Sunshine Recorder

Link: Letter from Gaza by a Norwegian Doctor

Dearest friends,

The last night was extreme. The “ground invasion” of Gaza resulted in scores and carloads with maimed, torn apart, bleeding, shivering, dying - all sorts of injured Palestinians, all ages, all civilians, all innocent.

The heroes in the ambulances and in all of Gaza’s hospitals are working 12-24 hour shifts, grey from fatigue and inhuman workloads (without payment all in Shifa for the last 4 months), they care, triage, try to understand the incomprehensible chaos of bodies, sizes, limbs, walking, not walking, breathing, not breathing, bleeding, not bleeding humans. HUMANS!

Now, once more treated like animals by “the most moral army in the world” (sic!).

My respect for the wounded is endless, in their contained determination in the midst of pain, agony and shock; my admiration for the staff and volunteers is endless, my closeness to the Palestinian “sumud” gives me strength, although in glimpses I just want to scream, hold someone tight, cry, smell the skin and hair of the warm child, covered in blood, protect ourselves in an endless embrace - but we cannot afford that, nor can they.

Ashy grey faces - Oh NO! Not one more load of tens of maimed and bleeding, we still have lakes of blood on the floor in the ER, piles of dripping, blood-soaked bandages to clear out - oh - the cleaners, everywhere, swiftly shovelling the blood and discarded tissues, hair, clothes,cannulas - the leftovers from death - all taken away … to be prepared again, to be repeated all over. More then 100 cases came to Shifa in the last 24 hrs. Enough for a large well trained hospital with everything, but here - almost nothing: no electricity, water, disposables, drugs, OR-tables, instruments, monitors - all rusted and as if taken from museums of yesterday’s hospitals. But they do not complain, these heroes. They get on with it, like warriors, head on, enormously resolute.

And as I write these words to you, alone, on a bed, my tears flow, the warm but useless tears of pain and grief, of anger and fear. This is not happening!

An then, just now, the orchestra of the Israeli war-machine starts its gruesome symphony again, just now: salvos of artillery from the navy boats just down on the shores, the roaring F16, the sickening drones (Arabic ‘Zennanis’, the hummers), and the cluttering Apaches. So much made in and paid by the US.

Mr. Obama - do you have a heart?

I invite you - spend one night - just one night - with us in Shifa. Disguised as a cleaner, maybe.

I am convinced, 100%, it would change history.

Nobody with a heart AND power could ever walk away from a night in Shifa without being determined to end the slaughter of the Palestinian people.

But the heartless and merciless have done their calculations and planned another “dahyia” onslaught on Gaza.

The rivers of blood will keep running the coming night. I can hear they have tuned their instruments of death.

Please. Do what you can. This, THIS cannot continue.

Mads Gilbert MD PhD
Professor and Clinical Head
Clinic of Emergency Medicine
University Hospital of North Norway

Link: Cigarettes and Climate Change

I am a smoker, and I am in denial. It isn’t that I don’t believe that cigarettes will kill me. I do. It isn’t that I don’t believe that I’m addicted. I know I am. Like most addicts, my denial takes the form of dissonance: I rationalize, I procrastinate, I make token gestures and shop for comparisons. Distraction is easy: I read while I smoke. Anything to avoid looking that monster in the eyes.

These are not novel forms of coping. Among more private kinds of existential crises—the junkie, the smoker, the troubling lump beneath the skin, and the marriage on the brink—denial is rarely outright. You know you have a problem; the trick is in refusing to acknowledge it.

It’s strange, then, that in the case of climate change—a cognitively torturous existential threat exceeding the sum of all our private ones by some incomprehensible order of magnitude—we tell an uncomplicated story about two stark sides. On one hand are the scientists; on the other, the skeptics. The skeptics don’t believe the monster’s there. The scientists (and activists, and journalists) endeavor to persuade them. When this latter side succeeds, the story goes, we will finally take action. In the meantime, we sit and hope that day won’t be too late.

That story isn’t true.

In American political life desire is rarely synonymous with will. If mere consensus made it so, then today we might count single-payer healthcare, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a guaranteed federal minimum wage among our national accomplishments. Each, at one time in our history, had the tacit approval of the majority. The reasons for their failure are complex and varied, but the consistent lesson is that tepid support, no matter how broad, does not change policy. Only the concerted efforts of a well-organized advocacy do. When measures pass, it is because an active constituency has engineered their victory, regardless of how many or how few citizens were basically okay with the idea. So it has been, on the left and on the right, from the American Revolution to the death of campaign finance laws.

An exhaustive conversion of the skeptics is not what stands between The United States and climate change reform. This is a good thing. If it were, then we’d be wiser to surrender now and enjoy the planet while it lasts us. But despite their stubborn numbers and friends in well-financed places, the Ted Cruzes of the world lack the power to long block meaningful reform. Our inaction these last decades is not a consequence of their resistance, but rather of the absence of sufficient pressure from those of us in the reality-based community, engaged in our more insidious forms of denial.

We are the problem. Those of us who, when confronted with the existential dread posed by global warming, do not deny the presence of the monster, but do everything within our power not to look it in the eyes.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Climate change—like addiction, like illness, like trauma and turmoil—is a threat to our sanity; a train of thought so stressful that the psychology of coping can’t help kicking in. It’s just too horrible to focus on for long, and so we do what we have always done in the face of crippling terror. We deny—not by rejecting the threat, but by avoiding it. Sometimes this takes the form of minimizing the threat, hoping that climate change plays out like only the mildest of our models’ projections. Sometimes we try wishful thinking, maintaining undue faith in some miraculous hi-tech solution. Most often, we just settle on escapism: thinking, reading, caring, and arguing about anything else. Anything that feels easier to tackle, anything that won’t kill us if we don’t. We’ll quit smoking next year, next year, next year.

I don’t have a grand solution for this dissonance, much less one for the multitude of international challenges that would face even the most devoted effort to keep our climate at bay. But I do have one small suggestion. Like all addicts in denial, we have our friendly enablers. Chief among these is the political press.

I don’t mean doctrinaire reactionary rags. I mean the mainstream and leftist publications, erstwhile environmentalists who would never dream of engaging in overtly skeptical denial. The Atlantic, The New Republic, and the New York Times all have robust environmental sections. But this, in a way, is the problem; they consign any mention of climate change to a clearly labeled box—which is a great help to those of us who are looking to avoid actively contemplating a terrifying truth. Meanwhile, their other sections, without malice or intention, become complicit in our denial. They publish stories about the future, about technology and medicine and politics, without any mention of a warming globe. “Researchers believe that in a hundred years . . .”; “By mid-century, the electoral map might . . . .” We all know how these stories go. I’ve even written some of them.

This futurism enables our denial. Like a Norman Rockwell painting that invites its audience into a shared fantasy about the past, these stories solicit a shared fantasy of the future–one where interesting possibilities of population, medicine, technology, and politics exist without the horrifying context of civilizational collapse. These stories fail to mention that quantum computing will be more difficult to research without energy. Many populations will be irrevocably impacted by famine. We can expect the long-term voting trends of Florida to change when half of Miami is underwater. And yet we’re only made to think about these things when we choose to read the “Green” sections of our newspapers and magazines.

I’m not suggesting that we cease to write stories about the future. But I am suggesting this: as a matter of political responsibility, magazines and newspapers should adopt a provision of their style guide requiring that any claim which is dependent on the continuity of present civilization be followed by an asterisk. At the bottom of the page, I propose something simple: “Assuming green house gases are controlled,” or “Contingent on a solution to climate change.”

Intervention requires that we close off the escape routes from our dread. We must be made to look the monster in the eyes, and do so every day. It will be unbearable at first; in self-defense, we might even find it obnoxious. But perhaps it would serve to nudge us just enough, to make us think about the problem until we do some thing about it. Then we could go back to such stories, confident that their contingencies won’t be spoiled by the rising tide.

Link: Israel does not want peace

Rejectionism is embedded in Israel’s most primal beliefs. There, at the deepest level, lies the concept that this land is destined for the Jews alone.

Israel does not want peace. There is nothing I have ever written that I would be happier to be proved wrong about. But the evidence is piling up. In fact, it can be said that Israel has never wanted peace – a just peace, that is, one based on a just compromise for both sides. It’s true that the routine greeting in Hebrew is Shalom (peace) – shalom when one leaves and shalom when one arrives. And, at the drop of a hat, almost every Israeli will say he wants peace, of course he does. But he’s not referring to the kind of peace that will bring about the justice without which there is no peace and there will be no peace. Israelis want peace, not justice, certainly not anything based on universal values. Thus, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Not only is there no peace: In recent years, Israel has moved away from even the aspiration to make peace. It has despaired utterly of it. Peace has disappeared from the Israeli agenda, its place taken by the collective anxieties that are systematically implanted, and by personal, private matters that now take precedence over all else.

The Israeli longing for peace seemingly died about a decade ago, after the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000, the dissemination of the lie that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, and, of course, the horrific blood-soaked period of the second intifada. But the truth is that even before that, Israel never really wanted peace. Israel has never, not for a minute, treated the Palestinians as human beings with equal rights. It has never viewed their distress as understandable human and national distress.

The Israeli peace camp, too – if ever there was such a thing – also died a lingering death amid the harrowing scenes of the second intifada and the no-partner lie. All that remained were a handful of organizations that were as determined and devoted as they were ineffectual in the face of the delegitimization campaigns mounted against them. Israel, therefore, was left with its rejectionist stance.

The single most overwhelming item of evidence of Israel’s rejection of peace is, of course, the settlements project. From the dawn of its existence, there has never been a more reliable or more precise litmus test for Israel’s true intentions than this particular enterprise. In plain words: The builders of settlements want to consolidate the occupation, and those who want to consolidate the occupation do not want peace. That’s the whole story in a nutshell.

On the assumption that Israel’s decisions are rational, it is impossible to accept construction in the territories and the aspiration to peace as mutually coexisting. Every act of building in the settlements, every mobile home and every balcony, conveys rejection. If Israel had wanted to achieve peace through the Oslo Accords, it would at least have stopped the construction in the settlements at its own initiative. That this did not happen proves that Oslo was fraudulent, or at best the chronicle of a failure foretold. If Israel had wanted to achieve peace at Taba, at Camp David, at Sharm el-Sheikh, in Washington or in Jerusalem, its first move should have been to end all construction in the territories. Unconditionally. Without a quid pro quo. The fact that Israel did not is proof that it did not want a just peace.

But the settlements were only a touchstone of Israel’s intentions. Its rejectionism is embedded far more deeply – in its DNA, its bloodstream, its raison d’être, its most primal beliefs. There, at the deepest level, lies the concept that this land is destined for the Jews alone. There, at the deepest level, is entrenched the value of “am sgula” – God’s “treasured people” – and “God chose us.” In practice, this is translated to mean that, in this land, Jews are allowed to do what is forbidden to others. That is the point of departure, and there is no way to get from there to a just peace. There is no way to reach a just peace when the name of the game is the dehumanization of the Palestinians. No way to achieve peace when the demonization of the Palestinians is hammered into people’s heads day after day. Those who are convinced that every Palestinian is a suspicious person and that every Palestinian wants “to throw the Jews into the sea” will never make peace with the Palestinians. Most Israelis are convinced of the truth of both those statements.

In the past decade, the two peoples have been separated from each another. The average young Israeli will never meet his Palestinian peer, other than during his army service (and then only if he does his service in the territories). Nor will the average young Palestinian ever meet an Israeli his own age, other than the soldier who huffs and puffs at him at the checkpoint, or invades his home in the middle of the night, or in the person of the settler who usurps his land or torches his groves.

Consequently, the only encounter between the two people is between the occupiers, who are armed and violent, and the occupied, who are despairing and also turn to violence. Gone are the days when Palestinians worked in Israel and Israelis shopped in Palestine. Gone is the period of the half-normal and quarter-equal relations that existed for a few decades between the two peoples that share the same piece of territory. It is very easy, in this state of affairs, to incite and inflame the two peoples against one another, to spread fears and to instill new hatreds on top of those that already exist. This, too, is a sure recipe for non-peace.

So it was that a new Israeli yearning sprang up: the desire for separation: “They will be there and we will be here (and also there).” At a time when the majority of Palestinians – an assessment I allow myself to make after decades of covering the territories – still want coexistence, even if less and less, most Israelis want disengagement and separation, but without paying the price. The two-state vision has gained widespread adherence, but without any intention to implement it in practice. Most Israelis are in favor, but not now and maybe not even here. They have been trained to believe that there is no partner for peace – a Palestinian partner, that is – but that there is an Israeli partner.

Unfortunately, the truth is almost the reverse. The Palestinian non-partners no longer have any chance to prove that they are partners; the Israeli non-partners are convinced that they are interlocutors. So began the process in which Israeli conditions, obstacles and difficulties were heaped up, one more milestone in Israeli rejectionism. First came the demand for a cessation of terrorism; then the demand for a change of leadership (Yasser Arafat as a stumbling block); and after that Hamas became the hurdle. Now it’s the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israel considers every step it takes – from mass political arrests to building in the territories – to be legitimate, whereas every Palestinian move is “unilateral.”

The only country on the planet with no borders is so far unwilling to delineate even the compromise borders it is ready to be satisfied with. Israel has not internalized the fact that, for the Palestinians, the borders of 1967 are the mother of all compromises, the red line of justice (or relative justice). For the Israelis, they are “suicide borders.” This is why the preservation of the status quo has become the true Israeli aim, the primary goal of Israeli policy, almost its be-all and end-all. The problem is that the existing situation cannot last forever. Historically, few nations have ever agreed to live under occupation without resistance. And the international community, too, is one day apt to utter a firm pronouncement on this state of affairs, with accompanying punitive measures. It follows that the Israeli goal is unrealistic.

Disconnected from reality, the majority of Israelis pursue their regular way of life. In their mind’s eye the world is always against them, and the areas of occupation on their doorstep are beyond their realm of interest. Anyone who dares criticize the occupation policy is branded an anti-Semite, every act of resistance is perceived as an existential threat. All international opposition to the occupation is read as the “delegitimizing” of Israel and as a provocation to the country’s very existence. The world’s seven billion people – most of whom are against the occupation – are wrong, and six million Israeli Jews – most of whom support the occupation – are right. That’s the reality in the eyes of the average Israeli.

Add to this the repression, the concealment and the obfuscation, and you have another explanation for the rejectionism: Why should anyone strive for peace as long as life in Israel is good, calm prevails and the reality is concealed? The only way the besieged Gaza Strip can remind people of its existence is by firing rockets, and the West Bank only gets onto the agenda these days when blood is shed there. Similarly, the viewpoint of the international community is only taken into account when it tries to impose boycotts and sanctions, which in their turn immediately generate a campaign of self-victimization studded with blunt – and at times also impertinent – historical accusations.

This, then, is the gloomy picture. It contains not a ray of hope. The change will not happen on its own, from within Israeli society, as long as that society continues to behave as it does. The Palestinians have made more than one mistake, but their mistakes are marginal. Basic justice is on their side, and basic rejectionism is the Israelis’ purview. The Israelis want occupation, not peace.

I only hope I am wrong

Link: ‘A Government Of Thugs’: How Canada Treats Environmental Journalists

I attempted to enter Canada on a Tuesday, flying into the small airport at Fort McMurray, Alberta, waiting for my turn to pass through customs.

“What brings you to Fort Mac?” a Canada Border Services Agency official asked. “I’m a journalist,” I said. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” He pointed me to border security. Another official, a tall, clean-shaven man, asked the same question. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” he frowned. “You mean oil sands. We don’t have tar here.”

Up until the 1960s, the common name for Canada’s massive reserves of heavy bitumen mixed with sand was “tar sands.” Now, the phrase is officially considered a colloquialism, with “oil sands” being the accurate name, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. But “tar sands” is not really an informal phrase in Canada as much as it is a symbol of your views. If you say tar sands, you’re an environmentalist. If you say tar sands, you’re the enemy.

“We might have to send you back to the States,” the official said, after asking if I had working papers. I didn’t, so I phoned a colleague staying at a nearby hotel. “This guy at border security says I need working papers or something and that he’s gonna send me back to the States,” I said.

“Why did you say I was going to send you back to the States? I didn’t say that,” the official said after I hung up. “See, you’re already misrepresenting what’s going on here.”

My interrogation included details about where I was going, who I was meeting with, why I wanted to see the sands. The official had me open my bag so he could see if I was carrying cameras. Then he let me into Canada. “Because I’m being nice,” he said, and gave me a certificate stating that I must leave the country by Friday.

Can’t Criticize If You Don’t Know

In all, I was delayed for about 45 minutes — a relatively painless experience — but I did get the feeling I wasn’t the only one being hassled in Canada for an association with environmentalism. Indeed, as interviews with multiple reporters and activists show, the federal government places numerous obstacles in the way of those who try to disseminate information about the Canadian tar sands. Many believe this has amounted to a full-on war.

There are logical reasons why impeding environmental journalists could be in Canada’s interest. The tar sands are the third largest oil reserve in the world, and production is currently accelerating so quickly that the governmentpredicts capital investments will reach $218 billion over the next 25 years. Part of that investment could come from the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial proposal that, if approved, would bring up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil per day down to refineries in the U.S.

So it makes sense that Canadian officials may want to prevent environmental perspectives on Fort McMurray’s vast tar sands reserves, which have replaced thousands of acres of boreal forest with massive refineries and sprawling mining sites — shiny, black excavated deserts that sit next to glowing white ponds of chemical waste. A small portion of boreal forest remains, but it doesn’t do much to cover the scars.

From the air, you can see enormous white smokestacks 50 miles away. And from the ground, you can talk to those who have been physically harmed by accidental releases from the white ponds of tar sands chemical waste, called tailings ponds, which leech into the Athabasca river and flow downstream to First Nations communities like Fort Chip, where cancer rates have skyrocketed in the last 30 years.

Stories that describe the detrimental effects of Canada’s fossil fuel boom — not to mention the high carbon-intensityof tar sands oil extraction or unlikelihood that mining sites will ever be adequately reclaimed — threaten public support for projects like Keystone XL, and by extension, speedy and lucrative development.

‘A Culture Of Secrecy’

According to Tom Henheffer, executive director of the non-profit Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the Canadian federal government has been actively working for the last decade to prevent journalists’ access to information, particularly in science-related fields. The trend only got worse, he said, when current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fierce supporter of tar sands development, took office in 2006.

“It’s specifically very bad in science-related fields, but it extends into every other field,” Henheffer said. “This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.”

This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.

Henheffer, whose group in April released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada Report Card, noted two main issues at play. One, he said, is an increase in the amount of bureaucracy journalists must go through to get information. The other is a gradual de-funding of research, so the information journalists want isn’t even created in the first place.

The CJFE’s report card gave a failing grade to Canada’s access-to-information (ATI) system, which saw delays beyond the legal time limit affecting almost 45 percent of information requests, and more than 80 percent of responses partially or mostly censored. That report card also slammed the government for cutting scientific research, dismissing more than 2,000 scientists and cutting 165 research programs affecting “almost every federal scientific and monitoring institution.”

The report also noted a nationwide “muzzling” of federal scientists, citing government efforts to ensure its scientists limit discussions with the media on their work — much of which includes the environmental and climate impacts of tar sands development. This was confirmed in 2007, when a leaked PowerPoint presentation from Environment Canada revealed that government scientists were told to refer all media queries to communications officers who would help them respond with “approved lines.”

The current climate, Henheffer said, is frustrating journalistic efforts throughout the country.

“They’ve essentially dismantled our access to information system,” he said. “It makes investigative journalism impossible.”

The ‘Extremist Threat’ Of Environmentalists

Along with access to information for journalists, Stephen Harper’s government has also been working to dismantle environmental groups, a fact that has been revealed, ironically, by document requests from journalists. Those documents show unprecedented attempts from agencies across the federal government to spy on, de-fund, and otherwise disrupt the efforts of environmental groups.

[Environmental] groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.

The most recent example of this has been a rigorous effort by the Canada Revenue Agency to target environmental groups for possible abuse of their nonprofit charity statuses, alleging they may be violating the limits on how much political advocacy work they can do. The CRA’s $8 million effort was launched in 2012, shortly after the pro-tar sands group Ethical Oil kicked off a public campaign to “expose the radical foreign funded environmental groups” criticizing the oil industry.

“There are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” Joe Oliver, then-Natural Resources Minister, wrote at the time. “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects.”

One of the original groups targeted was ForestEthics, a British Columbia-based nonprofit with branches in Vancouver and San Francisco. One of the fiercest and more outspoken opponents of the tar sands and the proposedNorthern Gateway pipeline, the group responded by giving up its charitable status (thereby giving up tax breaks to its donors) so it could focus more on combating what it refers to as “attacks on the environment.”

“Ever since we formed the advocacy group we’ve been under further … ‘intense scrutiny’ I guess is the nicest way to put it, because the advocacy group is set up explicitly for the sake of taking on the Harper government,” ForestEthics tar sands campaigner Ben West said.

West said that since his group founded its advocacy arm, it has been a target of a recently-revealed spying effort by the Canadian federal government. That effort, revealed in November by a public records request from the Vancouver Observer, showed that officials had been sending spies to meetings of anti-tar sands groups, relaying their plans for rallies and strategies for public meetings.

What’s more, documents obtained in February by the Guardian revealed that both Canada’s national police force and intelligence agency view environmental activist protest activities as “forms of attack,” and depict those involved as national security threats. Greenpeace, for example, is officially regarded as an “extremist” threat.

West said the revelations have had a “chilling” effect on the groups’ volunteer and donor base.

“The word is out that ForestEthics is one of the groups that the federal government is paying close attention to, and that has an impact on people’s comfort levels and their desire to get involved,” West said. “If you look at the pieces of the documents we were able to get our hands on, they explain what was happening at meetings where you would have had to have been in the room to have known the content of that meeting.”

‘A Government Of Thugs’

In addition to the more-calculated attempts to prevent environmental criticism, multiple reporters and activists say they experience an egregious amount of defensiveness, spitefulness, and intimidation from the federal government that prevents them from doing their jobs effectively.

“We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, anaward-winning journalist who has been reporting critically on Canada’s oil and gas industry for more than 20 years. “It’s a hostility and thuggery, is the way I would describe it. That’s exactly what it is.”

We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless.

Nikiforuk says he’s been shut out of government events, “slandered and libeled” by a member of the government’s conservative party, and repeatedly contacted by government flacks who criticize his reporting.

The most blatant example of government intimidation Nikiforuk can recall was when members of Canada’s Energy Resources Conservation Board actively tried to prevent the publication of his 2010 book, Tar Sands, claiming he made numerous factual errors and posting a long letter about it on its website. Nikifourk rebutted the claims, eventually winning the Society of Environmental Journalist’s Rachel Carson Book Award for his reporting.

Documentary and satire filmmakers Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis also said they experienced government intimidation when, like me, they were detained at the Fort McMurray airport in October 2013. Unlike me, however, they were deported.

“He basically told us that the tar sands weren’t news, that he wasn’t recognizing us as journalists, and that if we wanted to come to Canada, we weren’t going to be able to do it today,” Damanskis said.

Though it seemed like at first they would be able to enter the country without working papers, Damanskis and Cobb said the border official had an “immediate change of heart” after watching a clip of their previous work — a videosatirizing the infamous Mayflower, Arkansas tar sands pipeline spill.

Border spokesperson Lisa White said she was not authorized to speak on specific cases, and declined to specify whether officers were allowed to make entry decisions based on the content of journalists’ work. She did say, however, that documentary filmmakers required working papers to enter Canada, and that all entry decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

“All decisions are made in accordance with Canadian law,” she said.

Swift And Snarky Push-Back

Of course, it’s important to note that journalists like Nikiforuk, Damaskis, and Cobb are more likely to get negative feedback from Canadian government officials because they are not, and don’t claim to be, completely objective. All three are openly and fiercely opposed to the speed of tar sands development.

But even reporters who are seemingly more objective toward development have been subject to government push-back. For example, Economist correspondent Madelaine Drohan said via e-mail that Alberta’s provincial government once posted a “defensive” response on its website to an article she wrote that mentioned leaks from tailings ponds, which are large lakes of tar sands waste. That response has since been removed, but Drohan said she remembers it happening.

“It made me think that the government was even more sensitive than the industry,” she said.

As for hostility from the Alberta provincial government, one journalist pointed specifically to David Sands, a director at Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau, whose Twitter account is made up largely of rebuttals to journalism critical of Alberta government. In recent tweets, Sands compared two newspapers’ coverage of Parliament to “jihad,” among other critical responses.

“Yeah, I’m the mean guy,” Sands told ThinkProgress. “It’s definitely my personal style, but nobody told me to be mean.”

Sands said part of his job is tracking down stories that include inaccuracies about Alberta government policies. He said he’s the only one in his department with the specific mandate to do so.

Still, many have criticized Alberta for the number of people they’ve employed to hunt down stories. According to documentsobtained by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation in April, Alberta employs 214 communications professionals at a cost of $21 million per year, a number that the National Post noted “far outstrips” the number of reporters who cover government.

Sands rebutted that story too, saying communications staff span a range of departments — healthcare, education, law enforcement — that are not all dedicated to attacking journalists.

“It’s sort of an enjoyment of the media to say we have 214 communications people who are all dealing with the media,” he said. “When reporting is challenged, people take it very personally.”

The Strategy Is Working — Or Is It?

Thus far, government push-back against environmental journalism seems to be working. As a recent survey of Canadian journalists showed, many environmental and climate stories about the tar sands often go unreported. That survey, titled “The Alberta Oil Sands, Journalists, and Their Sources,” questioned 20 reporters with extensive daily experience reporting on the tar sands.

Of the 20, 14 said stories about the tar sands were not being told, and seven of those 14 said environmental issues were the main ones untouched. Environmental damage done by leaking tailings ponds and bitumen waste; toxic contaminants leeching into the water; the impact of excess sulfur produced in the mining process — all of those were included in the issues journalists perceive as under-reported.

“I hate this story,” one reporter who participated in the study said. “It’s important, but there’s no direction or progression.”

As for activist groups, Ben West of ForestEthics said the hostility has actually been helping his group’s efforts. And it’s not just the group itself. As the government’s attacks have become more and more public, West says his and other environmental advocacy groups have been obtaining record-breaking donations from individuals — what he calls a “clear sign” that Canadians want to protect their environment from the tar sands.

“I actually kind of welcome these attacks from the federal government in a sense, because they are a great opportunity to highlight how crazy our government’s acting, and use it as a reason to ask people for more support,” he said. “Many Canadians feel strongly about this. Let the government create their own disincentives.”

Link: Age of Ignorance

Link: Slavoj Žižek: Who can control the post-superpower capitalist world order?

In a divided and dangerous world, we need to teach the new powers some manners.

To know a society is not only to know its explicit rules. One must also know how to apply them: when to use them, when to violate them, when to turn down a choice that is offered, and when we are effectively obliged to do something but have to pretend we are doing it as a free choice. Consider the paradox, for instance, of offers-meant-to-be-refused. When I am invited to a restaurant by a rich uncle, we both know he will cover the bill, but I nonetheless have to lightly insist we share it – imagine my surprise if my uncle were simply to say: “OK, then, you pay it!”

There was a similar problem during the chaotic post-Soviet years of Yeltsin’s rule in Russia. Although the legal rules were known, and were largely the same as under the Soviet Union, the complex network of implicit, unwritten rules, which sustained the entire social edifice, disintegrated. In the Soviet Union, if you wanted better hospital treatment, say, or a new apartment, if you had a complaint against the authorities, were summoned to court or wanted your child to be accepted at a top school, you knew the implicit rules. You understood whom to address or bribe, and what you could or couldn’t do. After the collapse of Soviet power, one of the most frustrating aspects of daily life for ordinary people was that these unwritten rules became seriously blurred. People simply did not know how to react, how to relate to explicit legal regulations, what could be ignored, and where bribery worked. (One of the functions of organised crime was to provide a kind of ersatz legality. If you owned a small business and a customer owed you money, you turned to your mafia protector, who dealt with the problem, since the state legal system was inefficient.) The stabilisation of society under the Putin reign is largely because of the newly established transparency of these unwritten rules. Now, once again, people mostly understand the complex cobweb of social interactions.

In international politics, we have not yet reached this stage. Back in the 1990s, a silent pact regulated the relationship between the great western powers and Russia. Western states treated Russia as a great power on the condition that Russia didn’t act as one. But what if the person to whom the offer-to-be-rejected is made actually accepts it? What if Russia starts to act as a great power? A situation like this is properly catastrophic, threatening the entire existing fabric of relations – as happened five years ago in Georgia. Tired of only being treated as a superpower, Russia actually acted as one.

How did it come to this? The “American century” is over, and we have entered a period in which multiple centres of global capitalism have been forming. In the US, Europe, China and maybe Latin America, too, capitalist systems have developed with specific twists: the US stands for neoliberal capitalism, Europe for what remains of the welfare state, China for authoritarian capitalism, Latin America for populist capitalism. After the attempt by the US to impose itself as the sole superpower – the universal policeman – failed, there is now the need to establish the rules of interaction between these local centres as regards their conflicting interests.

This is why our times are potentially more dangerous than they may appear. During the cold war, the rules of international behaviour were clear, guaranteed by the Mad-ness – mutually assured destruction – of the superpowers. When the Soviet Union violated these unwritten rules by invading Afghanistan, it paid dearly for this infringement. The war in Afghanistan was the beginning of its end. Today, the old and new superpowers are testing each other, trying to impose their own version of global rules, experimenting with them through proxies – which are, of course, other, small nations and states.

Karl Popper once praised the scientific testing of hypotheses, saying that, in this way, we allow our hypotheses to die instead of us. In today’s testing, small nations get hurt and wounded instead of the big ones – first Georgia, now Ukraine. Although the official arguments are highly moral, revolving around human rights and freedoms, the nature of the game is clear. The events in Ukraine seem something like the crisis in Georgia, part two – the next stage of a geopolitical struggle for control in a nonregulated, multicentred world.

It is definitely time to teach the superpowers, old and new, some manners, but who will do it? Obviously, only a transnational entity can manage it – more than 200 years ago, Immanuel Kant saw the need for a transnational legal order grounded in the rise of the global society. In his project for perpetual peace, he wrote: “Since the narrower or wider community of the peoples of the earth has developed so far that a violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world, the idea of a law of world citizenship is no high-flown or exaggerated notion.”

This, however, brings us to what is arguably the “principal contradiction” of the new world order (if we may use this old Maoist term): the impossibility of creating a global political order that would correspond to the global capitalist economy.

What if, for structural reasons, and not only due to empirical limitations, there cannot be a worldwide democracy or a representative world government? What if the global market economy cannot be directly organised as a global liberal democracy with worldwide elections?

Today, in our era of globalisation, we are paying the price for this “principal contradiction.” In politics, age-old fixations, and particular, substantial ethnic, religious and cultural identities, have returned with a vengeance. Our predicament today is defined by this tension: the global free circulation of commodities is accompanied by growing separations in the social sphere. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the global market, new walls have begun emerging everywhere, separating peoples and their cultures. Perhaps the very survival of humanity depends on resolving this tension.

Link: On Privilege: A Leftist Critique of the Left

The world in which we live is much more sinister than the simple, dichotomized image of “oppressed and oppressor” central to the politics of the old left.

The debate around privilege has spilled over the boundaries of the academic left and is slowly starting to emerge in wider discussions about inequality. Yet, despite its increasing popularity, the lexicon of privilege seems to find itself awkwardly aligned with the very structure of power that it attempts to expose. While initially intended to interrogate the discourse of dominant social groups to highlight how power can pollute the content of seemingly universalistic arguments, the new discussion on privilege has become a powerful tool to silence certain voices entirely. Rather than serving as immanent critique of the ideological content of discourse, the rhetoric of privilege has become a means to divert attention away from the substance of arguments to their immediate origin. The pitfall of this seemingly promising theoretical framework lies in the fact that discussions of privilege can be too easily deployed to dismiss arguments of persons based on features of their personhood—claims that, in philosophy, are called ad hominem arguments.

Let me be clear that my criticism of discussions of privilege is not that they are too radical. My quarrel, to the contrary, is that they are not radical enough. The cultural Marxism of the mid-20th century gifted the left with a powerful tool by which to understand how oppressive social structures are perpetuated through discourse—the critique of ideology. Ideology critique acknowledges that the status quo is enforced not only through a single, centralized node of authority, but through dispersed and diverse forms of discourse from all points of origin on the social spectrum. It is a peculiar feature of oppression that it is often enforced by those who are, in fact, oppressed. Ideology critique uses the term ideology to denote modes of thought that justify the dominant social order that privileges certain groups while disadvantaging others; and, more specifically, it deploys the term false consciousness to refer to the thought process by which marginalized groups justify their own oppression via ideologyThe task of ideology critique is not to trace discourse back to its author and to critique its content on that basis, but to understand how oppression is perpetuated from multiple nodes, even unlikely ones. The marginalized are brought under as much critical scrutiny as the members of the privileged classes. The immediate origin of discourse is bracketed for a deeper understanding of how the arguments of a given interlocutor may be manifestations of an internalized mode of thinking that justifies the predominant power structure, whether advertently or inadvertently—in other words, how certain arguments further the interests of those in power at the expense of the marginalized, without explicitly declaring it.

Much of the contemporary left, however (perhaps out of shame of its indebtedness to Marxism in an increasingly hostile neoliberal environment), has done away with “ideology” and has erected in its place the framework of “privilege”. Discussions of privilege, in their most diminished form, uncritically applaud the perspectives of the marginalized by their mere origin in the marginalized classes; and, conversely, they reject the discourse of the dominant classes as inescapably tainted by power. I recall my discomfort with this feature of the privilege framework when, at an Occupy Wall Street gathering two years ago, a protestor addressed the crowd at Harvard dressed as a caricatured bourgeois citizen, performing the stereotype of a greedy individual whose malice is unilaterally inflicted on the innocent oppressed classes. The attack was on bourgeois personhood rather than on economic, cultural, and social structures that permit the person her place of privilege at the expense of the 99 percent.

The privilege framework critic may suggest that power and subjectivity cannot be disentangled, and that the very subjectivity of the one percent is a legitimate target for emancipatory action. This argument, however, ironically mimics the very oppressive structure that it attempts to critique. In entrenching power as a feature of certain classes of people rather than of structures, it inadvertently justifies the exclusion, in the widest sense of the term, of entire groups of people from discourse. Indeed, the privilege framework is used not only by the left to tackle the rhetoric of the right, but also in the right’s critique of the left. A malicious article on Feb. 21 by right-wing columnist Bruce Bawer about Harvard undergraduate activist Sandra Korn’s appeal for academic justice deployed the ad hominem form of the privilege framework inversely, attempting to discredit Korn’s leftist argument by appeal to her socioeconomic origins. This example, among a host of others, sheds further light on the insight that the privilege framework shares a dangerous seed with the tendency of the radical right toward xenophobia—the tendency toward ad hominem arguments enshrined in all proto-totalitarian thinking.

A point of clarification is in order. A friend of mine suggested that it is not the privilege framework itself which is inherently flawed, but rather its frequent misuse. To point to the social position of an interlocutor is not to diminish the content of her words, but rather to add another layer of analysis to the understanding of her argument. The privilege framework, if used properly, is a structural rather than a personal form of critique. To respond, my claim is not that ideology critique focuses only on the content of discourse, while the privilege framework focuses only on the origin of discourse. My argument is that by scrutinizing the immediate origin of a given argument, discussions of privilege display an over-simplified understanding how ideology works, neglecting to take into account that power in discourse can only rarely be traced to the immediate intentions or social position of a given interlocutor. This error in method is the source of the frequent devolution of the privilege framework into ad hominem attacks that merely reproduce the power structure that they attempt to expose.

The central poststructuralist insight is that power bounces through multiple nodes and is formallytransformed before manifesting in discourse. This is why it is generally more useful, in my opinion, to ask how the content of discourse furthers ideological structures while bracketing the immediate origin of a given argument. Ideology critique assumes neither that a given interlocutor has hidden intentions masked in her words, nor that her social position reveals a determinable relationship to power at play in her argument. It begins merely with the possibility that an argument may serve to legitimize the existing social order or factional interests, regardless of the intention or position of its author. It may turn out, for example, that some claim furthers capitalist interests, and that the author is also a major shareholder in a company; however, this convergence of power and identity is neither assumed nor required by ideology critique.

As an example, consider responses to a recent article in The Harvard Crimson, “How Gay Pride Backfires”, which criticizes movements such as gay pride on the basis that they reinforce “the sharp distinction between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ […] that perpetuates a notion of otherness, when all sexual affinities should be understood as part of the same spectrum.” In the flood of responses to this deeply ideological article, two general camps of leftist criticism emerged. The first argues that the privilege associated with author’s ‘straightness’ is the reason for his opposition to gay pride, because it prohibits him from understanding the importance of pride parades to the empowerment of sexual minorities. The second argues that the article serves to reinforce straight hegemony because it implicitly argues that middle-class, conjugal, heterosexual ideals of ‘sexual decency’ should trump more open, fluid, and expressive experiences of queer sexuality, such as those expressed at pride parades. The first criticism is an ad hominem privilege framework argument, while the second has the form of an ideology-based critique. The privilege-based critique assumes that the author’s ideology stems from an essential feature of his identity—his ‘straightness’—and that his argument should be discounted or disqualified on that basis. Notice that both the privilege and ideology critiques concur in their denunciation of the argument. However, while the former uses the author’sidentity as a proxy for the power of heterosexual privilege that it finds operative in the argument, the latter demonstrates how a certain ideology—one that favors straight sexual expression at the expense of the distinct sexual expression of queer minorities – pervades the argument, without reference to the sexual orientation of the author.

My argument is twofold. First, I am arguing that no one’s participation in public discourse should be denigrated by appeal to essential features of their identity. If we, as leftists, want to be unashamedly critical of discourse—as we should be—we should do so with reference to structures of power, such as heterosexual hegemony, rather than with reference to essential identities, such as the ‘straightness’ of particular individuals. The mode of argumentation associated with the privilege framework invokes an era of right-wing political thought that is both dangerous to democratic values and divergent from the ideals of inclusion, representation, and equality at the core of leftist politics. Second, I am arguing that to situate ideology in identity can not only be malicious, but also fallacious. If a self-identified queer person were to have written “How Gay Pride Backfires”, the privilege framework would collapse as an explanans, as it would no longer be able to appeal to the heterosexual privilege of the author to explain the danger of the argument. Importantly, however, in this alternative scenario, the queerness of the author would not render the article any less ideological and detrimental to the interests of sexual minorities. Ideology critique, through its understanding of false consciousness, is better equipped to demonstrate how both the privileged and underprivileged can be complicit in marginalization and oppression, without depending on the intentionality or identity of particular individuals.

This elucidation brings further light to my admittedly strong and provocative claim that the privilege framework shares a root with totalitarian thinking, and that it ultimately perpetuates the power structure that it attempts to expose. The collapse of power and identity is characteristic of totalitarian thinking—a mode of thought that categorically excludes certain classes of people from discourse by appeal to insurmountable limitations of their identities. By assuming that the identity of a person can shed insight on the structure of power pervading her argument, the privilege framework—even in its milder iterations that avoid an explicitly ad hominem form—finds itself awkwardly aligned to this mode of thinking. While its aim is to expose how a seemingly universalistic argument neglects to consider the experience of an oppressed or marginalized community, the privilege framework establishes its claim by invalidating or diminishing the privileged interlocutor’s participation in discourse by appeal to an essential feature of her identity. Although its objective is inclusion in discourse, it formallymimics the exclusion that is central to totalitarian thinking. Insofar as the privilege framework endeavors to expose power in discourse, it is thus self-contradictory, as it merely substitutes one form of exclusion with another. To be absolutely clear, my argument is not that left-wing activists are totalitarians; to distort my argument in this way would be to misunderstand the distinction between political forms and modes of political thought. I am by no means claiming that those who use the privilege framework are totalitarian in the sense of endorsing the political and institutional forms of totalitarianism. Instead, I am highlighting that the privilege framework mimics the identity-based exclusionary politics unique to totalitarian thinking, and that, therefore, we, on the left, ought to be extremely wary of its uncritical use.

Ultimately, I am not proposing that we evaluate arguments in a vacuum; that would be simply to perpetuate ideology. No one can deny that public discourse is both embedded in, and has embedded within it, systems of oppression. I am instead suggesting that we evaluate arguments with reference to dominant power forms, rather than with reference to the subject positions of particular interlocutors. In other terms, I am appealing for the preservation of a strong power-identity distinction in leftist discourse analysis. Only in this way can leftist critique avoid the often fallacious (and frequently malicious) assumption that entire social groups have determinable relationships to power that manifest in the arguments of their members. It is true, for example, that whiteness orpatriarchy are real power structures that are often unnoticeably exalted in public discourse; however, it is methodologically dangerous to appeal to the whiteness or maleness of a particular interlocutor as a proxy for the power structure assumed to be latent in his argument. Likewise, it is equally dangerous to validate the discourse of a person of color or a woman by assuming that her ethnicity or gender exonerates her from perpetuating the power structures of whiteness or patriarchy. We are all potentially culpable of false consciousness, just as we are all capable of enlightened thinking. It is for this reason that the mainstream left must reject categorical, identity-based exclusion from public discourse as an acceptable means to achieve the inclusion of the marginalized classes—a goal which I applaud wholeheartedly as the central legitimate endeavor of leftist critique.

Marxian ideology critique is certainly not perfect. I admit this wholly. It neglects to understand that ideology critique itself may be deployed ideologically. It also has no satisfying answer to the charge of unfalsifiability—that, if deployed uncritically, ideology critique can relapse into a framework that dismisses all counter-arguments as ideology and all concurring arguments as ideology-free. Still, if we are to talk about oppression, ideology critique trumps the privilege framework because it resists the ad hominem argumentative form that too easily devolves into a mode of thought that mimics totalitarian thinking. In ideology critique, there is no class of interlocutors who, qua class, are excluded from critical interrogation. All discourse—across socioeconomic classes, races, genders, political positions, and sexual orientations – may be, at least potentially, culpable of consciously or unconsciously serving as an outlet through which ideology is promulgated. In its most critical form, ideology critique grants no one immunity from scrutiny – not even the critical theorist herself.

My aim in putting the privilege framework into direct comparison with ideology critique is to highlight a larger troubling trend in the mainstream left exhibited in the Occupy Wall Street episode that I described earlier. Much of the left is ignoring that the old binaries of social thought—the state and civil society, the bourgeois and the proletariat, knowledge and power—have become too blurred to relegate the role of “oppressor” to any given group qua a fundamental characteristic of that group. Power, though perhaps still centralized, is exercised through decentralized nodes. Consciousness itself is complicit. The mainstream left can no longer remain contented with aligning itself blindly with the welfare state, the proletariat, or even the subaltern. A heightened critical awareness begins with a definitive shift away from theoretical frameworks that exalt the idea that some individuals are culpable and that others are exempt from complicity in oppression merely by virtue of elements of their subjectivities. Not only is this shift truer to the world in which we live, but it resists the turn to totalitarian thinking that we must avoid at all costs.

I am admittedly skimming over a deep and crucial question—that if consciousness itself is complicit in ideology, and that if the critical theorist is thus fully embedded in the ideological context that she attempts to expose, then ideology critique is, at best, self-contradictory, and, at worst, a masked agent of ideology. This supremely troubling problem is certainly not one that I claim to have solved. I can merely assert that insofar as the left yet clings to the hope of human emancipation from oppression as a legitimate political aim, it must undertake a mammoth effort, both in theory and praxis, to lift itself out of the blind complicity of the genre exhibited by the privilege framework. A heightened critical self-awareness and an uncompromising unfaithfulness to any ideology, even the ideology of ideology critique itself, are perhaps the sole tools at the disposal of the leftist critical theorist if she is to begin to overcome her own embeddedness in the structure of power that she endeavors to dismantle. The world in which we live is much more sinister than the simple, dichotomized image of “oppressed and oppressor” central to the politics of the old left. The mainstream left must reinvent itself self-critically or face the charge of complicity. There is no other option.

Link: Slavoj Žižek: Barbarism with a Human Face

Again and again in television reports on the mass protests in Kiev against the Yanukovich government, we saw images of protesters tearing down statues of Lenin. It was an easy way to demonstrate anger: the statues functioned as a symbol of Soviet oppression, and Putin’s Russia is perceived as continuing the Soviet policy of Russian domination of its neighbours. Bear in mind that it was only in 1956 that Lenin’s statues started to proliferate throughout the Soviet Union: until then, statues of Stalin were much more common. But after Krushchev’s ‘secret’ denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, Stalin’s statues were replaced en masse by Lenin’s: Lenin was literally a stand-in for Stalin. This was made equally clear by a change made in 1962 to the masthead of Pravda. Until then, at the top left-hand corner of the front page, there had been a drawing of two profiles, Lenin’s and Stalin’s, side by side. Shortly after the 22nd Congress publicly rejected Stalin, his profile wasn’t merely removed but replaced with a second profile of Lenin: now there were two identical Lenins printed side by side. In a way, this weird repetition made Stalin more present in his absence than ever.

There was nonetheless a historical irony in watching Ukrainians tearing down Lenin’s statues as a sign of their will to break with Soviet domination and assert their national sovereignty. The golden era of Ukrainian national identity was not tsarist Russia – where Ukrainian national self-assertion was thwarted – but the first decade of the Soviet Union, when Soviet policy in a Ukraine exhausted by war and famine was ‘indigenisation’. Ukrainian culture and language were revived, and rights to healthcare, education and social security introduced. Indigenisation followed the principles formulated by Lenin in quite unambiguous terms:

The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.

Lenin remained faithful to this position to the end: immediately after the October Revolution, when Rosa Luxembourg argued that small nations should be given full sovereignty only if progressive forces would predominate in the new state, Lenin was in favour of an unconditional right to secede.

In his last struggle against Stalin’s project for a centralised Soviet Union, Lenin again advocated the unconditional right of small nations to secede (in this case, Georgia was at stake), insisting on the full sovereignty of the national entities that composed the Soviet state – no wonder that, on 27 September 1922, in a letter to the Politburo, Stalin accused Lenin of ‘national liberalism’. The direction in which Stalin was already heading is clear from his proposal that the government of Soviet Russia should also be the government of the other five republics (Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia):

If the present decision is confirmed by the Central Committee of the RCP, it will not be made public, but communicated to the Central Committees of the Republics for circulation among the Soviet organs, the Central Executive Committees or the Congresses of the Soviets of the said Republics before the convocation of the All-Russian Congress of the Soviets, where it will be declared to be the wish of these Republics.

The interaction of the higher authority, the Central Committee, with its base was thus abolished: the higher authority now simply imposed its will. To add insult to injury, the Central Committee decided what the base would ask the higher authority to enact, as if it were its own wish. In the most conspicuous case, in 1939, the three Baltic states asked to join the Soviet Union, which granted their wish. In all this, Stalin was returning to pre-Revolutionary tsarist policy: Russia’s colonisation of Siberia in the 17th century and Muslim Asia in the 19th was no longer condemned as imperialist expansion, but celebrated for setting these traditional societies on the path of progressive modernisation. Putin’s foreign policy is a clear continuation of the tsarist-Stalinist line. After the Russian Revolution, according to Putin, the Bolsheviks did serious damage to Russia’s interests: ‘The Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the south-east of Ukraine.’

No wonder Stalin’s portraits are on show again at military parades and public celebrations, while Lenin has been obliterated. In an opinion poll carried out in 2008 by the Rossiya TV station, Stalin was voted the third greatest Russian of all time, with half a million votes. Lenin came in a distant sixth. Stalin is celebrated not as a Communist but as a restorer of Russian greatness after Lenin’s anti-patriotic ‘deviation’. Putin recently used the term Novorossiya (‘New Russia’) for the seven south-eastern oblasts of Ukraine, resuscitating a term last used in 1917.

But the Leninist undercurrent, though repressed, persisted in the Communist underground opposition to Stalin. Long before Solzhenitsyn, as Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2011, ‘the crucial questions about the Gulag were being asked by left oppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to C.L.R. James, in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescient heretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expected far worse than that, and often received it).’ This internal dissent was a natural part of the Communist movement, in clear contrast to fascism. ‘There were no dissidents in the Nazi Party,’ Hitchens went on, ‘risking their lives on the proposition that the Führer had betrayed the true essence of National Socialism.’ Precisely because of this tension at the heart of the Communist movement, the most dangerous place to be at the time of the 1930s purges was at the top of the nomenklatura: in the space of a couple of years, 80 per cent of the Central Committee and the Red Army leadership were shot. Another sign of dissent could be detected in the last days of ‘really existing socialism’, when protesting crowds sang official songs, including national anthems, to remind the powers of their unfulfilled promises. In the GDR, by contrast, between the early 1970s and 1989, to sing the national anthem in public was a criminal offence: its words (‘Deutschland einig Vaterland’, ‘Germany, the united Fatherland’) didn’t fit with the idea of East Germany as a new socialist nation.

The resurgence of Russian nationalism has caused certain historical events to be rewritten. A recent biopic, Andrei Kravchuk’s Admiral, celebrates the life of Aleksandr Kolchak, the White commander who governed Siberia between 1918 and 1920. But it’s worth remembering the totalitarian potential, as well as the outright brutality, of the White counter-revolutionary forces during this period. Had the Whites won the Civil War, Hitchens writes, ‘the common word for fascism would have been a Russian one, not an Italian one … Major General William Graves, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during the 1918 invasion of Siberia (an event thoroughly airbrushed from all American textbooks), wrote in his memoirs about the pervasive, lethal anti-Semitism that dominated the Russian right wing and added: “I doubt if history will show any country in the world during the last fifty years where murder could be committed so safely, and with less danger of punishment, than in Siberia during the reign of Admiral Kolchak.”’

The entire European neo-fascist right (in Hungary, France, Italy, Serbia) firmly supports Russia in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, giving the lie to the official Russian presentation of the Crimean referendum as a choice between Russian democracy and Ukrainian fascism. The events in Ukraine – the massive protests that toppled Yanukovich and his gang – should be understood as a defence against the dark legacy resuscitated by Putin. The protests were triggered by the Ukrainian government’s decision to prioritise good relations with Russia over the integration of Ukraine into the European Union. Predictably, many anti-imperialist leftists reacted to the news by patronising the Ukrainians: how deluded they are still to idealise Europe, not to be able to see that joining the EU would just make Ukraine an economic colony of Western Europe, sooner or later to go the same way as Greece. In fact, Ukrainians are far from blind about the reality of the EU. They are fully aware of its troubles and disparities: their message is simply that their own situation is much worse. Europe may have problems, but they are a rich man’s problems.

Should we, then, simply support the Ukrainian side in the conflict? There is a ‘Leninist’ reason to do so. In Lenin’s very last writings, long after he renounced the utopia ofState and Revolution, he explored the idea of a modest, ‘realistic’ project for Bolshevism. Because of the economic underdevelopment and cultural backwardness of the Russian masses, he argues, there is no way for Russia to ‘pass directly to socialism’: all that Soviet power can do is to combine the moderate politics of ‘state capitalism’ with the intense cultural education of the peasant masses – not the brainwashing of propaganda, but a patient, gradual imposition of civilised standards. Facts and figures revealed ‘what a vast amount of urgent spadework we still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary West European civilised country … We must bear in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not yet extricated ourselves.’ Can we think of the Ukrainian protesters’ reference to Europe as a sign that their goal, too, is ‘to reach the standard of an ordinary Western European civilised country’?

But here things quickly get complicated. What, exactly, does the ‘Europe’ the Ukrainian protesters are referring to stand for? It can’t be reduced to a single idea: it spans nationalist and even fascist elements but extends also to the idea of what Etienne Balibar calls égaliberté, freedom-in-equality, the unique contribution of Europe to the global political imaginary, even if it is in practice today mostly betrayed by European institutions and citizens themselves. Between these two poles, there is also a naive trust in the value of European liberal-democratic capitalism. Europe can see in the Ukrainian protests its own best and worst sides, its emancipatory universalism as well as its dark xenophobia.

Let’s begin with the dark xenophobia. The Ukrainian nationalist right is one instance of what is going on today from the Balkans to Scandinavia, from the US to Israel, from Central Africa to India: ethnic and religious passions are exploding, and Enlightenment values receding. These passions have always been there, lurking; what’s new is the outright shamelessness of their display. Imagine a society which has fully integrated into itself the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, the right to education and healthcare for all its members, and in which racism and sexism have been rendered unacceptable and ridiculous. But then imagine that, step by step, although the society continues to pay lip service to these axioms, they are de facto deprived of their substance. Here is an example from very recent European history: in the summer of 2012, Viktor Orbán, the right-wing Hungarian prime minister, declared that a new economic system was needed in Central Europe. ‘Let us hope,’ he said, ‘that God will help us and we will not have to invent a new type of political system instead of democracy that would need to be introduced for the sake of economic survival … Co-operation is a question of force, not of intention. Perhaps there are countries where things don’t work that way, for example in the Scandinavian countries, but such a half-Asiatic rag-tag people as we are can unite only if there is force.’

The irony of these words wasn’t lost on some old Hungarian dissidents: when the Soviet army moved into Budapest to crush the 1956 uprising, the message repeatedly sent by the beleaguered Hungarian leaders to the West was that they were defending Europe against the Asiatic communists. Now, after the collapse of communism, the Christian-conservative government paints as its main enemy the multicultural consumerist liberal democracy for which today’s Western Europe stands. Orbán has already expressed his sympathy for ‘capitalism with Asian values’; if the European pressure on Orbán continues, we can easily imagine him sending a message to the East: ‘We are defending Asia here!’

Today’s anti-immigrant populism has replaced direct barbarism with a barbarism that has a human face. It enacts a regression from the Christian ethic of ‘love thy neighbour’ back to the pagan privileging of the tribe over the barbarian Other. Even as it represents itself as a defence of Christian values, it is in fact the greatest threat to the Christian legacy. ‘Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote a hundred years ago, ‘end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.’ Doesn’t the same hold for the advocates of religion too? Fanatical defenders of religion start out attacking contemporary secular culture; it’s no surprise when they end up forsaking any meaningful religious experience. In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they end up flinging away freedom and democracy if only they may fight terror. The ‘terrorists’ may be ready to wreck this world for love of another, but the warriors on terror are just as ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture to defend it. The defenders of Europe against the immigrant threat are doing much the same. In their zeal to protect the Judeo-Christian legacy, they are ready to forsake what is most important in that legacy. The anti-immigrant defenders of Europe, not the notional crowds of immigrants waiting to invade it, are the true threat to Europe.

One of the signs of this regression is a request often heard on the new European right for a more ‘balanced’ view of the two ‘extremisms’, the right and the left. We are repeatedly told that one should treat the extreme left (communism) the same way that Europe after the Second World War treated the extreme right (the defeated fascists). But in reality there is no balance here: the equation of fascism and communism secretly privileges fascism. Thus the right are heard to argue that fascism copied communism: before becoming a fascist, Mussolini was a socialist; Hitler, too, was a National Socialist; concentration camps and genocidal violence were features of the Soviet Union a decade before Nazis resorted to them; the annihilation of the Jews has a clear precedent in the annihilation of the class enemy, etc. The point of these arguments is to assert that a moderate fascism was a justified response to the communist threat (a point made long ago by Ernst Nolte in his defence of Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism). In Slovenia, the right is advocating the rehabilitation of the anti-communist Home Guard which fought the partisans during the Second World War: they made the difficult choice to collaborate with the Nazis in order to thwart the much greater evil of communism.

Mainstream liberals tell us that when basic democratic values are under threat from ethnic or religious fundamentalists, we should unite behind the liberal-democratic agenda, save what can be saved, and put aside dreams of more radical social transformation. But there is a fatal flaw in this call for solidarity: it ignores the way in which liberalism and fundamentalism are caught in a vicious cycle. It is the aggressive attempt to export liberal permissiveness that causes fundamentalism to fight back vehemently and assert itself. When we hear today’s politicians offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, and triumphantly asking the rhetorical question, ‘Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their rights? Do you want every critic of religion to be put to death?’, what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer: who would want that? The problem is that liberal universalism has long since lost its innocence. What Max Horkheimer said about capitalism and fascism in the 1930s applies in a different context today: those who don’t want to criticise liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.

What of the fate of the liberal-democratic capitalist European dream in Ukraine? It isn’t clear what awaits Ukraine within the EU. I’ve often mentioned a well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union, but it couldn’t be more apposite. Rabinovitch, a Jew, wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: ‘Two reasons. The first is that I’m afraid the Communists will lose power in the Soviet Union, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communists’ crimes on us, the Jews.’ ‘But this is pure nonsense,’ the bureaucrat interrupts, ‘nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last for ever!’ ‘Well,’ Rabinovitch replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’ Imagine the equivalent exchange between a Ukrainian and an EU administrator. The Ukrainian complains: ‘There are two reasons we are panicking here in Ukraine. First, we’re afraid that under Russian pressure the EU will abandon us and let our economy collapse.’ The EU administrator interrupts: ‘But you can trust us, we won’t abandon you. In fact, we’ll make sure we take charge of your country and tell you what to do!’ ‘Well,’ the Ukrainian replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’ The issue isn’t whether Ukraine is worthy of Europe, and good enough to enter the EU, but whether today’s Europe can meet the aspirations of the Ukrainians. If Ukraine ends up with a mixture of ethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism, with oligarchs pulling the strings, it will be as European as Russia (or Hungary) is today. (Too little attention is drawn to the role played by the various groups of oligarchs – the ‘pro-Russian’ ones and the ‘pro-Western’ ones – in the events in Ukraine.)

Some political commentators claim that the EU hasn’t given Ukraine enough support in its conflict with Russia, that the EU response to the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea was half-hearted. But there is another kind of support which has been even more conspicuously absent: the proposal of any feasible strategy for breaking the deadlock. Europe will be in no position to offer such a strategy until it renews its pledge to the emancipatory core of its history. Only by leaving behind the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the European legacy of égaliberté alive. It is not the Ukrainians who should learn from Europe: Europe has to learn to live up to the dream that motivated the protesters on the Maidan. The lesson that frightened liberals should learn is that only a more radical left can save what is worth saving in the liberal legacy today.

The Maidan protesters were heroes, but the true fight – the fight for what the new Ukraine will be – begins now, and it will be much tougher than the fight against Putin’s intervention. A new and riskier heroism will be needed. It has been shown already by those Russians who oppose the nationalist passion of their own country and denounce it as a tool of power. It’s time for the basic solidarity of Ukrainians and Russians to be asserted, and the very terms of the conflict rejected. The next step is a public display of fraternity, with organisational networks established between Ukrainian political activists and the Russian opposition to Putin’s regime. This may sound utopian, but it is only such thinking that can confer on the protests a truly emancipatory dimension. Otherwise, we will be left with a conflict of nationalist passions manipulated by oligarchs. Such geopolitical games are of no interest whatever to authentic emancipatory politics.

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: 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: David Graeber on Caring Too Much, the Curse of the Working Classes

David Graeber: Why has the basic logic of austerity been accepted by everyone? Because solidarity has come to be viewed as a scourge.

"What I can’t understand is, why aren’t people rioting in the streets?" I hear this, now and then, from people of wealthy and powerful backgrounds. There is a kind of incredulity. "After all," the subtext seems to read, "we scream bloody murder when anyone so much as threatens our tax shelters; if someone were to go after my access to food or shelter, I’d sure as hell be burning banks and storming parliament. What’s wrong with these people?"

It’s a good question. One would think a government that has inflicted such suffering on those with the least resources to resist, without even turning the economy around, would have been at risk of political suicide. Instead, the basic logic of austerity has been accepted by almost everyone. Why? Why do politicians promising continued suffering win any working-class acquiescence, let alone support, at all?

I think the very incredulity with which I began provides a partial answer. Working-class people may be, as we’re ceaselessly reminded, less meticulous about matters of law and propriety than their “betters”, but they’re also much less self-obsessed. They care more about their friends, families and communities. In aggregate, at least, they’re just fundamentally nicer.

To some degree this seems to reflect a universal sociological law. Feminists have long since pointed out that those on the bottom of any unequal social arrangement tend to think about, and therefore care about, those on top more than those on top think about, or care about, them. Women everywhere tend to think and know more about men’s lives than men do about women, just as black people know more about white people’s, employees about employers’, and the poor about the rich.

And humans being the empathetic creatures that they are, knowledge leads to compassion. The rich and powerful, meanwhile, can remain oblivious and uncaring, because they can afford to. Numerous psychological studies have recently confirmed this. Those born to working-class families invariably score far better at tests of gauging others’ feelings than scions of the rich, or professional classes. In a way it’s hardly surprising. After all, this is what being “powerful” is largely about: not having to pay a lot of attention to what those around one are thinking and feeling. The powerful employ others to do that for them.

And who do they employ? Mainly children of the working classes. Here I believe we tend to be so blinded by an obsession with (dare I say, romanticisation of?) factory labour as our paradigm for “real work” that we have forgotten what most human labour actually consists of.

Even in the days of Karl Marx or Charles Dickens, working-class neighbourhoods housed far more maids, bootblacks, dustmen, cooks, nurses, cabbies, schoolteachers, prostitutes and costermongers than employees in coal mines, textile mills or iron foundries. All the more so today. What we think of as archetypally women’s work – looking after people, seeing to their wants and needs, explaining, reassuring, anticipating what the boss wants or is thinking, not to mention caring for, monitoring, and maintaining plants, animals, machines, and other objects – accounts for a far greater proportion of what working-class people do when they’re working than hammering, carving, hoisting, or harvesting things.

This is true not only because most working-class people are women (since most people in general are women), but because we have a skewed view even of what men do. As striking tube workers recently had to explain to indignant commuters, “ticket takers” don’t in fact spend most of their time taking tickets: they spend most of their time explaining things, fixing things, finding lost children, and taking care of the old, sick and confused.

If you think about it, is this not what life is basically about? Human beings are projects of mutual creation. Most of the work we do is on each other. The working classes just do a disproportionate share. They are the caring classes, and always have been. It is just the incessant demonisation directed at the poor by those who benefit from their caring labour that makes it difficult, in a public forum such as this, to acknowledge it.

As the child of a working-class family, I can attest this is what we were actually proud of. We were constantly being told that work is a virtue in itself – it shapes character or somesuch – but nobody believed that. Most of us felt work was best avoided, that is, unless it benefited others. But of work that did, whether it meant building bridges or emptying bedpans, you could be rightly proud. And there was something else we were definitely proud of: that we were the kind of people who took care of each other. That’s what set us apart from the rich who, as far as most of us could make out, could half the time barely bring themselves to care about their own children.

There is a reason why the ultimate bourgeois virtue is thrift, and the ultimate working-class virtue is solidarity. Yet this is precisely the rope from which that class is currently suspended. There was a time when caring for one’s community could mean fighting for the working class itself. Back in those days we used to talk about “social progress”. Today we are seeing the effects of a relentless war against the very idea of working-class politics or working-class community. That has left most working people with little way to express that care except to direct it towards some manufactured abstraction: “our grandchildren”; “the nation”; whether through jingoist patriotism or appeals to collective sacrifice.

As a result everything is thrown into reverse. Generations of political manipulation have finally turned that sense of solidarity into a scourge. Our caring has been weaponised against us. And so it is likely to remain until the left, which claims to speak for labourers, begins to think seriously and strategically about what most labour actually consists of, and what those who engage in it actually think is virtuous about it.

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: The Marriage of Poverty and Inequality

Who is responsible when people don’t have enough?

Poverty and inequality are inextricably linked. That’s because poverty is not a personal attribute such as hair color or height, but a relationship between poor people and the society in which they live. The experiences and behaviors of the affluent — the wages they take home, the bonuses they receive, the price they pay for basic goods, the amount of taxes they pay, and the political policies they support — all help constitute what it means to be poor.

And yet many rich people insist that their fast-increasing wealth has nothing to do with the fact that others are poor, and everything to do with merit and just desserts. A number of politicians and pundits have recently given credence to this position, seeking to divorce the fight against poverty from the push for greater equality. In arguing that poverty and inequality are unrelated, they suggest that to help the poor, we must focus on addressing the attributes of people that make them poor in the first place. This is called an “attributionalist” stance.

One of the best representatives of this point of view is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who recently suggested that the uneducated poor “can’t control their impulses, can’t form attachments, don’t possess resilience and lack social and emotional skills.” He’s not alone: other so-called experts point to divorce and teen pregnancy rates among the poor to illustrate the moral failings of irresponsible behavior and sexual promiscuity — failings that lead to cycles of poverty wherein parents transfer their immorality to their children, creating generation after generation of poverty.

This attributionalist stance is false and misleading. It is seductive because it offers a convenient excuse for elites who benefit from today’s extreme levels of inequality in America.

Greed and growth

In the attributionalist’s view, people are poor because of personal traits — especially their moral failings. In order to relieve poverty, we must make poor people into better human beings, by essentially regulating their behavior. The opposing “relationalist” view contends that economic positions are largely explained by relationships between groups, and that we all share a responsibility to alleviate poverty because the experiences and behaviors of those who aren’t poor have an effect on the lives of those who are.

We can debate these points theoretically, but we can also look directly to evidence of the relationship between poverty and inequality to evaluate whether the relationalist or attributionalist stance makes more sense in the real world. The rich have become richer in the United States, but they haven’t done so simply by creating new economic value through their own hard work. Instead, they have seized considerable value created by others.

Look, for example, at the relationship between productivity and wages. From the 1950s through the 1970s, productivity increases and wage gains kept pace with one another. Workers took home much of the value created by their increased output. But starting in the late 1970s, the relationship between wages and productivity began to diverge. American workers continued to be more productive, but they didn’t enjoy anywhere near the wage increases they once did. As economist Lawrence Mishel has shown, productivity from 1973 to 2010 increased about 80.4 percent, but wages increased by only 11 percent over the same period.

If workers became so much more productive, what happened to the extra value they were creating? The answer is simple: Executives and shareholders took it for themselves. This is evidence that supports the relationalist point of view. The rich aren’t getting richer just because of their personal attributes; they’re getting richer because they’ve been able to appropriate the value created by others.

Mind the gap

There’s even stronger evidence for the relationalist position. In his research, the president of the Russell Sage Foundation, economist Sheldon Danziger, has asked how different factors — the changing racial composition of the U.S., shifts in family structure, education, growth and inequality — have affected the poverty rate since the 1980s. His findings are powerful and instructive. While the attributionalists point to divorce and “the breakdown of the family” to explain why poverty persists in America, Danziger demonstrates that inequality is four times as important for explaining poverty as the other factors faced by American families. One basic relationship — the gap between the richest and the poorest — is perhaps the most important reason behind the current poverty rate of 15 percent (about 45 million people).

But why does inequality have such a strong effect on poverty? Danzinger and his colleague Peter Gottschalk argue that as economic growth in America slowed down, the rich managed to be largely unaffected by the declines by seizing a larger share of others’ productivity. In other words, slowing economic growth has hit the middle classes and poor far harder. Writing recently in The New York Times, Jared Bernstein has drawn on Danziger’s work to argue that “Inequality serves as a wedge or a funnel … redirecting growth from a broad swath of households across the income scale to a narrow slice at the top.”

The entitled rich

Given this sort of evidence, it’s not a stretch to conclude that the affluent are morally obligated to do something for the poor. After all, they’ve seized a much larger share of economic growth than they’ve contributed. Yet few members of the upper classes see the world this way; instead, many of them believe they are entitled to virtuallyall the increase in our nation’s growth. There is an irony to their stance. The rich credit their own attributes — hard work, skill, discipline and intelligence — for their good fortune. They shame the poor, painting them as immoral and lazy no-gooders waiting for the next handout. But who really lives off the gains of others? Who really reaps the rewards of economic gains for which they are not responsible?

While a tiny fraction of Americans enjoy almost all the spoils of our national growth, the majority of Americans have a radically different experience. About 40 percent of Americans will live in poverty at some point in their lives, and many more will scrape by, living paycheck to paycheck. The universality of this experience suggests that there is something other than personal attributes (or as some would have it, personal failings) that explain the condition of poverty. The attributionalists need to redirect their sanctimonious moral grandstanding and think more carefully about social and structural causes for poverty. It’s only then that we will uncover effective strategies to deal with it.

Programs that focus on the “culture of poverty” and the alleged “attributes” of poor people don’t get to its root cause, which is, quite simply, that millions of people don’t have enough money. Poverty is not a fixed trait; we can easily make people less poor by giving them enough money so that they’re no longer poor.

There’s considerable evidence that this method works. Progressive thinkers have recently suggested that, in light of such evidence, a guaranteed basic minimum income should be central to addressing poverty and building a better society. But let’s not assume that this is just a liberal idea cooked up by the economically naive: Conservative economist Milton Friedman argued that a similar idea, in the form of a “negative income tax,” might be the path to prosperity. In imagining the poor as moral failures, we have created an elaborate system of government surveillance, security and regulation, infantilizing and demonizing those who are suffering. Instead, we might look to policies like a guaranteed basic income or a negative income tax, in which we give people money and treat them with the dignity their humanity entitles them to.

That can be achieved by giving them the means and the freedom to choose. Not only would it help those who are suffering get by, but rather than treating them like social degenerates, it would trust and empower them to make their own financial decisions. Given how much responsibility the more fortunate among us have for the problems plaguing the poor, it is the least our society can do.

Link: Fourth Reich Calling

One of the important tasks of the on-going project of Never Again for Anyone, including our own to take place in Berlin during the Holocaust’s 70th anniversary, is to highlight the danger of a resurgence of violent far-right activity in Europe. As a German resident, I think the most notable example in recent times is undoubtedly the case of the National Socialist Underground (NSU). NSU is a terror cell that has killed ten people, including a police officer, and has also spearheaded bomb attacks and other criminal activity over the past twelve years.

NSU was composed of three core members: Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe. They were acquainted through the neo-Nazi scene in the town of Jena in the 1990s. NSU also had a network of helpers that has been variously estimated as having between ten and two hundred people. Some observers say that this may have included members of German police and intelligence services. This lacks proof, but it is undeniable that investigative bodies have seemed to make nothing but mistakes since NSU came to light.

NSU remained active throughout the 2000s, until November 2011 when, following their increasingly hopeless attempts to flee from a bank robbery they had just committed in Eisenach, Mundlos and Böhnhardt were found dead. Mundlos had shot Böhnhardt and then himself. Zschäpe responded by blowing up the house she had shared with them, and was arrested four days later by police after a short run. Her trial is currently on-going in Munich.

There are lots of questions here. Probably the most important is how they managed to escape the police for so long, or indeed any serious investigation. Why, for instance, did investigators choose to rule out the possibility for any racial motivation in the nine deaths committed by NSU? Why did they focus on Eastern and South-Eastern European “criminal gangs” instead? Why did it take them so long to even identify the three people behind it all?

Despite the fact that Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe had been on the run with an arrest warrant hanging over their heads since 1998, relating to large amounts of explosives and bomb-making material found in a Jena garage, and there were suggestions of a racist motive from individual officers and victims’ families, every attempt to push this line of investigation was thwarted. The threat of far-right violence was played down by the central investigators. The Parliamentary Committee for Enquiry recently concluded that intelligence services had been, “professionally speaking, blind in their right eye.”

The Committee, in their 1400-page report, further outlined some of the massive mistakes and deficiencies relating to the investigation of the NSU, or lack thereof. Although the report itself stopped short of ascribing specifically racist motives to the investigating officers, many of the political factions involved begged to differ. Representatives of the Social Democrat PartyThe Left Party and the Greens variously attributed failures in the investigation to “structurally racist preconceptions,” “investigations carried out with presuppositions, attributions and stereotypes not to be attributed to racism of individual investigators, but rather forms of a structural, institutional racism,” and false or non-investigations “closely bound to racist presuppositions.”

Add to this as yet unexplained details such as the “accidental” shredding of hundreds of pages of documents related to the NSU, seemingly just a few days after the group and their activities became public knowledge, and the mystery surrounding why an intelligence official known locally as “Little Adolf” logged out and left a Kassel internet cafe at almost exactly the same time as the young man working behind the counter was shot dead, and it is easy to see why rumours of official involvement in the group’s activities refuse to go away.

What seems clear is that any analysis of the NSU cannot explain it away as the actions of a few rogue extremists. Rather, it must be seen as a representative of a deeper vein of racism, xenophobia, and far-right policies in German culture and society. The old saying “this is by no means a German problem” applies here, but there is a reason that the far-right has made strong gains in Germany’s eastern “new states.” It is tied to structural factors. Unfortunately, though, neo-Nazis are so strong in the East that many West Germans have begun attacking neo-Nazism as an Eastern problem that came with unification, rather than a social and economic issue.

In that vein, there is a clear atmospheric link between the NSU and the National Democratic Party. One acts violently on what the other instills more subtly, which broadly, can be said of much of conservative politics, even if it intends otherwise. These forms of irrational politics all operate on energy, in the end, and the NPD has not helped matters with its populist policy-making and determination to be a flag-bearer of the far-right.

One of the main differences between far-right supporters in East and West lies in their age and social class. In the West, they tend to be older, more middle class, guided by chauvinism, nationalism and anti-semitism, and in the East it is dominated by young, working class men disaffected by what they see as the broken promises of a system that was supposed to bring guaranteed prosperity. They lash out because they have witnessed the destruction of East Germany’s social and economic structures and dominantly have a perception that they are second class citizens within their own land.

In the small towns of the East, there is little hope of employment, social security or entry into West-dominated social elites, creating a feeling of “relative deprivation” that provides the ideal breeding ground for radicalisation. The movement’s youthful face in the East makes it obvious why that movement is more likely to embrace violence. The protagonists of the NSU are currently the best known exemplars of this tendency, but are by no means the only ones.

The actions of the NSU, then, are the natural conclusion to several different trends within German society. They cannot be classified as “terrorists” and “extremists” before being hidden from view. German politicians, culture, and society should use the NSU as an opportunity to look in the mirror and wonder why racism is such a huge part of the German social fabric. Will they scoff at the idea, or become determined to collapse the hierarchy between white Germans and minorities?

How Germans react to NSU will shape much of future race relations in the country. In the spirit of this, Never Again for Anyone must be articulated as a rallying call, otherwise, it will become a lonely cry in the dark.

Link: Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety

In today’s turbo-charged and austerity-ravaged economy, anxiety and insecurity have become the new normal. How did this happen — and how do we fight back?

About six months ago, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, died after working for 72 hours straight without sleep. Journalists found a strange bravado among City workers, reflected in their tributes to a value-system of drive, resilience and regularly ‘pulling an all-nighter’ beyond all normal measures of exhaustion. That’s nothingAs one said, “On average, I get four hours’ sleep about 70% of the time … [but] there are also days with eight hours of sleep. … Work-life balance is bad. We all know this going in. I guess that’s the deal with most entry-level jobs these days.” Coupled to ambitions to succeed in careers scarcely worth the reward is a fatalism about expecting any change. That’s how it is.

This unflinching dedication to the job — indeed the job with the utmost virtue of wealth production — indicates a set of moral and social values increasingly used to describe both individual and national economies. On the one hand, productivity, growth, entrepreneurialism and drive are ‘virtues’ both of the effective individual and the expanding economy. By contrast, depression, crisis, zero-hour insecurity and burnout are used to describe both ‘failing’ economies and individuals who must work harder to perform. Whilst failing states are humiliatingly ‘bailed out’, usually under punitive conditions, individuals experience similar ‘interventions’ by more successful peers (and celebrities) on reality TV formats to increase their productive value through getting a job, looking sexier, or something similar. In each case, some internal failure (bloated public sector, childhood setback) is considered the cause of the ‘problem’ and remedied through external improvement of the individual.

Toxic Stress

A similar disengagement with reality occurred in the UK with the series of suicides and unofficial explosion in homelessness following the coalition government’s scorched-earth retreat on social spending and welfare. One man died by self-immolation in Bolton after harassment from debt-collectors became too much to bear. Yet in each case, the media narrative of individual self-isolation and appeals to ‘speak up’ in times of hardship ignores the common societal causes of these issues. It also reinforces an effective narrative that welfare, sick leave or social support should not be given to the ‘feckless’ and ‘undeserving’, but creates a culture of dependency (of which the reactionary ire over Channel 4′s Benefits Street is just the most recent example). This perverse rebranding of the relief of poverty is succeeding, with recorded social attitudes in the UK considerably hardening towards welfare recipients since 1997.

Reported rates of workplace stress, depression, and anxiety also correlate to worsening personal debt and public health problems like obesity and alcohol dependency. Though research remains undeveloped in this area (after all, what multinational or western government would fund such politically explosive material?), evidence from the World Health Organization (WHO), the USNational Research Council and Institute of Medicine, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation together indicate clear links between poverty and clusters of mental and physical health problems. This is not to suggest that mental health or suicides have only an economic cause (a recent series of suicides by high-profile ‘burnt-out’ French workers would challenge this), but the poorest have fewer forms of social and economic support in difficult times, and less opportunities to change their circumstances, than those with university educations, more extensive social circles or affluent relatives. Obesity, diabetes, ‘toxic stress’, and many forms of cancer have such a clear link to poverty that these ought not to be considered as diseases of affluence, but conditions of poverty in the same way that rickets, tuberculosis and infant malnutrition were to the deprived and exploited labouring classes of the 19th century.

Mental health and homelessness charities are being overwhelmed by appeals from millions abandoned for the sake of economic recovery. Study the news for long enough and stories of self-immolation, suicide and death by overworking are by no means unique to the UK (in Japan they term the latter karoshi, whereas in the case of Moritz Erhardt, our coroners call it an entirely unrelated epileptic seizure). But what is innovative is the effective management of the reality presented to entirely remove any collective, public or social basis for these growing problems. Instead responsibility is attributed to the individual, who has either been unfortunate or ineffective at adapting to the world around them.

Generation F#cked

What I highlight are extreme situations, and my interest is more in the millions who continue to live in more disempowered and restricted circumstances. Behind such cases is a new normal of zero-hour contracts, working without payment (either internships at the top or ‘workfare’ at the bottom) and in states of stress and anxiety, as an increasing dependence on management thrives on sucking the remaining residues of performance from precarious workers. Living costs have sharply risen in rents and goods, while supermarkets, energy firms, landlords and financial traders have greedily increased their profits. For institutions of popular power, scandals like the undemocratic catastrophe of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the exposure of GCHQ and NSA’s total surveillance of internet and telecommunications, mass fraud by MPs of expenses, the rises in university tuition fees and the removal of EMA, regular press phone-hacking, the exposure of Murdoch’s power over successive governments’ policy, routine police racism, unlawful spying of protest groups, or the unprosecuted murders of members of the public, and — as we have already forgotten — the failure to meaningfully punish anyone in the City for the bank collapses of 2008 should have, each, led to a crisis of political legitimacy in the UK. These fine props of the illusion of freedom and prosperity are weakened, yet remain for now stuck in place. The expense of such illusions is a grinding and unnecessary burden, felt by many occasionally and some increasingly often, a burden that for now is explained as the individual’s to carry.

There is a generational feature to this. Those who have grown up in a society transformed by the anti-social, economic Darwinism mantras of Margaret Thatcher have experienced an intensification of productivity in the most intimate aspects of personal life. Increasing and intensified school examinations at earlier ages, combined with regular media terror-tales of abducted children and random youth violence, alongside an aggressive marketing of leisure technologies towards children has created a more anxious, distracted, allergic, paranoid and restless generation than those prior. This comes with some mental toll, and another remarkable societal transformation is the frequency and normalisation of mental health disorders, particularly among young people.

For many, like myself, like those closest to me, anxiety and depression are not technical terms but personal experiences. It was only a year or so ago that I realised just how depressed I had been across my adult years. Continual tiredness, regular little ailments related to stress, an occasionally total mental paralysis, the silent conviction of being a fraud, and the anxieties each of these engender: I knew what my symptoms meant even then. Through a very fortunate change of circumstances, getting funding to do a PhD, I finally obtained financial stability and the chance to work towards an actual personal interest, and on my own terms. I’ve been lucky, though academia is less a lifeboat and more a ship of fools, steered by bloated Vice-Chancellors. Mental health problems and anxiety disorders are growing in academia, particularly among PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. But the problems of continual productivity, heavy teaching workloads, workplace bullying, casual sexism, poor or non-existent pay, no work-life balance, and of competing (never cooperating) as a high-impact entrepreneur of oneself, are each features of modern labour in capitalist workplaces. Stress is the cost of success. Insecurity is the new normal, as is the passive acceptance of such insecurity as some unfortunate but necessary stage to success.

In my case, a series of jobs that I had largely loved in the charity/voluntary sector had already familiarised me with these things. Free of the stress of seeking or holding down employment, or of trying to justify myself in competitive and insecure workplaces. Free in time I could actually spend on things of my own free choosing. I discovered that stress had acted like a perverted mental program since my early teens to work long and hard, independently, for an image of material and existential ‘success’ that no-one, in hindsight, can possibly experience. This program, one that prizes and rewards aggressively macho behaviours like competition, cunning and strength of will over cooperation, compassion and indifference, considers life as a game of winners and losers. The existential effect of such a worldview combines restless labouring for the next project, followed by the next, alongside a crushing and inexplicable self-loathing that inverts the neoliberal narcissism of reality gameshows like Big Brother, X Factor and The Apprentice into a nasty minor key.

Within this common self-loathing is the repressed sense that this is not right, that life should not be lived in this way. But, unable to join the dots and connect a sense of personal alienation to material circumstances, I followed the common social direction and put the blame on my own individual defects. Not any more. I suspect my own case is not unique. How is it that so many females my age I know well enough are suffering from mental health problems and accessing public or private treatments? From my work as a men’s suicide prevention campaign coordinator, I also know from conversations and research that depression and anxiety are probably experienced in equal measure by men, but who are far less likely to consider getting outside support beyond the off-licence. Is it really such a coincidence?

Anxiety Machines

These might all be conditions of modern life: rates of allergies like hayfever and eczema in the UK population have risen to 44% in 2010, whilst rates of depression have similarly soared. Rising recorded levels of these ailments may signal a greater awareness and ability to self-diagnose these conditions, one could argue; but this alone doesn’t sufficiently explain why anxiety disorders began rising first of all. Anxiety and fear are psychological marks of domination in all social structures, but a specific anxiety and fear emerges in financial capitalism through the accelerating demands and pressures of working and living in the neoliberal era. Greater insecurity in the workplace or school leads to an intensification of individual failure that is also manifested in the growing trend of bullying, which further reinforces the cycle of stress, depression and suicide. I think this insecurity is also expressed through the very media used to communicate and function in everyday life. By this I mean the intensification of information technologies into domestic and personal life, what Paul Virilio calls a ‘tele-present’ world. From home computing for leisure, to the internet, hand-held communication devices, and social networking sites, in the last two decades there has been an unprecedented intensification of technologies that continuously connect users to hyperactive news streams and a disembodied form of social interaction, whose psychosocial norms deserves deeper analysis.

Consider the panic of losing a mobile phone, of having no access at all to the internet, to one’s games, movies, photos, or common nodes of social interaction that we call our friends or followers. A power-cut, a burglary… would it be wrong to call them addictions? Yet we have neither selected this basis of social organisation, nor should we guiltily consider ourselves lucky first-worlders gorging gluttonously on the backs of the deprived billions. Whilst digitised technologies have abstracted and placed many cultural forms on a single homogeneous platform, personal technologies have the worker connected and potentially labouring at all hours in ways that operate, at minute level, the exchanges and processes that neoliberal capitalism requires to function. Against such a backdrop, our politicians, the public face of neoliberal capitalism, cajole us through fear and envy to keep up our duty as citizens: spend, borrow, buy, 24/7, 365 days a year, be it Christmas, Valentine’s or whatever, one must never shirk in one’s duty to service the economy.

The medical establishment has also transformed its understanding of rising anxiety. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association has, since the publication of DSM III in 1980, been considered the authoritative index of mental disorders, codified within a system of diagnostic management. The new fifth edition of 2013 describes ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ as ‘excessive anxiety and worry’, which the individual experiences and finds difficult to control for more days than not for at least six months. It is an uncontrollable worry that largely dominates the sufferer’s time, and usually defined by three or more symptoms, including ‘restlessness’, ‘being easily fatigued’, ‘difficulty concentrating or mind going blank’, ‘irritability’, ‘muscle tension’, and ‘sleep disturbance’. General anxiety concerns an excessive and painful ‘apprehensive expectation’ for an uncertain future event, rather than of the present, as in fear. The disorder isn’t simply a reflection of an individual struggling against unusual duress, but extends to an anxiety about even the most mundane of things, like completing household chores, being late for appointments, or of one’s inadequate performance as a worker or friend.

Depressed Britain

I wonder if the DSM-VI will propose it on a collective scale? These symptoms describe those of the precarious worker, exhausted, fed up, yet compelled to stay awake just to finish a little more work from home, screens stained by old microwave meals, spilt coffee and reminder notes about looming dates, gym reminders and so on. Depression and exhaustion are endemic and act as marks of an affective and immaterial economy where employment is now to be found in the services — retail, leisure, call-centres, cleaning, childcare, sex work — where an inflated mood, one indeed of motivation, is required, as the recent attention to ‘affect’ in critical theory is making clear. Individuality becomes another part of the service worker’s uniform. Recent reports detail increasing depression and anxiety: a 2003 survey by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that 10% of 15-54 year olds surveyed in the US had had an episode of ‘major depression’ in the last 12 months, with 17% of these over the course of their lifetimes; a figure echoing the 15.1% found in the UK to be suffering from ‘common mental disorders’ (stress, anxiety and depression) by the NHS’s most recent 2007 adult survey.

Further, women were twice as likely to suffer from depression in both the AMA and NHS Surveys — the 15.1% average comes from 12.5% in men, 19.7% in women (the real unrecorded numbers are probably higher, and this is still the most recent survey, based on symptoms in the last seven days). The NHS Survey also found that self-harm and suicidal behaviours in women had increased since 2000, with ‘being female’ at one point listed by the survey as a source of depression, without irony or sociological comment. Finally, one-fifth of all working days in Britain are estimated as lost due to anxiety and depression forcing workers to take time off, a very shaky estimate given the stigma and perceived weakness of openly telling managers of mental health problems; but given the current prospect of increasing working hours in Britain as labour regulations are further ‘liberalised’, this anxiety will only continue.

Given the general, non-personal causes of these common mental disorders, evidence beyond the obvious observations of one’s surroundings suggests that living standards are declining, affecting men and women differently, with a high suicide rate amongst men on the one hand — suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men aged 15-34 in England and Wales — and a higher incidence of depression among women on the other. Recent employment statistics demonstrate that women have been adversely affected by the large redundancies within the public services in the UK following the neoliberal austerity cuts, with a 2011 TUC report finding female unemployment had risen 0.5 points to its highest level since 1988. Single-parent families are largely led by females, who are struggling with reduced welfare support, inflation and reduced employment opportunities, while continually demonised by the right-wing media and Conservative governments as ‘feckless’ and irresponsible. Austerity becomes the state of exception of British neoliberalism, with the need for deficit cuts being used both by Thatcher and succeeding governments to further reduce welfare and support services whilst justifying wage freezes and unemployment, which adversely affect women.

Age of Anxiety?

Yet rather than restrict the medicalisation of social issues or universal experiences of human life, the DMS-5 instead created a number of new disorders like ‘disruptive mood disregulation disorder’, for temper tantrums and other wilful behaviour, and extending ‘major depressive disorder’ to include bereavement, against the advice and review of much of the medical establishment, including the producers of previous DSM manuals who have already much to answer for. (But, the influence of DSM should not be too over-stated: beyond the USA, many countries like the UK instead use the WHO International Classification of Diseases). No doubt major pharmaceutical companies will not fail in honourably and dispassionately servicing such individual maladies, and others such discovered in 2013.

In the UK antidepressant usage is rising year on year, more than any other item prescribed. Prescriptions tend to be highest in areas of greater social deprivation (particularly northern towns like Blackpool, Barnsley and Redcar), but with over 50 million such prescriptions dispensed in England alone in 2012, increasing on the previous year by 7.5%, their usage has become democratically universal. The OECD have found that mental health problems now cost the UK economy £70 billion a year, or 4.5% of GDP, primarily through productivity losses and disability payments. Concerned only for economic growth, even the world’s “smartest men” — the neoliberal economists — are starting to doubt the credibility of the UK’s recovery, with more workers reporting mental health disability (just under 40% of all new disability claims) than any other developed country. By 2020, the WHO predicts that depressive disorders will be the leading cause of disability and disease burden across the globe. Researchers have found that a poor material standard of living accounted for nearly 25% of cases of common mental disorder in 1998, a figure which, given increasing poverty, debt and social inequality, will have surely risen.

So is ours an age of anxiety? Previous generations have also claimed this thorny crown, particularly those ravaged by social and economic inequalities like the 1930s. Yet it is in these last few years more than most that anxiety, precarity, crisis and burnout have become regular keywords, and where continuous productivity, connectivity and alertness are demanded at all hours. To anyone who values the lives of other human beings over the growth of stocks, shares and tax-free profits, this situation should be appalling. It will also worsen. To continue insisting that the mass breakdown of workers into malfunctioning anxiety machines is down to some failure of the individual is either callous or blind. As a collective that prizes its own freedom and happiness, then, what is to be done? That old question we always ask and to which, like chronic depressives, we can never commit resolutely to any sure answer. Perhaps, like guerrilla fighters, we might re-purpose these underlying controls identified into weapons of change? Not through some juvenile dream of accelerating the contradictions of capitalism, nor through the perverse belief that university-press-published critical jargon will undo the grip of neoliberal ideology on the lives and hopes of the majority. No, no.

I wonder instead if we might take a cue from the cod-psychology of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), popular in management and popular life. Though rightly discredited by many experts, NLP considers that the human experience is entirely based on the individual’s cognitive ‘map’ of the world. This mind can be re-programmed to visualise and experience more positive ‘frames’ of mind. It has been adapted for mass audiences, with great success, by TV hypnotist and celebrity advisor Paul McKenna. It shares a number of underlying premises with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now one of the most common non-pharmaceutical mental health treatments in Britain, like the onus on the individual to internally manage and remedy negative associations and behaviours. In NLP, common to treatments of individual problems is the requirement to visualise and step into a positive future persona. By adopting and embodying more proactive states, usually by mimicking ‘successful’ figures or a more positive projected self-image, the individual gains confidence and power over themselves and their surroundings. Now what if we were to discard NLP’s neoliberal emphasis on the individual imagining a more positive future self, in favour of a collective imagining of a more positive future society? What would the coherent visualisation and supposition of such a society look like, feel like? A society where equality, liberty and justice were fully supported by institutions of democratic political organization that meaningfully gave citizens power and effectively safeguarded against corruption or military/police abuses? What would the features of these institutions be?

Collective Desire

Our brains and backs are tense and tired, our minds shattered and nerves shot by increasing demands by managers to do the impossible: increase our productivity, when what is produced is less necessary and of worse quality than before. The demand everywhere is the same: do it more, do it quicker, do it better! Never must we act, think, feel or simply be for what is good itself. Part of the problem is that the good itself is never presented or introduced, its possibility unthinkable. By the good I mean a sense of future, not just for oneself, working against difficult circumstances to survive or succeed, but a quality of life that all can democratically produce and enjoy together. Where the needs of society determine economic activity, and where an ethics of public service determine political conduct. Where the qualities of a flourishing society, like unions, welfare, asylum, populism, social service, council, and public are no longer pejorative terms. Instead, people with good intentions on the Left have become confused, like two lost travellers fighting over the interpretation of a map, either pointing blame at other activists, cynically taking the dollar of private finance for more short-term gain, or simply giving in. The exhaustion and depression that some activists are feeling also mirrors this wider dislocation of hope, the good, and a future, from our myriad cognitive maps.

As the basis of our future political activity, we should begin by thinking what is possible and what is desired. Transforming the way we work, live together, understand ourselves, and communicate with each other will require brave new ideas that adapt the benefits of these technologies to the prior wellbeing and welfare of each of us collectively. It won’t be easy. But given the fact that anxiety disorders, suicides and wider mental health problems are rising and becoming normalised to a fairly terrifying extent, I think it’s fair to give these a politicalexplanation. Rising anxiety disorders are connected to the growing pressure on workers to increase their productivity. It is encouraged by the growth of working from home, and smartphone technology, which irrevocably blur the work/life distinction. It is encouraged by the growing power (and pay) conferred to managers, to the rapid decline of workers rights, and of trade unions to legally resist these. It is an effect of the collapsing infrastructure of our communities and the loss of support services that once could help. Therefore, what could be done is to reverse each of these in turn: challenge and, how I dream it to be possible, overthrow governments that act only in the interests of large businesses. To fight for things like a fixed working day, a living wage, and to fight for massive increases in the resources given to support mental health problems. To discuss these things more openly, too — exhaustion is increasingly the norm. And then to politicise these experiences, and begin to dream together and work together to produce the kind of society where mass depression and collective anxiety are banished.

Today we are spent and we are broke, fit only for a few decades of underpaid labour before being cast aside by the markets as unproductive fodder. Things will worsen unless we politicise anxiety and depression, and start the fight to prioritise the welfare of our societies. Many of us feel paralysed, buckling under the pressure to keep it all together but knowing that the way we work — and live — is damaging us and our relationships. Globalisation of neoliberal political and economic practices is now creating an equality of insecurity and misery for all people, particularly the young, who have little chance of getting even a pension or affordable care in their final years. In such a moment of over-extended transition, where the credibility and legitimacy of the 0.01% has never looked weaker, what future is ours? It will be the future that we dream of, that we refuse to abandon, and that we cannot possibly entrust to the deceptive economic motives of our undemocratic elites. Societies must express collective desire or they will not be at all.