, bureaucratic controls, naval patrols, barbed wire and deportations.

Why is it that so-called immigration has become a fundamentally important political question across the entire world? Because all the human beings who come, trying to live and work in different countries, are the proof that the democratic unity of the world is entirely false.

If it were true, we would have to welcome these foreigners as people from the same world as ourselves. We would have to love them like you would someone on a journey who comes to a halt just outside your house. But that is not at all the case. The great mass of us think that these people come from another world. This is the problem. They are the living proof that our developed, democratic world is not the single world of men and women. There exist among us men and women who are considered to have come from another world. There are even people in Europe, like the Greeks, who the French or German government see as coming from another world. Money is the same everywhere, the dollar and the euro are the same thing everywhere; we happily accept the dollars or euros which these foreigners from another world have in their pockets. But in terms of their person, provenance, and way of life, they are not from our world. We place controls on them, we do not allow them to stay. We send a troika to watch over them. We anxiously ask ourselves how many of them there are in our midst, how many of these people have come from another world. A horrible question, if you think about it. A question that inevitably prepares the terrain for their persecution, banning and mass expulsion. A question that fuels the criminal side of government policies.

So we can say this: If the unity of the world is the unity of monetary objects and signs, then for living bodies there is no such unity. There are zones, walls, desperate journeys, hatred, and deaths. There is good Germany and bad Greece.

That is the reason why the central political question today is the world, the question of the existence of the world.

The single world, against the false world of the global market: that is what the great communist Marx wanted, and it is to him that we must refer back. He energetically argued that the world is what is common to all humanity. He said that the principal actor in emancipation is the proletarian. Yes, he said: the proletarian has no fatherland other than the entire world of human beings. And for this to be realised, it would be necessary to finish with the world of the global market, the world of commodities and of money. The world of capital and property-owners. For there to be a world common to all, it would be necessary to finish with the financial dictatorship of private property.

Today, some people – no doubt, full of good intentions – think that we could arrive at this powerful vision of Marx’s by expanding democracy. That is, by extending the good form of the world, namely what exists in the Western democracies and Japan, to the whole world. Greece, then, ought to be properly globalised, to be at peace with its banks and fully submissive to them. The problem is that this democracy doesn’t exist everywhere.

In my view, this is an absurd take on things. The absolute material basis of the democratic Western world is private property. Its law is that one percent of people own 46% of the world’s wealth and that ten percent own 86% of the world’s wealth. And fifty percent of the world’s population – yes, that’s fifty percent – in reality own nothing at all. How can a world be made, with such raging inequalities? In the Western democracies, freedom is first and foremost the unlimited freedom of property, the appropriation of everything that has value. And then comes the freedom of circulation of monetary objects and signs. The fatal consequence of this conception of freedom is the separation of living bodies by and for the dogged, pitiless defence of the privileges of wealth.

Moreover, we know perfectly well what concrete form this ‘expansion’ of democracy takes. It is, simply enough, war. The wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali and Libya, not to mention the dozens of French military interventions in Africa. But it is also the silent, insidious war against entire peoples – like the Greeks - by the world and European system.

The fact that it would be necessary to wage long wars in order to organise so-called free elections in a given country, ought to make us reflect not only on war but also on elections. What conception of the world is today linked to electoral democracy? As well as everything else, this democracy imposes the law of numbers. Just as it is through numbers that the world unified by commodities imposes the law of money. It may well be that the military imposition of the law of electoral numbers in Baghdad as in Tripoli, Belgrade, Bamako, Kabul or Bangui leads us to our problem: if the world is the world of objects and signs, it is a world where everything is counted. And those who do not count, or only a little, have our laws of counting imposed on them by war.

Which proves that the world thus conceived does not exist in reality, or else only exists artificially, through violence.

I believe that we must turn this problem on its head. We must affirm the existence of the world, from the outset, as an axiom and a principle. We must say this very simple phrase: ‘There is a world of living women and men’. This sentence is not an objective conclusion. We know that under the law of money, there is no single world of women and men. There is the wall separating the rich from the poor, the governors of Europe from the people of Greece. This phrase, ‘there is a world’, is performative. We decide that it exists for us. And that we will remain faithful to this phrase. The task at hand is to draw the very serious and difficult consequences flowing from this very simple sentence. Just as Marx, when he created the first international organisation of the working class, drew the difficult consequences of his statement that the workers have no fatherland. The proletarians are from all countries. The proletarians are international.

One very simple, first consequence concerns the people of foreign origin who live among us: those who are called immigrants. In my country, that means Moroccans, Malians, Chinese people and many others. Here, too, amidst the general poverty, there are also people who have come from elsewhere, for instance Albanians. If there is a single world of living women and men, then they are from the same world as us. This black African worker I see in a restaurant kitchen, or the Moroccan I see digging a hole in the road, or the veiled woman I see looking after the kids in a nursery; all of them are from the same world as me. That is the capital point. It is there, and nowhere else, that we can overturn the dominant idea of the unification of the world by way of objects, signs and elections – an idea that leads to war and persecution. The unity of the world is the unity of living, active bodies in the here and now. And I absolutely must pass the real test of this unity: that these people who are here – different from me in their language, clothes, religion, food, and education – do exist in the same world, and quite simply exist like I do. Because they exist like me, I can discuss with them, and then, just like anyone else, have our agreements and disagreements. But on the absolute condition that they exist exactly as I do, meaning, in the same world.

One could here object that cultures are different to each other. But how? Are they from the same world as me or not? The partisan of identity politics will say: no, no! Our world is not that of just whatever person! Our world is the ensemble of all those for whom our values truly count. For example, those who are democrats, respect women, support human rights, speak French, do this or that, eat the same meat, those who drink wine and munch on sausages. Or, then: only those who speak Greek, are Orthodox Christians, and eat feta and olives. Yes, these people live in the same world. But those who have a different culture, the little LePen-ist or Golden Dawn-er tells us, are not truly from our world. They are not democrats, they oppress women, they wear barbaric clothes… How can anyone who doesn’t drink wine or eat pork be from the same world as me?

Or, indeed: they are dirty, they are Muslims, they are even poorer than us. If they want to enter our world they have to learn our values; they must share our values. They will have to pass an exam in our values: in France the tests might be a glass of wine, a slice of ham and a secular catechism. Or in Greece, to kneel before the priest and recite all the mythical history of the Greek people in the modern Greek language. 

The word for all this is ‘integration’; he or she who comes from elsewhere has to integrate into our world. For the world of the worker coming from Africa to be the same as the world belonging to us others, masters of this world, he – the African worker – must become the same as us. He has to love and practise the same values. A president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that ‘If foreigners want to stay in France, then they have to love France, and if not, they must leave it’. I said to myself: I’ll have to leave, then, because I do not at all love Nicolas Sarkozy’s France. I do not at all share the values of integration. I am not integrated into this integration. I am hostile to integration into a little closed-off world, be it French or Greek, because what makes the people strong is to say that there is one world, and that in this world there are proletarians who have to travel, sometimes very far, in order to survive. The proletariat of our single world is a nomadic proletariat, and our only political opportunity is to be with it, wherever it goes.

In reality, if you pose conditions on the African labourer or Albanian worker being of the same world as you, then you have already abandoned and ruined the principle ‘there is a single world of living women and men’. You tell me: but a country has its laws. Of course. But a law is absolutely not the same thing as a condition. A law goes equally for everyone. It does not set a condition for belonging to the world. It is simply a temporary rule which exists in some particular region of the world. And no one is asked to love the law – only to obey it.

The single world of living women and men could well have laws. It could not have conditions for entering it or existing within it. There can be no obligation to be like other people in order to live there. Still less to be like a minority of these others, for example to be like a civilised white petit-bourgeois or a Greek nationalist brute. If there is a single world, then all those who live within it exist like me, but they are not like me: they are different. The single world is precisely the place where the infinity of differences exists. The world is the same became the people living in this world are different.

If, on the contrary, we demand that those who live in the world be the same, then it is the world that is closed off and itself becomes different to some other world. Which inevitably leads to separations, walls, controls, hatred, deaths, fascism and finally, war.

So, people will ask: is there nothing to regulate these infinite differences? No identity that enters into a dialectic with these differences? A single world, fair enough, but does this really mean that to be French, or a Moroccan living in France, or a Breton, or a Muslim in a country with Christian traditions, or an Albanian in Greece, counts for nothing in the face of the imposing unity of the world of the living?

It is a good question. Of course, the infinity of differences is also the infinity of identities. Let us examine a little how these distinct identities can persist even when we have affirmed the existence of a single world for all human beings.

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: Walter Benjamin: Politics of Everyday Life