Archive for the ‘Fascism’ Category

The Coming Insurrection?

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Signandsight seems somewhat unamused by a pamphlet that goes by the name of the The Coming Insurrection:

"The text is a form of re-import. Much of it stems directly – not from Houellebecq – as Rühle and Minkmar blindly copy from the France correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, but from the Nazi-tainted theorists Heidegger and Carl Schmitt.

These influences are also present through their most zealous imitator, Giorgio Agamben, in the explicit reference to his book "The Coming Community". Agamben and the two Germans are held in unquestioning veneration as father figures in the world of coming insurrections.

In this intellectual milieu it is commonplace to interpret the everyday life, and especially the everyday technological life of western democracy as totalitarian; it is the principle rhetorical device of this text and one to which the SZ article unwittingly alludes. In 1948 Heidegger raged: "Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps." And in 1995, the Heidegger student Agamben wrote in his magnum opus "Homo sacer": "In modern democracies it is possible to state in public what Nazi biopoliticians did not dare to say. " With the help of Carl Schmitt’s theories on the "state of emergency" and Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, he places human rights and race laws, intensive care units and concentration camps on a par.

It is not only Agamben’s friendship with Julian Coupat, the likely author of "The Coming Insurrection" that locates it within this school of thought. The book is a practical – and alarmingly naive – translation of Agamben’s theories. The way to combat the so-called “normalisation of life” in modern societies, is to seek out invigorating salvation in a "state of emergency", a far cry from democracy, rule of law and the market economy – this idea of a better age minus all coordinates of the present day comes from Schmitt and Heidegger, as does the search for hidden totalitarianism within democracy. The latter was a strategical necessity for both Nazi theorists, in order retroactively to relativise their collaboration. No one can seriously claim these are "left-wing" ideas."

The parallels to Heidegger aren’t without merit, but the problem is that the text does read as far-left (its condemnation of democracy being largely predicated on describing it as an incubator for fascism). While Heidegger did dislike modern technological and industrial societies, that dislike did not manifest in Nazism itself, while Heidegger was far from calling for the establishment of communes. If there are parallels to far-right ideas, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that there differences were overstated in the first place. The attitude to violence in the text is Zizekian, the attitude to power and the self Foucauldean and the attitude towards revolution recalls Deleuze. Here’s a summary of what the text actually says:

"The sphere of political representation has come to a close. From left to right, it’s the same nothingness striking the pose of an emperor or a savior, the same sales assistants adjusting their discourse according to the findings of the latest surveys… Europe is now a continent gone broke that shops secretly at discount stores and has to fly budget airlines if it wants to travel at all. No "problems" framed in social terms admit of a solution. The questions of "pensions," of "job security," of "young people" and their "violence" can only be held in suspense while the situation these words serve to cover up is continually policed for signs of further unrest… As an attempted solution, the pressure to ensure that nothing happens, together with police surveillance of the territory, will only intensify.

The more I want to be me, the more I feel an emptiness. The more I express myself, the more I am drained. The more I run after myself, the more tired I get. We cling to our self like a coveted job title. We’ve become our own representatives in a strange commerce, guarantors of a personalization that feels, in the end, a lot more like an amputation. We insure our selves to the point of bankruptcy, with a more or less disguised clumsiness… France wouldn’t be the land of anxiety pills that it’s become, the paradise of anti-depressants, the Mecca of neurosis, if it weren’t also the European champion of hourly productivity. Sickness, fatigue, depression, can be seen as the individual symptoms of what needs to be cured.

In reality, the decomposition of all social forms is a blessing. It is for us the ideal condition for a wild, massive experimentation with new arrangements, new fidelities. The famous "parental resignation" has imposed on us a confrontation with the world that demands a precocious lucidity, and foreshadows lovely revolts to come. In the death of the couple, we see the birth of troubling forms of collective affectivity, now that sex is all used up and masculinity and femininity parade around in such moth-eaten clothes, now that three decades of non-stop pornographic innovation have exhausted all the allure of transgression and liberation.

Here lies the present paradox: work has totally triumphed over all other ways of existing, at the very moment when workers have become superfluous. Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product. In corporations, work is divided in an increasingly visible way into highly skilled positions of research, conception, control, coordination and communication which deploy all the knowledge necessary for the new, cybernetic production process, and unskilled positions for the maintenance and surveillance of this process. The first are few in number, very well paid and thus so coveted that the minority who occupy these positions will do anything to avoid losing them. They and their work are effectively bound in one anguished embrace.

Thirty years of "crisis," mass unemployment and flagging growth, and they still want us to believe in the economy. We have to see that the economy is not "in" crisis, the economy is itself the crisis. Nobody respects money anymore, neither those who have it nor those who don’t. When asked what they want to be some day, twenty percent of young Germans answer "artist." Work is no longer endured as a given of the human condition. The accounting departments of corporations confess that they have no idea where value comes from. The market’s bad reputation would have done it in a decade ago if not for the bluster and fury, not to mention the deep pockets, of its apologists. It is common sense now to see progress as synonymous with disaster.

There is no "clash of civilizations." There is a clinically dead civilization kept alive by all sorts of life-support machines that spread a peculiar plague into the planet’s atmosphere. At this point it can no longer believe in a single one of its own "values", and any affirmation of them is considered an impudent act, a provocation that should and must be taken apart, deconstructed, and returned to a state of doubt. Today Western imperialism is the imperialism of relativism, of the "it all depends on your point of view." No social order can securely found itself on the principle that nothing is true.

Brechtian Dialectics

Monday, May 26th, 2008

On the one hand:

"Brecht… was a communist writer, not a writer who happened to support communism. The normal injunction to never judge an artist by his or her politics is an insult to his ghost because politics dominated his work. The Good Soul of Szechuan ends with the narrator asking if it is possible to lead a good life in a rotten world. The expected, indeed demanded, answer is "no". Individual morality will only be possible when the collective morality of communism comes.

Nothing, not the mountains of corpses or the cults of the personality, could shake Brecht’s confidence. He preferred silence about the vast crimes of the Bolsheviks, including the murders of his friends and translators, to admitting that his god had failed… The American socialist Sidney Hook put the case for indifference best after Brecht came to dinner in Manhattan in the mid-Thirties. Stalin was forcing thousands of Soviet communists to confess to fantastic crimes, and Hook asked Brecht what he thought of the show trials. It was at this point that he said in words I have never forgotten, ‘As for them, the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot.’ I was so taken aback that I thought I had misheard him."

And on the other:

"It’s strange how forgiving we are of artists who were involved with Hitler’s Third Reich. In 1933, Goebbels appointed the composer Richard Strauss – whose dreamily decadent operas Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier remain central to any contemporary opera house’s repertoire – president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the state music bureau. In 1936, Strauss composed the Olympic Hymn for the infamous summer games and befriended some high-ranking Nazis.

He was probably politically naive. He may have been acting to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law; and he refused to have the name of his friend, the Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, removed from the playbill of his opera Die Schweigsame Frau. This, it seems, is now enough to redeem Strauss the man… The early Brecht was a wild, anarchic poet. Productions of his 1928 Threepenny Opera often struggle to find in it a consistent political line… For a short time in the 1930s, as German society became more divided, Brecht’s plays took a decidedly Leninist turn. His play The Mother shows a working-class woman struggling to reconcile individual needs with the demands of a political cause. It’s a beautiful, moving piece, painfully ignorant of the horrors of Stalinism that were to follow. How strange that this play is considered beyond the pale in Britain and no longer performed – yet the Economist can declare, in 2003, that Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, marks her out as "the greatest female film-maker of the 20th century".

Brecht was very clear about one thing: his resistance to fascism. Before the Nazis came to power, Hitler’s brownshirts were disrupting performances of Brecht and Weill’s 1930 opera Mahagonny, claiming that it brought the contamination of black and Jewish musical influences into the German opera house. Brecht dedicated the next 15 years of his writing – plays, film scripts, poetry – to the anti-fascist cause."

I’m not really sure why the second excerpt believes an analogy between Strauss and Brecht to be especially helpful. His complicity with Nazism is rather better documented and more frequently discussed than the above article might suggest, but it is nonetheless rather improbable to imply that Strauss was a fascist composer in the same way that Brecht was a communist writer. A better analogy might have been Hamsun, Celine or Pound, but then the issue of their engagement with Nazism is equally well known and all three faced legal reprisals for their views during their lifetime. The point about Riefenstahl also seems misplaced (although there is a good case to be made that her treatment after the second world war probably was too lenient), particularly given that an especially harsh biography of her involvement with the Nazis was only published a few years ago. Worst of all is the insinuation that Brecht’s opposition to Nazism exculpates his support for the other great totalitarianism of the twentieth century. While there’s certainly no reason to single Brecht out for more criticism of his art or politics than Pound or Hamsun, there is a good case to be made that communist writers have only comparatively had their political commitments subjected to the same scrutiny that writers associated with fascism did long ago.

A History of Fascism

Wednesday, May 5th, 2004

Terry Eagleton has been reviewing a history of fascism. Much of what he says sounds reasonable, though I’m a little inclined to think that if fascism is to be defined, historical and political definitions are somewhat limited; Umberto Eco’s typology of an ur-fascism has always struck me as a more convincing concept. On the whole though, I’m more struck by the observation that ends the review:

Liberal capitalist nations are becoming more authoritarian under the threat of terrorist attacks, while societies which were already authoritarian, such as China, are turning capitalist. The two systems are meeting each other, so to speak, coming the other way. Meanwhile, the globe is well furnished with capitalist set-ups that were never liberal in the first place, as well as with regimes whose former colonial proprietors exported market forces to their shores while forgetting to include democratic institutions in the cargo. The assumption that the free market and political democracy go naturally together was always pretty dubious, and fascism is one dramatic refutation of it.

I’m a little surprised that anyone should imagine free markets and liberal democracy to be necessarily contingent. Though the theory that argues for such a connection is far from being unreasonable (the notion being that only a framework of civil rights are capable of guaranteeing the conditions for capitalism, e.g. by safeguarding property rights), one need surely only consider the respective economic fates of Weimar Germany and Hitler’s Germany to think twice about that. Alternatively, one might consider the economic fates of China and post-communist Russia (particularly now that economic confidence and an increasingly authoritarian regime in the Kremlin appear to be hand in glove with one another).