At the heart of the cancerous desires of today's left.
Looking around ourselves today, we realize that we have already seen all this. It wasn’t quite the same in terms of style; skirts were longer, kids were wearing shorts, cars were slower and fewer, and everything was in black and white. Yet, we have seen all this before. We have encountered it in history books, or in the tales of our grandparents. We have met it in the novels of Faulkner and Musil, or in the pig-faced paintings of Grosz. We forgot about it long ago, since we started to repeat to ourselves that its atrocious offspring would never come back to life. Never again. And yet, he is coming back now. Once again, we are living in the nervous times, pregnant with the monster.
Last time, it took him decades to be born. First it was the war, and then, once it was over, it was debt, and all the ties that came with it. It was the time of industrialization, the time of modernity, and everything came in a mass scale. Mass impoverishment, mass unemployment, hyper-inflation, hyper-populism. Nations were cracking under the weight of what marxists used to call ‘contradictions’, while capitalists were clinging to the brim of their top-hats, all waiting for the sky to fall to earth. And when it fell, they threw themselves down after it, in the dozens, down from their skyscrapers and their office blocks. The air became electric, squares filled up, trees turned into banners and batons. It was the interwar period, and in the depth of the social body, nazism was still hidden, liquid and growing, quiet like a foetus.
This time, everything is happening almost exactly the same way as last time, just slightly out-of-sync, as happens with recurring dreams. Once again, the balance of power in the world is shifting. The old empire is sinking, melancholically, and new powers are rushing in the race to the top. Just like before, their athletic screams are the powerful ones of modernity. Growth! Growth! Growth! Their armies are powerful, their teeth shiny, their hopes murderous and pure. Old powers look at them in fear, listening to their incomprehensible languages like old people listen to young people’s music. And like in Casares’ world, it is as if the time of the War to the Pig had come back, and the young chase the old in a murderous dance, and the blades shine in their hands, over the fear of those who are to pass.
Within the walls of the old first world, what used to be the optimistic pea-soup of polluted industrialism has now taken the colour of crystal-clear, paralyzing fear. Apocalypse is the horizon of most people’s dreams. As the nothingness of the turn of a page of history approaches, it becomes ever more apparent how only a new order, a brave new order can rescue this old world from its natural end.
At the end of WWI, after millions of corpses of workers and peasants had been buried in the battlefields in soldier uniforms, the heads of State of the winning half of Europe demanded the losing half to pay ‘war debts’. The survivors of five years of massacres and sacrifices, in countries like Germany and Austria, were faced by the grotesque demand that their most traumatic experience, that of prolonged total war, was to be converted into perennial servitude in the shape of quantifiable debt. How was this financial debt to translate into the daily life of millions of defeated citizens? Looking closely at the history of modernity, we can see how the engagement with this very question has always been the heart of social functioning in the West.
Over the last six hundred years, the West has been revolving around a spectrum of possible approaches to essentially two trajectories of debt. On the one hand, we have the financial debt contracted by Principates, Kingdoms and Nation States with generations over generations of bankers and merchants. The easy access to vast financial credit in the early days of modernity made possible the flourishing of large-scale manufacture and of interminable war campaigns, in countries like France and Italy. More importantly, the possibility of light-heartedly refusing to repay such debt, allowed the imprudent spending that gave way to the pinnacles of European cultural history, such as the Italian Renaissance. What would have been of the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, if the rulers of the time had used their money to repay their debts instead of ‘wasting’ it on the arts?
If we were to look at the last six hundred years of European history from the eyes of the bankers, we would be presented with a long, unprofitable track record of unpaid debts contracted by all sorts of principates, kingdoms, counties and so on. After centuries of precarity and utter submission to the whims of those in power, it is only relatively recently that the figure of the banker has moved on from the fragile position of the Shakespeare’s Shylock.
Over time, moneylenders have first become bankers, then banks, then financial institutions. Finally, in the last few decades, they have lost any residual corporeal substance, and have become numbers themselves. After the disappearance of the classic bourgeoisie, numbers have taken the place of bodies as universal financial creditors. The dictatorship of deficit control on national level – as enforced by institutions like the IMF and the ECB – has inserted the eye of the creditor within the brain of the debtor. In a way, it has achieved the same internalization of the complex of guilt and discipline that was obtained, in the field of religion, by the Protestant revolution in the 16th century. The repayment of a State’s debts is no longer a matter of manageable opportunity for the debtor, but an issue of internal stability.
This internalization of the discipline of debt has gone hand in hand with the progressive immaterialization of financial wealth tout court, to the point that, after a long process that lasted centuries, big financial creditors have recently managed to abandon their bodily cage completely. They have become numbers, functions, balances. They have become the spectre of nature. In doing so, they have achieved the removal of the weakest point of any creditors, under any circumstances: the indissoluble bond with a physical entity that can be arrested, can be starved, can be killed. Looking at this issue from the opposite angle, that of the inability of getting rid of one’s own bodily existence, leads us to the second type of debt that consistently been running through the history of modern Europe.
The development of European modern civilization, its technical, cultural, scientific and economic achievements, owes at least as much to the limitless access to credit on the lives of workers, as to that on financial resources. Clearly, this is the Marxian dialectic between labour and capital, now observed in terms of debt/credit.
As bankers acquired greater power, with the rise of capitalism and the progressive immaterialization of wealth, the predatory activity of modern European States started to shift from the field of financial resources to that of living labour. For example, it was through a reckless policy of borrowing from workers’ lives that Europe’s titanic efforts for industrialization were funded throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The wage-system provided the debtors (the capitalists and the State) with a vaguely legitimate method for debt-repayment. However, wages could only ever cover the ‘interests’ on the endless borrowing of time and labour from workers’ life, while they could never succeed in repaying the essence of this type of debt, that is, workers’ lives themselves.
For their part, workers have often interpreted their position towards capitalists and Statesmen as a position of credit. Strikes, for example, can be essentially interpreted as temporary closures of the line of credit on workers’ lives. Similarly, the occupation of factories can be interpreted as the repossession of the assets of a debtor (the capitalist) who is unable to repay his creditors (the workers). In this sense, we can read the wave of civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s as a debt crisis: not financial debt, but the debt on people’s lives. At that time, people and workers simply decided to end their lending and to claim their credits back, to the point of repossessing their debtors’ assets, if necessary. However, differently from big financial creditors, these ‘life creditors’ hadn’t managed to make their bodies melt into thin air, and so, when they went to claim their credits back, their debtors had plenty of targets to shoot at, to beat up, to arrest, to kill, to starve. The end of this story is known to all.
The same kind of debt/credit relationship applies between citizens and States, and especially so since the paradigm of capitalist growth has become the essential measure of a State’s wellbeing. As has become clearer in recent years, States are increasingly turning to borrowing life and labour from their citizens – rather than borrowing capital from the banks – in order to guarantee their survival and prosperity (as symbolized by the magic formula of deficit balance and GDP). The so-called ‘austerity measures’ enforced by most European governments after the financial crisis of 2008 are yet another example of this.
The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber recently noted that, a debt being a promise, when the States of Europe were faced by the choice of either breaking their promises with the bankers or those with their own people, they had no hesitation in choosing the latter option. We could turn this intuition on its head, by stating that in fact, a promise being a debt, the States of Europe decided to extend their line of debit with their people, rather than with the banks. After all, the height of the debt ceiling is directly proportional to the negotiating strength of the debtor towards the creditor. In an age in which military strength is highly capital intensive (rather than labour intensive), due to highly sophisticated technologies and the increasing availability of mercenary armies across the globe, the owners of capital (i.e. the banks, or their ghostly, numerical equivalents) find themselves in a much stronger negotiating position than the owners of labour-force.
This insistence on debt as the foundation of Western modernity is not an attempt to resort to economic arguments to interpret the world we live in. In fact, the concept of debt can be used to expand this overview of Western modernity towards other perspectives.
Lacking the possibility of belonging to any physical location, the category of debt finds its home on the horizon of time. Its position on the time line, however, is not stable. Debt is a concept that exists in motion, or, more correctly, as motion. By definition, debt can only exist in endlessly chasing its own tail, as an unaccomplished objective. Once accomplished – that is, once repaid – debt ceases to exist.
Debt finds its spacial equivalent in the endlessly receding paradox of the horizon, or in that of utopia, the not-existing-place by definition, that which is only ‘good for walking’ in the words of Eduardo Galeano. And debt is good for walking, indeed, but in chains. In a time in which all the ‘great narratives’ of modernity seemed to have finally expired, we find ourselves, once again, forced to proceed towards another sun-of-tomorrow, another god in disguise: debt’s house in the clouds.
It is against this umpteenth utopia, which is dressed as always as an irrefutable matter of fact, that the people of Europe are starting to oppose with fierce resistance. The anarchist resistance of the flaming barricades of Athens, surely, but also another, silent, dangerous opposition. Which might be even worse then the danger it is opposing.
The red heart of fascism
If we are to look for the face of this current opposition, we have to go back to the aftermath of WWI. History might not be perfectly circular, as some claim, but it certainly shows a certain lack of fantasy. Burdened by post-war debt, hyper-inflation, mass unemployment and the lack of any effective welfare structure, the people of 1920s and 1930s Europe felt an urgent need to find a quick way out of their position of devastating subjugation. They had very little hope in the self-regulatory potential of the socio-economic system they were living in, which they perceived as ineffective, corrupt and ultimately powerless against the debacle of their society. They were looking for something powerful, something able to crush the contradictions of their condition of victimization without any unnecessary regard for the orderly consequentiality of political transformations.
Such power and arrogance, in the opinion of the majority, was to be found only in an authoritarian political regime. The eschatological desires of post-war Europe all moved towards such authoritarian solutions: German national socialism and Italian fascism, as well as both their communist oppositions, Hungary’s military regime, Russian Stalinism, Portugal’s military authoritarianism, Spain’s imported Stalinism and fascism alike, Britain’s heavy flirtation with nazism, and so on. Only very few exceptions, such as the anarchists in Spain and Ukraine, remained to demonstrate that it was still possible to pursue other ways, not as powerless as democracy but not as overpowering as dictatorship. Needless to say, all these rare exceptions were to be quickly crushed by the iron fist of authoritarianism, alternatively dressed in black or red shirts.
It has to be noted that both Italian and German fascism was the expression of the political will of the democratic majority and did not originate from a sudden, military coup d’etat. Also, against most contemporary interpretation, it has to be remembered how both Italian and German fascism had a strong left-wing component to them, precisely socialist, and a wide popular basis. Both their rhetorics were strongly against plutocracy, against bankers (identified in the stereotype of the Jew), in favour of workers’ power and proletariat supremacy. In fact, both fascism and nazism opposed the communist alternative only on the grounds of their supposedly more efficient methods in the conquest of the same revolutionary aim. In other words, it has to be finally admitted that fascism and nazism alike have always been, since their origin, one of the many shades of the authoritarian left.
How is this relevant to today’s situation? Just like then, the whole of Europe is shaken by the closure of traditional lines of financial credit and the simultaneous, forced extension of the lines of credit on the lives of workers, in the context of a generalized indifference of the State for the well-being and consensus of its own citizens. At the same time, the collective body and brain of the people of Europe is traversed by a growing fear of the precarity of the material existence, a melancholia for a lacking ‘order’, a widespread and abstract feeling of injustice, a desire for a quick and harsh punishment of whoever is to be deemed ‘responsible’ for the current state of things and, on top of all this, a not too subtle desire for a retreat within the ‘imagined communities’ of modern Nation States.
The charm of authority
The authoritarian temptation has been in the air for a few years. It has grown in several, different fields, and, perhaps surprisingly, mostly on those traditionally occupied by the left.
The first, possibly the most unexpected of them is that of environmentalism. Faced by the impending catastrophe of global warming and by the exhaustion of natural resources, vast sections of environmental movements (both on its mainstream and radical edges) started giving voice to the imagination of authoritarian solutions to the ecological crisis. In their opinion, only a strong regulatory system, a powerful state and draconian laws on the exploitation and pollution of nature could put an end to the current state of things. Quite a remarkable shift from the original, primitivist-leaning and anarchist-influenced strands of the environmental movement. In fact, a few critical voices, correctly identified this new approach as ‘eco-fascism’.
Similarly, in Italy, the popular reaction to the explosion of what Franco Berardi Bifo calls ‘lumpen-bourgeoisie’ – that is, the mafia-evolution of capitalism, as epitomized by Silvio Berlusconi – found its main point of concentration in the call for a strong judicial system, able to punish the deviances of capitalism. Almost tragicomically, the Italian left stands today in strenuous defense of those same laws, magistrates and police forces which for decades have been the main tools for the maintenance of a deeply conservative and unjust social order in the Belpaese. In the eyes of today’s Italian left, what is needed right now is a stronger legal system, more powerful courts of justice, a more powerful police force, a stronger state authority. Something Italy already experienced in its history, for a couple of decades, about ninety years ago.
Again, the authoritarian temptation appears today within the protest movement against financial speculation and against the destructive effects of de-regulated financial markets. The call, coming from many, is for tighter regulations of financial markets, stricter controls, exemplary punishments by the hand of the State authority, and for the submission of market activity to the law of the State. Under the cover-concept of accountability, the claims of many are for the empowerment of superior regulatory institutions and mechanisms, such as those of the State, which are asked to take on an increasingly normative role over the unfolding of social, political and economic life.
And again, as it was the case in the recent Libyan conflict, what used to be the pacifist inclination of European left turned for the great part into the acceptance of the militarist myth of humanitarian, freedom-bringing intervention of world powers into the resolution of local conflicts. Grounded in the correct understanding of Gaddafi’s power as dictatorship, the mainstream left in countries such as the United Kingdom has wholeheartedly supported the military intervention of a coalition of the same, old suspects: the former-colonialist world powers.
Likewise with the fascination of the left for the new, South American left-wing regimes such as the Venezuelan authoritarian brand of democracy of Hugo Chavez. Charmed by the successful achievements in the collectivization of essential national industries and the socialist re-organization of vast parts of the productive system, most European leftists seem to have accepted without a hint of doubt the semi-dictatorial elements of the Venezuelan regime.
The possibility of transnational coalitions of libertarian forces and the creation of grassroots, alter-mundialist, international brigades seem to have exited the current debate on the left, with the exception of a few anarchist-leaning fringes. This became particularly clear during the Arab Spring of 2011, when the European left claimed to support a revolt which, in their perception, was supposed to replicate the Western state-form in North Africa. No mention anywhere of the possibility of re-creating the social contract on other grounds, such as anarcho-syndicalist federations, Zapatista-style communities, or the countless alternative social possibilities developed by the alter-mundialist movement of the late 1990s.
In fact, this renewed acceptance of authority seems to follow the defeat of the Porto Alegre/Seattle/Genoa experiment of 1999-2001. Still confronted by the same problems and enemies of that time – the globalization of neoliberal capitalism and the militarization of the State – vast sections of current movements on the left seem to have abandoned the desire to follow the libertarian tendencies of their previous incarnations. As if frustrated with the failure of that attempt – in the face of the State-enforced, corporate-backed global war regimes of the 2000s – even traditionally extra-parliamentary sections of the left seem to have opted for an alliance with what they perceive as their immediate ally (the State), against what they perceive as their immediate enemy (global capital). While at the end of the 1990s the emancipatory imagination had finally attempted to move beyond the typical 20th century, Stalinist discourse, the most recent developments of progressive discourses appear to have regressed to the past paradigm.
One of the most immediate and paradoxical consequences of this shift is the increasing similarity of mainstream left wing strategies with extreme-right wing xenophobic discourses. Under the magic word ‘regulation’, both the mainstream left and the extreme right find a common ground in tackling the issues brought forward by globalization. While the extreme right focuses on the globalization of human movements across the globe (aka, migration), the mainstream left applies the same protectionist discourse on the global movement of resources – both ‘real’, as traded goods, and ‘virtual’, as financial capital.
A clear example could be the resurgence of national-socialist discourses within the French left-wing, namely in the person of the lefty economist Jacques Sapir, author of the recent publishing success ‘Demondialisation’. Forecasting the demise of the European Union, Sapir advocates a return to national politics, a re-nationalization of the economy on protectionist grounds, an enforcement of highly statist policies and so on. Unsurprisingly, Sapir’s positions seem to be finding an ever-increasing consensus on the French left, to the point of being currently perceived as a possible common ground for the entire left to unite, from its most extreme to its most mainstream positions.
Is the European left really destined to fall for the charm of authority, for the fairy tale of nationalism, for the thrill of the guillotine, for the easy fix of law and order?
Looking backwards, moving forward
In this historical moment of great uncertainty, a new world of possibility has finally opened up. The discourse of permanent war has lost its grip on the hearts of people who are no longer frightened by ghostly Arabs, now that they are confronted by other, numerical ghosts. The discourse of terrorism has lost its mask, unveiling its innate desire for submission, today at the hands of the banks, as it was in the early 2000s at the hands of State security services. The political composition has broken the sclerotic banks of parliamentary parties, flooding the streets and squares of countless cities with millions of protesters. The discourse of grassroots political action has entered the vocabulary and imagination of every ordinary man or woman. The North African uprisings have put back on the geopolitical scenario the will of the people from post-colonial countries. It seems, today, that all the causes for the defeat of the alter-mundialist movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s have finally disappeared.
Only the charm of the authority, the fascist temptation, stands in the way of a new explosion of a political imagination of global scale. Like an auto-immune disease, it is the very desire for the defeat of capitalism that is now turning the energies of the current movement against itself. What is worse, the movement itself seems to be unaware of it.
Yet, there are already plenty of tools not only for this simple analysis of our most cancerous desire, but also for overcoming it. In order to move forward and to unleash the full potential of our political action and imagination, it might be a good idea to look slightly backwards. Just a few years, slightly more than a decade ago. The alter-mundialist movement, despite all its shortcomings and its defeat, had already started elaborating most of the answers we are looking for today. The full development of democracy both on a local and a global scale, the construction of sound economic processes based on reciprocity and redistribution, the creation of effective networks of global solidarity between struggles that didn’t necessitate the support of mainstream media, the creation of alternative media methods as well as platforms, the development of a full-rounded dialectic of the use of violence, the opening to experiences of post-military liberation warfare as experimented by the Zapatistas, the creation of literary forms of emancipatory communications as promoted by Luther Blissett and the White Overalls, and so on...
It is crucial for us, today, to find the cells that will allow us to survive the sweeping assault of our own authoritarian anti-corps, first of all within our mental ecologies. It might be the case that we have them already, stored somewhere in our short-term memories. Let us look back, without nostalgia, to the tools can really be useful to our cause. Which is, let us remember, a cause of liberation from authority, in all its forms, before than one of vengeance against it. As the Zapatistas put it, we shall be an army that fights for its dissolution. And if you are not convinced this is an effective strategy, go and ask them. they are still there to tell you how it works. Without banks, without a state, without authority.