Sunshine Recorder

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.

A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death. Morality is the product of a civilization, but the elites know little of these traditions. They are products of moral void. They lack clarity about themselves and their culture. They can fathom only their own personal troubles. They do not see their own biases or the causes of their own frustrations. They are blind the gaping inadequacies of our economic, social, and political structures and do not grasp that these structures, which they have been taught to serve, must be radically modified or even abolished to stave of disaster. They have been rendered mute and ineffectual. ‘What we cannot speak about,’ Ludwig Wittgenstein warned, ‘we pass over in silence.’
— Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

(Source: shneevon)

Link: A Dictator's Guide to Urban Design

Ukraine’s Independence Square, and the revolutionary dimensions of public spaces.

Ukraine is the size of Texas, but for the last three months its burgeoning protest movement has largely crowded into the space of 10 city blocks.

The name for the movement itself, Euromaidan, is a neologism fusing the prefixeuro, a nod to the opposition’s desire to move closer to the EU and away from Russia, with the Ukrainian (and originally Persian and Arabic) word maidan, or public square. And the term is about more than situating the demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). Ukraine may be located in Europe geographically, but many of the protesters also see Europe as an idea, one that ”implies genuine democracy, trustworthy police and sincere respect for human rights.”

The name speaks to an increasingly universal phenomenon as well: the public square as an epicenter of democratic expression and protest, and the lack of one—or the deliberate manipulation of such a space—as a way for autocrats to squash dissent through urban design.

Not all revolutions have been centered in public squares, but many recent ones have, including several in former Soviet states. Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze from Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. Kyrgyz protesters seized Ala-Too Square from police in 2005, then promptly stormed the nearby presidential palace and ousted long-time President Askar Akayev. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 took place in the same Independence Square where protesters have now engaged in bloody clashes with government forces, wringing promises from President Viktor Yanukovych for early elections and a return to the 2004 constitution.

The symbolism of the public square gained new potency during the Arab Spring. An essayist writing in the heady days of the Egyptian revolution, shortly after Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011, eloquently explained how Tahrir Squarerepresented the broader repression of Egyptian civil society. The square wasoriginally built in the 19th century based on a “Paris on the Nile” design for Cairo, and renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square when it became a focal point for the Egyptian revolutions of 1919 and 1952:

Indeed, in the past few weeks Tahrir has became a truly public square. Before it was merely a big and busy traffic circle—and again, its limitations were the result of political design, of policies that not only discouraged but also prohibited public assembly. Under emergency law—established from the moment Mubarak took office in 1981 and yet to be lifted—a gathering of even a few adults in a public square would constitute cause for arrest. Like all autocracies, the Mubarak government understood the power of a true public square, of a place where citizens meet, mingle, promenade, gather, protest, perform and share ideas; it understood that a true midan—Arabic for public square—is a physical manifestation of democracy. A truly public Midan al-Tahrir would have been feared as a threat to regime security, and so over the years the state deployed the physical design of urban space as one of its chief means of discouraging democracy. 

In Tahrir this meant erecting fences and subdividing open areas into manageable plots of grass and sidewalks. To cite one prominent example: the large portion of the square that fronts the Egyptian museum was, until the 1960s, a grassy plaza with crisscrossing paths and a grand fountain. Here families and students would gather throughout the day; it was also a notorious meeting point for lovers on a date in the heart of the city. But in the 1970s, the government fenced off the area—and more, it never offered any clear explanation of what was to be the fate of this favorite meeting spot. Cairenes speculated that perhaps it was closed to allow for construction of the Cairo Metro or other infrastructure projects. Sometime in the past decade a sign appeared, announcing that a multi-level underground parking garage was being built. During the protests in Tahrir Square, activists took down the fence and used it to build barricades to protect themselves from the attacks of pro-Mubarak thugs—and the removal of the fence revealed that none of the promised construction had ever taken place. The area had been taken away from the public sphere precisely to avoid the possibility of large crowds congregating in Tahrir. Such was Mubarak’s urban planning legacy. 

Cairo’s layout also made Tahrir Square the perfect place to launch a revolution. Centrally located in Egypt’s largest city, Tahrir sits near the Egyptian parliament, Mubarak’s political party headquarters, the presidential palace, numerous foreign embassies, and hotels filled with international journalists to broadcast footage of the protests for audiences around the world. After Mubarak stepped down, large public squares in other Arab capitals became revolutionary battlegrounds as well.

For Libya, Tripoli’s main public square has come to symbolize the success of the country’s 2011 revolution. Originally named Piazza Italia under Italian colonial rule (Western European-inspired central squares are a common theme in this part of the world) and then Independence Square by the Libyan monarchy, it had been renamed “Green Square” after Muammar Qaddafi’s political ideology. Libya’s transitional government promptly renamed it Martyrs’ Square after those who died fighting Qaddafi’s regime in Libya’s civil war.

But these public spaces don’t always survive the revolutionary moments that make them famous. Bahrain’s most prominent public square (or circle) met the same fate as the uprising that once filled it. After demonstrators marched to Manana’s Pearl Roundabout in March 2011, the Bahraini government retook the circle in a bloody crackdown, then tore up the grass with backhoes and demolished the central Pearl Monument to reassert control.

In many ways, France pioneered the conscious use of urban design for political purposes. Paris in the early 19th century was essentially a medieval city, suffocating from overcrowding and poor infrastructure. Baron Haussmann’s urban renovations under Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s gave the City of Light a modern sewage system, beautiful suburban parks, and a network of train stations. He also took the opportunity to demolish unruly lower-class neighborhoods, banish their impoverished inhabitants to suburbs, and replace their cramped, narrow alleys with spacious, grand boulevards. In the event of an uprising, like those that took place in 1789, 1830, and 1848, French authoritieshoped the wider streets would be both harder for revolutionary Parisians to barricade and easier for columns of French soldiers to march through to suppress revolts.

Similar calculations are still made today. In 2005, Burma’s ruling junta moved the government from Yangon, a sprawling metropolis of 5 million people, to the new inland capital at Naypyidaw for security reasons. Isolated from other population centers, Naypyidaw is populated mostly by government functionaries and military officials who spend as little time as possible in the eerily desolate city. Burmese officials claim almost a million people live there, although the true population is likely far, far lower than that.

When the Saffron Revolution erupted two years later, in 2007, the large-scale protests that rocked other Burmese cities never took hold in Naypyidaw, and the country’s military rulers remained in power after a brief but brutal crackdown. Even if the city’s population had been large enough for demonstrations, where would they have taken place? Broad boulevards demarcate the specially designated neighborhoods where officials live, with no public square or central space for residents, unruly or otherwise, to congregate. A moat even surrounds the presidential palace. One journalist described the city as “dictatorship by cartography.”

Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, meanwhile, relocated his seat of power to Astana, a capital deep in the Kazakh steppe filled with futuristic architecture to dazzle visitors. Russian President Vladimir Putin looked to the past for inspiration: In 2008, he revived the Soviet tradition of massive military paradesin Moscow’s Red Square to project strength. Not blunt enough? Saudi authorities use Riyadh’s Deera Square to carry out official public beheadings.

Others are more subtle. In Pyongyang, the austere, imposing capital of the world’s last totalitarian state, conformity oozes from every hulking mass of concrete. Only the most loyal North Koreans areallowed to reside in the city’s many identical apartment blocks, a common characteristic of Stalinist urban design. North Korea’s largest city isdefined by the “large monuments of questionable taste [that] dot the cityscape … linked by absurdly wide Haussmannian boulevards and colossal public squares devoid of an actual public.” The abundant public space exists solely to glorify the state and the Kim regime’s personality cult.

If too much public space can be a bad thing, then China’s Tiananmen Square is the worst offender. The world’s fourth-largest square can paradoxically be considered “the opposite of a public space,” wrote Tim Waterman and Ed Wallin their book on landscape architecture. Tiananmen’s “totalitarian scale dwarfs the individual and forces them to feel subservient to the power of the state. It is a space best suited to parading troops and weaponry, not to active citizen participation in the daily life of a metropolis.” The 1989 tank-led suppression of pro-democracy activists occupying the square serves as a stark reminder of how mass demonstrations can fail.

Not all authoritarians are as adept at urban design. Romanian autocrat Nicolae Ceauşescu’s grandiose redesign of Bucharest in the 1980s obliterated one-fifth of the historic city to install a sprawling mess of concrete structures, including the world’s largest parliamentary building, which dominates Bucharest’s skyline. None of this stopped a massive crowd from turning against him during a speechin Revolution Square in December 1989. Days later, he was captured, convicted, and executed by firing squad.

In Cairo today, three years after the fall of Mubarak, the army appears to be pursuing pre-revolution normalcy. Crowds returned to Tahrir Square last summer and demanded the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president. He is currently on trial for inciting murder and using violence against protesters, while General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew Morsi, is expected to seek the Egyptian presidency. He will probably win.

Tahrir Square is now empty. Workers are busily erecting 10-foot-tall gates, adorned with spikes and painted in Egypt’s national colors, around the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution and the epicenter of the Arab Spring. Public squares can be cradles for democratic movements but, to paraphrase Tsiolkovsky, one cannot live in a cradle forever. Will Ukraine’s maidan meet a similar fate?

Link: Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will journalism catch up?

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

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

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

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

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

Exaggerating?

Yes, but I think that film stands up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for you, then?

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

There you go.

Link: Alain Badiou in Southern California: A Politics of the Impossible

This past december, French philosopher Alain Badiou gave a series of three talks in Southern California that collectively address one of the foremost questions of his vast body of work: How do we think the impossible? More urgently, how do we think the impossible at a time when what is “possible” is roughly delimited by the following: the self-perpetuating hegemony of global capitalism, the growing allure of the extreme right, the increasing trivialization of democratic politics, alarming economic disparity, and the notable apathy, even among the Left, about our conceptual dependence on stagnant liberal values? According to Badiou, these general features of the contemporary world are anything but postmodern and innovative. They are not, in a sense, novel or creative, but precisely laid out by Karl Marx in the 1860s, when the conservative reinstatement of state political and economic power quelled the continental revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Communism prophesized late capital; we are now living its full historical unfolding.

Yet, the dramatic increase in global inequality due to capitalism’s all-encompassing reach seems to have been traversed, in recent years, by something else: the stirrings of revolution, the possibility of actual rupture with the state of things and localized historical change. Badiou is no stranger to these forms of events. He is one of our last living continental philosophers (some of his more celebrated contemporaries include Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault) to have fully witnessed the growth of Western Marxism and its revolutionary capacity in the events of May 1968 in Paris, in which Charles de Gaulle’s government was nearly brought to a halt due to worker and student riots. Following this pivotal moment, Badiou remained committed to the militant communism of the Far Left — including the ideas of Mao Tse-tung, about whom he has written extensively — even as the idea of revolutionary Marxism began to severely wane in popularity during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. But now, given the visibility of recent events like the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, it would seem that things may take a turn, both within the academy and far more importantly, outside of it, toward what we can call a resurgence of radical politics after years of dormancy.

A number of fellow philosophers remain committed to a Marxist framework — Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière come to mind — but Badiou’s philosophy is quite distinct. He is a rigorously, at times dizzyingly axiomatic thinker, and is uniquely faithful to the notion of Truth, which he draws from Plato, a somewhat unconventional choice of philosophical predecessor. For Badiou, truths begin as the immanent subtraction to what there is. And what there is falls under the rubric of what Badiou names “democratic materialism”: that there are only bodies and languages, sights of enjoyment and suffering (the body), and a semiotic system in which meaning is produced (language). But for Badiou, truths exempt themselves from what there is: they erupt in the form of what he names an “event” and initiate the new and the formerly impossible.

Truths occur in the realm of four generic procedures, according to Badiou: art, science, politics, and love. Following Plato, he draws an important distinction between what knowledge and consciousness can conceive as the “new,” or what we may think is a “truth,” and the idea of the New, of a Truth. Truths are not merely exceptional in Badiou’s thinking, but singular: a truth never repeats what was formerly possible, and thereby always constitutes a break with the rules and limits for what defines possibility in its particular moment. Truth procedures are also singular because they paradoxically reveal their generic character: a Truth is something that can be shared by anyone, rather than merely seized for identitarian interests. Politics in Badiou’s work, for instance, do not refer to the party, the state, or politicians and their maneuvers, but to an idea (Politics) to which ordinary people can collectively be faithful and carry out.

Armed with these general concepts, a reader of Badiou’s work could go in a few different directions: toward the more abstract and somewhat daunting large books that have appeared in translation in the last 10 years — Being and EventTheory of the Subject, Logic of Worlds — or toward Badiou’s steady and short writings that respond directly to a contemporary world in crisis: his surprise hit in France, The Meaning of Sarkozy, a short piece in Le Monde on fanatical secularism, his prompt response to the protests in Taksim Square that concludes: “Long live the uprising of Turkish youth and their allies! Long live the creation of a new source of future politics!” Much continental philosophy of the last 50 to 60 years has been accused (and not without reason) of a certain obscurity and loftiness. But Badiou seems different, articulating passionate claims about the immediacy of politics in often crystalline terms. It’s no wonder that his popularity stateside appears to have grown exponentially beyond his initial appeal in his home country.

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In the first of his lectures (delivered at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), “Are we really in the Time of Revolts?” Badiou simply and schematically put our current century in perspective with the previous one. He maintained that since the French Revolution, history has played out as a number of social and political contradictions. Badiou drew from the Hegelian dialectic a concept that sees any synthesis or transcendence of terms as an overcoming of their inherently negative or antithetical relationship. But he is also deeply indebted to philosophical Maoism, which emphasizes the nature of division, conflict, and contradiction as the continuous and underlying state of the world. According to Badiou, our current world is defined by two contradictions: first, the division between capitalism and communism; and second, the scission of tradition and modernity. Each form proposes its own internal laws: capitalism commands individual freedom, organizes human relations under competition and private property, and maintains that equality is impossible. According to capitalism, any effort to realize equality will always be violent (Badiou cited the former USSR as a paradigmatic example of this notion). On the other hand, communism does not affirm private property, or competition, or even the state as natural givens.

Another contradiction arises from the schism between tradition and modernity that roughly begins after the Enlightenment. Sedimented identities from the past are typically contained within the notion of tradition — religious, familial, ideological — placing the truth of the present in the past. In this way, tradition opposes innovation; its purpose is to repeat and transmit itself. Modernity wants to further itself as well, but as novelty rather than as pure repetition. Badiou claimed that in the 19th century, tradition aligned with capital (the interests of the bourgeoisie) and modernity with communism (the novel ideas of Marx and Engels). However, in the following era, we find these conflicts creating new and terrifying torsions among themselves: the fascist state, which sought to further genocidal identitarianism within capitalism, and the Stalinist state, whose only claim to novelty was a monstrous version of itself.

Which brings us to our current, and most complex set of entanglements. What is going on now, Badiou suggested, is a particular determination that there is no other kind of modernity than the one that capitalism provides. This is the dominant configuration of the Western world — we don’t have an anti-capitalist modernity that is clear to all. Instead, efforts to enact “strong” change (Badiou cited all recent uprisings, from Occupy to the ongoing situation in Egypt) end up internally fractured by the division between the traditional and the modern. We therefore must propose a rupture between capitalism and modernity, a kind of strong future rather than (to cite Badiou’s own pun on a different vision of human development) “no future.”

It is at this point that many may (and indeed have) taken issue with Badiou’s thought: How can relentless abstraction, and an intimate engagement with ideality, produce a concrete and practical vision of the “new” in the future? Isn’t retrospection really the only affirmation of what is a truth, and what is not? And didn’t Hegel and Mao both teach us that moving past existing contradictions requires something of the suspicious and mystical order of “purification” and, indeed, destruction?

I think that while Badiou’s philosophical writings can be dense, and often difficult to parse in practical terms, his lectures remain full of vibrant and extremely compelling claims. He argues for example that capitalism constructs our notion of what individual freedom is, and that a definition of freedom must affirm equality against capitalism itself, rather than in its service. Or the idea, crucial to the position of the Left today, that we need to elaborate critiques of old forms of political extremes (the fascist state, the communist state) that are different from capitalism’s own critiques of the same entities. Without forms of critique that don’t draw on the language of modern capital, we risk sliding into tautology, repeating capitalism’s subtle but all-encompassing grasp on the definition of our humanism.

In his book The Century, Badiou likens the 20th century — with its simultaneous movements of mass horror and intellectual inventiveness — to an image drawn from Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s poem “The Age.” It is the image of a beast looking history squarely in the eye, producing terror through the acts of thinking and self-reflection itself. If this is the case for the recent past, what then, will the 21st century ultimately look like?

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Badiou’s second talk, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), followed up on this strange notion of necessary, but excessive and unbearable terror: the idea of the Real. The Real is crucial to one of Badiou’s main predecessors, Jacques Lacan’s, psychoanalytic thought. It is also an idea that many readers find to be missing in Badiou’s work. But in his lecture, “What is the Real?” Badiou considered the Real as the main current for thinking the impossible, and in some ways, for conceiving the space of emancipatory politics.

In Lacanian theory, the real designates what is excessive, unbearable, but also fundamental to subjectivity. The real resists all symbolization, and it is therefore to be distinguished from reality itself, to which it bears no relationship. In order to “touch” or experience the real we would have to surrender the comfortable distance that symbolization (or language) offers us. Nevertheless, Lacan increasingly suggested that mathematical formalization, or what he calls the “matheme,” bore an opening to the real. While it initially appears counterintuitive to claim that, of all things, mathematics, the discipline of proofs and certainty, can unlock this point of the unconceivable, it is worth remembering (as Badiou faithfully maintains) that math is pure presentation. It does not partake in the gap in which language and signification by necessity must ground themselves (a word stand as a placeholder for what is ultimately absent: the thing that it names, but numbers do not designate anything but themselves). Furthermore, mathematics’ seeming finiteness (countable numbers, ordering, rules) belies its extraordinary relationship to infinity (numbers are infinite, so is the void that grounds them): the closest thing we may have (outside of theology) to the “impossible.” For Badiou, infinity as a condition of numbers, and their ultimate possibility, offers a kind of truth of the real.

How can this help us understand contemporary politics? It’s a bit of jump from abstract thinking to the realm of the political, but according to Badiou, if the real is generally what cannot be inscribed inside any kind of formalization, but is a necessary impossibility for form to exist, revolution acts a kind of “real” to the bare reality of the state. Revolution — a rupture with the “finitude” of the state — inaugurates infinity, albeit often terrifyingly and unexpectedly. The political real is thus much more than simply a form of non-meaning. It takes on the resonance of an “act” which subtracts itself from the laws of what is currently possible in any given state-based political situation or reality. For Badiou this act always means declaring equality — capitalism’s point of impossibility — an actual principle. The real is first and foremost an affirmation that “the impossible exists.”

Poetry showcases another opening to the real in Badiou’s thought, a violent struggle for it that he considers “prophetic.” The second half of Badiou’s talk focused on an elegy of sorts for Antonio Gramsci by the Italian poet and essayist Pier Paolo Pasolini entitled “The Ashes of Gramsci.” Buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, a resting place for all exiles, minorities, and general “heretics” to the Catholic state, Gramsci and his death represent for Pasolini an escape into the real. Because his death is so radically removed from all socially sanctioned forms of political life, Gramsci appears outside the state, though for Pasolini he cannot be forgotten, and he leaves traces that can only be thought through in poetic, rather than narrative language. This, for Badiou, is a kind of affirmation of the real.

The issue here is Pasolini’s overtly “tragic” grasp of the real. The poem is no doubt beautiful, poignant, and it pursues something that cannot be fully made clear in prose or description, something we could call “the real.” But there does seem to be an element in Badiou’s reading of Pasolini that gestures toward an obituary for the past: a century that strove for the real, whose own avant-garde managed to let it down.

While Badiou’s discussion of the poetic real in Pasolini seemed less congruent than his opening account of the real of mathematics, the message seems clear: radical thought should be uncompromising and ceaseless, driven toward an absolute, even if that means, as is the case for Pasolini’s vision of Gramsci, that one is exposed to failure. But it also need not be destructive and given to the endless movements of negation. Badiou’s most compelling assertion is that contrary to what we might want to believe, opening ourselves to the real can and should be “joyous.”

Badiou’s final talk, “Theater and Philosophy,” also delivered at UCLA, engaged with the most communal and therefore vital of art forms: drama. Having written a number of plays and commentary on theater since the 1960s, Badiou seems, in some ways, most at ease discussing theater and its relevance to philosophical thought. This final lecture focused on the distinction between Badiou’s preferred thinker, Plato, and everyone else’s favorite, Aristotle. While all of Plato’s writings are in the form of dialogues, a kind of theater, Aristotle inaugurates the chosen format for most philosophical work up until the present day: the academic treatise. But while Plato vehemently cautions against epic poetry and dramatic poetry (forms of theater) in The Republic, for instance, Aristotle maintains the quiet difference between theater and philosophy that should allow both to exist, albeit separately. Aristotelian theater purifies through catharsis, and therefore engages the audience in momentary terror and identification. For the audience, this movement facilitates a complete return from the limits of theatrical excess back to “normal” subjectivity (finally purged of its extreme desires and horrors). But philosophy is notably different: it is objective, and driven by reason.

In some ways, Badiou took us back to the origin of aesthetics in Western thought to consider what art can tell us about political life. Aristotle is at peace with theater, in a finally “indifferent” way. Plato’s version of theater is prone to corruption by dominant opinion, and is therefore dangerous. But it is also a movement and an action, the goal of which is to transform subjectivity. Plato is therefore suspicious of any therapeutic effect theater may have, since it is a movement of thinking, and not an act of representation that buries its own phantasms. Which is why, for Badiou, Plato’s theater is ultimately the “progressive possibility of the impossible.” Rather than a quiet reconciliation, it is the language of violent contradiction, of the engine of the dialectic itself. Like the ideas theater articulates in Plato’s work, theater is “luminous,” pleasurable, and active. And it reaches, most important, toward a truth.

Theater allows Badiou to consider a fundamental question put forth by the origins of philosophy: What is the ideal of existence? A good life or a true life? An acceptance of what exists, or a subjective will to change the world? Or, put another way, we can be at peace with the world as it is, and others as they are, or make a choice — necessarily discontinuous, of the order of rupture — for what must exist: namely the impossible.

+++

Badiou has become a bona fide celebrity in the philosophy world, enough so that his lectures begin to attract not just students and academics but quasi-leftists of all persuasions.  While many could claim that renewed talk of revolutionary politics is at the end of the day merely armchair radicalism, democratizing philosophy is still crucial to not reproducing the Left’s death grip on its own cultural capital. For this reason alone, it worth considering Badiou’s continued efforts to make the idea of communism more than just a far-off dream with no definite contours. It points us in the direction of collective affirmation that can be at once political, aesthetic, deeply personal, and finally revolutionary.

Link: Being Gay in Russia

What the two men in this photograph are doing is now illegal in Russia. Amidst an alarming—and frequently violent— government crackdown, being out, or simply supporting gays and lesbians, can now get you thrown in jail, beaten up, or worse. On the eve of the Sochi Olympics, Jeff Sharlet embeds with the new enemies of the state and reports on life in the Russian underground.

Sunday nights in St. Petersburg are Rainbow Tea Party time. If you’re young and queer and hopeful, it’s the happiest way to end a weekend. An actual tea party. There are also cookies and—at LaSky, the HIV-awareness center that often hosts the event—more brightly colored giant beanbags than chairs, plus a lot of posters of hunky bare-chested men with floppy hair. There are many, many rainbows, on stickers and pins and brochures, and a rainbow curtain covering a strange little door in the corner.

The door leads to a club called Bunker, which is really a maze, twisting through the rest of the building’s vast basement. It’s dark; you have to feel your way through. The men who go to Bunker—many or maybe most of them “straight” men, married men, says the bartender—are looking for bodies, not faces. They don’t want to see or be seen, only to touch and to be touched in a place where nobody knows them.

Those are the choices: light or dark, tea or poppers, a well-lit game of charades or a grope in the dungeon. Sweet or sordid, it doesn’t matter: In Russia now—in the throes of a fever stoked by the Kremlin—both must be hidden. They are not hidden well enough.

One evening in November—the city center like a bowl of pastel candies, Orthodox onion-domes rising above it like spun sugar—two strangers found their way to LaSky. They walked down a long street between a busy road and a canal until they came to an arch in a building. They went through the arch and down a dark alley before they arrived at an unlit empty parking lot, blacktop crumbling. Here they may have stopped to put on their masks. They crossed the lot toward a stand of scrub trees and weeds and took a left down a narrow path, then down an even darker set of uneven stairs to an unmarked steel door. The strangers stood at the threshold.

It was Rainbow Tea Party night. A woman named Anna asked who was there. “We’re looking for our friend!” replied one of the strangers. They shoved past her. In the hall, a man named Dmitry Chizhevsky was looking for his jacket. Behind him was a girl I’ll call Rose, a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday. Rose glanced toward the door: two men wearing ski masks. “Then,” she says, “they started shooting.” Chizhevsky: “The first bullet came into my eye. The first, the very first.” Rose: “I had a thought in my head—maybe I should do something, maybe I should scream.” Chizhevsky: “I can remember more closely what was audio.” Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, he recalls hearing. Five, he thinks. He says he remembers the sound of the bullet hitting his eye.

Dmitry went down, and Rose ran, and Dmitry crawled. The men followed, kicking. One of them had a bat, “a baseball bat, yes,” says Dmitry. They were screaming. “Faggot, faggot, faggot.” The bat came down. And then the faggots in the other room charged the men with the gun and the bat and the masks, and the men ran away. Dmitry and Anna, who’d been shot in the back, inspected their wounds. An air gun, they determined. Thank God.

They say you can shoot an eye out with an air gun, but that’s not exactly what happened. The pellet, a round metal ball, lodged behind Dmitry’s eye.

"They tried with a magnet to take it out," says Dmitry. "But, uh, they failed."

What did they try next?

"A hook."

The doctors told him he was lucky; a little farther, it would have entered his brain. All he’d lose would be his vision.

+++

I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg for two weeks in November because the Olympics were coming to Russia, and for a brief moment it seemed possible that the outside world was interested in the unraveling of civil society in one of the most powerful countries on the globe. Books are being banned—Burroughs and Baudelaire and Huxley’s Brave New World—immigrants hunted, journalists killed, a riot-grrrl band, Pussy Riot, imprisoned for almost two years for playing a “Punk Prayer” in a Moscow cathedral; blasphemy is now illegal. Civil society isn’t just coming undone; it’s imploding. I wanted to visit the bottom of the heap. The golubye. The blues, which in Russia is another word for queer—any way of being other than “Russian,” which, under President Vladimir Putin, has become a kind of sexual orientation. I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that “homosexualism” is a threat to its “sexual sovereignty,” that “genderless tolerance,” in Putin’s words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. The medicine is that of “traditional values,” a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.

One of the first men I met was Alex, a gay police officer who’d recently quit his job rather than enforce Russia’s new anti-gay law. He wasn’t always so principled: One of Alex’s early assignments on the force was snooping through a fellow officer’s computer for evidence of homosexuality. “I was just lucky it wasn’t my computer,” Alex said one night at a café on Arbat Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare of consumer hipsterism.

His boyfriend wasn’t as glib: “It’s Germany in the ’30s,” he declared. “Hush, hush,” Alex said. “Not so loud.” It’s not Germany in the ’30s, he said; it’s Russia now. And that’s a subtler problem.

Yes, there are killings. In May, a 23-year-old man in Volgograd allegedly came out to a group of friends, who raped him with beer bottles and smashed his skull in with a stone; and in June a group of friends in Kamchatka kicked and stabbed to death a 39-year-old gay man, then burned the body. There’s a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their “interrogations” online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God’s Will) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims.

But such people exist everywhere, said Alex. The difference in Russia now is who’s standing behind them.

The Russian closet has always been deep, but since last June, when the Duma began passing laws designed to shove Russia’s tiny out population back into it, the closet has been getting darker. The first law banned gay “propaganda,” but it was written so as to leave the definition vague. It’s a mechanism of thought control, its target not so much gays as anybody the state declares gay; a virtual resurrection of Article 70 from the old Soviet system, forbidding “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Then, as now, nobody knew exactly what “propaganda” was. The new law explicitly forbids any suggestion that queer love is equal to that of heterosexuals, but what constitutes such a suggestion? One man was charged for holding up a sign that said being gay is ok. Pride parades are out of the question, a pink triangle enough to get you arrested, if not beaten. A couple holding hands could be accused of propaganda if they do so where a minor might see them; the law, as framed, is all about protecting the children. Yelena Mizulina, chair of the Duma Committee on Family, Women, and Children’s Affairs and the author of the bill, says that it’s too late to save adult “homosexualists,” as they’re called, but Russia still has a chance to raise a pure generation.

Mizulina’s dream isn’t old-fashioned; it is, as one fascist supporter told me, “utopian.” He meant that as praise. And the Russian dream is not alone. Liberal Americans imagine LGBT rights as slowly but surely marching forward. But queer rights don’t advance along a straight line. In Russia and throughout Eastern Europe—and in India and in Australia, in a belt across Central Africa—anti-gay crusaders are developing new laws and sharpening old ones. The ideas, meanwhile, are American: the rhetoric of “family values” churned out by right-wing American think tanks, bizarre statistics to prove that evil is a fact, its face a gay one. This hatred is old venom, but its weaponization by nations as a means with which to fight “globalization”—not the economic kind, the human-rights kind—is a new terror.

In Russia, the process is accelerating. In 2006, a bill similar to the law was laughed out of the Duma, dismissed by the then deputy prime minister as “a row of mistakes.” In June it passed, 436-0. Alex the cop says 2010 was the best year, a new club or café opening every other weekend. New LGBT groups were forming all over. “It was like a party,” one activist told me. What happened between then and now has as much to do with the unstable price of oil and Putin’s eroding popular support as it does with actual queer people. The less prosperity Putin can deliver, the more he speaks of holy Russian empire, language to which the Russian Orthodox Church thrills. Putin, says Patriarch Kirill, the church’s leader, is a living “act of God.” Forget about the price of bread and what you can’t afford. Putin has come to save the Russian soul.

Article 6.21, the law’s official designation, has proven to be the Duma’s most popular social initiative of the year; according to one poll, only 7 percent of Russians firmly oppose it. Another new law requiring nonprofits that receive support outside Russia to register as foreign agents has been used to justify police raids on the country’s leading LGBT organizations. In July, Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children by gay parents abroad.

And in October, the Duma started to take up a law to remove children from LGBT parents in Russia. It’s been put on hold, but it’s expected to return once the Olympics and international scrutiny have passed.

"The problem is bigger than laws," a gay activist named Igor Iasine told me, tracing a line through his beard where neo-Nazis had broken his jaw. "The law is icing on the cake."

For Dmitry Kiselyov, the director of Russia’s massive new state media corporation—created in December to swallow up state media entities that show any hint of autonomy—laws are not enough. He’s concerned about organ donors, the possibility of a queer heart beating in a straight body.

When homosexuals die, he says, “their hearts should be burned.”

+++

"I haven’t heard of these laws, but I think it’s fine,” a kid named Kirill tells me at a hidden gay club called Secrets. “We don’t need gay pride here. Why do we need to show our orientation?” He shrugs. He has heard of the torture videos popular online, the gangs that kidnap gays, the police that arrest gays, the babushkas with their eggs and their stones. But he hasn’t seen them. He prefers not to. “Everybody wants to emigrate, but not me.” He shrugs again; it’s like a tic. “I love Russia. This is their experience, not mine.” He says he does not know what the word closet means.

+++

"Something Is Coming"

In an upper-middle-class neighborhood close to Moscow’s city center, two apartments face each other. Two families, two daughters. They leave the doors open to allow easy access from one to the other.

Pavelmet Irina not long after he moved to Moscow twelve years ago, and almost immediately he knew that someday he’d start a family with her. Irina felt it, too. They agreed on it one night over vodka, after a night of clubbing. The party had moved back to an apartment, where they kept drinking, Irina teasing Pavel, Pavel marveling at Irina’s bold friends. She was a Muscovite; Pavel had come from one of those distant eastern cities, 4,000 miles from Moscow. Irina was six years younger, but she was his teacher, teaching him how to be silly and modern and free. They drank and danced, Pavel discovering his hips, until they both collapsed around a kitchen table and, over more vodka, Pavel tried to be funny and Irina thought he was, so she said, “Someday I would like to have a child with you.” Pavel said, “I feel the same.”

Suddenly they were sober, giddy but clear: They knew it was true. But they had to wait. To have children is a great responsibility, Pavel thought. You have to have a place to live. You have to earn. You have to have a partner you can rely on. In 2010, they were ready. Their best friends, Nik and Zoya, were having a baby, too, and they lived right next door. Their children would grow up together. Two little girls: Nik and Zoya’s Kristina, and then Pavel and Irina’s Emma.

Now they are one big happy family, inseparable. Pavel has always been great with kids. He likes to read the girls Russian fairy tales, and he buys DVDs of old Russian cartoons, the ones he was raised on. They watch them together. The girls toddle between the apartments through the open doors. Pavel thinks little blonde Kristina looks like an angel. Emma’s darker, serious like her father. Both girls call him PapaThe children share a nanny, too, who helps the parents with light cleaning, dishes, and dusting, making sure all the family pictures are in place.

"Nobody would suspect us," Pavel says. Not even the nanny.

Pavel’s secret isn’t that he’s gay. It’s that they all are, the adults: Pavel and Nik and Irina and Zoya. Both girls have two mothers, two fathers; they have beds in both apartments. Their life together was, until recently, the fulfillment of all that Pavel had wanted, an ambition that had come to him at almost the same moment he’d realized he was gay: to be “normal.” If he were normal, he thought, then he could be a father. “That,” he tells me, “has been my precious dream.”

+++

Pavel agrees to talk to me because soon, he fears, the laws that have passed and the laws to come may make it impossible to hide. I’m told to meet him at a metro station. When I arrive—with my translator, Zhenya, a gay activist—no one is there. A phone call from a mutual friend directs us through the empty station, around a corner, and down some stairs to a basement restaurant, Georgian cuisine, a man in a corner with a bottle of white wine. Is this—? Yes. He smiles. We sit down.

"Something is coming," says Pavel. What it will be, he’s not sure. He’s worried about "special departments" in local police stations, dedicated to removing children from gay homes. He’s worried about a co-worker discovering him. He is worried about blackmail. He is worried, and he does not know what else to do. He wishes he could fight, but he doesn’t know how. Sign a petition? March in a parade? Pavel would never do that now. "My children," he murmurs.

"This law," he says, referring to the ban on "propaganda." "If something happens, it touches only me. And I can protect myself." But the next law: "This is about my child. My baby." If the next law passes, they will leave. The two women are doctors and Nik works in higher education, careers that will require new certification. Which means that only Pavel, a manager for the state oil company, will be able to work right away. They will be poor, but they will leave. They might have to separate, Pavel and Irina and Emma to Israel, where Irina can become a citizen, Nik and Zoya and Kristina to any country that will take them. They might have to become the couples they pretend to be. For now, they are staying. "We’re going to teach them," he says of his two little girls, Emma and Kristina. "How to protect themselves. How to keep silence."

This is how the law really works: It’s the little things that break first. Like a child who wants to call her father Papa. “Father can be only one,” Pavel tells Kristina. She can never call him Papa again. If someone overheard her… No, not even at home. She must forget that was ever his name. “I can be anybody but Father,” he tells the girl he used to call daughter.


"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" by Adam Curtis
A series of films about how humans have been colonized by the machines they have built. Although we don’t realize it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers. It claims that computers have failed to liberate us and instead have distorted and simplified our view of the world around us.
1. Love and Power. This is the story of the dream that rose up in the 1990s that computers could create a new kind of stable world. They would bring about a new kind global capitalism free of all risk and without the boom and bust of the past. They would also abolish political power and create a new kind of democracy through the Internet where millions of individuals would be connected as nodes in cybernetic systems - without hierarchy.
2. The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts. This is the story of how our modern scientific idea of nature, the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a machine fantasy. It has little to do with the real complexity of nature. It is based on cybernetic ideas that were projected on to nature in the 1950s by ambitious scientists. A static machine theory of order that sees humans, and everything else on the planet, as components - cogs - in a system.
3. The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey. This episode looks at why we humans find this machine vision so beguiling. The film argues it is because all political dreams of changing the world for the better seem to have failed - so we have retreated into machine-fantasies that say we have no control over our actions because they excuse our failure.

"All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" by Adam Curtis

A series of films about how humans have been colonized by the machines they have built. Although we don’t realize it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers. It claims that computers have failed to liberate us and instead have distorted and simplified our view of the world around us.

1. Love and Power. This is the story of the dream that rose up in the 1990s that computers could create a new kind of stable world. They would bring about a new kind global capitalism free of all risk and without the boom and bust of the past. They would also abolish political power and create a new kind of democracy through the Internet where millions of individuals would be connected as nodes in cybernetic systems - without hierarchy.

2. The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts. This is the story of how our modern scientific idea of nature, the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a machine fantasy. It has little to do with the real complexity of nature. It is based on cybernetic ideas that were projected on to nature in the 1950s by ambitious scientists. A static machine theory of order that sees humans, and everything else on the planet, as components - cogs - in a system.

3. The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey. This episode looks at why we humans find this machine vision so beguiling. The film argues it is because all political dreams of changing the world for the better seem to have failed - so we have retreated into machine-fantasies that say we have no control over our actions because they excuse our failure.

Link: George Monbiot on Freedom

"Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves, but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves?"

The question has changed a little since Rousseau's day, but the mystery remains. Why, when most of us now possess greater freedom than almost any preceding generation has enjoyed – freedom from tyranny, freedom from slavery, freedom from hunger – do we act as if we don't?

I’m prompted to ask by the discovery that the most illiberal and oppressive instrument proposed by any recent government – injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance in the antisocial behaviour bill – has been attacked by Labour not because it is draconian but because it is not draconian enough. The measure was decisively rejected by the Lords last week. But if the government tries to restore this monstrous proposal in the Commons next month, Labour is likely to insist only that it is too timid.

Why do we tolerate a politics that offers no effective choice? That operates largely at the behest of millionaire funders, corporate power and a bullying media? Why, in an age in which people are no longer tortured and executed for criticising those in power, have we failed to create viable alternatives?

In the US Congress this year, for the first time a majority of members are millionaires. As the representatives become richer, the laws they pass ensure that they exercise ever less power over the rich and ever more power over the poor. Yet, as the Center for Responsive Politics notes, “there’s been no change in our appetite to elect affluent politicians to represent our concerns in Washington”.

We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats; as the biosphere is trashed; as public services are killed or given to corporations; as workers are dragooned into zero-hours contracts. Though there are a few wonderful exceptions, on the whole protest is muted and alternatives are shrugged away without examination. How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?

The question is not confined to politics. Almost universally we now seem content to lead a proxy life, a counter-life, of vicarious, illusory relationships, of secondhand pleasures, of atomisation without individuation. Those who possess some disposable income are extraordinarily free, by comparison to almost all our great-grandparents, but we tend to act as if we have been placed under house arrest. With the amount most of us spend on home entertainment, we could probably buy a horse and play buzkashi every weekend. But we would rather stare at an illuminated box, watching other people jumping up and down and screaming. Our political constraint is one aspect of a wider inhibition, a wider failure to be free.

I’m not talking about thinktank freedoms here: the freedom of billionaires not to pay their taxes, of corporations to pollute the atmosphere or induce children to smoke, of landlords to exploit their tenants. We should respect the prohibitive decencies we owe to others. But there are plenty of freedoms we can exercise without diminishing other people’s.

Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves, but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts? How many would have guessed that people possessed of unimaginable wealth and leisure and liberty would spend their time shopping for onion goggles and wheatgrass juicers? Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.

A few years ago, a friend explained how depressed he had become while trying to find a stimulating partner through online dating sites. He kept stumbling across the same phrase, used verbatim by dozens of the women he looked up. “I like nothing better than a night in on the sofa with a glass of red and a good DVD.” The horror he felt arose not so much from the preference as from its repetition: “the failure to grasp the possibilities of self-differentiation”.

I wrote to him last week to see if anything had changed. Yes: he has now tumbled into the vortex that dismayed him. He dated 18 women in 2013, seeking “the short sharp hit which keeps you coming back despite the fact that the experience taken as a whole does not add up to anything worth having. My life … is beginning to dance to the internet rhythm of desire satiated immediately and thinly”. In seeking someone who was not trapped on the hedonic treadmill, he became trapped on the hedonic treadmill.

Could it be this – the immediate satisfaction of desire, the readiness with which we can find comfort – that deprives us of greater freedoms? Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?

If so, it is a habit learned early and learned hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors. We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them.

De Tocqueville made a similar point about democracy: it threatens to enclose each of us “entirely in the solitude of his own heart”. The freedoms it grants us destroy the desire to combine and to organise. To judge by our reluctance to create sustained alternatives, we wish neither to belong nor to deviate.

It is not hard to see how our elective impotence leads before long to tyranny. Without coherent popular movements, which are required to prevent opposition parties from falling into the clutches of millionaires and corporate lobbyists, almost any government would be tempted to engineer a nominally democratic police state. Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose. But we seem to have forgotten what it means.