Saturday, June 17, 2017

The European New Right Doesn't Get It Right: The Danger of Manichaean Historiography

In an attempt to educate myself a bit about the European New Right, I’ve been reading two books about the movement: Tomislav Sunic’s 1988 dissertation Against Democracy and Equality and Michael O’Meara’s New Culture, New Right: Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe (2013). I learned a lot, although perhaps not what the authors hoped I would.

Tomislav Sunic

Sunic’s book was republished by Arktos and has received much praise in rightwing milieus as a reliable introduction. Ironically though, the ENR's central representative Alain de Benoist in his Preface (p. 18) points out that the very title of the book is completely wrong: it shouldn't be about equality but egalitarianism! Unfortunately, Sunic doesn't seem to understand such basic distinctions and makes an utter mess of it. First, on pp. 132-135 he gives a quite adequate summary of what the liberal concept of equality actually means, with reference to the Declaration of Independence: "At bottom the democratic faith is a moral affirmation: men are not to be used merely as means to an end, as tools [etc.]" Each human being "has an equal right to pursue happiness; life liberty and the pursuit of happiness are his simply by virtue of the fact that he is a human being" (Milton Konvitz, quoted on p. 132). Clear enough, isn't it? One might think that Sunic understands it too: "When liberal authors maintain that all men are equal, it is not to say that men must be identical ... and liberalism has nothing to do with uniformity. To assert that all men are equal, in liberal theory, means that all men should be first and foremost treated fairly and their differences acknowledged" (p. 135). 
Bravo, well said - it would seem that Sunic gets it. 
But no. He then launches into a chapter (pp. 141) riddled with so many non sequiturs and sheer nonsense that it made my head spin. Instead of attacking the actual liberal notion of equality that he has just been describing, conservative authors and ENR sympathizers such as Hans J. Eysenck, Konrad Lorenz, Pierre Krebs and others are endorsed for attacking a bizarre straw man that is actually the opposite of what equality means. Suddenly the Declaration of Independence is supposed to say "that all human beings are absolutely identical" (Lorenz, quoted on p. 145), i.e. "that all people at birth are endowed with the same talents, and that all peoples possess the same energies" (Krebs, quoted on p. 146). What is so hard about seeing the difference between human rights (which should be equal) and human talents, abilities, or cultures (which obviously aren't all the same)? Why not have the honesty of acknowledging what was actually meant, i.e. that all human beings should have equal rights to life, liberty & happiness, regardless of whether they are smart or dumb, talented or untalented, educated or uneducated, and of course regardless of their race, gender, culture, beliefs and so on? But no, that's clearly not what Sunic wants to say, so to hell with logic. From here on the argument degenerates into a claim that defending the equal right of all human beings to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (Decl. of Ind.) means justifying "genocidal crusades" (Bérard, quoted on p. 150) and ultimately leads to "state terror, deportations, and the imprisonment of dissidents in psychiatric hospitals in the name of higher goals, democracy, and human rights" (p. 157). 
Ehm, am I missing something here?? Did it ever occur to Sunic and his sympathizers that these horrors mean what they obviously mean, i.e. that - far from exemplifying an ideology of "human rights" - the sad realities of (neo)"liberal" politics and global domination keep betraying and making a mockery of the basic human values that they should in fact be defending? In other words, it seems to me that Sunic should be attacking the practices of (neo)liberalism in the name of equality and human rights instead of conflating the two. But I'm afraid all of this is not about logic or clear thinking. It's about pursuing an agenda inspired by emotional resentment, regardless of arguments or evidence. If this is the intellectual level on which the ENR is attacking "liberalism" and equality, then I’m afraid they have a long way to go.

Michael O’Meara

But is Sunic’s book representative? When I posted these reflections on Facebook, several friends mentioned Michael O’Meara’s New Culture, New Right: Anti-Liberalism in Postmodern Europe (Arktos 2013) as a more solid and reliable introduction to the topic, so I ordered and read it. But unfortunately I cannot say I’m impressed with this book either, to say the least. It looks a bit more solid, it’s better written, and it has an extensive apparatus of footnotes that gives it an “academic look and feel”. There’s certainly a lot of research behind it, and the apparatus is a treasure trove of references to relevant primary and secondary sources. Nevertheless, it quickly became evident that I was reading not a historical analysis of the ENR interested in balance and nuance, but a political pamphlet grounded in ideological tunnel vision.
The very first pages already set the tone, when O’Meara discusses the aftermath of what he calls the “Second European Civil War” and makes clear that for him the “liberation” of France was in fact an “occupation” by the hostile forces of American Liberalism, which proceeded immediately to “decimate” what he calls the Old Right in “a murderous purge”. Never mind the murderous Nazi regime that went before, which seems not worth mentioning in this context and is clearly not much of a problem for O’Meara (in providing figures of the number of casualties in this so-called épuration, he relies primarily on the neo-fascist “negationist” and explicit defender of National Socialism Maurice Bardèche). Of course it’s well known that after years of Nazi occupation, the reaction of revenge and “payback” after the liberation produced fresh horrors and tragedies; but O’Meara wants to speak of “murder” only when the victims are on the right. I find it illustrative that whenever he mentions Jews and Judaism we immediately encounter standard antisemitic stereotypes such as the image of the “rootless” cosmopolitan Jew with his “revolutionary” (read: anti-traditional) mentality and obsession with money and materialism. Most important is that, throughout his discussions, O’Meara never makes even the slightest attempt to understand his opponents’ point of view. Why be fair to those “Liberals” and their ideas? They are the enemy, so their perspectives are wrong and without any validity. No need to spend any time taking them seriously.
Should one even bother to read such books? I think one should. Firstly because it’s important to do what O’Meara does not, that is to say, make a serious attempt at listening and understanding how your opponents look at the world and why. If we aren’t willing to make that effort we have no right to expect them to do any better. And secondly because O’Meara’s book is an excellent example of how historical narrative can be used for purposes of manipulation – or in other words, of the power of storytelling in historical writing. This is in fact an issue of enormous importance, and its relevance goes far beyond this one specific example. Whether we realize it or not, all of us are constantly exposed to such narratives, and they determine how we perceive what happens in the world around us. So we’d better be aware of how they work.

Manichaean Historiography

O’Meara’s book reflects a Manichaean style of historiography based upon the reification and essentialization of (in this particular case) “Liberalism” and “Tradition” as two hostile movements or forces that are supposed to have been battling one another since antiquity. If you trace the components of the narrative, which can be found in many variations elsewhere in the literature of the New Right, then it looks somewhat like this.

The story of “Liberalism” begins with the “revolutionary spirit” of Judaism and its monotheist revolt against the stable traditionality of “pagan” culture, which used to ensure that people knew who they were and where they belonged. It continues in the universalizing tendency of Pauline Christianity, which no longer seeks to address just one people (the Jews) but sets its sight on the whole of humanity, understood as one homogeneous collection of individual souls that are equal before God and all need to find salvation. This approach is taken up by the Christian Church, which proceeds to conquer the pagan peoples of Europe and convert them to the new faith: the result is that local communities lose their autonomy and are expected to become parts of one Holy Roman Empire. While Roman Catholicism had a policy of absorbing “pagan superstitions” into its own framework, the fatal process of liberalization moves to its next level with the Protestant Reformation: now we have a situation of total war against paganism, in favour of an interpretation of the Christian faith that puts all emphasis on the isolated individual and its personal relation to God, thereby further eroding the traditional sense of community. Next we get to Descartes, whose emphasis on pure rationality creates the intellectual foundation for modern science and its “reign of quantity” at the expense of all qualitative features, which now become totally irrelevant, thus paving the way for the commodification of everything under capitalism. From there we get to the famous disenchantment of the world under the reign of industrialization, which proceeds to further tear traditional communities apart, resulting in an urban mass society of alienated individuals. In the wake of Protestantism and the scientific revolution, the next victim of Liberalism is the traditional notion of social and political hierarchy. The revolt of the “third estate” during the French Revolution leads finally to an ideology of social egalitarianism and hence to modern mass democracy, thereby legitimating a whole series of “emancipatory” movements: for instance, women or homosexuals begin to claim equal rights, non-white peoples (black slaves, the colonized) start doing the same, and so on. Due to their success, we no longer have a traditional European society with a “natural” hierarchy dominated by white males but a multicultural society based on the principle that “all men (and women) are equal”. This process moves into its logical end phase with the economization and commodification of everything, known as neoliberalism, and its ambition of a global egalitarian society of consumers.

So what is wrong with such a narrative? Perhaps even this short summary shows how plausible it can be made to look at first sight. I do not think the problem lies so much in the basic historical “facts” as such (although of course one may quibble about many details and especially with how they are framed), in O’Meara’s attempt at a critical analysis of the problems and dilemmas caused by modernization (a perfectly legitimate pursuit), in the fact that he tries to understand them from a broad historical perspective (equally legitimate), or in his radical rejection of modernity and his heartfelt wish for a return to “traditional” values (realistic or not, such wishes are understandable enough). 
Rather, the core problem is quite simply that this polemical manifesto, like so many similar ones, derives it plausibility and persuasive power from a very common type of bad historiography. A first objection concerns the “presentist” approach to history: you begin with what worries you in the contemporary situation and then start cherry-picking for its causes back into the past to create a narrative that, predictably, culminates in the very phenomena you were trying to "explain" in the first place. A second and even more serious objection, on which I will be concentrating, is that the entire enterprise is built upon an essentialist approach to historical writing grounded in a very common type of mental delusion (see below) but that can be used to great rhetorical effect and has tremendous potential for political propaganda. Let me emphasize right away that O’Meara is not alone in this regard. The same structural problem is basic to countless other grand narratives of modernity, with Hegel as the classic example.

The Power of Reification

So why is this bad historiography? To put it as sharply as possible: because there is no such thing as a “historical process” – there are only historical events. This might sound like an exaggerated or hyper-theoretical claim, so allow me to explain. Egil Asprem has nicely made the basic point in his deconstruction of another so-called “historical process”, that of disenchantment:

Conceptualizations of disenchantment as a socio-historical process affecting modern societies imply rather abstract, top-down explanations of individual beliefs and actions: in these accounts, it is not so much individuals that define their reality, build societies, make choices, create and negotiate culture and meaning, as it is the overarching “systems”, “structures”, “worldviews” or “ideologies” that determine what individuals do and say (The Problem of Disenchantment, 47).

The same argument applies to “Liberalism”. O’Meara’s story derives its seductive power from the fact that it lends agency not to human beings but to abstract “forces” of which they are supposed to be the puppets. Hence readers are led to imagine the history of Western culture not as a series of events based on human actions, which could all have happened differently, but as one momentous battle that has been unfolding over time between two hostile forces (Tradition and Liberalism), each sticking to their own internal logic and dynamics until the bitter end. Within the economy of this dualism, Tradition is clearly on the side of Being, while Liberalism is on the side of Becoming: the former is imagined to exist in some kind of nonhistorical space (hence its supposed “naturalness” or “universality”, its association with “eternal values”, and so on) while the latter unfolds in historical time (and is therefore seen as unstable, contingent, und ultimately less “real”). The narrative makes them appear like spiritual or metaphysical entities that are invisibly at work, as the hidden secret of “external events” that we can observe with our senses. Thus we are told that history has been influenced by the “Jewish Spirit”, the “Spirit of Christianity”, the “Spirit of Capitalism”, the “Spirit of Liberalism”, and so on and so forth.

Entities you can't see...

John Gast, "American Progress" (1872)
There is a good reason why we cannot see them, except in our imagination: they do not actually exist. What we need to get is that “Tradition” and “Liberalism” are not entities, forces, spirits, or realities at all. They are words, labels – no more, no less. The function of this particular type of words consists in highlighting and calling attention to structural similarities of an ideal or abstract nature. In themselves there is nothing wrong with such operations of mental comparison and abstraction: they are not just useful, but often indispensable in our continuous attempts at bringing some order to the world that surrounds us in time and space. However, that does not diminish the fact that they exist nowhere else but in our minds: they are mental tools that operate in our imagination. The problem is that our minds have learned to neglect this and hence misperceive the true nature of such concepts. Instead of seeing them for what they are, we imagine them to be somehow real, and this happens through a cognitive process that is known as reification or, in its strongest form, essentialization. It causes us to imagine, more or less vaguely, that there are such things as “Liberalism” or “Tradition” and that history can be seen as the story of their encounter. Sometimes we say that this story unfolds “on the stage of world history” – another nice example of how we imagine things that are not there. For where is that “stage”? Where are those “actors”? These are metaphors, but we tend to confuse them with realities.
Why is all this a problem? Because once we start thinking along these lines – and it is perfectly natural for us to do so – we feel that we need to get involved and take sides. Do we identify with the hero on that stage or with the villain? And so we start glorifying one of those spirits or entities while demonizing everybody that we imagine to be standing on the other side. This is how we get Rightwingers depicting “Liberals” as enemies of humanity in league with the Forces of Evil, and Leftwingers depicting “Traditionalists” as – well, exactly the same.

Reification can be defined as the process of making mental abstractions real by projecting them onto the world, and then allowing our actions to be guided by them (for a theoretical discussion, see pp. 579-582 here). Enormous simplifications are the inevitable result, and in the real world these can often be destructive in the extreme. Manichaean historiography based on reification (whether from the Left or from the Right) leads to false but seductive narratives that sacrifice historical complexity to the requirements of ideology – that is to say, to power. We are told that we need to make a choice and show what side we are on: “you are either with us or with the terrorists – choose!” Although I disagree with Eric
Eric Voegelin
Voegelin’s notion of “gnostic politics” (tragically, his Cold-War imagination fell prey to the very same pathology he believed to be fighting), his description of what happens next is perfectly correct:

[At issue is] the legitimation of violence as a spiritual act of punishment against the Powers which threaten the Light. The situation of the underlying party is terrible, because he is not merely a political opponent in the battle for power but, in the dream fantasy of the gnostic, a cosmic enemy in the war between Light and Darkness ("Gnostische Politik", 308; see discussion on pp. 29-36 here).

That is what happens, all the time (for some of the most influential cases, see discussion here). Instead of seeing people you start imagining Powers – forces of darkness at work in the world that are destroying everything you care about. You feel you must fight them. You tell yourself that your eyes are wide open and you see the truth. They cannot fool you anymore, you are seeing through the delusion! Your opponents, on the other hand, are clearly under the sway of evil. They are living in ignorance, hypnotized, they act like automata, unable to see how they are being manipulated by the powers that are running the show. So if you cannot convince them, you will have to fight them. Perhaps they are looking at you in exactly the same way? Well, that might be, but it doesn’t matter. The point is that they are wrong and you are right. You cannot allow yourself to try understanding their point of view. That would only weaken your resolve, and anyway, you already know all you need to know about them.

Contingency and Human Values

What does it mean to look at history in terms of contingency instead? It means taking a step back and focusing our attention, first of all, on what is really and undoubtedly there: human beings of flesh and blood like ourselves, and their actions in the world. Take the case of Paul the apostle. It is nonsense to see him as some kind of instrument through which Liberalism (or, for that matter, Christianity) was beginning its long campaign of conquering the world, en route towards its telos of a neoliberal world filled with McDonalds and Coca Cola. That is not what was happening in the first century CE. Something much more human and down-to-earth was happening. We are dealing with a Greek-speaking Jewish guy who, for reasons best known to himself (possibly the guilty trauma of having been a witness and accomplice, as argued by A.N. Wilson), got quite obsessed with the death by crucifixion of an obscure teacher from Nazareth called Jesus. He came up with some new and quite idiosyncratic ideas about its true cosmic significance for the world at large, and felt strongly that everybody should know. So he went on a mission to spread the word, and turned out to be really good at it. The rest, as one says, is history. The point is that none of it needed to have happened the way it did happen. If for some reason Paul’s (or rather, Saul’s) parents had not met, then he would never have been born – and it is absolutely impossible to say in what kind of world we would be living today. We can be sure though that it would look very different. However, his parents did meet; he was born; and he did what he did. What came out of it is what came out of it – not because it was meant to be, as if there were some great plan, but simply because this is what happened and not something else. What goes for Paul goes for Plato, Jesus, Muhammad, Constantine the Great, Luther, Descartes, Voltaire, Napoleon, Hitler, and all the rest. Human beings who happened to do what they happened to do.

All of which might sound almost trivial. But it is not: the implications reach very far, much farther than we commonly recognize. One often hears the objection that pure and utter contingency “empties history of any meaning”, beause it implies that history is just a string of random events, “one damn thing after another”. I disagree. Grand narratives based on reification do not discover any true meaning in history. What they do is impute meanings on history, and while it is true that this can bestow a sense of purpose and personal fulfilment, the results can be utterly destructive too. Does this mean then that in fact there is no meaning or value to be found in the world? On the contrary! All it means is that if you look for it in “the historical process”, in some kind of political ideology or theology of salvation, then you’re looking in the wrong place. You find it in a meaningful life. And here, I think, lies the real tragedy of political ideologies, whether from the “Left” or from the “Right”. Although their very power and motivation comes from a deep and genuine concern with protecting important human values (how can we lead a meaningful life under conditions of modernity?), those who take it upon themselves to impose such values infailingly end up sacrificing real human beings on the altar of “the greater good”. In the end, they care more about ideas than they care about people.

Getting Real

As formulated by Mark Lilla in a wise and perceptive discussion of reactionary thinking, “when it comes to understanding history we are still incorrigibly reifying creatures” (The Shipwrecked Mind, 134):

One needs not have read Kierkegaard or Heidegger to know the anxiety that accompanies historical consciousness, that inner cramp that comes when time lurches forward and we feel ourselves catapulted into the future. To relax that cramp we tell ourselves we actually know how one age has followed another since the beginning. This white lie gives us hope of altering the future course of events, or at least of learning how to adapt to them. There even seems to be solace in thinking that we are caught in a fated history of decline, so long as we can expect a new turn of the wheel, or an eschatological event that will carry us beyond time itself. … [T]throughout history [this apocalyptic imagination] has … provoked extravagant hopes that were inevitably disappointed, leaving those who held them even more desolate. The doors to the Kingdom remained shut, and all that was left was memory of defeat, destruction, and exile. And fantasies of the world we have lost. (Ibid., p. 135, 137).

What makes New Right narratives so seductive is the fact that they respond to problems that are perfectly real and important. The ideology of neoliberalism has created a terrible mess, and many of its basic assumptions need to be reconsidered. But to address the enormous problems that we are facing and not make matters worse, we need to stop fooling ourselves and get real about what really counts: not the purity of some “Traditional” or “Liberal” ideal that exists nowhere but in our imagination and has never existed anywhere else, but the suffering of people and the damage done to the world. Both Traditional and Liberal ideals can be excellent guidelines, and they are by no means so mutually exclusive as their fanatical apologists would like to suggest. But the point is that they are not realities. They are ideals, and as such they will always be hovering on the far horizon, at the edge of our vision or just beyond. We cannot reach them, and that is good, for absolute purity is a deadly thing. But they can be sources of inspiration, beacons of hope, and we can try to move into their general direction. 
In the words of Annie Dillard, we are all in the same boat (or rather, in her story it is an ice floe), on our way towards the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Let's face it: we shouldn't expect to arrive there anytime soon. It's total chaos on that floe, but we're all on it together. So while we're all there and have nowhere else to go, we’d better learn to get over ourselves and try treating our fellow-travelers the way we’d like to be treated ourselves. Listening to what they have to say would not be a bad beginning.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Cure (or: Confessions of a Liberal Anti-Neoliberal, with Recommendations)

Make Holland Great Again...?

Who am I?
What do I stand for?
What is it that unites me with those who are like me?
What is it that divides me from those who are unlike me?
The current wave of rightwing populism answers these questions along lines of nationality and ethnicity, often with strong racial connotations. The slogan “Make America Great Again” really means “I want to be proud again of being an American.” Likewise, in my own country, followers of Geert Wilders want to be proud again to be Dutch. The French want to be proud again to be French, the English to be English, and so on. Only in Germany such sentiments of national pride have long been taboo, for obvious historical reasons: if Germans should be proud of anything, it had to be of being exemplary Europeans. They still are, but even in Germany the tide is beginning to turn.
I understand these sentiments very well, for once upon a time I used to be proud of being Dutch. This was in the mid-1990s, when I was living in Paris and began seeing my own native culture and mentality in a new light. Not that I disliked the French – on the contrary, there was much that I admired about them – but I liked the values of my own little country even more. I felt that in the Netherlands, small as we might be, we had excellent reasons to be proud of our long and thoroughly sympathetic tradition of openness and pragmatic tolerance in dealing with the facts of cultural or religious diversity. Those values of Dutchness went at least as far back as the seventeenth century, when my country was a relatively safe haven for refugees persecuted for their beliefs elsewhere in Europe. And for a Dutchman of my generation, such values were connected on a deep emotional level to the stories my parents had passed on to me, about Dutch resistance against totalitarian oppression during World War II. True: today we know that these heroic stories were partly idealized and romanticized. Still, there was an important movement of resistance. Many ordinary people did risk their lives to stand up for those who were being persecuted. These stories helped define my way of looking at the world. I am grateful to my parents for passing them on.
And then everything changed. While I used to be proud of being Dutch, during the years after 9/11 I have grown to be deeply ashamed of how my country abandoned and betrayed its core values. With surprising speed, we descended downwards along a negative spiral ending up in a poisonous climate of intolerance, suspicion, xenophobia, egoism, hatred, and verbal and sometimes even physical violence against minorities of all kinds. This development began with Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant figure on the right, a political outsider who began saying things that many people were thinking but did not dare to admit. With hindsight, I still look at him with some sympathy. I did not share his political stance, but I respected his attitude of saying what I think and doing what I say” and his disregard of bourgeois morality (for example, even while running an election campaign for becoming Prime Minister, he was perfectly open about his homosexuality). However, Fortuyn opened the gate for a whole second wave of much more vicious rightwingers, demagogues, and opportunists such as Theo van Gogh, Rita Verdonk, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many others. Finally we ended up with Geert Wilders. Fortuyn was murdered by an animal rights activist, and van Gogh was butchered in the street by a radical Islamist. Those were deeply shocking events, and my country has never recovered. We have not been able or willing to find our way back to what used to “make Holland great”: our traditions of tolerance and acceptance, of “live and let live,” our openness towards others, our nondogmatic mentality, our way of dealing in a low-key and pragmatic manner with the facts of cultural or religious or sexual diversity – ideally with a sense of self-relativizing humor that befitted such a small country, and that somehow seemed to capture what it meant to be Dutch.
All of that vanished almost overnight. Today I feel that my country has betrayed me – or rather, that it has betrayed itself and what it once stood for. Dutch “identity” seems to have become an empty shell, a vacuum ready to be filled with depressing debates about zwarte Piet and groundless paranoia about refugees and what they might be up to. Refugees from countries such as Syria – normal people, ordinary people like ourselves who have lost everything and had to run for their lives to escape from murderers, torturers and rapists – are routinely portrayed as though they are dangerous criminals themselves. What happened to common decency? What happened to our willingness to empathize with other human beings? Watching the public debate, I cannot but look with feelings of deep shame at what the Netherlands have become.
“Make Holland great again”? Never before have we been so small.

The Takeover

Now does all this imply that I embrace “Europe”? Isn’t that what stereotypical “liberals” or “lefties” like myself are supposed to do? Well, no! Around the same time, during the mid-1990s when I began discovering my positive Dutch identity, I also became aware of a very different phenomenon. People all around me seemed to be getting quite obsessed with “the economy.” Why was that? With hindsight it is clear to me that I was perfectly naïve and ignorant about what was going on at the time. For instance, it puzzled me that we suddenly needed to have a separate block for “economic news” on the evening news. Why make such a big fuss about money, I wondered, we had been doing just fine without that – thank you very much! At the time, I did not grasp why politicians on the Social-Democrat left, such as our Prime Minister Wim Kok or Tony Blair in the UK, were so proud to “shed their ideological feathers” and began looking and behaving exactly like the capitalist rightwingers that I had always disliked. And I did not understand why, all of a sudden, public services such as transport, health care, or education needed to be “privatized” and turned into commercial enterprises. They had served us quite well, hadn’t they? We were being told that those measures would “reduce prices and increase quality,” but it was clear for all to see that the opposite was true. Prices went up, quality decreased, and worst of all, everything became infected by the slick dishonest language of commerce. Hospitals once used to exist to cure the sick – but now patients became “consumers,” health care became a “product,” and the bottom line became financial profit rather than making people well. Was I naïve? I certainly was, and I was ignorant too. Like so many others, I simply could not see what was causing these changes.
Very similar developments were taking place everywhere else around me, and it all became wrapped up with another New Thing called “European integration.” It wasn’t just that politicians, across the spectrum from “left” to “right,” all began spouting the same economic newspeak about privatization and deregulation, so that if you didn’t like the economization of everything you were left pretty much without a credible candidate to vote for. But on top of that, it became clear that those politicians who were supposed to be in charge had less and less control over what was happening in my country. They kept handing big chunks of national sovereignty over to Europe, without ever asking their own citizens for permission to do so. They had no respect for the truth: to give just one small and mostly symbolic example, after the introduction of the Euro everybody could see that a glass of beer in downtown Amsterdam was suddenly more than twice as expensive, but I stil remember well-known politicians simply denying it. “No no, you’re mistaken, the price has not gone up.” Everybody could see that the sky had turned green, but they insisted it was still blue. Such dishonesty was shocking, but we learned to get used to it, for it kept happening all the time. Eventually, it became perfectly clear to me what this thing called “Europe” really meant. Of course: it was “the economy” again – what else? The slogans are well known: “It’s the economy, stupid!” (Bill Clinton) “There Is No Alternative” (Margaret Thatcher).
No alternative indeed. We pretty much ended up with no credible politicians to vote for because they were all saying more or less the same thing. Hence we ended up with no opportunity for citizens to influence what happened to their own country. And we lost our opportunity to choose for anything that actually meant something real to human beings unless it had first been quantified and converted into economic terms. In short, it was not enough that the Netherlands had forgotten and betrayed their identity: the very country itself seemed to be taken away from us and handed over to some remote, abstract, democratically deficient economic entity called “Europe”. Did anybody ever ask me, or my fellow citizens, whether we agreed with all of this? No, our politicians felt sure they knew best what was good for us all. Even at those rare moments when European citizens managed to get a word in, and used it to say “no!” (as in the case of the European “Constitution,” rejected in 2005 by the Dutch and the French), those leaders found a way to work around the problem and end up doing what they wanted anyway (the Lisbon treaty of 2007). They had learned their lesson though: better not ask your citizens for permission again, just do it. This type of arrogance became typical of the managerial “elites”.
I repeat: I was perfectly clueless at the time. It was only much later that I began to understand a bit better what was happening, and why. The story is well known by now: the move from Keynesian “embedded liberalism” to the triumph of Hayek’s and Friedman’s ideology of Neoliberalism under Thatcher and Reagan, leading to the “Washington Consensus” after the end of the Cold War, and so on and so forth. After the Wall had come down, Neoliberalism would deliver “the End of History.” American-style capitalism would spread all over the world, bringing the blessings of freedom and democracy wherever it went. The global free market would make us all into one big happy family.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. How is it possible that so many people even believed in such a story – and some still do? The problem with any dominant ideology is that it is blind to whatever does not fit its own narrative. In this particular case, the grand narrative is incapable of perceiving any dimensions of reality that do not fit the particular logic that governs neoliberal economics or cannot be translated into its language. From the outset, the whole thing was based on wholly unrealistic and perfectly utopian dreams unchecked by historical awareness. And perhaps most of all, it reflected a shocking disregard of basic human psychology. Which brings me full circle: human beings need more than money and security. They need identity too. We need to know who we are, what we stand for, what unites us with others like ourselves, and what divides us from others unlike ourselves. That is the bottom line.

Human vs Neoliberal

Finally then, after several decades of neoliberal brainwashing, the chickens have come home to roost. The populist revolt is telling us what those who have been dreaming of a neoliberal world order refused to see, or were incapable of seeing. It is not a pretty sight. As regards identity, this is how I imagine the conversation between an average Human Being and a neoliberal ideologue:

Human: “Who am I?”
Neoliberal: “You are a consumer. Or let me be more specific, you are an individual. That is to say: you are a rational agent who is driven exclusively by your own self-interest.”
Human: “What do I stand for?”
Neoliberal: “Well, ehm, didn’t I just tell you? You are a consumer on a market. So you stand for yourself. For maximizing your own interest!”
Human: “But what unites me with others like myself?”
Neoliberal: “Ehm… nothing really, to be quite honest. Except that all those others are self-interested individuals too! You have that in common.”
Human: “What then divides me from others unlike myself?”
Neoliberal: “They hate your freedom!”
Human: “Excuse me? How so? Can you please explain?”
Neoliberal: “Isn’t it clear? Your freedom as a consumer is your freedom to choose, and it is the market that gives you that freedom. Make sure that you remain a consumer! Make sure you value nothing higher than your own personal interest: make sure that you get what you want. And for God’s sake, don’t act irrationally! I mean, don’t be so stupid to ever think of others first, or imagine that you should share what you have. Never put their interest above your own interest. If they win, you lose. Think of yourself first, for that is what everybody else is doing.”

The problem is that the neoliberal, in this conversation, is in fact not much of a human being – at least he doesn’t behave like one. And this is what makes it so easy and natural for our generic Human to morph into a populist. See how that goes:

Human: “OK, OK, you made your point. But now shut up, for I have something to tell you. Yes, I will put my own interest first – all right. But here’s the thing: I am not ‘interested’ in being just a consumer! I do not want to be just some disconnected atom in some impersonal machine that is just trying to manipulate me to squeeze money out of me. That is not my ‘interest.’ And don’t you tell me that I’m all about making ‘rational choices.’ No, I care! I care deeply, you idiot, that’s why I’m so fucking angry! Don’t you get it? I’m a human being. I have feelings. I care about people. I care about my people. I want to be with people who are like me. I want our leaders to be people like me: I want them to be people who care about me and who care about people who are like me. And you know what? You are not like me at all! Just now, you were trying to tell me that those who are unlike me ‘hate our freedom’. Well, I have news for you buddy: it is you who hates my freedom! You just want me to follow your rules. You want to turn me into a ‘consumer’ who does what he’s being told so that you can take advantage of me. I suppose that’s how you ‘maximize your own interest’. Well, I’m not interested in what you want, or what anyone else wants. I’m interested in what I want, and I sure do not want that F$%^&*@#$%! system of yours! And by the way, don’t you dare lecture me about ‘democracy’ or ‘equality’ or ‘human rights’. You least of all! You’re so full of shit, you don’t even believe in that stuff yourself – look at how you behave! So how do you expect me to believe in those things? You have no decency. You talk about ‘democracy’ but you don’t listen to people. You talk about ‘equality’ but you look at folks like us as deplorables. You talk about ‘human rights’ but you don’t believe in any ‘rights’ except your own god-given right to pursue your own individual interests at the expense of others. How could I possibly have any respect for you and your so-called humanitarian ‘values’? Get out of my face! I’d trust anyone rather than trust you – I’d even rather vote for some idiot with funny blond hair, just to piss you off.”

What a dilemma! 

I recently discovered that some of my friends hate the “neoliberal world order” so much that they even seemed willing to welcome Donald Trump and keep trying to defend him as “the lesser evil.” Anything but Hillary! Anyone who will blow up the system for us! Then again, some of my friends are so scared of Trump (as they should) that they are tempted to forgive even the neoliberal world order. By comparison, its defenders now look almost benevolent. Anything but Trump, anything but Le Pen, and so on. As should be perfectly obvious by now, I see the choice between neoliberalism and rightwing populism as a choice between the Devil and Beëlzebub. They are both enemies of humanity. I perfectly understand the fury of my “Human” against the “Neoliberal” and his system, for I share that fury, and I even understand quite well how s/he turns into a populist. But here’s the thing: the Human revolts against neoliberalism because s/he is Human. Human beings are not made to live in an inhuman world, they cannot stand it. It is for that very reason that the politics of hate, intolerance, egoism and xenophobia do not offer any real alternative, and never will – not even to the rightwing populists who think they will. They are the symptoms of a disease, not the cure.

So What is the Cure?

The cure is that we care. The cure is that we care about what is happening to the world around us, that we care about human beings and what is happening to them right now and everywhere around us. Not just what is happening to ourselves, to “our own,” to “people like us” – no, the cure is that we care about what is happening to people, period. Please note that I'm not talking about some kind of generic love for humanity” in the abstract: no, I mean caring for human beings because they are human beings, people like us. Why do we care? We care because we empathize. We happen to know very well what it is to be a human being – after all, we are human beings ourselves. We know what it’s all about. Underneath the anger there is fear, and underneath the fear there is suffering. Unvariably, that is what you find when you get past all the bullshit.
The cure lies in rediscovering what it really was that those people used to mean, once upon a time a long while ago, when they were using such very big words: “freedom”, “democracy”, “equality”, or “human rights” – and used them wholeheartedly, with full conviction, without irony, and without apologies. These are big words for a reason: they refer to big ideals. They have absolutely nothing to do with the small stuff that neoliberalism has been selling us (!) under those names. In fact they are the very opposites of what they have been made out to be. They need to be rediscovered.
The cure lies in rediscovering our common humanity, because that is what really unites us. Make no mistake: it unites us not just with our friends or our facebook buddies in our facebook bubble. It unites us even with those who oppose us, even with those who hate us, even with those who are trying to kill us, who seem to have forgotten what it means to be human because they have forgotten themselves. The cure is to go - not halfheartedly but with full force and full conviction - for true values: the kind that cannot be quantified and converted into money, statistics, or other tools of power and domination. Not by any coincidence, such values are basic (or should be basic) to what is called the “Humanities.” In the most profound sense, they are what still remains when all else vanishes, for unlike their opposites they cannot be destroyed. What are those values? The big ones, of course, the classics (traditionally known as the trancendentals): goodness, beauty, truth. What else could they be? There’s no room for irony or cynicism here: if we are afraid to be serious even about these matters, then we might as well give up for then we have already lost.
So that is the cure: that we care for whatever is good, whatever is beautiful, and whatever is true.

All else is secondary. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Horizon 2020: Walking the Road with Robert Musil

Last year, during these dark days before Christmas, I posted an even darker text with the title “Profile 2016”. I made an attempt to highlight and analyze the main structural problems with which Western society is struggling, especially the Reign of Neoliberalism combined with Information Overkill. Insiders from the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam will have noted that my title alluded to the notorious Profile 2016 document that had been one of the triggers for the occupation of the administrative centers first of the Faculty of Humanities (the Bungehuis) and then of the whole university (the Maagdenhuis), in a large and inspiring revolt against the neoliberal takeover of academia. This time I have taken inspiration from another typical product of neoliberalism in academia, the “EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation”. 

However, my true reason for choosing this particular title “Horizon 2020” has less to do with either neoliberalism or the reign of information as such than with the child that was born from those two parents last November. 2016 will be remembered as the year when fascism (or at least the kind of populism traditionally known by its literal German equivalent, referred to as völkisch) announced its return to the center stage of American society. It is all set to become the most powerful force in the world. One night in February 2016 I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, my heart booming, in a sudden surge of panic at the idea that Donald Trump could win the election. But when he actually did “win” (I know, he lost the popular vote, and about half of the US population didn't bother to vote at all), this still came as an utter shock, a sudden nightmare from which quite honestly I may not yet have woken up and have certainly not recovered. Profile 2017 looks even darker than its predecessor; so on the screen of my imagination, “Horizon 2020” has now become the closest horizon of hope. Barring impeachments or other extreme events (which might well happen, of course: see below), it seems that Sauron alias Voldemort will be running the show for the next four years at least.

Looking at the sudden rise to prominence of forums such as Alt Right, including a new breed of right-wing intellectuals who take inspiration from Traditionalism and certain other forms of esotericism in their assault on “the evils of the modern world” (liberalism, democracy, cultural and religious plurality, human rights, gay marriage, LGBT rights, and so on), I couldn’t help being reminded of a speech I gave at the opening of the 2nd biannual conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism. I now realize that at that time, in 2009, I hadn’t yet grasped the true nature of neoliberalism, and did not yet fully understand its centrality to how the European Union had worked out in practice; but with that minor reservation, I still stand behind every word I said. The lecture was never published and was not made generally available at the time, but because of what I see as its relevance to the present situation in Europe and the United States, especially for scholars of Western esotericism, I just put it online for whoever might be interested.

It seems to me that the new völkisch movement is the child of two parents who have been running the show for quite a while now. One of them, neoliberalism, has made it possible for an international power elite of multinational corporations and financial institutions to gain far more power than has ever been enjoyed by any democratically elected government. As a result, regular or mainstream politicians have become puppets of the true powers that are running the world: if your prime minister wants to have influence at all, s/he will need to make deals with the international corporations and financial institutions, on terms that are dictated or are at least acceptable to the latter. No surprise then that the general electorate feels disempowered. Most of us have come to realize that the politicians that we “vote into power” do not actually have that power anymore: it is the international corporate and financial system that is pushing the buttons. This system functions not as a top-down hierarchy but as a non-hierarchical self-governing network (for the emergence of the “network mode” out of the 1960s Counterculture and its relation to both cyberculture and neoliberal economics, see this fascinating study); but any strings that are still there to be pulled are in the hands of unelected leaders whose business interests decide what is done or left undone. As regards the economic system as a whole, it functions very much like an airplane on autopilot with an empty cockpit and no licensed pilot on board.
For the general electorate, the penny has dropped a long time ago. Voters understand that it doesn’t matter whether you vote “left” or “right”: surely there are some differences in emphasis between the various political parties, but these are marginal and largely cosmetic. Basically all political parties are dancing to the same tune of the international market, which is presented as “the only option”, so what the voter thinks of it does not really matter. Therefore what happens? The “common people” play the only card that is left to them: their vote. They are using the only tool they still have to fight against the educated “elites”: those guys (and girls) who keep claiming they represent the people’s best interests while clearly they are serving their own.
That is one part of the story. The other part has to do with knowledge and information: increasingly, over the last decade or so, we have been losing sight of the difference between those two. The important thing about knowledge is that it is true by definition: if it isn’t, then it isn’t knowledge but something else (delusion, falsehood, misperception, misunderstanding, ignorance, and so on). Information, by contrast, is just data: it doesn’t matter to the system whether it is true or false. Computers or information networks do not differentiate between statements such as “Hillary is an advocate of human rights” or “Hillary is a reptile in disguise”. Both are just pieces of information; to decide whether they are true or false you need a human being. However, as human beings we have grown remarkably reluctant to accept that responsibility. Intellectuals have grown suspicious of anyone who dares to make claims of “truth”: we have learned how often such claims are just masks of power and domination, we have come to appreciate that there are “different kinds of truth”, we know that people may disagree about almost everything, and so we have sort of given up and decided that it’s all just a matter of personal opinion. Who is to judge? But if the educated have lost their faith in searching for truth, and hence in the value (or even the very possibility) of knowledge, inevitably this realization trickles down to the broader population: “Even those educated elites no longer know what is true. Look at them: they no longer speak with any confidence. Their so-called ‘knowledge’ is really just another opinion. If so, then why should we keep funding those guys with taxpayers’ money? No, we will make up our own minds, thank you very much. We can very well find out for ourselves: it’s all on the Internet!”
The reign of Neoliberalism has created an ever-growing reservoir of pent-up resentment and anger: the pressure has been building up for a long time, and is now breaking through to the surface. Simultaneously, as knowledge has tacitly been replaced by information, intellectuals (who have been very much complicit in this phenomenon) have lost their ability to question power by appealing to standards of truth: welcome to the “post-truth society”. 
So that is what we are up against: fury and ignorance. A deadly combination.

I will try to resist the temptation of predicting what will happen between now and the 2020 horizon. It's depressing and pointless. Why repeat the well-known litany of dangers and destructive trends that will certainly continue into the New Year? We know that they are very real, but if we allow our imagination to be colonized by fear and depression, we endanger the most important source of hope: the simple fact that while we are perfectly capable of imagining what might happen, we simply do not know the future. Hope lies precisely in that realization.
What we can know is the nature of the evil that we are facing. We can learn to recognize it when we encounter it, and we can learn how best to deal with it. Last week I have been re-reading Robert Musil’s great novel of modernity, The Man without Qualities, and came across a long passage that impressed me so much that I decided to translate it. Beware, this is no food for hasty readers! 

Musil has just been describing how a carefully selected group of writers and other literary figures has been invited to the home of a highminded patroness of culture, Diotima, together with a selection of scientists. The writers have been giving speeches, and the scientists have been listening. Here we go.

Science smiles in its beard; or, first extensive encounter with evil

Now some words must be added about a smile, and what is more: a masculine smile – one that involved a beard (indispensable to the masculine practice of smiling in it). It is about the smile of the scientists who had accepted Diotima’s invitation and were listening to those famous fine spirits. Although they were smiling, one should certainly not think that they did this ironically. On the contrary, it was their way of showing their feelings of respect and incompetence ... But this, too, should not delude us. It is correct according to their conscious opinion, but in their unconscious – to use that fashionable term, or better, in their totality – these were people in whom a tendency towards Evil was crackling like fire under a cauldron.
Of course, at first sight that might seem a paradoxical statement. If an ordinary professor would be told this to his face, he would probably respond that he was simply serving the cause of Truth and Progress and for the rest didn’t know of any such thing; for that is his professional ideology. But all professional ideologies are noble. It never occurs to hunters to call themselves the butchers of the woods, they rather call themselves the friends of animal and natural sustainability, just as merchants uphold the principle of fair profit, and thieves in turn appeal to the god of merchants, that is to say, to the distinguished international god Mercury, who brings nations together. Therefore one should better not attach too much value to what an activity looks like in the mind of those who practice it.
If we ask ourselves frankly how science came to assume its present shape – and this is important because, after all, we are ruled by her, and even an illiterate person is not safe from her, since he must learn to live with countless things that were born in learning – then a different image emerges. According to credible tradition it is in the sixteenth century, a period of intense spiritual excitement, that science gave up on trying to penetrate the secrets of nature (as had been the custom for twenty centuries of religious and philosophical speculation), henceforth to be satisfied, in a manner that can only be described as superficial, with studying its surface. For instance, the great Galileo Galilei (who is always mentioned first here) did away with the problem of what is the reason lying in Nature’s essence that causes her to abhor a vacuum, so that she makes a falling body enter and occupy space after space until it finally hits solid ground, and contented himself with something much more trivial: he simply established the speed at which such a body falls, the course it takes, the time it takes, and its rate of acceleration. The Catholic Church made a grave mistake in threatening this man with death and forcing him to recant, instead of just killing him without much further ado; for from the way he and people like him were looking at things, there sprang – in almost no time at all, if we think in terms of historical periods – railway time-tables, factory machines, physiological psychology, and the moral corruption of our time, against which she (the Church) no longer stands a chance. This mistake she probably made out of an excess of shrewdness – after all, Galileo was not just the discoverer of the law of gravitation and of the earth’s motion, but also an inventor in whom, as one would put it today, the commercial world took an interest; and moreover, he was not the only one seized by the new spirit. On the contrary, the historical record shows that the matter-of-factness which inspired him spread far and wide like an infectious disease; and although today it may sound offensive to speak of somebody as being “inspired” by matter-of-factness, of which we already think we have too much, at the time (according to witnesses of all kinds) the awakening from metaphysics to the sharp observation of things must truly have been a frenzy and a blazing fire of matter-of-factness! But if we ask ourselves how humanity got it into her head to change herself in this manner, then the answer is that she did what every sensible child does when it has tried walking too soon; it sat down on the ground, making contact through a dependable but not very dignified part of the body. It must be said: she did it simply with that part on which one sits. For the remarkable thing is that the earth has shown itself so extraordinarily receptive to this, and, ever since this touchdown, has offered up such a wealth of inventions, conveniences, and discoveries that it can almost be called a miracle.
After this bit of prehistory, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is the wonder of the Anti-Christ in the midst of which we find ourselves; for the simile of sitting down that was just used can be understood not only in the direction of reliability, but also in the direction of the indecent and forbidden. And indeed, before intellectuals discovered their passion for the facts, only soldiers, hunters and merchants had it – that is to say, only shrewd and violent types. In the battle for survival there is no room for philosophical sentimentalities: all that counts is the wish to dispose of one’s opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible – here, everybody is a positivist. Nor would it count as a virtue in business to allow oneself to be bamboozled instead of staying with the established facts – profit boiling down, in the end, to a psychological process that makes use of circumstance to overpower the other. On the other hand, if we consider the qualities that lead to discoveries, we find an absence of all traditional scruples and inhibitions, courage, a spirit of enterprise as much as of destruction, annihilation of moral considerations, patient bargaining for the tiniest advantage, dogged endurance on the way towards the goal, if necessary, and a respect for measure and number that is the sharpest expression of distrust towards all that is uncertain. In other words, we observe nothing but those old sins of hunters, soldiers, and merchants; only now they are translated into intellectual terms and explained as virtues. And although this may have placed them at a distance from the quest for personal and relatively lowly profit, the element of primal Evil, as one could call it, has not vanished after this transformation. For it seems to be indestructible and eternal, at least as eternal as everything humanly sublime, because it consists of nothing more, nor less, than the pleasure of tripping that sublimity up and watching it fall flat on its face. Who does not know the malicious temptation, while watching a beautifully voluptuous glazed vase, that lies in the thought that one could smash it to smithereens with one single blow of one’s stick? Intensified up to the heroism of bitter realization that in one’s life one can rely on nothing but what can be nailed down with iron certainty, that temptation is a basic feeling engrained in the matter-of-factness of science – and if for reasons of reverence one does not want to call it the devil, there is at least a faint smell of sulfur about it.
We can start right away with the remarkable preference that scientific thinking has for mechanical, statistic, and material explanations from which, as it were, the heart has been cut out. Considering goodness only a special form of egoism; relating emotions to internal secretions; establishing that a human being consists for eighty or ninety percent of water; explaining the famous moral freedom of human character as an automatic side-product of free trade; reducing beauty to good digestion and well-developed fat-tissue; reducing procreation and suicide to annual curves that unmask what seems to be the most free of all decisions as a matter of compulsion; experiencing ecstasy and insanity as akin; identifying anus and mouth as the rectal and oral extremity of one and the same thing – : ideas like those, which to some extent expose the trick in the magical act of human illusions, always encounter a kind of positive prejudice and are then considered to be particularly scientific. In this, undoubtedly, it is the truth that one loves; but all around this blank love lies a preference for disillusion, compulsion, implacability, cold intimidation and dry rebuke, a malicious preference or at least an unintentional energy that comes from such feelings.
                                 (Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. vol. 1 [1930], ch. 72; transl. W.J. Hanegraaff)

Please note: if you think that Musil is just blaming science for the evils of the modern world, you need to read again. “It is the truth that one loves”, and yes, the truth can be hard. The fact that knowledge can be bitter is no reason at all to prefer illusions: what we are reading here is not an argument against science and rationality, but against cynicism and despair.
There are many reasons why I love this passage. Of course, the image of science as a toddler that sits down on its bottom because it has failed in its attempt to walk is unforgettable. But most of all, this passage is a reminder of what it is that makes us human; that is to say, of the unique and amazing faculty that distinguishes us from all other animals, and the denial of which (or so we can learn from Musil) is what we refer to as “evil”. 
What is this faculty? It is the ability - not just of our intellect, but of our heart and soul - to be deeply concerned with what traditional metaphysics used to refer to as the three “transcendentals”: the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. About at least the first two of those, and to a larger extent than we might realize even about the third, it just so happens that neither the natural nor the social sciences have much to tell us: it is here, more than anywhere else, that we need those arts and disciplines that are – appropriately – known as the Humanities. When all is said and done, their true concern is and should be - do we need to be reminded? - with what it is that makes us human. There are those who find pleasure in “tripping such values up” and watching them fall flat on their face. And there are those who love those beautifully voluptuous glazed vases (vessels of goodness, beauty, and truth) for what they are: inherently fragile expressions of “all that is uncertain” and therefore worthy of protection and care. So that's the choice: two mentalities. As formulated by David Foster Wallace in this luminous speech of 2005, there is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Let's try to keep that in mind as we start walking the path towards horizon 2020.